Developmental Theories

“All developmental theories can be distilled into one powerful statement – if there is no development, there is no learning. ” Do you agree? Use examples from some of the theories that you have encountered to justify your response. Over the years, many psychologists, scholars, mathematicians, teachers and counsellors have pondered this exact statement.

I, at the risk of being predictable, agree with this statement but then also think that the idea can be reversed – saying that without learning, there will be limited development.

This is not a hasty decision, the studies of Piaget and Vygotsky, along with numerous others cited in Educational Psychology (Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007) and academic journals all point to the conclusive outcome that development is essential to learning.

Development, on a biological, social, emotional and cognitive level is defined in Educational Psychology as “certain changes that occur in human beings…between conception and death” (Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007) and “[these changes] are generally assumed to be for the better and result in behaviour that is more adaptive, more organised, more effective and more complex” (Mussen, Conger and Kagan, 1984).

Development is therefore essentially PROGRESSION.

Another source even says “the development of children unfolds along individual pathways whose trajectories are characterized by continuities and discontinuities, as well as by a series of significant transitions” (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000), showing that development is a process and a period of transition. Jean Piaget (1954) is explained in Educational Psychology to believe that “our thinking processes change radically, though slowly, from birth to maturity because we constantly strive to make sense of the world” (Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007).

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What Is Developmental Theories

Piaget also “began to suspect that the key to human knowledge might be discovered by observing how the child’s mind develops” (Papert, 1999). He then went on to discuss the term “social transmission” which means learning from others, and commented that “the amount people can learn from social transmission varies according to their stage of cognitive development” (Piaget in Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007).

Piaget essentially believed that “cognitive development has to come before learning – the child has to be ‘ready’ to learn” (Piaget in Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007) and Diana Fox repeated this in her essay, Ages and Stages – “it is often said that the early childhood years are the “getting ready” phase of development and learning” (Fox, 2002). Jean Piaget pioneered the concept of the four major stages of cognitive development, the sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete-operational and formal-operation.

All of these stages are very closely linked to the idea that development and learning go side by side, for instance, in the pre-operational stage, Educational Psychology states that you can “see the rapid development of that very important symbol system, language” (Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007). The child therefore needs to “develop” the capacity to learn the language and if they didn’t develop, they wouldn’t learn. So from Piaget’s teachings about the stages of operation and the way in which we learn, it is clear that learning can only come about with cognitive development.

Lev Vygotsky (1978) recognised that “the child’s culture shapes cognitive development by determining what and how the child will learn about the world” (Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007), thus confirming the other statement being made in this essay – that the lack of learning will affect the development of the child. Vygotsky said that “interaction encourages development by creating cognitive conflict that motivated change” (Vygotsky in Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007).

This shows that through social interactions between peers (learning), it fosters development to a higher learning level – hence moving into the territory of Piaget’s work. Vygotsky had the theory of “the zone of proximal development” which is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”.

He shows that “the key to hearty intellectual growth was for children to be supported in this zone. That way, learning could actually shape development” (Thurber, 2003). For the child to be assisted by a supportive and non-judgemental elder, the potential development is far greater then if the child was left to perform in his or her own capacity. For a child trying to learn un-assisted, cognitive development that is “more adaptive, more organised, ore effective and more complex” (Mussen, Conger and Kagan, 1984) would be lesser than learning with an experienced other because, according to Thurber, “physical and sensory exploration boost cognitive development” (Thurber, 2003). The statement, “children are active participants in their own development, reflecting the intrinsic human drive to explore and master one’s environment” (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000), can also support the notion that development and learning go hand-in-hand.

The drive to explore and master is obviously a means of learning about ones surroundings and the statement shows that through this learning, development occurs. Furthermore, Shonkoff and Phillips (2000) also go on to say that “human development is shaped by a dynamic and continuous interaction between biology and experience”. Therefore children require “continuous interaction” with wiser mentors (Vygotskyan theory) and their development occurs while they attempt to “master” their environments (Piaget).

When commenting on Piaget’s work, another source commented that “as children grow older, they develop progressively better rules and strategies for solving problems and thinking logically” (Seigler in Woolfolk and Margetts, 2007). He then went on to say that teachers can help students develop their capacities for learning. This infers that students or children need to develop in order to learn. Without the development of these learning capacities, learning will not take place. But as we look at Vygotsky, we can see an extension of Piaget’s theories, detailing that without learning, development will be limited.

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Developmental Theories. (2019, Dec 05). Retrieved from

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