Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 3: Student Development

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When I was growing up, for good or for ill, I was provided piano lessons. Daily practice was a staple of my childhood, 365 days a year, along with a home that deliberately kept quiet to facilitate practice. Music—especially the piano—defined a major part of “me,” Kelvin Seifert. Altogether I studied piano for 13 years, from age 4 to the end of high school, with only occasional brief interruptions.
At any one time, I witnessed small changes in my skills. I performed a simple piece a bit better than I had the previous week, or I played a bit more of it from memory. There were direct, obvious connections between my skills at one moment and at the moment just before or after. Back then, if you had asked me then what accounted for the changes, I would have stated without hesitation that they were because I was “learning” specific piano pieces.
Across broader spans of time, however, I noticed more dramatic changes. I learned much more complex pieces than I had a few years earlier, for example. I played with more “finesse,” sensitivity and polish than when I had as a young child. I was even listening to classical music on the radio some of the time! My musical talent had been transformed since I had begun, and in some sense was not the “same” talent that I had had as a beginner.
If you had asked me what accounted for these longer-term changes, I would have had a harder time answering than when asked about the short-term changes. I might have said simply and a bit vaguely that “I have been getting better at piano.” If you ask me the same question now, however, I would say that my music skills had developed, that their development had taken years, and that the changes resulted not just from simply practicing, but also from becoming generally more mature.

Development refers to long-term personal changes that have multiple sources and multiple effects. It is like the difference between my music at fifteen compared to my music at five, rather than the difference between one week and the next. Some human developments are especially broad and take years to unfold fully, like a child’s ever-evolving ability to “read” other people’s emotions and moods. Others are faster and may be more specific or focused, like a child’s increasing ability to solve crossword puzzles. The faster and simpler it is, the more likely we are to call the change “learning” instead of development. It is a matter of degree. When I learned to name the planets of the solar system, for example, I did not need a lot of time, nor did the learning involve a multitude of experiences. So it is probably better to think of that particular experience—learning the names of the planets—as learning rather than of development (Salkind, 2004).[1]

Why Development Matters[edit | edit source]

Students’ development matters for teachers, but the way it matters depends on the kind of teaching. If you teach a single, “self-contained” grade-level, then the benefits of knowing about development will be less explicit, but just as real, as if you teach many grade levels. Working exclusively with one grade (like, say, a third-grade classroom) highlights differences among students that happen in spite of their similar ages, and obscures similarities that happen because of their having similar ages. Under these conditions it is easy to notice students’ diversity, but somewhat harder to know how much of it comes from differences in their long-term development, as opposed to differences in shorter-term learning or immediate experiences. Yet this knowledge is useful in planning appropriate activities and in holding appropriate expectations about students. What changes can you expect to happen relatively soon simply from your current program of activities, and which ones might not show up this year at all? These are questions that developmental psychology can help to answer.

If you teach multiple grade levels, as often happens to specialists or to teachers in middle school or high school, then your need for developmental knowledge will be more obvious because you will confront wide age differences on a daily basis. As a physical education teacher, for example, you may teach kindergarten children as well as sixth-graders, or seventh-graders as well as twelfth-graders, all in the course of a single day, or even of a single hour. Diversity among your students will therefore be a more explicit mix of the developmental and non-developmental—of complex differences due to age as well as differences due to “other” factors, such as skills or knowledge learned only recently. Nonetheless, your instructional challenge will be the same as the one faced by teachers of single-grade classes: you will want to know what activities and expectations are appropriate for your students. To answer this question, you will need to know something not only about your students, but also about general developmental trends during childhood and adolescence.

Note that developmental trends vary in two important ways. The first, as I indicated already, is in their generality. Some theories or models of development boldly assert that certain changes happen universally—happen, that is, to virtually every person on the planet. For example, a theory might assert that virtually every toddler acquires a spoken language, or that every teenager forms a sense of personal identity. Individuals who do not experience these developments would be very rare as well as significantly disabled, no matter what family, community, or society they belong to. Other theories, however, propose developmental changes that are more limited in scope, claiming only that the changes happen to some people and only under certain conditions. Developing a female gender role, for example, does not happen to everyone, but only to the female part of the population, and the process differs according to the family, community, or society in which a child lives.

The second way that developmental trends vary is in how strictly they are sequenced and hierarchical. In some views about development, changes are thought to happen in a specific order and to build on each other—sort of a “staircase” model of development (Case, 1991).[2] For example, a developmental psychologist (and many of the rest of us, for that matter) might argue that young people must have tangible, hands-on experience with new materials before they can reason about the materials in the abstract. The order cannot be reversed. In other viewpoints, developmental change happens, but not in a uniform sequence or with a common end point; change is more of a “kaleidoscope” than a staircase (Lewis, 1997; Harris, 2006).[3][4] A person who becomes permanently disabled, for example, may experience complex long-term changes in personal values and priorities. But the changes can in principle happen at any time during life, including childhood, and can take a variety of forms.

Except in the realm of physical development, educational psychologists have tended to emphasize explanations of development that are relatively general, universal and sequential, rather than specific to particular cultures or “merely” kaleidoscopic (see, for examples, Woolfolk, 2006, Chapters 2 and 3[5] or Slavin, 2005, Chapters 2 and 3ref[6]). Such models (sometimes called “grand theories”) have the advantages of concisely integrating many features of development, while also describing where “typical” children or adolescents end up in life. The preference for integrative perspectives makes sense given educators’ need to work with and teach large numbers of diverse students both efficiently and effectively. But the approach also risks overgeneralizing or oversimplifying what happens to particular children and youth. It can also confuse what does happen as certain children (like the middle-class ones) develop with what should happen to all children. To understand these risks, imagine any two children of about the same age who have clearly had very different experiences—for example, one child who grows up in poverty and another who grows up financially well-off. In what sense can we say that these two children experience the same underlying developmental changes as they grow up? And how much should they even be expected to? Developmental psychology, and especially the broad theories of it emphasized in educational psychology, highlights the “sameness” or common ground between these two children as they mature, no matter how different they seem on the surface. Developmental knowledge, then, serves as counterpoint or balance to knowledge of the obvious complementary reality of teaching, diversity among students.

Physical Development during the School Years[edit | edit source]

Although it may be tempting to think that physical development is the concern of physical education specialists, many aspects of it are actually quite relevant to other teachers as well. In first-grade, for example, it is important to know whether children can successfully manipulate a pencil. In later grades, it is important to know how long students can be expected to sit still without discomfort—actually a physical challenge itself. In all grades, it is important to have a sense of students’ health needs related to their age or maturity, if only to know who is likely to become ill with what illness, and what physical activities are reasonable and needed.

Trends in Height and Weight[edit | edit source]

Typical growth in students’ height and weight are easy to summarize and are shown in Figure 3-1. The figure shows not only the average for each age from preschool through the end of high school, but also the range within which 90% of children fall for each age. At age 6, for example, about when most children begin school, the average boy or girl is about 45 ½ inches tall, but 90% of six year olds are between about 43 and 49 inches tall. Average weight at the same age is about 39 pounds, but ranges between about 35 and 53 pounds.

There are two important points to keep in mind about Figure 3-1. The first is that boys and girls are quite similar in height and weight during childhood, but diverge in the early teen-age years, when they reach puberty. For a time (approximately age 10-14), the average girl is taller, but not much heavier, than the average boy. After that the average boy becomes both taller and heavier than the average girl—though there remain individual exceptions (Malina, et al., 2004).[7] The preteen difference can be especially awkward for some children and youth, at least among those who aspire to looking like older teenagers or young adults. For young teens less concerned with “image,” though, the fact that girls are taller may not be especially important, or even noticed (Friedman, 2000).[8]

The second point about Figure 3-1 is that as children get older, individual differences in weight diverge more radically than differences in height. Among 18-year-olds, the heaviest youngsters weigh almost twice as much as the lightest, but the tallest ones are only about 10% taller than the shortest. Nonetheless, both height and weight can be sensitive issues for some teenagers. Society (and therefore teenage peers) tends to favor relatively short women and tall men, as well as a thin body build, especially for girls and women. Yet neither “socially correct” height nor thinness is the destiny for many individuals. Being overweight, in particular, has become a common, serious problem in modern society (Tartamella, et al., 2004),[9] due to the prevalence of diets high in sugar and trans fats and lifestyles low in activity. The educational system has unfortunately contributed to the problem as well, by gradually restricting the number of physical education courses and classes in the past two decades.

Puberty and Its Effects on Students[edit | edit source]

The most universal physical development in students is puberty, which is the set of changes in early adolescence that bring about sexual maturity. Along with internal changes in reproductive organs are outward changes, such as growth of breasts in girls and of the penis in boys, as well as relatively sudden increases in height and weight. By about age 10 or 11, most children experience increased sexual attraction to others (usually heterosexual, though not always) that can affect social life both in school and elsewhere (McClintock & Herdt, 1996).[10] By the end of high school, more than half of boys and girls report having experienced sexual intercourse at least once—though it is hard to be certain of the proportion because of the personal sensitivity of the information (Rosenbaum, 2006).[11]

In addition to creating obvious physical differences, puberty accentuates gender role differences for at least some teenagers. Girls who excelled at math or science in elementary school may curb some of their enthusiasm for and displays of success at these subjects (Taylor, Gilligan, & Sullivan, 1995; Sadker, 2004).[12][13] Boys who previously were not especially interested in sports may feel a new need to dedicate themselves to athletics in order to affirm their masculinity in the eyes of others. Individual boys and girls who might have once worked together successfully on class projects may no longer feel comfortable doing so—or alternatively may now want to work together for non-academic rather than academic reasons. Such changes do not affect all youngsters equally, nor affect any one youngster equally on all occasions. An individual student may act like a young adult on one day, but more like a child on the next. In teaching children who are in the midst of puberty (especially early in the process), you will need to respond flexibly and supportively.

Development of Motor Skills[edit | edit source]

Students’ fundamental motor skills are already developing when they begin kindergarten, but are still not yet perfectly coordinated. Five-year-olds generally can walk satisfactorily for most school-related purposes (if they could not, the schools would have to be organized very differently!). For some fives, running still looks a bit like a hurried walk, but usually it becomes more coordinated within a year or two. Similarly with jumping, throwing and catching: the large majority of children can do these things, though often a bit clumsily, by the time they start school, and most improve their skills noticeably during the early elementary years (Payne & Isaacs, 2005).[14] Figure 3-2 summarizes the changes for two basic skills, throwing and jumping. Assisting these developments is usually the job of physical education specialists, where they exist, or else of classroom teachers when classroom teachers lead their own physical education lessons. Whoever is responsible should also notice if and when a child does not keep more-or-less to this developmental timetable, and arrange for special remediation or other help that may be appropriate. Some common procedures for doing so are described in Chapter 5: Students with Special Educational Needs.

Whether or not physical skills become a special focus of teachers’ concern, however, they can be quite important to students themselves. Whatever their grade level, students who are clumsy are aware of that fact and of its potentially negative effect on peer relationships. In the long term, self-consciousness and poor self-esteem can result for a child who is clumsy, especially if peers (or teachers and parents) place high value on participation in athletics. One research study confirmed, for example, what teachers and coaches sometimes suspect: that losers in athletic competitions tend to become less sociable and are more apt to miss athletic practices than winners (Petlichkoff, 1996).[15]

Health and Illness[edit | edit source]

By world standards, children and youth in the United States and other developed societies tend to be remarkably healthy, though much depends on how well-off their families are and on how much health care is available to them. Children from middle- and higher-income families experience far fewer serious or life-threatening illnesses than children whose families lack resources. All across the economic spectrum, however, parents and teachers often rightly note that children—especially the youngest ones—get far more minor illnesses than do adults. In 2004, for example, one government survey estimated that children get an average of 6-10 colds per year, but adults get only about 2-4 per year (National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, 2005).[16] The difference probably exists because children’s immune systems are not as fully formed as adults’, while at the same time children are continually exposed to others at school, many of whom may be contagious themselves. An indirect result of children’s frequent illnesses is that teachers (along with airline flight attendants, incidentally) also report more frequent minor illnesses than do adults in general—about five colds per year, for example, instead of just 2-4 (Whelen, et al., 2005).[17] These “simple” illnesses are responsible for many lost days of school, both for students and for teachers, as well as many days when a student is present physically, but functions below par and simultaneously infects classmates. Learning, and often also teaching, therefore suffer because health is suffering.

The problem is not only the prevalence of illness as such (in the United States in winter, approximately one person gets infected with a minor illness every few seconds), but the fact that illnesses are not distributed uniformly among students, schools, or communities. Whether it is a simple cold or something more serious, illness is particularly common where living conditions are crowded, where health care is scarce or unaffordable, and where individuals live with frequent stresses of any kind. Often, but not always, these are the circumstances of poverty. Table 3-1 summarizes these economic effects for a variety of health problems, not just for colds or flu.

As students get older and become teenagers, illnesses become less frequent, but other health risks emerge. The most widespread is the consumption of alcohol and the smoking of cigarettes. As of 2004, about 75% of teenagers reported drinking an alcoholic beverage at least occasionally, and 22% reported smoking cigarettes (Center for Disease Control, 2004a).[18] The good news about these figures is that they are part of a small, but steady decline in the frequencies over the past ten years or so. The bad news is that teenagers also show increases in the abuse of some prescription drugs, such as inhalants, that act as stimulants (Johnston, et al., 2006).[19] As with the prevalence of illnesses, the prevalence of drug use is not uniform, with a relatively small fraction of individuals accounting for a disproportionate proportion of usage. One survey, for example, found that a teenager was 3-5 times more likely to smoke or to use alcohol, smoke marijuana, or use drugs if he or she has a sibling who has also indulged these habits (Fagan & Najman, 2005).[20] Siblings, according to the research, seem to be more influential as role models than parents.

Cognitive Development: The Theory of Jean Piaget[edit | edit source]

Cognition refers to thinking and memory processes, and cognitive development refers to long-term changes in these processes. While cognition has been studied from several different perspectives and in the light of several theories, the one that is both the most widely known among educators and the most frankly "developmental" is the cognitive stage theory of a Swiss psychologist named Jean Piaget. (read more...)

Social Development: Relationships and Personal Motives[edit | edit source]

Social development refers to the long-term changes in relationships and interactions involving self, peers, and family. It includes both positive changes, such as how friendships develop, and negative changes, such as aggression or bullying...(read more...)

Moral Development: Forming a Sense of Rights and Responsibilities[edit | edit source]

Morality is a system of beliefs about ethics, about what is right and good compared to what is wrong or bad. Moral development refers to the changes in moral beliefs as a person grows older and gains maturity....(read more...)

Understanding “The Typical Student” versus Understanding Students[edit | edit source]

In this chapter I have often spoken of students in a generalized way, referring to “the” child, student, or youngster, as if a single typical or average individual exists and develops through single, predictable pathways. As every teacher knows, however, development is not that simple. A class of 25 or 30 students will contain 25 or 30 individuals who will be learning and developing along 25 or 30 distinct pathways. Why then study developmental patterns at all? Because underlying their obvious diversity, students do indeed show important similarities. This chapter has indicated what some of the similarities are and how they relate to the job of teaching. My references to “the” student should not be understood, therefore, as referring to simple-minded stereotypes, but to tendencies around which real, live students often group themselves. Pointing to developmental changes is like pointing to a flock of birds in flight: the flock has a general location, but individual birds also have their own locations and individual flight paths.

As a teacher, I believe that the most helpful approach is to understand development and diversity not separately, but jointly. There are indeed similarities woven among the differences in students, but also differences woven among students’ commonalities. It is best therefore to read this chapter on development together with the next one, which looks squarely at student diversity.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Salkind, N. (2004). Theories of Human Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Case, R. (1991). The Mind's Staircase. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Lewis, M. (1997). Altering fate: Why the past does not predict the future. New York: Guilford Press.
  4. Harris, J. (2006). No two alike: Human nature and human individuality. New York: Norton.
  5. Woolfolk, A. (2006). Educational psychology, 10th edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  6. Slavin, R. (2005). Educational psychology, 6th edition." Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  7. Malina, R., Bouchard, C., & Bar-Or, O. (2004). Growth, maturation, and physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Press.
  8. Friedman, S. (2000). When girls feel fat: Helping girls through adolescence. Toronto: Firefly Books.
  9. Tartamella, L., Herscher, E., Woolston, C. (2004). Generation extra large: Rescuing our children from the obesity epidemic. New York: Basic Books.
  10. McLintock, M. & Herdt, g. (1996). Rethinking puberty: The development of sexual attraction. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 5, 178-183.
  11. Rosenbaum, J. (2006). Reborn a virgin: Adolescents' Retracting of virginity pledges and sexual histories. American Journal of Public Health, 96(6), pp. xxx-yyy
  12. Taylor, L., Gilligan, C. (1995). Between voice and silence: Women and girls, race and relationship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  13. Sadker, M. (2004). Gender equity in the classroom. In M. Kimmel (Ed.), The gendered society reader, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. Payne, V. & Isaacs, L. (2005). Human motor development: A lifespan approach, 6th edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  15. Petlichkoff, L. (1996). The drop-out dilemma in youth sports. In O. Bar-Or (Ed.), The child and adolescent athlete (pp. 418-432). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  16. National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. The common cold.
  17. Whelen, E., et al. (2003). Prevalence of respiratory symptoms among female flight attendants and teachers. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 60, 929-934.
  18. Center for Disease Control. (2004b). National survey on drug use and health. Bethesda, MD: Department of Health and Human Services.
  19. Johnston, L., et al. (2006). Monitoring the future: National results on adolescent drug use. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  20. Fagan, A. & Najman, J. (2005). The relative contribution of parental and sibling substance use to adolescent alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use. Journal of Drug Issues, 35, 869-883,