Theories of development are much more specific than paradigms or worldviews (Miller, 1993). A theory of development deals with change over time and is usually concerned with three things. First, it should describe changes over time within an area or several areas of development. Second, it should describe changes among areas of development. Third, it should explain these changes. No one theory has proved adequate to describe and explain learning or development. Numerous theories of development have influenced educational practices during the 20th century (Aldridge, Kuby, & Strevy, 1992), and currently a shift is affecting theories of child development and education.
Some of the historical and current theories that have influenced education include Gesell’s (1925) maturational theory, Skinner’s (1974) behaviorist approach, Freud’s (1935) psychoanalytic theory, Piaget’s (1952) constructivist theory, Vygotsky’s (1978) socio-historical approach, Bronfenbrenner’s (1989) ecological systems theory, and Gardner’s (1983) multiple intelligences theory.
More recently, critical theory (see Kessler & Swadener, 1992) has influenced education and child development practices, even though critical theory is not a theory of development.
Finally, postmodern conceptions have changed the way we think of children and how to educate them (Elkind, 1995, 2000/2001). There are several theories of a child development but three of them have a profound impact on kindergarten readiness practices. These three theories include maturational, environmental and constructivist perceptions of development. We will take a look to each one individually, and then we will compare them against each other. The maturational theory was highly developed by Arnold Gesell and continues to affect what goes on schools, mainly in early childhood classrooms. Arnold Gesell (1880-1961) followed the works of Darwin and other evolutionists, eventually developing the Gesell Maturational Theory.
His theory contends that development in childhood and adolescence is primarily biological, or genetic, in origin. Biology and genetics inheritances determine predictable patterns of biological behavior that Gesell termed norms. He felt that children’s development patterns opened automatically by biology, as the unfolding of a flower does because it is genetically programmed to do so in the right environment. As the flower requires proper soil and rain, children require a nurturing, stable environment, and little else to mature both biologically and psychologically. In the company of renowned author and physician Benjamin Spock, who wrote Spock’s Baby and Child Care, Gesell was among the first professionals to compile developmental stage information with which parents could learn to understand their children.
Because childhood and adolescent development is the product of millions of years of evolution, he mainly advocated sensitivity and understanding as parental approaches to development. Biology has already given children what they need to understand their own development. Gesell worked in a lab at Yale University, studying children and their developmental stages. He cataloged children’s behavior at various ages and described the norms in their collective development. As such, his theory is often grouped with normative-descriptive approaches, because it uses norms of development to describe the process of maturation. Gesell’s theory was groundbreaking because it implied that learning, illness; injury and life experiences were secondary, if at all influential, to biology and the evolution of the genetics that program a child’s development.
Unless the child’s environment were so distorted as to be harmful, he felt that children were born with all the information their bodies needed for development and maturation. Genetics determine the developmental process and the timing of maturation, and parents could affect very little of this, except by being sensitive to cues learned from the descriptive norms. Maturational theory believers, think that development is a natural process that occurs automatically in conventional, chronological stages over time. This perspective leads many teachers and families to assume that young children will gain knowledge naturally and automatically as they mature. According to maturational theory, school readiness is a condition at which all healthy young children can perform tasks such as reciting the alphabet and counting. If a child is developmentally unready for school, maturationists might suggest referrals to transitional kindergartens, retention, or holding children out of school for an additional year (DeCos, 1997).
These practices are sometimes used by schools, educators, and parents when a young child developmentally lags behind his or her peers. The young child’s underperformance is interpreted as the child needing more time to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to perform at the level of his or her peer. Today, maturational theory is partially responsible for the existence of prekindergarten and pre first grades aimed at children who supposedly need the” gift of time,” because of immaturity or a late birthday. These classrooms tend to have a ratio of boys to girls of anywhere from 7:1 to 10:1 (Aldridge, Eddowes, & Kuby, 1998). These practitioners of maturational theory consider that any difficulty that a child is experience is found within the child. Another problem of the maturational theory is the late birthday. This means that children in the classrooms, who are the youngest, are being labeled as “late birthday” and are often branded by the teachers as being slower and less ready for instruction. Maturational theory strongly influenced the teaching of reading in the mid 1900s (Morphett & Washburne, 1931).
Children were not thought to be ripe for reading until they had a mental age of six and a half years. Consequently, readiness activities were developed for children who were not yet ready to read. Some of this nonsense still occurs in preschool, kindergarten, and even primary-level classrooms. Today, maturational theory is partially responsible for the existence of prekindergarten and pre first grades aimed at children who supposedly need the” gift of time,” because of immaturity or a late birthday. These classrooms tend to have a ratio of boys to girls of anywhere from 7:1 to 10:1 (Aldridge, Eddowes, & Kuby, 1998). The environmental theory has at its development theorists such as J. Watson, B.F. Skinner and Albers Brandura, who contributed greatly to the theory perspective. Environmentalists believe the child’s environment shapes learning and behavior. The environmental theory emphasizes the role of the environment on an individual’s development.
This environmental point of view leads many families to believe that young children develop and gain new information by reacting to their surroundings. Kindergarten readiness, according to the environmentalists, is the age or stage when young children can respond appropriately to the environment of the school and the classroom (e.g., rules and regulations, curriculum activities, positive behavior in group settings, and directions and instructions from teachers and other adults in the school). Teachers who are followers of this theory, believes that the ability to respond appropriately to this environment is necessary for young children to participate in teacher initiated learning activities, and that the child success depends on following the teacher instruction. Many environmentalist-influenced educators and parents believe that young children learn best by rote activities, such as reciting the alphabet over and over, copying letters, and tracing numbers.
These viewpoints are evident in kindergarten classrooms where young children are expected to sit at desks arranged in rows and listen attentively to their teachers. While at home children are provided with workbooks containing activities such as coloring or tracing numbers and letters. Also this theory proposed that children are influenced by the multiple systems in which they reside, either directly or peripherally. These systems include the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem. Applications of this contextual theory focus on the seemingly endless variables within the child, and between the child and the numerous contexts affecting her. Although few people would quarrel with the importance of these influences, trying to account for all the endless interactions and variables affecting a child is exhausting and impractical. How would we ever have enough information about children’s temperament, activity levels, attentional states, or learning capacities as they relate to the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem?
The next theory is the constructivist. Its perspective was advanced by theorists such as Piaget, Montessori and Vygotsky. It can be described as a theory that deals with the way people create meaning of the world through a series of individual constructs. Constructs are the different types of filters we choose to place over our realities to change our reality from chaos to order. Von Glasersfeld describes constructivism as, “a theory of knowledge with roots in philosophy, psychology, and cybernetics”. Simply stated, it is a learning process which allows a student to experience an environment first-hand, thereby, giving the student reliable, trust-worthy knowledge. The student is required to act upon the environment to both acquire and test new knowledge. This theory relies heavily on logical-mathematical knowledge and universal invariant stages of development to the neglect of other forms of knowledge and the importance of context in a child’s development.
Even though knowledge is constructed from the “inside out” through interaction with the environment, the focus is more on the individual’s coordination of relationships rather than on socially constructed knowledge. Constructivists view young children as dynamic members in learning process, and are consistent in their belief that learning and development take place when young children interact with the environment and people around them. Because active interaction with the environment and people are necessary for learning and development, constructivists believe that children are ready for school when they can initiate many of the interactions they have with the environment and people around them. During kindergarten, classrooms are separated into different learning centers, and are prepared with developmentally materials for young children to play and manipulate.
During home parents engage their young children in reading and storytelling activities and encourage children to participate in daily household activities, in a way that introduces concepts as counting and language use. In addition, parents may provide young children with picture books containing very large print, and toys that stimulate interaction (such as building blocks and large puzzles). When a young child encounters difficulties in the learning process, the constructivist approach is neither to label the child nor to retain him or her; instead, constructivists give the child some individualized attention and customize the classroom curriculum to help the child address his or her difficulties.
Autonomy is the aim of education in constructivism (Kamii, 2000). Constructivist theory, however, has not adequately addressed either individual differences or cultural and contextual contributions to development and education (Delpit, 1988; Kessler & Swadener, 1992; Mallory & New, 1994). Thus, the needs of children who are different often are not met in constructivist classrooms. Today, most researchers have come to understand child development and learning process as expressed by the constructivist. However many parents and teachers still believes that children who cannot recite the alphabet or count are not ready for school.
Buchwald J (1987), “A comparison of plasticity in sensory and cognitive processing systems”, in Gunzenhauser N, Infant Stimulation, Skillman NJ: Johnson & Johnson Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes (Translation by Michael Cole), Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1978 (Published originally in Russian in 1930) Mossler, R.A. (2011). Child and adolescent development. Bridgepoint Education, Inc. Powell, D.R. (1991, July). Strengthening parental contributions to school readiness and early school learning (Paper commissioned by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Vygotsky, L.S. (1998). Child psychology. The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol. 5. Problems of the theory and history of psychology. New York: Plenum. White, S.H.(1968). The learning maturation controversy: Hall to Hull. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly
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