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3.6: Understanding "The Typical Student" Versus Understanding Students

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  • In this chapter, in keeping with the general nature of developmental theory, we 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 each learning and developing along distinct pathways. Why then study developmental patterns at all? Because underlying their obvious diversity, students indeed show important similarities. This chapter has indicated some of the similarities and how they relate to the job of teaching. Our references to "the" student should not be understood, therefore, as supporting simple-minded stereotypes; they refer instead to common tendencies of real, live children and youth. 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 take individual flight paths. Development and diversity therefore have to be understood jointly, not separately. There are indeed similarities woven among the differences in students, but also differences woven among students' commonalities. We recommend therefore that you read this chapter on development together with the next one, which looks explicitly at student diversity.

    Chapter summary

    Understanding development, or the long-term changes in growth, behavior, and knowledge, helps teachers to hold appropriate expectations for students as well as to keep students' individual diversity in perspective. From kindergarten through the end of high school, students double their height, triple their weight, experience the social and hormonal effects of puberty, and improve basic motor skills. Their health is generally good, though illnesses are affected significantly by students' economic and social circumstances.

    Cognitively, students develop major new abilities to think logically and abstractly, based on a foundation of sensory and motor experiences with the objects and people around them. Jean Piaget has one well-known theory detailing how these changes unfold.

    Socially, students face and resolve a number of issues— especially the issue of industry (dedicated, sustained work) during childhood and the issue of identity during adolescence. Erik Erikson has described these crises in detail, as well as social crises that precede and follow the school years. Students are motivated both by basic human needs (food, safety, belonging, esteem) and by needs to enhance themselves psychologically (self-actualization). Abraham Maslow has described these motivations and how they relate to each other.

    Morally, students develop both a sense of justice and of care for others, and their thinking in each of these realms undergoes important changes as they mature. Lawrence Kohlberg has described changes in children and youth's beliefs about justice, and Carol Gilligan has described changes in their beliefs about care.

    On the Internet

    < > This is part of the website for the Society for Research in Child Development, an organization that supports research about children and youth, and that advocates for government policies on their behalf. The specific web page recommended here contains their press releases, which summarize findings from current research and their implications for children's welfare. You will need to register to use this page, but registration is free.

    <> This is the website for the American Psychological Association, the largest professional association of psychologists in the English-speaking world. From the homepage you can go to a section called "psychology topics", which offers a variety of interesting articles and press releases free of charge. Among other topics, for example, there are articles about obesity and its effects, as well as about factors that support (and/or detract from) children's well-being.

    Key terms

    Development Identity
    Puberty Intimacy, generativity, and integrity
    Cognition Maslow's hierarchy of needs
    Cognitive stages Deficit needs
    Jean Piaget Being needs
    Sensorimotor stage Self-actualization
    Object permanence Moral development
    Preoperational stage Lawrence Kohlberg
    Dramatic play Carol Gilligan
    Concrete operational stage Morality of justice
    Decenter Preconventional justice
    Conservation Ethics of obedience
    Formal operational stage Ethics of mutual advantage
    Hypothetical reasoning Conventional justice
    Social development Ethics of peer opinion
    Erik Erikson Ethics of law and order
    Abraham Maslow Postconventional justice
    Lawrence Kohlberg Ethics of social contract
    Carol Gilligan Ethics of universal principles
    Psychosocial crises Morality of care
    Trust, autonomy, and initiative Survival Orientation
    Integrated care Conventional care


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