July 7, 2008

Developmentally Appropriate Practice is Not Developmentally Appropriate

The Summer edition of American Educator is out and has another must-read article by cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, on the inappropriateness of developmentally appropriate practice in education.

I view "developmentally appropriate practice" as one of the many excuses educators use to avoid teaching at-risk kids, i.e. kids who are developmentally behind their peers, what they need to know to achieve academically. As with many of our most pernicious educational practices, this one has roots with Piaget. Here's a shocker:

let’s review Jean Piaget’s theory. Although development psychologists no longer believe that his theory is right, it is a good starting place

It is unfortunate that so many teachers and ed school professors haven't gotten this memo yet.

Willingham makes the point that there is considerable variability in children's cognition. If a child fails to understand a concept, for example, it does not mean that the task was somehow developmentally inappropriate. It often means that the task presented was flawed or otherwise, deficient.

For example, suppose you read Make Way for Ducklings to a preschool class. Midway through the story you ask, “What do you think will happen next?” and you are met with blank stares. You might think to yourself, “That question was developmentally inappropriate. It was too abstract to ask them to think about the future.” Maybe. But maybe no one has ever asked them to make a prediction about a story, and so they were just unsure of what to do, and would have answered readily if you had said, “Do you think the ducks will go back to the park or stay where they are?” Or maybe they hadn’t understood the story very well to that point, so they knew what you were asking, but they just didn’t know what might happen next. Or maybe they just don’t know that much about ducks.

If a child, or even the whole class, does not understand something, you should not assume that the task you posed was not developmentally appropriate. Maybe the students are missing the necessary background knowledge. Or maybe a different presentation of the same material would make it easier to understand.

This, I think, is the largest flaw of many of the common education memes like developmentally inappropriate practice. It provides a convenient excuse to focus the student's failure to learn on the student himself rather than on how the material was presented to the student. If the student has failed to understand, there is often an underlying reason which needs to be discovered, analyzed, and the presentation remedied to avoid the confusion preventing the student from learning. Labelling the task as developmentally inappropriate allows the teacher to avoid this difficult task. Being able to remedy the presentation to avoid students' failures of understand is one of the reasons why we pay for highly-educated professionals, and not merely trained technicians. Yet, oddly, educators are often reluctant to engage in this difficult activity, preferring the recourse of a myriad of labels that shift the blame for failing to learn to the students.

Many teachers don't even like having their curriculum scripted for them. Scripting the curriculum merely shifts the burden of creating teacher presentations that have been field tested and are known to be understandable by students to someone else. Being that teachers don't like doing this work on their own, you'd think they wouldn't mind if someone else did it for them. Yet, they don't, and I'm not quite sure why.

It's as if they want to be professionals and be treated like professionals, yet don't want to engage in the the hard work required of professionals to assure their services are being rendered properly. Willingham concludes:

If we accept that students’ failure to understand is not a matter of content, but either of presentation or a lack of background knowledge, then the natural extension is that no content should be off limits for school-age children.

Yet, developmentally appropriate practice frequently places content off-limits for many at-risk students because if is more difficult to present the material to them in a way that they understand.

As they say, go read the whole thing.


palisadesk said...

Here's some more for your reading pleasure (in the same vein):

from Dr. John Stone:
Developmentalism: An Obscure but Pervasive Restriction
on Educational Improvement

the parent viewpoint:
Illinois Loop

and the ever-memorable Martin Kozloff:
Direct Instruction is Developmentally Appropriate

Unknown said...

I think Willingham has a point! He also has an issue with "brain-based" education:


Unknown said...

Link above fixed!
Brain-based Education

Allison said...

Are there any other fields, disciplines, or business models that allow a person to blame the customer for not being ready to understand the provider, rather than blame the provider?

Sure, there are individuals--"you don't see why my product is so cool because you're stupid!" but such businesses go under.

Is there anywhere else where this hubris is a working part of the culture?

Mr.Marshall said...

Excellent post. I quoted your blog (and Willingham's article) as I write about this in reference to classroom blogging http://markmarshall.edublogs.org/

I have not heard this argument against current classroom methodology because all research supports the idea that we, as teachers, need to differentiate our curriculum. This strategy is based on the idea that students do not go through distinct stages and everyone is at the same level. Thanks for your thoughts!