2.1.2 Some Basic Concepts


(Adapted from Shaffer, 1996: p.5-8)

Maturation and Learning

We have said that development involves change. Change, in whatever form, always involves two processes: maturation and learning. Let’s look at these more closely:

Maturation refers to changes that take place in your body and in your behaviour because you are getting older, because of your age. For example, you start to walk (change from crawling) because you are at an age where you are physically mature enough to walk. A one-month-old baby is incapable of learning to walk because he/she is simply not mature enough, not old enough to be capable of walking. All humans are biologically programmed to mature at about the same rate, i.e. go through changes at roughly the same time.

This refers to a relatively permanent change that occurs in an individual as a result of experience or practice (Slavin Educational Psychology. Theory and Practice,1997:151). In order to develop or change, we also need to learn how to do things. We often talk of learners learning the multiplication tables but not developing an understanding of multiplication. This illustrates that the term learning is often used to refer to short-term specific gains in knowledge, while development is used to refer to more long-term, broader changes in knowledge, skills, attitudes and mental states. (Desforges, 1995)

These two processes (maturation and learning) go hand in hand in development.

Let’s look at an example: To play soccer, what do you need?
You need a certain level of physical maturation (to be able to run and kick a ball) and you need to learn the skills by practising (i.e. you are influenced by the environment in which you live. The skills to play the ball don’t just happen). So to change from someone who can’t play soccer to someone who does, you need to have sufficient physical maturity and you need to learn the rules, and practice the skills you learn. Most of our attributes (qualities or features of individual people) are a combination of both of these processes: maturation and learning.

Some points about human development:

  • Human development is a continual and cumulative process
    We are always changing and developing, and thus we say that our development is continual. The changes that occur at each major phase of life can have an important effect on the future, and thus we say that development is cumulative (the effects add up or add up over time).
  • Human development is a holistic process
    As we have already said, all aspects of development interact: physical, cognitive, social, and emotional. How we develop in one area affects how we develop in another.
  • There is plasticity in human development
    What does this mean? It will help you if you think about the word ‘plastic’. One of the characteristics of plastic is that it can be bent; it can change its shape without breaking. What we mean then when we say that there is plasticity in development is that we have the capacity for change in response to favourable or unfavourable life experiences.
  • Development is shaped by its historical/cultural context
    This point is very important in the South African context. What we mean here is that how we develop will depend on the context in which we grow up. For example, growing up in the context of the previous apartheid era, where people’s freedom was limited and there were restrictions on schooling, would have influenced development in various ways. Growing up in a freer, democratic society will influence our development in different but equally significant ways.

2.1.3. Developmental tasks

Having an understanding of personal and social development is necessary and critical to an educator’s ability to motivate, successfully interact with, and teach learners of different ages. This section introduces the concept of developmental tasks, and demonstrates the developmental changes, which happen over time, as a child matures.

Robert J. Havighurst divided the human life span into six periods and broke down development into important tasks that must be accomplished at each age level.

He believed that human development is essentially a process in which individuals attempt to learn the tasks required of them by the society in which they live. Developmental tasks define healthy, typical development of people. If one achieves success in learning the tasks of one stage then this leads to greater chances of success in learning the tasks of the next stage. On the other hand, failure to learn the tasks of one stage, leads to greater difficulty in learning the tasks of later stages. Havighurst related these tasks to education. He stated, “living in modern society is a long series of tasks to learn” (in Newman & Newman, 1997).

Havighurst considered the many different aspects of a person’s life that influence that person’s development: the biological development and physical structures of the individual; the society in which the person lives; and the resultant cultural influences; as well as the individual’s personal characteristics, values and goals.

This view of development takes into account the role of physical maturation and the role that society plays in determining the skills that need to be learned at a certain age. According to Havighurst, there are sensitive periods which he called teachable moments, when an individual is mature enough to learn developmental tasks. These tasks may be physical like walking, cognitive like learning to read, or social where the person develops significant relationships. Once the critical period of development is over, learning may still occur. Language skills for example, continue to develop as one learns more complex ways of using language.

The following lists contain what Havighurst considered important developmental tasks of the different stages from infancy to adulthood (from Reilly & Lewis,1983).

Early childhood tasks (birth – 6 years)

  • Learning to walk, take solid foods, control body wastes, and developing physiological stability depends on physical maturation.
  • Learning to talk depends upon cognitive maturation, but hearing language from others will play an important role.
  • Forming simple concepts of social and physical reality relates to cognitive development and the development of thinking.
  • Learning sex differences and sexual modesty is the beginning of sex role identification.
  • Learning to relate oneself emotionally to parents, siblings, and other people is accomplished largely by modelling the behaviours of others. Thus, parents see and hear their children reflecting their behaviours.
  • Learning to distinguish right and wrong and developing a conscience is the beginning of social development and responsibility.

Middle childhood tasks (6 – 12 years)

  • Building wholesome attitudes toward self is extremely important in all aspects of learning. The teacher must do what is possible to enhance a learner’s self-image.
  • Learning physical skills enables the child to develop muscular control and play games.
  • Learning to get along with peers marks the continuation of social development. Relationships with others need to be enhanced.
  • Developing fundamental skills, such as reading, writing, and calculating form the basis of major cognitive skills and are viewed as the basic goal of school and of primary education.
  • Developing attitudes towards social groups are influenced by interacting with others at school and in the community.
  • Learning an appropriate masculine and feminine role is accomplished largely by modelling the behaviour of important individuals in the child’s life.
  • Developing conscience, morality, and a scale of values.
  • Achieving personal independence involves allowing the child to make decisions, within reason, independently.

Adolescence tasks (12 – 18 years)

  • Accepting one’s physique and using the body effectively – it is helpful for learners to be educated about the bodily changes they experience, and ways to care for themselves in a healthy way.
  • Achieving new and more mature relations with age mates of both sexes represents the continuation of development of social behaviour. The educator can enhance this by encouraging learners to work together.
  • Achieving a masculine or feminine social role will be influenced by physical development, by observing peers, and the way in which others affirm or criticise the individual’s behaviour.
  • Achieving emotional independence of parents and other adults is a difficult transition for both parents and adolescents. Educators and parents must provide learners with opportunities to make their own decisions.
  • Selecting and preparing for an occupation requires providing guidance in career decision making in high school.
  • Developing intellectual skills and concepts necessary for civic competence (participation in society) is one of the basic goals of schooling.
  • Preparing for marriage and family life.
  • Desiring and achieving socially responsible behaviour is the goal of many schools that have begun to provide specific instruction in the areas of morals and responsibility to help learners achieve this task.
  • Acquiring a set of values and an ethical system as a guide to behaviour.

Havighurst also divided adulthood into three stages:

  • Early adulthood (18 – 35 years)
  • Middle age (35 –60 years), and
  • Later life (60+)

Why study theories of learning?

There are many theories about what changes occur in individuals and how these changes occur. Each of these theories describes and explains development in different ways. Havighurst’s theory of developmental stages is one theory which we have chosen to look at thus far in this course.

The following sections will look at two other theories and theorists to help us understand more about development.

Gauvain and Cole (2001) write:

In the last two decades a revolution in the study of human development has taken place. This revolution has drawn on the research and thinking of earlier periods, in particular the ideas of the theorists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, and on the views of contemporary scholars. Most developmental theory and research today emphasizes the coordination of the biological, social, and cultural aspects of human experience.

The two theorists mentioned in the above quote are Piaget and Vygotsky. We will consider their theories and their contribution to developmental psychology in the following sections.

Many students feel intimidated by learning about theorists. They imagine them as very abstract and scientific, and therefore, a bit ‘out of reach’. In, fact, looking at and studying theorists, is a wonderful means by which we can ‘come to grips with’ and better understand a certain area or field of study. In this case, the two theorists we are going to look at and study, Piaget and Vygotsky, are excellent tools which can help us build a greater knowledge of developmental psychology and how this can help us become better teachers in the classroom.

Let us imagine that we are on a safari and we are faced with an enormous jungle which seems too immense and frightening to enter and travel through on our own. We will need a guide who has traveled through this huge jungle before. A guide will know the best ways to get us safely through to the other side and will help us survive the hidden dangers of the jungle.
“Developmental Psychology” can look like a huge unknown jungle of knowledge, which seems impossible to ‘come to grips with’ alone. When we see Piaget and Vygotsky in the role of guides, we will see that they are qualified to lead and guide us through this unknown jungle. They have devoted their lifetimes to study in this area and have developed pathways of understanding through this jungle of knowledge. By studying these two theorists (or guides) we will be able to see Developmental Psychology through their eyes, and follow the pathways they have developed towards a better understanding of this ‘jungle of knowledge’. Do not be intimidated by theorists. See them, rather, as guides or helpers in our studies.

We will look at Vygotsky and Piaget – who they were; what the theories were that they developed; and, how these theories help us better understand human development and developmental psychology.

Summary of key learning points in this section

In this section we have looked at:

  • what ‘developmental psychology’ is
  • why we should study ‘developmental psychology’
  • some basic concepts of development
  • Havighurst’s stages of development, and
  • why we study theories of development and learning

In the next two Activities, we will look in detail at the theories of Vygotsky and Piaget, and what implications these may have for us as teachers.

Copyright SchoolNet SA and SCOPE. All Rights Reserved.