Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Richard M. Lerner

The Historical and International Context of Applied Developmental Science


Three (3) key questions frame this course:

  1. How does child development happen?
  2. How does positive development happen? (and relations between the individual and his/her changing and complex context)
  3. What is the role of research and higher education in being part of the context supporting positive human development?

How does human development happen?

  • Development occurs through mutually influential relations between individuals and the multiple levels of the ecology (context) of human development, represented as individual context relations.
  • Complex and mutually influential relationships between genes and the environment exist.
  • Neither genes nor environment directly cause behaviors.
  • History and the timing of relationships among levels or organization in the developmental system are key facets of development.
  • Plasticity (the capacity of humans for systematic change) is a fundamental feature of human development.
  • Children do not exist in a vacuum: Families, communities, politics, etc. also affect development.

How does positive development happen?

  • Based on Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model, or on developmental systems theory, a person is influenced by many things, such as family, community, culture, physical environment, and biology. Bronfenbrenner suggests that human development is made up of four subsystems:
    • Microsystem: The setting in which the child exists at the moment.
    • Mesosystem: The connections among microsystems.
    • Exosystem: System in which the child does not directly interact but which indirectly affects the child (e.g., the parents’ workplace).
    • Macrosystem: A pervasive sphere of influence, involving for instance culture, media, and governmental policies
  • Time is also a fundamental part of this model. Systems change across time.
  • All of these relationships are bidirectional (e.g., child context).
  • The presence of plasticity means that every child has strengths to be developed. While a child can be considered more malleable than an adult, we maintain varying degrees of plasticity throughout the life span.
  • A system that values individual growth will help develop a person’s strengths. And just as an individual can contribute to his or her social context, the individual’s ecology can also contribute to the individual’s strengths.

What is the role of higher education in being part of the context supporting positive human development?

  • Traditionally, the university has had three primary goals: transmitting knowledge (teaching), generating knowledge (research), applying knowledge (service/outreach)
  • A fourth goal can be considered preserving knowledge (e.g., through the work of libraries and museums)
  • Applied developmental science (ADS) focuses on both doing good scholarship and helping society to do good as well
  • The original assumption in science was that the universe was uniform and permanent. Within ADS, when based on developmental systems theories, the assumption is that the universe is changing and variegated.
  • There are five (5) facets of ADS activities:
    • Conduct contextually sensitive research: We need to understand both historical and current events as well the panoply of influences that affect our research.
    • Identify developmental correlates of social phenomena: We must take into account what is happening in the real world when studying children, etc.
    • Conduct, administer, and evaluate developmental assessment instruments: We cannot assume that instruments for one cohort can necessarily be applied to another. Measurement must be appropriate to age and contextual characteristics.
    • Design, implement, and evaluate developmental interventions.
    • Disseminate knowledge and engage in community collaborations.

Historical Underpinnings of Child Development

The theoretical frames for understanding child development have evolved across the history of philosophy and science.

  1. As recently as about 50 years ago the model for a child was a black box.
    1. All that needed to be known was how the child reacted to stimuli, his or her response (S R).
    2. The ideas of B. F. Skinner dominated this period; two types of responses of the child were studied: respondents (from classical conditioning) and operants (from operant or instrumental conditioning).
    3. Problem: The same S did not always lead to the same R.
  2. A second model was the child as a circle between the S and the R.
    1. SO R. Included (at first) within the circle were numerous rs connectors: S(rs)R.
    2. Introducing variables between the S and the R led other theorists to suggest what existed within the child to shape individual development.
  3. Genes and child development.
    1. Genes were posited as key to understanding child development.
    2. This reductionist idea was inaccurate.

    The case of Sir Cyril Burt:

    • Burt, a psychologist, conducted twins studies to show that genetics influenced IQ.
    • Burt claimed that his research demonstrated that the environment was largely irrelevant; its influence was not great enough to “educate those who perform poorly on tests.”
    • Leon Kamin, in The Science and Politics of IQ (1973), questioned Burt’s data, and Burt’s biographer, L. S. Henshaw (1979) exposed his work as fraudulent.
  4. Cognitive development (e.g., Piaget’s theory)
    1. Originally one of the researchers who administered Binet’s IQ tests, Jean Piaget was interested in the development of cognition (knowledge).
    2. Piaget used a clinical method to investigate cognitive development.
    3. Piaget developed a complex and extensive vocabulary to present his ideas.
    4. Rising to popularity in the U. S. in the 1960s, Piaget was also criticized due to his unorthodox methodology.
  5. Personality
    1. Personality traits, such as aggression, independence, etc., are thought to be enduring behaviors.
    2. These predispositions are believed to cut across time and place and provide the basis for one's behavior.
  6. Temperament and child development
    1. Temperament denotes how one goes about doing what one does.
    2. One aspect of temperament is the biological rhythmicity of behavior.
    3. Sleeping habits provide a good example. Sleeping does not define one as an individual; yet some infants sleep eight hours uninterruptedly, and some sleep in irregular patterns. Such patterns have been associated with infants being easy or difficult to care for.
  7. Values, expectations, and attitudes
    1. These variables involve cultural mores, familial traditions, political openness, and social stereotypes.
  8. Health
    1. Considered here are variables related to maturation, physiology, and diseases (both normative and atypical).
  9. Developmental Levels
    1. Developmental scientists postulated ideas, such as the orthogenetic principle, to describe the phases or stages of normative change in development.
  10. Spiritual and moral development
    1. Ideas about right vs. wrong, character, fairness, justice, and equity, as well as feelings of transcendence, are included here.

Ultimately, all of the dimensions of individuality noted by developmental scientists are needed to understand children.

  • All dimensions are influential and are influenced by their relations with the other dimensions.

Suggested Readings:

  • Lerner, R. M., Fisher, C. B., & Weinberg, R. A. (2000). Applying developmental science in the twenty-first century: International scholarship for our times. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24, 24-29.
  • Ungar. M. (Ed.) (2005). Handbook for working with children and youth: Pathways to resilience across cultures and context. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks. (Forward and Introduction).