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How do you decide what’s developmentally appropriate?

How do you know when something is developmentally appropriate? asks the Science Goddess.

My first thought was, I’ll bet Daniel T. Willingham has addressed this one. Willingham, from the University of Virginia, writes a regular column in American Educator called “Ask the Cognitive Scientist,” and sure enough, his column this summer asks, “What is developmentally appropriate practice?

Willingham writes that research has disproved some key assumptions behind the “developmentally appropriate” concept.

The problem is that cognitive development does not seem amenable to a simple descriptive set of principles that teachers can use to guide their instruction. Far from proceeding in discrete stages with pervasive effects, cognitive development appears to be quite variable–depending on the child, the task, even the day (since children may solve a problem correctly one day and incorrectly the next).

Willingham advises teachers to be familiar with the broad patterns in child development, but not to rely on them too much. Instead, teachers should keep a diary about what kinds of teaching tasks worked well for their students, which ones did not, and should share this information with other teachers. Furthermore, he says, any academic content can be taught in a way that children of different ages and cognitive development can understand – it’s a matter of playing around with the specifics of the task and making sure your students have the necessary background information.

Willingham respects the ability of teachers to know their own students and critique their own practice, which is good, but he leaves the teacher in me wanting more.

In my own experience, students’ background knowledge – or lack thereof – had the greatest impact on what they could understand. And it’s important to remember that background knowledge can include not just content, but types of thinking. To give an example from science, students who’ve never been asked to describe a relationship between two variables will struggle with this, no matter what their age, but with modeling and when the question is posed in a way they can understand, they can learn to do it. Some can look at numbers and see a relationship, others need to see a graph, and others need the hands-on experience of doing the experiment for themselves. How they express an answer may vary; younger children may not use sophisticated scientific language but might still grasp the idea.

Educators, please join the conversation, share thoughts, and point to resources. I look forward to exploring this more as the school year starts.

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