- What do these students’ reactions tell you about children’s thinking?
- How would you approach this unit?
- What more would you do to “listen” to your students’ thinking so you could match your teaching to their level of thinking?
- How would you give your students concrete experiences with symbolism?
- How will you decide if the students are not developmentally ready for this material?
Overview and objectives
We begin with a definition of development and examine three questions about development that psychologists have debated for many years: nature versus nurture, continuity versus discontinuity, and critical versus sensitive periods for development. Next, we look at general principles of human development that most psychologists affirm. To understand cognitive development, we begin by studying how the brain works and then explore the ideas of two of the most influential cognitive developmental theorists, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s ideas have implications for teachers about how their students think and what they can learn.
A definition of development
The term development in its most general psychological sense refers to certain changes that occur in human beings (or animals) between conception and death. The term is not applied to all changes, but rather to those that appear in orderly ways and remain for a reasonably long period of time. A temporary change caused by a brief illness, for example, is not considered a part of development. Human development can be divided into a number of different aspects. Physical development, as you might guess, deals with changes in the body. Personal development is the term generally used for changes in an individual’s personality. Social development refers to changes in the way an individual relates to others. And cognitive development refers to changes in thinking, reasoning, and decision making.
General Principles of Development
Although there is disagreement about exactly how development takes place, there are a few general principles almost all theorists would support.
- People develop at different rates. In your own classroom, you will have a whole range of examples of different developmental rates. Some students will be larger, better coordinated, or more mature in their thinking and social relationships. Others will be much slower to mature in these areas. Except in rare cases of very rapid or very slow development, such differences are normal and should be expected in any large group of students.
- Development is relatively orderly. People develop abilities in a logical order. In infancy, they sit before they walk, babble before they talk, and see the world through their own eyes before they can begin to imagine how others see it. In school, they will master addition before algebra, Harry Potter before Shakespeare, and so on. But “orderly” does not necessarily mean linear or predictable—people might advance, stay the same for a period of time, or even go backward.
- Development takes place gradually. Very rarely do changes appear overnight. A student who cannot manipulate a pencil or answer a hypothetical question may well develop this ability, but the change is likely to take time.
The brain and cognitive development
If you have taken an introductory psychology class, you have read about the brain and nervous system. You probably remember that there are several different areas of the brain and that certain areas are involved in particular functions. For example, the feathery-looking cerebellum coordinates and orchestrates balance and smooth, skilled movements—from the graceful gestures of the dancer to the everyday activities of eating without stabbing yourself in the nose with a fork. The cerebellum may also play a role in higher cognitive functions such as learning. The hippocampus is critical in recalling new information and recent experiences, while the amygdala directs emotions.
A newborn baby’s brain weighs about 1 pound, barely one-third of the weight of an adult brain. But this infant’s brain has billions of neurons, the specialized nerve cells that accumulate and transmit information (in the form of electrical activity) in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Neurons are a grayish color, so they sometimes are called the gray matter of the brain. One neuron has the information processing capacity of a small computer. That means the processing power of one 3-pound human brain is likely greater than all the computers in the world. Of course, computers do many things, like calculate square roots of large numbers, much faster than humans can.