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The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice

Learning As We Grow: Development and Learning

This program examines the concept of readiness for learning and illustrates how developmental pathways — including physical, cognitive, and linguistic — all play a part in students' learning. Featured are a first-grade teacher, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher, and a senior physics teacher, with expert commentary from University of California at Santa Cruz professor Roland Tharp and Yale University professor James P. Comer.

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Linda Darling-Hammond: Watching children develop and learn is like watching a miracle in action. One day they’re talking and walking; the next, they’re reading and writing; and the next, they’re hypothesizing and inventing.

How can teachers support each student’s developing abilities? How can we ensure that our teaching supports the whole child?

Hello, I’m Linda Darling-Hammond and that’s our challenge for this session of The Learning Classroom.

Teaching in a developmentally appropriate manner means working with, rather than against the child’s natural learning process.

Learning takes place along several critically important pathways.


James P. Comer, M.D., Yale University: There is the physical, the social interactive, the psycho-emotional, ethical, linguistic, intellectual cognitive. And it is development along all of those lines that’s really important. Up until recently, the school focused on the linguistic and the intellectual cognitive. But it is growth along all those developmental pathways that is important.


Linda Darling-Hammond: Good teachers start where their students are and build upon what they are able to do. But how do we know what our students are ready for and when? The concept of the zone of proximal development helps us here.


Roland Tharp, Ph.D, University of California, Santa Cruz: The zone is an important concept because to teachers it’s absolutely vital, because it helps the teacher understand what is the basic act of teaching. And that is this – to locate that point in the zone of proximal development in which this learner needs the assistance and then to provide it. Good teaching means constantly stretching, moving, rising in the developmental process, and that means always providing more assistance.


Linda Darling-Hammond: Psychologist Jerome Bruner described a spiral curriculum that returns to important concepts at different stages when children can understand them more deeply.

In this half hour we will see three teachers guide their students through an increasingly sophisticated understanding of momentum. They provide wonderful examples of developmentally appropriate teaching.

Fe MacLean, a 1st grade teacher at Paddock Elementary School, uses a variety of concrete tools and draws on her students’ life experiences to address the concepts of mass, speed and momentum.


(classroom scene)
Fe MacLean: What do you have there?
Girl: Surprise.
Fe: Surprise? Okay. Today we have a very exciting thing to talk about. You’ll have to help me think, this is a thinking kind of activity. I think before we came to school it snowed a lot, remember? Did anybody go sledding?

Fe MacLean: This morning is just an introduction of several cycles which will help them understand concepts of motion, for example, uh, the relation of weight, or… mass, with speed, the relation of incline, of a ramp to speed and momentum, or the relation of weight with momentum.

(classroom scene)
Boy: We went in my sled together down the hill.
Fe: Oh, you used one sled?
Boy: Yeah!
Fe: Oh, okay.
Fe: Is there anyone else sledding with an adult in a separate sled?…… So who got there first to the bottom?
Girl: Both of us.
Fe: Really? Oh, okay, well this is interesting, class. ‘Cause I have a book here. What does it say Colby?
Colby: Sledding on a Hill. Rolling down a Ramp.
Fe: Rolling down a Ramp. So our story starts with a child and a grown up. And they’re gonna go down the hill. How do you think they’re going to get down the hill?
Girl: I think the littler kid will go down first, because it probably has more, much more energy.
Boy: I think the grown up will get down first because more weight makes the sled go faster.
Fe: So we have all these different ideas. Look what happens in the story. They go down and go Swoosh!
Students: Whoa.
Fe: They get to the bottom of the hill together. That’s what the story says.
(scene changes)
Fe: You are going to help me do this.
Student: Yeah!
Fe: Let me see, okay, how about if half of you go on this side and half of you go on that side? We’ll call this the ramp, okay? Now, how are we going to know or how are we going to remember how long it takes for a ball to go down? Remember? We can’t just keep it in our heads ’cause everybody forgets especially after recess. We want to make sure we remember.
Girl: Write it down?
Fe: Write it down.

Fe MacLean: For these age of children it is necessary that the material is chosen so that they see not just the, the abstract time but they see it with their own eyes how the ball rolls down the ramp. So I have a six-foot ramp instead of a small ramp because I want to make sure the numbers are big enough to see a differences with the children .

(classroom scene)
Fe: It’s the same ball. We didn’t change the ball. I wonder what’s happening here? Okay, let’s try it again.

Fe MacLean: I want to make sure that in their participation they are very clear of what we would call controlling of variables. We would call it fair, so that it starts from the same place, and we time it the same time until the end.

(classroom scene)
Students: …STOP!
Fe: We call this our data. What do we call this?
Class: Data.

Fe MacLean: When we made the graphic organizer that I used while we were taking down the data that the children are writing in there, that is a very abstract way of representing what we were doing, so that’s no longer concrete. When I plan my activities or units of study, I make the activities or the context rich enough so that it will benefit the children who are quite competent and those, the children who are not quite so competent in certain areas.

(classroom scene)
Fe: If you think you know what you’re going to do, come and get a big paper and start.

Fe MacLean : I want to make sure that children who have, are close to mastery will be able to have tasks that will…them to be to that mastery and in their interaction with the children who are just entering the zone they will solidify or stabilize their competence, and the children who are entering will advance and become more stable in that zone.

(classroom scene)
Fe: Look at Mrs.MacLean, I forgot one thing. Would you write a sentence at the bottom of each illustration and say what you think in words this time?

Fe MacLean (interview): Hopefully in the next investigation they will be at an even higher level and in the zone it’s advanced.

The next thing we’re going to do is, is to look at all of their drawings and what they wrote and their conclusions of how many seconds it took for the balls to go down the ramp. So they will discuss that, which is part of oral language and literacy.

(classroom scene)
 The lower the ramp, the lower the ball, oh the slower the ball goes.

Fe MacLean: When they have to write it down they really have to think about it, and that’s what we want the children to do, not just in science, but to understand informational text, which is what they really wrote this information about what they did.

(classroom scene)
Fe: You’re going down there. It’s going to hit it. What’s going to happen?

Fe MacLean: When we use the long ramp, that’s a physical symbol of reality, which is the hill. So I think of that as a concrete operational tool, and it is a symbolic tool, it’s a physical tool representing something. When we made the representation of that ramp, and the children drew illustrations of that, that then became a higher level of symbolic tools inter…a graphic illustration or a graphic representation. Which they did on their paper and on the chalkboard.

(classroom scene)
Fe: And the question that we are asking is that, is it true that when the ramp is high you would move an object farther than when the ramp is low?
Boy: Ready?
Fe: Wait, wait. Look at this. Make sure they are all in the same line.

Fe MacLean: From my experience children are not going to be able look at the data using numbers of measurement to really understand the concept in this context of the level of the ramp relative to the momentum, and that is how far the can will move…

(classroom scene)
Chris: Come to Papa, ball! Come to Papa!

Fe MacLean: The tracing is more pictorial and is more appropriate to their age.

(classroom scene)
Fe: Now, can you look at it and think about the speed of the balls as they went down the ramp? And look at our picture. Actually, people would call that a graph, a line graph. I’d like you to make a picture of it, though.

Fe MacLean: I tried to relate it to a to a form of a story, a narrative that hopefully can relate to their own lives, for me to understand or to assess their understanding the concepts. In one instance, for example, two children working together…

(classroom scene)
Fe: Oh I see your pictures go together!

Fe MacLean:…They drew this picture where one of them won the race with a snowboard, and the other one got a bronze metal according to him, because he started from a lower hill so he couldn’t go as fast, and the other child who started on a higher hill went faster. So to me they are understanding that the height of a ramp, or the steepness is related to momentum or speed in this case.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Fe MacLean finds many different ways to assist individual students within their zones of proximal development.
Now let’s take a look at how George Mixon presents a similar lesson to his eighth graders at Birmingham Covington School. Notice how he extends his students thinking by asking them to form hypotheses and examine multiple variables.

(classroom scene)
George Mixon : If I have these items, okay, talking about one of them dropping or both of them dropping. Are they going to fall at the same rate or are they not? What do you think Alex.
Alex: They’re going to hit at the same time.
George: Hit at the same time. How many of you agree with Alex, how many of you disagree with Alex? You all agree with Alex. So, okay, if I drop them they should all about, they should all hit this table at the same time, correct?
George: What was the rate at which they fell? About 9.8 meters per second squared or what?
Boy: 33feet.
George: Or about 33 feet per second squared, Okay, that is the acceleration in which they fall down. You guys are going to do that same kind of experiment but you are going to do it with an inclined plane.

George Mixon: I just wanted them to look at a piece in calculating the acceleration of a free falling object, getting the speed of that object, graphing that information and collecting data and putting it in an organized manner into a data table.

(classroom scene)
George: I got two cars, I got two tracks. You’re going to go in two groups. Make sure you get a graph of the speed of your car. And also, we’re going to see if we can calculate the acceleration of your car. So by the end you should have two graphs. Calculators, stop watches, you guys have got the sheet, read it, figure it out, get going.

George Mixon: With this age group you have to start these kids off with something that’s a little more concrete and more solid for them to understand and then you can kind of branch them off into the abstract and get them to formulate ideas and almost, what I call taking intellectual risks.

(classroom scene)
George: We got our incline okay. Check to make sure you’re tight.
Boy: Don’t we have to measure the angle, though?
George: That’s why you got to read it.
Boy: How, wait, how are we going to find out the acceleration? Are you going to tell us the formula?
George: Most definitely, but you got to find the speed first. Good question, dude!

George Mixon: I think I started them with the ramp primarily because it’s kind of like, most of these kids sled, they all snowboard.

(classroom scene)
George: You really got to be on the trigger when it crosses your mark to get your time, okay. So this is why you have to make sure you do a couple trials before you just start collecting data.

George Mixon: I toss a lot of variables at the kids because I think one of the goals as a scientist is that they’re going to be bombarded with variables that will hinder experiments or procedural steps, and they have to learn how to control those and identify what is an independent and what’s dependent variable.

(classroom scene)
Boy 1: We need find figure out where it.s coming off.
Boy 2: I got 303.
Boy 3: Allright, well, that’s why you do more tests.

George Mixon: I think when they, when they realize that, they can say I need to control this, control this, control this, to test for just the one thing that I need to test for.

(classroom scene)
George: Hey, guys, Doddy and Steph have a pretty good data table that we can use. If you guys in the other group, check it out. Once you have your distances of one meter, two meters, three meters, four meters, divide that time into your displacement and what you will get is your speed or your velocity.

George Mixon: If I gave them the table, they don’t think. They need to be able to figure out ways in which to formulate and organize their information. That shows me how well they’re thinking.

(classroom scene)
Student: We’re done.
George: Once you get done, you guys need to start getting this information and start trying to graph it. So we’re trying to find out where that car is picking up speed. And what is changing its speed.
Boy: What was the average?
George: You’ve got to make it clear. So let’s just make it very simple.

George Mixon: I think that some of the kids were kind of confused on how to collect and organize the data. But that’s an eighth grade piece, and I think that one of the things that they will start to, to develop as they get older and become better scientists is start to organize that information…in a format that, that would be presentable for somebody else to duplicate and be able to read and understand.

(classroom scene)
George: If you guys look at Christina’s graph we get .82 meters per second, and then our last one we got .85 meters per second. Which means our car did what as it went down the ramp?
Class: It accelerated.
George: It accelerated. What we’ll look at next is we’ll look at adding the mass in there and then from the mass we’ll look at the momentum and see how well these cars will actually, what will happen to these cars when they have more mass.
George: Now how would we find the momentum of these cars?
Boy: It’s velocity times mass.
George: Velocity times mass. What I need you guys to do for me is, I need you to find the speed of these cars, okay? Once you find the speed of them, okay, we then got to figure out how we’re gonna get the momentum.

George Mixon: I think if you can get kids active, and motivated, and involved, and get their hands in stuff, they’re focused. I think that’s what kind of pulls them in and kind of gets them motivated, plus just knowing who they are and having a relationship with them.

(classroom scene)
George: Who needs me?
Boy 1: Do we need fractions on this thing?
Boy 2: I don’t know, let me ask. Can we use fractions?
George: Decimals.
Boy 2: Decimals dude, decimals.
George: Deci-ma-mals.

George Mixon: I sometime have to go outside my realm, and you know, the kids have to understand too, that there some, they can be flexible in their thought process, and formulating data tables, because not every kid is going to think alike.

(classroom scene)
George: See now, he’s going totally different than what I just did. You figured it out, you figured it out one way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I figured it out totally different. Listen, I’m a simple minded guy, so I figured it out this way. You’re a genius, dude. So if you figured it out that way, God bless you kid, okay. And if it worked, it worked. That’s great.

George Mixon: Kids have unique ways in which to organize information and collect data and control certain variables. It’s just a matter of how well they’re able to collaborate with a group to come up with that ultimate goal.

(classroom scene)
George: Darin, if I threw this ball at you, can you catch? Are you sure you can catch? You positive? Okay. I throw this ball.
Darin: That’s a bad throw.
George: Would you try to catch this chair? If it was coming at 30 miles an hour?
Steve: Too much momentum.
George: Why is it going to have too much momentum Steve?
Steve: Because it has huge amount of mass and it’s going at the same amount of speed as all the other things, but it has more mass.
George: Beautiful. It’s gonna have much more mass, okay. And that’s one of the things that I wanted you guys to really try to get and understand when you are looking at these different cars. So on the back of that sheet of paper, what I want you to try to do is, I want you to try to answer those questions. And then I wanna show you one demonstration, ‘kay?
George: Let’s just say that I got this as a concrete wall. I got these little sand barrels, okay. If you’re driving in a car. ‘kay, we got that little bounce back there. If I do this, kay, this kind of, it bounces back a little bit, but it also absorbed, this is gonna absorb more momentum. Would you rather run into a nice concrete wall or some sand filled barrels, if you’re in a car?
Class: Sand filled barrels.
George: Why Darin?
Darin: Well the concrete wall is going to be denser, it’s gonna have more mass.
George: Ok, it’s going to have more much more mass.
Darin: And it will exert a lot more force back on you.
George: Good, it’s going to exert way more force back on you.

George Mixon: I just kind of wanted to see if they could make that transition and see that connection, and I think some of them did. But I still, there is something that something that you have to revisit to make sure that they understand it.

Linda Darling-Hammond: George Mixon pushes his students’ thinking by asking questions that get them to analyze data and test their hunches with one another.

Roland Tharp: Vygotsky pointed out that that kind of assistance that will help development in the zone can come from more capable peers. It doesn’t really matter where the assistance comes from. And the most competent teachers, I think, provide the assistance themselves when they need to, make sure that a good, rich diet of assistance is available from other class members, and outside resources, and the web, and wherever assistance can be provided to make sure that’s available to the student. That’s the orchestration of excellent teaching.

Linda Darling-Hammond: At the Detroit High School for the Performing Arts, Ken Gillam’s physics students study the same concepts, drawing on even higher levels of abstract reasoning. Through experimentation they move into evaluating evidence, drawing inferences, and predicting outcomes.

Ken Gillam: I started what I knew as prior knowledge for them. We had done situations, we worked in situations where they had the opportunity to evaluate velocity, acceleration of a ball rolling on a ramp.

(classroom scene)
Ken: We’re going to use little bitty cars. Since we’re going to do momentum studies and we’re going to look at the momentum of the car, we have to have a mass to go with the velocity we determine. We’re going to run it off the end of our ramp, let it go for a meter and determine its velocity. We’re going to take five readings we’re going to take five stopwatch indications, so we know how fast the automobile is going when it exits the ramp. And I am going to show you a collision.

Ken Gillam: Their initial thought was, it’s going to be the same lab again, well, it really wasn’t going to be the same lab again, because the minute I put a barrier there and crashed it, they said this is not going to be the same. So the hook was I think it’s going to be, no it’s not. And so I hooked them by getting, giving them something they knew, but then giving them something new to look at.

(classroom scene)
Ken: I want you to gather data on it when that car bounces back a little bit it moved a certain distance, can we determine or measure that distance? I’ve chosen for you to work with 5 objects and you’re going to get to predict if you where going to be in an automobile crash, and you were going to hit a barrier of some sort, what would you want the barrier made out of? Think about what occurs in a crash. What occurs in a crash, someone tell me. Daniel, tell me what occurs in a crash?
Daniel: Pain, ’cause of ah-
Girl: Force of momentum.
Ken: What else?
Girl 2: Pieces can fall apart off the cars, somebody could get hurt or somebody might die, depending on the type of crash it is.
Ken: So death can occur in these.
Ken: One person from each of your groups come, take the car with the crash material that are there, stop watches are here, meter sticks are here, your towers to build your things are there. What we’re going to do now is once you get that, the first thing you got to determine is what? The velocity of your vehicle.

Ken Gillam: They are ready to go into college… But in a lot of ways they are still just kids and they like to see things that happen.

(classroom scene)
Ken: When’s the last time you got to play with toy cars in class and they called it work?

Ken Gillam: So if you give them something on a concrete basis, this is concrete, you can take this car, you can roll it down this ramp, and you can make informational observations, you can collect data, you can use that data to develop information that is solid, meaningful in a problem solving sense.

(classroom scene)
Boy: So when it hits right here, we start.
Ken: Yes!
Boy: Mr. Gillam?
Girl: This is the acceleration from here to the end of the ramp.

Ken Gillam (interview):
What you’re trying to do with these kids is you’re trying to keep them involved in what they’re doing, and you’re trying to, every time, deepen the level of thought.

Girl: It moved back a little.
Ken: Can you determine a little?
Ken: You’ve got a distance, can you time it from impact?
Student: Ohhh!
Ken: Over a certain…Okay.

Ken Gillam: Once you see them beginning to fall into this pattern that says we’re all beginning to get this, then it’s time to challenge them again. Move them up a level.

(classroom scene)
Boy: We concluded yesterday that since the energy and momentum in a car could not be destroyed, that it was transferred from, the momentum of the cars energy was transferred from the car into the foam block that we had.

Ken Gillam : So you take the solid concrete, then you take them into the problem solving area and into the analytical, analyze what you’ve seen. Then, once you begin to analyze it, how are you going to use this information in a real world? How do you build this meta skills of thinking? How do you think in a broader context?

(classroom scene)
Ken: Now you’re going to design something to break down the momentum of an object as it is…being hurtled down the road at 70 miles an hour, with a mass of 2,000 pounds. Highway engineers have spent lots and lots of time trying to figure out what’s the best way to slow the vehicle down that is about to have a devastating crash. How many of you have been driving down the road and have seen the yellow barrels? Now, do you know that barrels are filled? With what?
Boy: Water.
Ken: Yeah they’re filled with… why?
Boy: ‘Cause the water will absorb most of the impact, like, like in our experiment or whatever, you know, like the bounce back from the wall. The car has so much energy going at a certain speed, that once it hit it, you know if it hit it dead on, it would stop.
Girl: If you hit something I would prefer my car to go into it, rather than to just hit it and bounce back, because that would hurt. But if you, if your car goes into it, it will stretch. I mean if the object stretches, like some form of a putty or something, once it hits the car will go in, slowing it down instead of just hitting it head on.
Ken: Ok, now we need to look at our equation one more time. We’ve got to remember that if I’m going this way, and this way is positive. And then I turn and I go back in this direction, and this way is negative. What is my change in velocity?
Class: Negative?
Ken: V final minus V initial… My final velocity is positive, minus a minus velocity makes the whole thing?
Class: Positive!
Ken: Oh!

Ken Gillam: And you begin to put together a structure, a pattern into not only abstract, but into, not only being able to bring it all together and synthesize something that may be totally unique in their analysis.

James Comer: And so understanding that you are really an instrument of learning, and that you can help the child grow all the developmental pathways, and that growth along all the developmental pathways is what makes academic learning most possible. If you can think that, then you will find all kinds of opportunities to help children grow, and develop, and learn, both what it takes to be successful in school and as an adult, and to get the academic material they need to be successful as adults.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Fe MacLean, George Mixon and Ken Gillam taught similar concepts using similar materials, but adapted their lessons to the developmental needs of their students.They created intellectual challenges to support increasingly complex thinking.
As a result, their students grew in both their competence and their confidence as learners.
This has been The Learning Classroom. Thanks for watching.

“As children develop, the ways in which they learn change. If teachers are tuned to those sequences of development, then they can be more thoughtful about how they design their lessons, how they pace instruction, how they move kids along from one concept to the next. Doing these things will build students’ ability to think critically and take on more and more complex tasks as they grow.”

Linda Darling-Hammond

Key Questions

  • How do children learn and develop?
  • How can teachers support students’ development and learning?

Learning Objectives

  1. Pathways for development – Teachers will understand that students develop along several developmental pathways, all of which interact and play a part in a students’ learning. Teachers will learn how they can enhance learning by observing their students and supporting their development across these pathways.
  2. Developmental progression – Teachers will understand that development progresses sequentially, that teaching is more effective when it is appropriate to students’ developmental stages and within their “zones of proximal development,” and that development can be supported by teaching.
  3. Assessing and supporting readiness – Teachers will begin to recognize students’ developmental signs of readiness across the different pathways. Teachers will understand the need to assess students’ current levels of skill and understanding to make decisions about what students are ready to learn and how they can best be taught.

Video Program

This episode features teachers from an elementary, middle, and high school, each exploring concepts of velocity, mass and momentum with their students. Viewers can see how many of the same concepts are presented to students in a developomentally appropriate way. University of California at Santa Cruz professor Roland Tharp and Yale University professor James P. Comer provide expert commentary.

Session Content Outline

Key Questions

  • How do children develop and learn?
  • How can teachers support students’ development and learning?

Learning Objectives

  • Pathways for development – Teachers will understand that students develop along several developmental pathways, all of which interact and play a part in a students’ learning. Teachers will learn how they can enhance learning by observing their students and supporting their development across these pathways.
  • Developmental progression – Teachers will understand that development progresses sequentially, that teaching is more effective when it is appropriate to students’ developmental stages and within their “zones of proximal development,” and that development can be supported by teaching.
  • Assessing and supporting readiness – Teachers will begin to recognize students’ developmental signs of readiness across the different pathways. Teachers will understand the need to assess students’ current levels of skill and understanding to make decisions about what students are ready to learn and how they can best be taught.

Session Outline

Children’s growth and development occurs across several interrelated yet distinct domains, including physical, mental, social, emotional, and moral. Two important themes are central to understanding children’s progress through their developmental stages. First, physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes are all occurring simultaneously. Although these arenas develop simultaneously, they do not necessarily develop in tandem.

Second, all of the internal changes that children and adolescents experience at their important transition points are mirrored by profound changes in their peer, school, and family lives. Understanding development requires not only a consideration of the “whole child,” but also the whole child developing in particular social contexts.

Developmental Pathways
To understand and support the development and learning of her students, a teacher must be able to take a developmental perspective. This includes understanding that children move through several stages or sequences of development and that they develop through several “pathways of development.” These pathways include:

  • Physical pathway: the normal course and variability of overall physical development
  • Social-interactive pathway: children’s increasing ability to communicate and interact with a variety of people in all social situations
  • Emotional pathway: the child’s growing ability to recognize, respond to, and “manage” feelings – what some might call the development of “emotional intelligence”
  • Cognitive pathway: refers to how information is processed, assimilated, and used in an increasingly sophisticated manner as children develop
    Linguistic pathway: refers to the development of both expressive and receptive communication abilities
  • Psychological pathway: refers to the development of a sense of self
  • Ethical/moral pathway: refers to the ability to understand moral thoughts and action; to respect the rights of others; to evaluate one’s own behavior; and to act in the interests of others as well as oneself.

Developmentally Appropriate Teaching
Piaget described three aspects of cognitive growth:

  • Children develop “mental structures” as they gain skills and experiences
  • These structures form when the child acts on objects in the environment or when she performs “operations”
  • The child’s intelligence advances through a sequence of “stages” that change the way the child thinks and acts.

Developmental Readiness

  • Developmental theory includes the concept of readiness for learning.
  • Vygotsky and Piaget agreed that teaching should respond to the child’s developmental stage.
  • Piaget believed that the child is primarily an independent learner.
  • Vygotsky, however, believed that individual capacities develop in social contexts designed to support them.
  • According to Vygotsky, learning that takes place externally in a social context is gradually internalized by the individual: social knowledge becomes individual knowledge.
  • Vygotsky believed that cognitive development is
    supported through language, cultural symbols and toolsnurtured by teachers and caregivers within a particular students’ zone of proximal development (ZPD).

Vygotsky suggested that students could be helped to develop if they are taught at the appropriate level, rather than the teacher merely waiting for greater maturity to make them ready.

Supporting Learning as Children Grow
Developmentally appropriate practice in early and middle childhood education has several features.

  • The curriculum attends to social, emotional, and physical goals as well as cognitive ones.
  • A wide variety of learning experiences, materials and equipment, and instructional strategies is used strategically to accommodate individual differences in children’s learning and interests.
  • Curriculum and instruction support individual, cultural, and linguistic diversity and encourage positive relationships with children’s families.
  • Curriculum builds on what children already know are able to do (activating prior knowledge) to consolidate their learning and foster acquisition of new concepts and skills.
  • The curriculum encourages children to learn actively – by observing, collecting information, describing, counting, manipulating, and using what they have studied.
  • Content and skills of application are linked rather than taught in isolation, so as to encourage development of thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and problem solving.
  • To the greatest extent possible, teaching reflects children’s naturally recurring learning cycle that begins with awareness and progresses through exploration, inquiry, and use of constructed knowledge in authentic applications. Teachers help children see how learning developed previously can be applied in the current situation.
  • Teachers convey respect for children’s thinking by probing thinking with questions such as, “What happens if . . .?” and “What else works like this?” and by using mistakes as occasions for further learning (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2002).

In later childhood and adolescence, developmentally appropriate teaching has many of the same features. However, a qualitative change in thinking occurs with the transition from concrete operations to formal operations.

As students progress cognitively, they move beyond one-to-one correspondence to manipulating variables in more complicated ways, looking for patterns, and thinking abstractly.

Developing Readiness
Teaching in “developmentally appropriate” ways means –

  • being cognizant of where students are in the processes of their development and taking advantage of their readiness.
  • teaching to support development, not simply waiting for students to be ready (Bruner, 1960).

What can a teacher do to teach for readiness?

  • Teachers can use practices that are attuned to students’ existing skills and ways of learning while developing new understanding and providing the tools that are needed for the next stage.
  • Teachers can help students become ready to comprehend the upper stages of higher order thinking.
  • Teachers can use children’s experiences strategically in encouraging their further development.

The Importance of Context: Stage-Environment Fit

  • Teachers can set the stage for students by creating developmentally appropriate classrooms and schools in which their learning can unfold in synch with their development.
  • Although supporting development is important, David Elkind cautions that hurrying a child’s growth too much can increase stress and create personal identity problems.
  • Researchers have learned that academic achievement, mental health, and identity develop optimally when the school and home environment “fit” the child’s needs.
  • A developmentally healthy environment will support ways in which cognitive reasoning develops with healthy identity development and moral reasoning about how to support and care for others.
  • Developmentally appropriate schools understand that students learn through social interaction as well as individual effort; thus, they are collaborative.

Key Terms - New in this Section

  1. Developmental Pathways – ways that a child is growing: physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively, linguistically, psychologically, and ethically/morally.
  2. Developmentally Appropriate – strategies that respond to a student’s cognitive, emotional, social, physical, or other developmental stage.
  3. Zone of Proximal Development – the information or skills that can be considered a logical “next step” for a child, based on where she/he is developmentally.  Teaching in the zone of proximal development means giving students learning tasks that challenge them, but are not so far beyond their present skills that they become discouraged.

Questions for Reflection Step-By-Step Instructions

Step 1. The video segments in The Learning Classroom were taped as teachers worked in their own classrooms. As you watch, jot down the questions you have about what you see the teacher do and how the students respond.

Step 2. When you’re done, click on the episode title from the list and compare your questions with the Questions for Reflection and responses that our project team has anticipated.

Step 3. Review the responses we have prepared to questions that match the ones you have asked. The expert responses are not “final answers,” they are provided to give you a starting point for your own reflection. What else might you add to the response you read?

Questions for Reflection

Question 1: All three teachers start their lessons with real-world examples. They all say students need to have things they can see, touch, and feel. What are the developmental differences, then, among these three lessons?

Response 1: Although all three teachers structured their lessons in a similar way, consider the real world examples they used and how they were presented. The first grade story was very detailed – even illustrated in a book. The teacher asked a number of questions to help focus and organize her students’ thinking. The eighth grade teacher condensed the setup by asking the class one or two rhetorical questions about snowboarding, dropping items and tossing an inflatable ball to a student. The high school teacher related the concepts to highway driving – something that is of high interest to many older teenagers. He paced his students through the data collection and analysis quickly enough to allow time for abstract reflection and discussion.

Question 2: At the end of the eighth grade lesson, the teacher seems to go very quickly over the demonstration of crashing into barrels. Shouldn’t students be collecting and analyzing data about that the same way they did measuring time and distance?

Response 2: The main learning objectives for the lesson had been met as the students completed their lab activities. The teacher was pushing his students slightly, giving them something new to consider. The demonstration could help relate the lesson back to real-world situations, provide advance organization for a future lesson, or just give them a hint of new concepts that they might explore.

Question 3: What is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)?

Response 3: The zone of proximal development (ZPD) consists of skills or information that can be considered a “next step” for student learning in any of the developmental pathways.

Question 4: Why does Dr. Tharp say that understanding the zone of proximal development (ZPD) helps the teacher understand the basic art of teaching?

Response 4: Dr. Tharp defines the basic art of teaching as planning for instructional activity within the zone of proximal development. He further says that the instructional activity of teaching and learning “is good only when it proceeds ahead of development. It then wakens and rouses to life those functions which are in the stage of maturing” (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988).

Question 5: How do you plan for different levels of student ability and knowledge when organizing a group activity or project?

Response 5: One way illustrated in the video by all three teachers is to make the activities or context rich enough so that it will benefit the learners who are quite competent and the learners who are not so competent in certain areas. In their work on momentum, each of the teachers accounted for a range of knowledge from the students and included both concrete and abstract activities. This helps students who are close to mastery to master the concept and support the learning of others who are not yet as close to mastery.

Question 6: All three teachers had their students formulate and organize their own data. Why is it important that students do this? What do you do if they get it wrong – for example, what if they organize the data in a way that doesn’t reveal the concepts they need to understand?

Response 6: This is a challenge that scientists often face – how to organize data so that it is meaningful and offers insight into the topic being studied. It is such a fundamental challenge that it is worth spending time working through it just as scientists might. If the first organizational approach does not help make sense of the data, the students and teacher through observation, conversation, and perhaps even unsuccessful attempts to work with the data, can discuss where the difficulty resides and consult on alternative ways to organize and display it. Observing students figure out ways in which to formulate and organize the laboratory data, gives the teacher insights into the ways students are thinking about the task.

Question 7: What are some of the challenges in working in the zone of proximal development with a child from a different culture?

Question 7: What are some of the challenges in working in the zone of proximal development with a child from a different culture?

Question 8: What do you do if you have a child in your class that has had no previous experience with hands-on learning?

Response 8: One way of assisting the student with no prior experience in hands-on learning is to pair the student with a peer who is experienced in this approach and can model and support the student in this new way of learning. Remember that assistance doesn’t always have to come from the teacher; it can also come from a more competent person or even other resources in the classroom.

Question 9: Is there only one kind of assistance in the ZPD? In other words, if a student is in one ZPD for math, does that mean the teacher should assume the student’s performance for language and science is in a comparable zone?

Response 9: The definition of ZPD suggests that for each activity or task, the ZPD will differ for the individual learner. The type and level of assistance that a student might need solving an algebra problem will be different from the type and level of assistance given to that same student who might be struggling to write a creative short story. ZPD refers to skills or information that might be a “next step” in learning – not a specific level of functioning that can be applied to everything the student is learning.


Linda Darling-Hammond
Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University

Dr. James P. Comer
Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale University

Roland Tharp
Director, Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, University of California, Santa Cruz

Fe MacLean
first grade teacher, Paddock Elementary School, Milan, Michigan

George Mixon
eighth grader teacher, Birmingham Covington School, Michigan

Ken Gillam
Physics teacher, Detroit High School for the Performing Arts, Michigan

Transcript of comments by Yale University professor, Dr. James Comer

Excerpts from an interview with James Comer, M.D., Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center and founder of the Yale School Development Program.

Taped August 10, 2001.

Well, learning takes place along several developmental lines that are critically important. There is the physical, the social interactive, the psycho-emotional, the ethical, linguistic, intellectual cognitive. And it is development along all of those lines that’s really important. Up until recently, the school focused on the linguistic and the intellectual cognitive. But it is growth along all those developmental pathways that is important. And the social pathway is particularly important because that is the social context in which the child is learning and the social skills which enables the child to interact with other people successfully. All of that’s required to promote good learning. And that is why people are now beginning to think of the social context and the social skills that children need, because you have to make that contact, contact. The child with the teacher, the child with other children to develop the comfort, the competence, and the confidence necessary to take the chances that are important for learning.

Well, you have to be aware that children are not born knowing how to manage themselves in the world, and not think of what they do that you find unacceptable as bad, or indications that they’re not very smart. We have to understand that you, the adult, are there to help them learn all the things they need to learn – how to handle themselves, how to have a conversation, how to manage disagreement, all of the things that are required to be successful in school, you should help them and not simply see their behavior as bad when they’re not able to do things.

[Reacting to the way Ken Gillam facilitated a class discussion] Yeah, he, he was doing what my parents used to do around the table, you know. They would have, have us all talk about, we were expected to talk about what went on during the day. Had differing opinions. Respect the others opinion. Listen to the other’s opinion and to express ourselves and not talk too long. But if we had something to say that was particularly important, particularly interesting, you go ahead and listen, let that one talk, and then you kind of reel it back in, so that everybody doesn’t just jump in, but you manage the situation so that it doesn’t get out of hand, and at the same time everybody gets to express themselves. But you don’t cut off prematurely things that are interesting and exciting. You don’t wanna be too mechanical about it, but you want to manage it so that it doesn’t get out of hand.

Because if they knew how to do that well and could control themselves then it, it would work out so that the most aggressive children wouldn’t take over, and the most timid or insecure children would be left out. That would be okay, but you also have to learn that you have to work in a way so that everybody gets to express themselves and everybody feels free to express themselves. And at the same time, everybody respects the right of the other person to have a chance to express themselves. And that’s why you try and manage it so that they come to understand that everybody has to participate, and they should have an opportunity to participate.

Well, it’s important for a teacher to manage the conversation because it can get out of hand and the most aggressive children can take over, the most timid or insecure children will be left out or forced out, and various view, viewpoints will not be introduced, because a few, or one or two children may take over the conversation. And you, so you manage it so that everybody gets to participate, and all the viewpoints can be heard.

Well, the, the social interactions in a classroom, if everybody gets to participate and everybody feels belonging, feels that they have something to contribute, motivates the desire to learn more and to learn everything. Anything that’s brought out in the classroom is something that the child will want tolearn, in part because what happens in a good social climate is that the child makes an emotional attachment to the adult leader and also an emotional attachment to the other children. Now, if everybody in that classroom is engaged in learning and wants to learn, and they know that the teacher wants them to learn, and they have a positive emotional attachment to the teacher, they are then motivated to learn, and that’s what helps children learn things that aren’t particularly interesting or exciting to them, sometimes boring to them. They learn it because the teacher wants them to learn it, and they want tobe a part of a group that, where the group wants to be successful learners. And so it is the social context, a desirable, good, social context that motivates the children to learn anything and everything. And that’s why what teachers should know is that they themselves are instruments of learning. It is not the child alone. It is the child’s emotional attachment to them that encourages the child to want to learn.

Well, the misconception about the, the social process in learning is that it doesn’t exist. The problem we have as a society is that we have a very cognitive oriented society. We believe it is very mechanical that you, that you take information and you pour it into the open and willing heads of children, children willing to learn, and that that’s all there is. And you will hear, I have heard teachers say that my job is to teach them, as if teaching them is simply pouring in information. And they forget the fact that all the relationships from the time the teacher walks into the class in the morning, even into the building in the morning, and smiles and interacts with the children and speaks with them about various personal things, all of that creates a climate and a tone that prepares the children and enables the children to make the attachment, that makes them want to learn. And that’s what is very important.

Well, there are ways in which, it’s almost automatically integrated because of what I just said, that, that belonging in, motivates you to learn. But, and learn almost anything. But there are ways to take what’s going on in the life of the child – if it’s election day, if it’s something very exciting that all of the adults are concerned about, like the last election where there was conflict and disagreement and so on and it’s on television and people are talking about things. All of those are activities that are, you know, on the minds of children. If your spelling words, if your, your geometry, if your whole variety here, your literature and all can pick up some of the things that are current and in meaningful and important to the child at the moment because there’s a lot of emotion and tension around them, you don’t forget those things. The, the things we remember are the things that happen to us during emotional, emotionally important moments, and we remember those things better than anything else. And so you grab, you seize the moment in a way to, to make, make it relevant to the core curriculum. But the core curriculum can be made relevant by picking out things. For example, an African-American youngster was asked about the Missouri Compromise and he was not interested in the Missouri Compromise, but he was at the age where he was beginning to establish an identity and his father pointed out, asked him about the, the thirteen, and pointed out that the decision was based on whether the states would come in, slave or free. Now he’s interested. He wants to know more about the Missouri Compromise and he wants to know more about learning in general because they picked, he picked out something that was relevant to the child, emotionally important to the child. The child in the process of establishing his own personal and racial identity is very interested in that question. Now, whenever a teacher has an opportunity to find something in the life of the child that’s exciting, important, and emotionally important, then you try and tie it, and it’s in the core activity, then you try and tie it in.

Well, you know, if you keep in mind that children are born underdeveloped and that they develop along the critical pathways that I mentioned, through all the experiences that they have. Now when you look at their behaviors, whatever their behavior is, you think about whether, what’s going on that shows underdevelopment or a lack of development. If a child has a fight on the playground, what is that about? Is that just a bad child? Well, sometimes the child lacks a, lacks negotiation skills. Or the child may have impulse control problems. It doesn’t know how to work things out, tends to store up his feelings and then explodes. Teachers are in the position to do more than control that situation and punish the child. The teacher’s in the position to explore it, help the children learn how to manage, express themselves, negotiate, discuss, work things out. So you take the activity, whatever it is, whatever comes up, and you keep thinking about how will, how can children manage this better and how can I help them manage it better. And when you have that approach in your mind, you can be helpful in all situations to help children learn to handle themselves socially and develop overall. The children themselves, once you begin to do that, begin to function different, differently. An example, last week I heard a teacher using her school program where one of the ideas, one of the concepts is no-fault. We don’t point the finger of blame at anybody – the teachers, the parents, the children. We try to solve problems. And so they had a substitute teacher come into that environment who didn’t know the rules and the way they worked. And she began to yell at the children and to blame. A seven-year-old stood up and said, “We don’t do that in this school. We have no-fault.” And the substitute teacher went to the principal, what is this no-fault business? And so the child had internalized a way of working and thinking and working out problems that he and the other children were now living by because they had been given those skills by their teachers. And that made for a better environment in the school. The outside teacher wasn’t prepared. She had to be brought in on it so that she could understand it. But the more everybody understands and is thinking all the time, how do I create a condition that will help the children grow and manage themselves better? That’s the social process that we want to create that leads to good social development.

Well, the six developmental pathways is just a way of thinking about overall growth and development. You don’t develop separately along those pathways. It’s all happening at the same time, and development, a social kind of situation effects the cycle of emotional, the ethical, the linguistic, all, all are effected at the same time. But they’re – we live in social environments, and it is usually the social situation that leads to an activity, an incident, a problem, a challenge that causes an adult to interact with the child, and the adult interacts with the child in a way that helps him or her manage that situation and grow along developmental pathways as, as a result of that. And so the, and, and you have to have some sense of where a child is to be able to deal with it. And so, I was in a meeting the other day where a legislative aide spoke with us, and he had brought his son to the meeting. Son was about eight years of age. Now he had prepared, he gave his son his business cards to hand out. First, so he had something meaningful and important to do. But that’s social development also. He had his son introduce himself, and we introduced ourselves, too. Social development. He sat there for a while, and he began to get restless. The father sensed and knew – physical development – that children can’t sit there that, can’t sit still that long. So he asked him if he wanted to go out, and he said, “No.” So he was able to sit a little longer. And then when he really got restless the father asked him again and allowed him to go out. And so it was knowledge of the social development, the importance, the skills that he taught in that little situation, the knowledge of the physical development as well, going on at the same time. But those activities and being there gave that child competence, confidence. He didn’t leave him there long enough for him to have a bad experience, because that would be a loss of confidence. And so confidence and then comfort to be able to operate in that kind of setting came from the activity along those two pathways. And then the ethical pathway is really about what’s right, and what’s wrong, and how children think that out and figure it out as that teacher was doing in, in the video I observed. There was this discussion about slavery and whether the, the masters were right in what they were doing and wrong. And there were moral and ethical issues being discussed there. And it is important, I mean it doesn’t have to be at that level. It is in the level of relationships – child to child, and child to adult, and adult to children where discussions about what is right, wrong, good, or bad can take place. But listening to the child and how they think through what’s right and wrong, and what, what your options are, and what you can do, what else you can do. But helping them think through that is what’s very important. In fact the seven-year-old who told the substitute we don’t do that in this school was confronting and suggesting another way of behaving. So, that, that’s psycho-emotional development as well. What is so very important, and we take for granted that children come to school having already managed to handle all of the impulses that they have and to have the comfort and the confidence that they can sit and take in the information that we’re trying to provide. Many children have not received that, and so the teacher has to help, has to help create an environment in which children can have psycho-emotional comfort to be able to engage in the social and intellectual activities that are going on in the classroom. And so it is more than anything else, it is an awareness of what children need to function in various areas intellectually and socially, and the kind of psycho-emotional conditions and social conditions you need to make that possible and creating those. Teachers have great power. You know, you’re the adult authority in a situation where all of the children are, have less power than you, and you use your power to create desirable conditions for all the children. If you favor one or another, you’re creating doubt, fear, suspicion, lack of confidence – who am I? Does the teacher like me? Does she like Johnny better than me? Why? There are all kinds of things and feelings that children have that can be troublesome in a classroom because of the way the teacher behaves. And so all of the time it’s a consciousness of how your behavior effects the child’s feelings and the child’s comfort, competence and confidence.

You know, you know the, the, I told you about the legislative aide. That’s the question he asked us when I talked about development in school. And what I told him was, is that, it is what you just did with your child. Good child development along all those pathways is no more than good child rearing. It is helping the children learn to manage themselves. And when you do that, they grow, social and interactive, psycho-emotional, ethical, linguistic, intellectual cognitive, physical. Physical also includes the development and growth of the brain. And so every interaction you have with your child helps your child grow along all of those developmental pathways simultaneously. And so rearing your child well, creating conditions where they have confidence and at the same time not allowing them to do things that will get them into great difficulty or, or have them viewed badly by other people, having them behave in ways that are fair, and just, and responsible gets them good feedback, helps them feel good about themselves. And so permissiveness is not good, either. And overcontrolling and, and punitive behavior is not good. There is focus on helping your child, rearing your child in a way so that you help them grow in all of those important areas. That’s what’s important.

It’s unfortunate that most teachers do not have the experience in their pre-service that allows them to understand how children grow and develop and then must be supported in their development in the school. What they really need to understand is that the child is born totally dependent, and yet at eighteen years of age we expect them to be able to do everything. Now, if that’s so, that means that we have to help them grow along all the critical developmental pathways from birth and all the way through, to teach them all of the skills and have all of the growth necessary to be able to carry out adult tasks, and functions, and responsibilities, and to be successful in school and in order to be successful in life. And that, that starts at the beginning. And at the child-rearing that takes place where the parent provides the warmth and the closeness and support of the, of the child is the beginning of the kind of support necessary to promote growth and development. It doesn’t stop there. When the child enters school, the child has to make an emotional attachment to the teacher, and to the other students, and to the program of the school, the activities of the school in order to be motivated to be a learner. A child has to have a sense of belonging, and that’s why participation, making contribution to the activities of the classroom, all very important and that gives a child a sense of belonging. A child also has to experience fairness and to believe that the teachers care about him and, or her, and want them to be successful, and the teacher has to serve as a model. Children are watching teachers. If teachers behave in troublesome kinds of ways, the child is very likely to behave in a troublesome way and that, your use of your authority in a classroom to make it a fair, good place is what causes children to want to behave in that same way. And so the teacher has to be aware of their great power, and that they have to use it in fair and just ways in order to have good outcomes for the children, and that they are helping the children grow developmentally when they do that.

Well, the key aspects of child development that effect learning is, is the motivation that grows out of the growth along all the developmental pathways. When a child has a good experience, you can just see them grow, with a good social experience, a good learning experience. For example, I watched a child step on the mat that opened the door at the, at the counter, just beyond the counter as his mother was checking out. The mother was busy checking out and the child started a little experimenting. He was surprised when the door opened. And so he went back, he stepped off and the door closed. And he went back and he stepped on it again, the door opened and, came back. And by that time the mother noticed that the child was carrying out this experiment. And then the mother got into it and began to talk to the child about the connection between stepping on the mat and the door opening. And it became a good learning, teaching experience and that child walked away happy with his arms swinging. He had had a good learning experience. He had something, he’d grown. He’d grown intellectually, socially. He, he, he had gained some knowledge ove..of his environment and how you manage it. Those are the things that good parents and good teachers do. And that’s the benefit for the children is growth and a, a feeling of confidence and ability to manage themselves in various environments.

No, no. It’s all, it’s like an oasis. When you give a child a good experience, it’s like an oasis. The child really wants that. But children are very good, you see. They learn how to make it in school and how to make it at home. They know the expectations of the home and the expectations of the school. Better that they have a good and necessary experience at school than not to have one at all. But it’s very important to get parents involved in the work of the school so that they themselves, without having to raise their hand and say I don’t know certain things, can be involved in a way that they learn the connection between their behavior and the way they rear their children, and the ability of the children to perform in school. Now, when I shop at the grocery store, I can predict the students that are gonna do, the children who are gonna do well in school and those who are probably not gonna do well in school. It has to do with the way the parents interact with the child to give them learning experience in pre- and non-school situations and to support inquiry, and thoughtfulness, and reflectiveness, and the desire to know it, manage their environment better. When parents do that, then their children are more likely to be successful in school. But what happens is that parents who are less, well-educated or do not understand – even some who have degrees don’t understand what it takes for the children to have good educational learning experiences. When parents understand that and provide those at home, then they’re more likely to be successful in school. But where children don’t receive it at home, the teacher really has an obligation to provide it and to try and involve parents in the work of the school, so that they can also join with the teacher in giving the children the kinds of experiences they need to be successful in school.

You know, you know, many children gain what they need to be successful in school at home. And so, many children learn to take in information and sit, be able to sit still and take in information when it’s important to do so. They learn that at home. They learn to be spontaneous and curious when it’s important to do so at home. And they learn how, all of the, they have all the social skills necessary to be successful in school. Many children don’t have it and so the teacher has to not see the behavior of a child who’s spontaneous, and curious, and impulsive, and who doesn’t know how to sit still. You don’t wanna see that child as simply bad or troublesome or so on. You see that child as underdeveloped. You understand him or her as underdeveloped. And so, you help them learn what is appropriate, and how to express themselves, and when to wait and you give them all that they need to be successful. It’s that simple to think about it in that way. It is, “What is it the child needs to be successful?” and to explain and to help them, rather than to control and punish for not doing what they’ve never been taught to do, and for not doing what they’ve never been helped to do. There’s another thing about children that you have to remember. They need practice doing things. My favorite story is of the teacher who told Johnny not to run down the hall, and the teacher after several times, Johnny was running down the hall. Finally, he was doing better, but finally he was running down the hall again and the teacher said, “Johnny, didn’t I tell you not to run down the hall?” And Johnny said, “Oops, Mrs. Jones, my head remembered, but my feet forgot.” And that’s a child, you know, children have energy. They’re thinking about lots of things, they’re doing lots of things. They are not well-disciplined yet, and you have to help them. And you have to help them by repeatedly calling upon them to respond in a certain way and understanding, and sometime you’re gonna get frustrated, but understanding, and having them understand that you got frustrated, but you really expect them to respond in this way, and you just have to keep doing it over and over until they develop the capacity and don’t understand it as simply not wanting to do it, being troublesome, trying to give you a bad time. They don’t have the capacity. And so you have to help them develop the capacity to manage in desirable ways. You also have to look at the way you expect things to be done, because maybe your classroom is to rigid, too tight, is unreasonable. What you’re asking may be unreasonable. And so you have to look at what you’re doing in asking of the child, and you also have to ask the child to live up to the expectations of the school in the classroom.

Well they bring, in a cultural context, children come, you know, with their holidays, with their food, with the songs from their culture, music, their style, their ways. And all of it can enrich an environment if we respect the differences that children bring. You know, the school represents a mainstream culture, and children from all backgrounds have differences and activities and ways at home that may be different from the school. You have to honor those and at the same time if they’re truly unacceptable you have to call on them to, to behalf differently. And now that’s also where you involve the parents and why it’s important to have the parents involved. Because if there are cultural ways that are unacceptable and will get the child into trouble in the mainstream environment, then you and the parents will have to have a discussion about why you want things done a certain way and expect certain behaviors in the classroom because of what it permits in the way of school, the classroom, people in the classroom living together and what the child will need to be successful in the larger world. And they can maintain those cultural ways outside of the classroom and in, at home and in their own environment. But you rarely run into that. Most of all, it is the richness and the fullness of cultures brought together that makes a school an exciting place.

I, I, when we have our training, I always ask teachers, veteran teachers, how many of you had a child development course? Ninety percent had child development courses. And then I say, “How many of you had an applied, hands-on, in-practice child development course?” And out of 200 people, three to five will have had that kind of course, where there was a discussion about what a fight on the playground might mean other than a child being bad, and where a supervisor or someone could help them think about that behavior and help them think how to help the child, use that to help the children grow. My point is, I want all teachers to think development and to realize that you are in a social setting, a social context that allows, as a school that allows you, it gives you great power and authority at a time when the children are very dependent. It allows you to help them grow along those developmental pathways in a way that few other people in the lifetime of the child will have. So that you are very, very important in helping children develop very early patterns and skills that will serve them for a lifetime. And if you ignore or pass up that opportunity or simply…and control the children when you could be helping them grow along the developmental pathways, then you haven’t served them well. Now, what does that have to do with academic learning? As I pointed out, it has everything to do with academic learning. It is confidence and competence, and that allows the child to have comfort that motivates them to learn the academic material. And when they’re motivated they will learn anything, because Mrs. Jones wants me to learn. My teacher wants me to learn. And I’m important to my teacher. And so understanding that, you are really an instrument of learning, and that you can help the child grow all, all the developmental pathways and that growth along all the developmental pathways is what makes academic learning most possible. If you can think that, then you will find all kinds of opportunities to help children grow, and develop, and learn, both what it takes to be successful in school and as adult, and to get the academic material they need to be successful as adults.

Children are taught how to manage themselves at home by parents and others in the neighborhood, and they learn from people in their environment. And sometimes they’re taught to fight rather than to cooperate, collaborate, work things out, negotiate. Sometimes children are told that if you don’t fight when Johnny bullies you, you will get another beating at home. Or, children may be taught to cheat, lie, steal. Sometimes not directly, but because they observe their parents doing it, or they deserve other people doing it, or they see it on television. And so they bring all of what they have learned to school with them. But they’re not expected to do that in school. They’re expected to perform differently in school. It is up to the teacher to understand that wherever that undesirable behavior came from, you’re not dealing with a bad child, you’re dealing with troublesome behavior that a child has learned that a child must learn another way of behaving, and that you have to help them learn that the troublesome behavior is unacceptable and will get him into trouble in school, in the classroom, with other people, and that here’s a better way of doing it, or to think about with the child a better way of doing it, because they also know better ways. And you call up on them to think about ways that will be more helpful to them, more helpful to the people around them, more helpful to the school as a community. Again, that’s why it’s important to try and get the parents involved, because the parents need to hear that discussion and be a part of supporting the more desirable, successful ways. It’s also important for parents to understand that a child can learn to be courteous, responsible, a nice boy, in school and still be a rugged, tough kid who can take care of himself on the playground, in the housing project or in a variety of other places. The children are very good in understanding the behavior that is required here as opposed to there.

Many children, particularly those from mainstream backgrounds where their families participate in the mainstream, come with experiences almost from birth that prepare them to be successful in school. They know how to get along with other children. They know how to sit and take in information when it’s important to do so and to be spontaneous and curious when they’re engaged in activities. And, and they are curious and interested and they know how to handle themselves. And it needs to be reinforced in school, but they come with those experiences. Other children do not come with that kind of preparation. And sometimes children, even from mainstream backgrounds simply because they’re an only child, or parents working, or a whole variety of circumstances do not have what it takes to be successful. But many children, particularly mainstream backgrounds, come with all of the social interactional skills necessary to be successful. Also if they’ve had good psycho-emotional experiences they come with a kind of comfort and confidence and belief in themselves that allows them to be successful, whereas many other children do not come with that, and you have to provide it in the school setting so that they can develop that type of comfort.

Well, culture, most cultures provide a sense of belonging, activities that give you traditions and rituals that give you a sense of comfort and belief in yourself, belief in your group, and provide you with what is really necessary to be able to function well. Unless your culture is marginalized or under economic and social stress so that you’re not dealing with culture anymore, you’re dealing with the effects of economic and social stress. Your culture…so that your culture becomes destructive, and harmful, and is not a source of support and pride. But whatever the circumstances, in school you can create comfort, support, belonging, opportunity to participate that will give children the kinds of experiences that allow them to be successful.

Transcript of comments by University of California at Santa Cruz professor, Roland Tharp

Excerpts from an interview with Roland Tharp, Director, Center for Research on Education, diversity and Excellence, University of California at Santa Cruz.

Taped August 16, 2001.

Learning and all human development is a process of, that is basically social from the perspective of Vygotsky and those of his successors who are, been working in this area for, for many decades now. We understand that learning and development occur in a social process. Vygotsky used this very nice phrase for it – is that all that is individual was first social. So, what he means by that I think is, is that what we think, in the way that we develop individually in our capacities, began as something that happened between people and became…as it internalized, became individual capacities. So, all human development is social, beginning from probably even before birth and all the way to the end of our lives. We continue always to develop. Our individual capacities develop first and is something that happens between people. And of course for students the most important social transaction is what happens between a teacher and a student. So, the, what happens, this social process, the interactive process, the processes of assistance, the processes of conversation, that happen between teacher and student, that is what forms the mind and the capacity of those students. So teachers need to remember that what they do and what they say with a student will become a part of that student’s mind.

If we understand that teaching is a social process and that the way that development occurs is a process of assistance provided to the learner, if we understand that, it profoundly revolutionizes what we think of as the role of the teacher. The teacher becomes, in a way becomes the primary assister of the student and thus the person that is most responsible for the development of the student.

Probably the most crucial concept in socio-cultural theory or neo-Vygotskian theory is the zone of proximal development. It’s a difficult concept to get, but it’s ultimately simple and once a person gets it, it, it provides wonderful guidance for teachers in, in their moment to moment, in-flight decision making. The zone refers to the difference between what a learner can do individually and what the learner can do with assistance. So if you think of a zone as being a flexible point like so, the bottom level of the zone is individual capacity, no assistance needed, task capacity mastered. However, all of us can do better with some other assistance than we could do it absolutely alone. So that is the zone of proximal development between those two places. So, understanding where this zone is for each child’s individual task, understanding that allows the teacher to provide assistance when needed, exactly the right amount of assistance to keep moving upwards, so that you’re not trying to eliminate the zone, you’re trying to move it all up so that the, the, and the task of the teacher then becomes to discover where assistance is needed and then to provide it. And that is the fundamental act of teaching – is locating when assistance is needed and making sure it’s there. Now the co…assistance that is needed primarily and most importantly is by, is by the teacher, I suppose. But also it may not be. Vygotsky pointed out that that kind of assistance that will help development in the zone can come from more capable peers. It doesn’t really matter where the assistance comes from. And the most competent teachers, I think, provide the assistance themselves when they need to, make sure that a good, rich diet of assistance is available from other class members and outside resources and the web and wherever assistance can be provided to make sure that’s available to the student. That’s the orchestration of excellent teaching.

Well, there’s several kinds of assistance that are typical in classrooms. One of the kinds of assistance that is very, we see very often is to provide a model to show a learner how it is done. Teachers can show by talking aloud how, even how to think as a mature scholar. Other forms of assistance are breaking up the task into smaller units, or reorganizing the sequence of a complex task. Other forms of assistance can be by juggling incentives through encouragement or through even, from time to time, praise and rewards. There are a variety of ways that, that teacher’s can assist and that the, probably the single most important one is by questioning. In the fifth grade classroom tape that we saw, there is a wonderful example of assistance provided in-flight during a piece of dialogue, during a nice little segment of instructional conversation when the two boys were, were sitting there and the teacher was asking what did they think about the text that they had done. And one of the, one of the boys stumbled. He said I just can’t, I can’t say it. I can’t express it. And the teacher did a very, very good piece of teaching right there because what she did was to drop back, if we think of it as being in the zone, she dropped back to the point where with a very astute question that she gave, he was, with the help of that question, able then to give a response which, once he heard himself say it, almost then allowed him to make a good comment about the subject that she had been trying to draw, draw him out in. That was an excellent example of working in the zone of proximal development and being right there at the time when he needed the assistance and, she gave it to him in the form of a question which then cued him to make the response that he was capable of.

The zone of proximal development is probably the key concept in socio-cultural theory in neo-Vygotskian work. The zone refers to the distance between what an individual can do alone and what that same individual can do with assistance. If you think of the, the zone as being a range between at the bottom would represent what it is that the student can perform alone independently, automatically, without any assistance whatsoever, and up here is the higher reaches of that same kind of task that can be achieved with some help and with some assistance provided. Now you’re, you’re not trying to eliminate that zone. You’re trying to move it up, bottom and top both, move it on up because that’s the process of continual development. The zone is not a measure of in..individual IQ or intelligence because there is a zone that we each have for each thing that we are learning and doing. We can, we need assistance from our tennis coach sometime, and we need assistance from our science teacher sometimes, the same individual and the zone may be v…quite different for different tasks. The zone is an important concept because to teachers it’s absolutely vital, because it helps the teacher understand what is the basic act of teaching. And that is this – to locate that point in the zone of proximal development in which this learner needs the assistance and then to provide it. Good teaching means constantly stretching, moving, rising in the developmental process and that means always providing more assistance. But as during the school year, during the course of life, that we each need more and more refined and more complex kinds of assistance as we learn more. But we always continue to need that.

In the socio-cultural point of view, the point of view that whatever is individual is first social and that we learn from each other in, through interaction discourse, dialogue becomes extremely important. Particularly as we understand that so much of learning in academic subjects is verbal, it’s learning words, it’s learning how to talk and how to write about things and that academic discourse, schooled learning in general, is primarily a verbal process. When we think about the ways that teachers need to provide assistance to students, we know that they have to provide it within the zone of proximal development at the point that it’s needed and that means a very careful gauging of the student’s level of need. That’s very difficult to do in ordinary classroom organization and ordinary lecture and response kind of formats because it’s difficult to tell exactly what the level of each student’s capacity is and what assistance they need. How can you find out that best? One clear way and that is through dialogue. Now that kind of dialogue then in a socio-cultural model, the dialogue becomes the tent pole of the classroom. It becomes the foundation of the classroom. It becomes that that holds up everything else. Not the lecture, which has it’s own place and needs to be included as, in the schedule of activities. But the basic structure of assistance is best supported through dialogue – dialogue with a purpose. And managed dialogue means subtle things. It means dialogue that is managed for an academic purpose, for providing intellectual, cognitive, social and emotional growth. But it also means real dialogue. And that means that what one participant says has something to do with what just happened in the minute before, so that there is a real exchange. And during that kind of exchange, the teacher is able to hear in this dialogue on the subject at hand what it is the student can say, can do, and what it needs to say next and to do and can provide the kinds of responses and questions that will provide the assistance in the zone of proximal development. So dialogue, whether it’s ad hoc, whether it is small group, whether it is large group, becomes a necessity in classrooms both for assessment and for assistance.

[looking at the segment in “Learning from Others–Learning in a Social Context” featuring Avram Barlowe] In the high school discussion that we saw, we saw some excellent managed discourse. And what one of the admirable features it seemed to me in this multi-cultural classroom, probably a multi-lingual classroom to some degree, we saw a group of students who had learned how to interact with each other, with the teacher in a context that was academically focused, that used important text as a part of the basis of their discussion, in which there was a clear, mutual understanding of what the rules and procedures of how that discourse was to be managed. All of that were, were excellent examples of how the teacher had managed to create a community of practice, which means had managed to create a community of discourse. There were rules, the procedures, the understanding of how it was to be conducted, may not have been the original, when, when these were young children they may not have been their original cultural style of talking and interacting, but through this classroom experience, that group, I’m sure under the strong leadership of the teacher, had managed to create a style that’s theirs and this is the way they talk, this is the way they conduct this kind of dialogue. We also see in that classroom one of the disadvantages of the discourse in a large group. Although the quality of the exchanges were excellent and I am sure that even though the large group didn’t allow everybody to say very much at any one time, they were listening and learning from each other. And that, that’s good and that is valuable. From a point of view of language development, the point of view of learning expressive language and to think in words and speech, the large group is handicapped because it’s simply not possible given time and given the structure for, to have the rich kind of discussion opportunities, expressive opportunities that are available in a small group. In this fifth grade classroom when the groups were very small – four, five, six students, sometimes it looked like only perhaps two students – in those smaller groups everyone got to talk a lot more. There was more opportunity for learning and more opportunity for judging the zone of proximal development. There is an advantage also in that, in the high instance that we saw because this dialogue was built in clearly, systematically and dependably within that structure of that lesson. That ad hoc arrangements of the fifth grade teacher allow for responsiveness. But when she is doing the pattern of floating from group to group and offering small bursts of instructional conversation as needed allows for responsiveness, but it doesn’t allow for the extended period of deep thought that is possible if a small group could be conducted over a time of ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. That is probably the highest reaches of managed.. discourse because it, it provides the richest opportunity for assistance by the teacher in dialogue and it provides the most opportunity for expressive language for the students.

Well, common misconception about Vygotsky’s theory is that social learning is one thing, but individual is a different thing and that one, that social learning could be considered a technique and that individual learning is a different technique. That is not the basic position of this way of understanding the world. The basic position of understanding the world is, is that all individual capacity develops in a social context. And so, individual, all learning is individual outcome, but all learning is social process. And so the capacity to perform individually, the capacity that everyone develops to do some individual act, whether it’s driving a car or whether it is writing a scholarly paper and living in the library all by yourself for three months, whatever those – and everything in the middle – all of those individual capacities are in the acquisition process. That acquisition process is social and that assistance, social assistance that needs to be provided in the lower reaches until full individual capacity is made, is a social process. And, and so the, for a teacher to be instructed by this kind of theory and what to learn from this kind of theory and adopt that would remember that no matter what the individual goal of achievement is, no matter how individual that process is, the teacher’s role is to make sure that assistance is needed during the acquisition stage. Not too much assistance, ’cause you give too much you’ll ruin it. There’s nothing that interferes with capacity when, if you really know how to do something for somebody to be telling you. You just have to do it. Then that’ll mess it up. But so that the, but all learning, all individual capacity is first a social process, and that means teacher-student process.

Vygotsky has taught us that instruction always happens in advance of leading development. What he mean by that is that development means, a developmental stage let’s say, means the capacity to perform individually. Instruction is required in the form of assistance in order to raise that developmental level. Through assistance, through assisted performance the developmental level rises. That is to say, individual capacity rises. But the task of teaching is to pull that learner up higher and higher through the process of providing instruction, which means providing assistance, therefore raising the developmental level.

Students know so much. Now, they don’t know what we want them to know in school, that’s why they’re in school. But they know so much, and they bring even, even four-year-olds bring to the classroom a wealth of knowledge of capacities that they have learned at home in their families, in their communities. That knowledge needs to be used in the classroom as a foundation from which the child can jump up into higher developmental levels. And much of that knowledge that students bring from home and community is knowledge that is shared in that home and community. We will refer to that often, following Luis Moll and Norma Gonzales’ research where, as funds of knowledge. And that, that every individual has rich funds of knowledge, but a lot of that knowledge is cultural. And so that a neighborhood, a community, a tribe, an apartment block, a group of people who learn and work together develop their own funds of knowledge, all of which to some degree would then be shared by the students and can be used as the launching pad for rocketing on off into higher reaches. A teacher needs to know what those funds of knowledge are.

The five standards for effective pedagogy rules principally out of research and what makes for every, every child, every group, every cultural linguistic group best able to learn in school, and thereby those five general findings are expressed most easily and most clearly and perfectly suited to socio-cultural Vygotskian point of view. The first, the first principle is teachers and students working together – joint productive activity. This is the fundamental instructional unit of activity in a classroom organized in socio-cultural principles, because working together on a task is the ideal circumstance in which every other good thing can happen, including principle number two, which is language development across the curriculum. We, in school, schools are a talking place and a writing place and learning to write and to talk is the fundamental task of education. And so regardless of whether we are talking in a science classroom, pre-school classroom, social studies in the third grade, what, regardless of what the subject matter is, developing competence in the language of instruction is a fundamental requirement for effective learning. The third principle is that of making meaning. Contextualization of instruction, so that when one uses the already known, and that already known frequently comes from outside school, from families and from communities, use that as the basis for beginning the dialogue about the goals of instruction. Making instruction meaningful in terms of the students’ own concerns, desires, experience and so forth is, accelerates the learning process enormously. But that does not mean that you’re merely reiterating what the students already know. That’s not the idea of it because the fourth principle that we find is, is that good learning occurs most often in cognitively challenging activities. So teaching complex thinking is one of the basic principles by which children will learn complex thinking, surprising teach….students learn what we teach them complex thinking is vital. How can that best be done? How can all of the above best be done? Through dialogue. So the fifth principle is that the foundation of instruction is dialogic, particularly through the instructional conversation. Through the exchanged dialogue with a specific academic goal.

The school should be a place where everyone’s learning. If teachers don’t have an opportunity to learn, how can they continue to effectively teach in a changing world? And teachers learn exactly the same way the students learn. That is to say, they learn in the social process through a provision of assistance at the point when they need it, and they have to work through zones of proximal development just like students do, just like every other human being does. The school that in…that is a, a fully transformed school in a way that maximizes the opportunity for the entire community of learners of that school to grow maximally would be one in which the teachers are also provided the assistance that they need in order to continue to develop – professional development activities, a rich culture of mutual assistance in, among faculty, provision of outside experts when it’s needed. Provision of all forms of assistance to teachers is absolutely necessary if you are going to have a growing, vibrant, continually developing classroom. It’s certainly true even of principals. They need assistance too from above. But an ideal school it seems to me is for learning and that’s for everyone to learn. And that means that account has to be taken of the next developmental stages that we all need to have. Learning is lifelong. Development is lifelong. But it needs to be done in the social process within the profession. So if we could have a school in which teachers got all the assistance that they needed to develop, they would be much more likely to be able to provide the assistance that the students need for themselves to develop.

Universities that train teachers have the same responsibility that those teachers will have for their students. That is to say that stu….that teachers as they move through their own zones of proximal development toward greater professional competence, also need assistance. They need assistance in two ways. One is the indi…the learning how to work with curriculum, learning how to provide specific forms of assistance, the craft of teaching. They also need that. But they also, I think, need to have the experience of learning in the environment that we hope they will create in their own classrooms. So it seems to me that we pre-service teacher educators have the responsibility for creating that kind of atmosphere in our classes in pre-service teacher education that we hope the teachers will see in theirs. And that means providing opportunity for working together, developing the professional language of teaching, making that learning meaningful by tying it to their knowledge and the very extensive skills that teacher/learns already bring to it by demanding complex thinking and stretching the pre-service teacher educators’ minds to be able to think higher and higher levels of, of complexity and conceptually. And finally, what we need to work on is being sure that we’re engaging in continuous dialogue with the students so that we can adjust our own training to their zones of proximal development.



Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) (1999). How children learn (Chapter 4). In How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Carnegie Corporation of New York. (1994). Starting points: Meeting the needs of our youngest children. The report of the Carnegie Task Force on Meeting the Needs of Young Children. New York: Author.
This abridged version of a Carnegie Report describes the critical importance of early childhood education and the issues of meeting the needs of children at risk.

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1995). Great transitions: Preparing adolescents for a new century. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York.
This abridged version of a Carnegie Report describes issues of adolescent development and public policy questions that address them.

Comer, J. (April 23, 2001). Schools that develop children. In The American Prospect, 12(7). Retrieved December 4, 2001, from the American Prospect Web site.

Guidelines for Appropriate Curriculum Content and Assessment in Programs Serving Children Ages 3 Through 8: A position statement of the National Association for the Education for Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. Adopted November, 1990. Retrieved 2/22/03.
This comprehensive article describes developmentally appropriate teaching, how children learn, and how curriculum can be informed by individual and age differences. While focused on young children, many of the points made are applicable for all learners.

Fillmore, L. W., & Snow, C. (2000). What teachers need to know about language. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved June 20, 2002.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Accreditation Program. Retrieved November 25, 2002.

Related Links

Center for Children and Families
Teachers College, Columbia University
525 West 120 th Street Box 39
New York, NY 10027
Phone: 212-678-3904
Located at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, the Center advances the policy, education, and development of children and their families. Sharon Lynne Kagan and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn are co-directors of the Center.

Child Development Project in the Development Studies Center (DSC)
Eric Schaps
Oakland, CA 94606-5300
Phone: 510-533-0213
Fax: 510-464-3670
This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children develop intellectually, ethically, and socially.

Child & Family WebGuide
This is a Web portal of resources and sites about children and learning. The Education/Learning section and the Typical Development section provide a wealth of online resources. David Elkind developed this portal in collaboration with the Society for Research in Child Development located at Tufts University.

National Head Start Association
1651 Prince St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 739-0875; fax (703)739-0878
The National Head Start Association (NHSA) is a non-profit organization that “provides a national forum for the continued enhancement of Head Start services for poor children ages 0 through 5, and their families.”

Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD)
University of Michigan
505 E. Huron, Suite 301
Ann Arbor, MI 48104-1567
Phone: 734- 998-6578
The Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) is an organization dedicated to multidisciplinary research in the field of human development.

Starting Points: State and Community Partnerships for Young Children§ionid=1287
Carnegie Corporation
This Carnegie Corporation of New York program is dedicated to developing strategies to meet the needs of children in their first three years of life.

The National Association for Education of Young Children
1509 16th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20036-1426
The National Association for Education of Young Children is a national organization of educators dedicated to the improvement of programs for children from birth through third grade. The Web site provides professional development, community, and parent resources.

Yale Child Study Center
230 South Frontage Rd.
New Haven, CT 06520
Phone: 203-785-2513
The Yale University child and adolescent research center offers clinical services and educational training in the fields of psychiatry, pediatrics, and child development. The Comer School Development Program within the Yale Child Study Center “aims to bridge child psychiatry and education.”