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Nicholas Stone: November 2011 Archives

November 2011 Archives

Many schools arrange curricula and instruction to provide children with resources for their developmental tasks. Teachers strive to operate as guides who help children safely and comfortably grow — and sometimes cope — in their early encounters with the challenges of development. We know that many developmental needs do not permanently abate, but we hope that children leave school able to grapple with them self-sufficiently. This guidance accounts for some correlation between educational practice and a child’s course of development. It doesn’t explain the leap my students made between June and October, which occurred mostly outside of school, but in accordance with the way school is organized. After only a year of formal schooling, my students’ development fell into step with the academic calendar. I see no direct way that either a teacher’s or a curriculum’s shepherding can prompt their simultaneous independent upswings in self-regulation and cognition.

Developmental theory certainly informs the practice of any decent teacher. It influences everything from how we arrange the furniture in our room to how we plan lessons. We need it to anticipate children’s behaviors and needs. Development has a clear influence on teaching, but school’s effect on development is more nebulous. How, exactly, is school as a totality congruent with actual development? Teachers and schools structure the school year and grade levels to lend them a narrative quality; there’s a distinct passage through the year, punctuated by vacations, exams and projects. We have benchmarks for mastery after which students ascend to new challenges. However, the increments by which we arrange the school experience seem to exist more for organizational purposes than developmental ones. They help us assess students — to know what we expect from them and when we expect it (even if the children in our classes are not developing at the same pace). They also help us arrange curricula in cohesive ways that permit some form of culmination and evaluation.

Unlike curricula, development doesn’t culminate and its mutability makes it difficult to evaluate. Piaget did formulate a sequence of cumulative developmental stages, but even he admitted the pliancy of development as a whole. Development is a continuum, but it lacks the inherent linear narrative and touchstones of school. Developmental tasks shift and mutate in a highly plastic process that, depending on your view, can last a lifetime. Needs like navigating social interactions, thinking abstractly, building competence in a skill or knowledge set, understanding individual identity, regulating thoughts and actions and overcoming egocentricity can be equally meaningful at five and 50 years of age. Development is not the process by which we overcome these issues, but by which we come to address them in new ways. I realize that an examination of the correspondences and discords between school and development warrants more than a couple of paragraphs, so rather than getting started on a dissertation, I’ll say this simply: development is fluid and school is pretty rigid.

What happens in the classroom doesn’t account for my students’ growth, so I need to look beyond the classroom for explanations. How might the socio-cultural context — the concept — of school have impacted them?
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