(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
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
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,
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
- 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,
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
Summary of key learning points in this
In this section we have looked at:
- what ‘developmental psychology’
- why we should study ‘developmental psychology’
- some basic concepts of development
- Havighurst’s stages of development,
- 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.