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Interview: David Elkind

Excerpts from an interview with David Elkind, Professor and Chair, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, Tufts University

Taped July, 2002

Definition of developmentally appropriate teaching

Developmentally appropriate teaching is teaching that is geared to the child's level of understanding and emotional and social development so that it fits in with where the child is developmentally. And that's tough to do because you really have to know where children are in order to fit in, and you also have to understand the subject matter that you are teaching, and how to present that at a level that is appropriate for the child. So developmentally appropriate practices is not a curriculum, really, it's an attitude, it's a way of approaching teaching most of all.

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Discussion of the term "zone of proximal development"

Proximal development is a Vygotsky term, and what he had in mind was the fact that children don't spontaneously maximize their abilities, but there is a zone of ability that is only maximized with adult support or peer support, and the task is to find out what that zone of proximal development is. One of the things that Vygotsky suggested was that when children are playing, for example, they're playing with a fork, cutting a piece of cake or something with a toy spoon, that tells you that I'm ready to learn to deal with real things. And so you go in as an adult and teach with real things. I think the ZPD is a very difficult thing to find, and to diagnose, and to try to teach to it. So it's a nice concept, I think, in fact it's very difficult to figure out where children where they can really go. We see it experimentally, I've seen it perceptually and so on, where John does something spontaneously, and then you train them, and you find out what they can do. But I don't think you can just find the ZPD without doing some additional testing. So for me it's not that useful a teaching concept, because you have to work so hard to find out what it is and then to find out where to go with it, and so on. It makes a certain amount of sense that kids don't spontaneously maximize their ability and then go farther, but how to assess that zone and how to maximize it is a very different kind of issue, and I'm not sure if that's the best approach to take in teaching. My sense is to find out where kids are developmentally and try and gear not only to their intellectual capabilities but also to their interests, and so on. As many of the teachers on these tapes we show you – they tied up kids with things that kids are really interested in, like sledding, car driving, and so on. So you tap into kids' motivations as well as their intellectual abilities.

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Discussion of assessing developmental stages

Teachers have to be very much aware of child growth and development, language, and cognitive skills, but there are many ways, for example, to get at children's basic levels of cognitive development. For example, to know whether or not a child is concrete operational or not, language is a good measure. If you ask a child to describe a block or something or a series of blocks, the little ones will say that this is a mommy block, this is a daddy block, this is big, this is little. The child who is concrete operational will say, "This one is taller and wider." They will use two dimensions and so on. There are a kind of concrete operational children's stories. Children like fairy tales, but school-age children like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet where you can deal with two dimensions at the same time. He's bad and good at the same time, and so on. In the fairy tales character are all one dimensional. So there are a lot of views that will tell you from children's language their kind of interests when they are moving into concrete operations.

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A different way of assessing where children are developmentally is to use a commonly watched television show or a popular movie and ask children to describe it. Concrete operational children will describe it in very different way than will formal operational children. Concrete operational children will try to describe the details about food, what the action was and so on, whereas formal operational kids will be more likely to talk about personalities and characters, motives and that sort of thing. So that is a very informal way of doing that assessment.

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Discussion of knowledge of development and the content of the curriculum

I suppose the critical thing is – how does a teacher bring his or her knowledge of child development together with his or her knowledge of the subject matter – and that does take a lot of understanding. I think that's one of the reasons I find Piaget so helpful, because he helped us not only understand children, but understand curriculum, and that's one of the things that has not been fully appreciated with Piaget. He never gave us a curriculum, but he did give us tools to analyze curriculum and to understand the logical structure of tasks. For example, he could analyze reading and see what reading required in terms of children understanding one in the same thing can be two things, and so on. To be able to match the curriculum to the child means first understanding where children are developmentally, their cognitive abilities, but also understanding the logical substructure of the task. What is the logical substructure of the task that the teachers are trying to teach that child? For example, the inclined plane and so on, that's fairly complicated in terms of logical substructure, because there were many variables going on. And if you know that, and if you know that children are just having trouble dealing with two variables at a time, you're going to be much more cautious about introducing that. So it means both understanding the logical substructure of the curriculum of the task on the one hand, understanding the logical abilities of the child on the other hand, and bringing those together. And that's really what developmentally appropriate practices are all about. Every task has a logical substructure and children have logical abilities. You know those things, then you can match those. Certainly you can always have a little bit more challenge – and I suppose that's what Vygotsky meant by the ZPD. Challenge which goes a little beyond where kids are. How you do that is a very complicated thing, but certainly the ideal would be to have teachers know both cognitive development and to be able to analyze the subject matter they are teaching from a cognitive point of view.

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One of the things we'd find in our research is that the verbal skills are essential to moving into formal operation. So kids, for example, for whom English is a second language may have trouble simply because their language skills don't help them move into formal operation. So, I'm not sure that we can move kids into formal operations through curriculum, necessarily. Providing children opportunities to practice concrete operations in a variety of ways is probably one way.

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Readiness is a term that is often misunderstood, and it seems to me that we often try to say that readiness is in the child, but readiness is never in the child. Readiness is always a relationship between the child and the curriculum. So that one in the same child may be ready for one classroom but not ready for another classroom. So that readiness is not simply in the child; it has to do with a relationship between a child and the program that he or she is going into.

It depends really on both the classroom and the child, and hopefully there is enough flexibility in the classroom for teachers to recognize that children may be the same chronologically but at very different places developmentally and have to assess that. And kids are differential; some kids are very good verbally but not very good mathematically. Some kids are good spatially, and so on. And so it takes time to, sort of, know kids. It's one of the reasons I think multiple-age groupings are so useful, because a teacher has a child for two or three years, and then he or she can really get to know the kids really well, whereas if you have a child for a year, you'd get to know that child by the end of the year – just to lose him, and then someone else has to start all over. So for really good developmentally appropriate practice often multi-age grouping are good, or do as they do in the Waldorf schools, the same teachers stay with children for five years, as they do in many European countries as well. Then that teacher really knows those kids and that's when you can really do that matching of where kids are developmentally, socially, emotionally, and in terms of their own particular abilities. The teacher knows that child well enough to be able to really customize that curriculum to the needs, abilities, interests – and know that particular child. We can't do it with the facilities we have now but you come closest to it when you do some of this multi-age grouping or very small classes where teachers have the opportunity to know kids. The good reason for small classes is that you have an opportunity to really know kids well.

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Discussion of spiral curriculum

The spiral curriculum that Bruner talks about is really a take off on what Piaget talked about, and he said that children have to construct and reconstruct reality at each successive level of development, and he saw development as an extending spiral, so that at each stage of development a child has to reconstruct concepts of causality, space, time, and number as he or she develops. And that means not only learning new concepts but giving up old concepts. I think that isn't fully appreciated enough that sometimes children have the wrong ideas that they have to give up. For example, in the concept of weight, children at a certain age believe that you weigh more when you sit down than when you stand up because there is more touching, and then they learn about weight in a more abstract way and have to give up that other notion, and so on.

I had an experience with my four-year old who said he was glad we took the station wagon to the store rather than the sedan, because we would get there faster, because he thought the longer car would get there faster. I thought Piaget would be amused by that, but he always said, "You Americans, you always have two cars." [laughs] But, I think the point is that kids have wrong ideas as well as right ones, and that you have to be aware of those wrong ideas that interfere with their learning. So you have to recognize that in going up to our levels, you also have to help children deal with ideas which are wrong. Learning is always unlearning and re-learning, and I think that isn't sufficiently appreciated.

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Discussion of integrated curriculum

Another concept people are dealing with is the so called integrated curriculum – which is really a new term for Dewey's old project method. Which means that you teach things in an integrated way – that instead of teaching science, and art, and music, and so on, you try and bring those together. So you're trying to teach zoology for example. You might also try and teach arts, so that the kids will draw birds, for example. Then you might do math, you might do the size of different birds, and so on, and measure them. So that would be another approach, which is to try to tie different disciplines in together, in so that you're not teaching them in separate domains but all put together. One of the things that people will do at older age levels, for example, is putting on a play, a Shakespearian play, so that kids are learning literature, they're learning Shakespeare, but they're also learning history, they're also learning science, because they have to put together the sets and so on. They're learning social skills, because they're directing, and so on. That would be a good example of an integrated curriculum with the project method in which you totally involve kids socially and emotionally, but also intellectually. And that's one of the ways that people are trying to move into this sort of integrated curriculum, so that things are not taught – we teach science today, and we teach literature tomorrow, and history tomorrow and so on. But see that they really tie together in a lot of ways.

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Discussion of making education relevant

I think the clue of good education is getting kids involved, so that they see the relevance to their own lives and to their own meaning. That's what John Dewy talked about all the time, was making education relevant to kids, and when you do that, then kids are motivated to learn these kind of things, and that's real. The real art of teaching is to be able to translate these things into things that are really meaningful to young peoples' lives, so they can relate them. When they begin to integrate them, that's true learning, that's true education, because they can see how I can bring this to life in my own life. Otherwise a lot of that stuff is simply just forgotten.

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Discussion of creating classrooms and schools that support learning

I think we all would like to have the best possible education for all children and would agree that would be wonderful, but that takes a great deal of time, a great deal of money and a great deal of energy, and I'm not sure if it's really possible. Education is basically people dealing with people. And people are complex, and children are complex, and teachers are complex, and educational systems are, and the point is that there is no simple solution. There is no one magic theory that you're going to wave as one magic curriculum or one magic principal who's got all the answers. Nobody has all the answers, and nobody ever will have all the answers, and you have to be careful with that. For me the most important thing is that we recognize that children are people, and we care and respect them and try and do the best we can. Too often we simply get caught up in our other kinds of things and forget that, really, these are people, and that this is our major job. Certainly, a lot of things we can do would make education better. Certainly, small classes could improve education across the United States quickly and easily with one full swoop – reducing class size to 18 or less. It's simply we know that all the research shows that the more one-on-one time between teachers and child, the better that child's going to learn. It's a no-brainer, it's not rocket science. Obviously just because you have a small class doesn't mean that automatically it's going to be better, but because teachers get to know kids better, they can individualize better and do all the wonderful things that we have.

Here at Tufts we have a department of child development, our belief is that first and foremost a teacher should be a child development specialist. In other words, they should know all about children, and from that you can develop curricula, you can develop assessment, and management techniques, but without that, you know, you really don't have the solid base. I mean, if you're a physicist you learn about physics, if you're a chemist you learn about chemistry, if you're a dentist you learn about dentistry, and if you're a teacher you learn about kids. And unfortunately many schools of education have only one course in child development.

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Discussion of teacher cooperation

I think that teacher cooperation is an excellent idea. I think that at the University I've complained that we each teach our courses; we don't know what the other people are doing; we don't relate to one another, and that's so much lost information in the school. Teachers deal with the same kids at different times, so to collaborate, to talk with one another, to work together – it makes so much sense. You can share so much more. I think too often we are in our isolated classrooms doing our own kind of thing, and we lose so much, because there is so much we can learn from one another and so much we can learn about the other children, and it gives us a sense of community – of people working together. So we just have to work much harder at doing that. I think collaboration really makes so much sense and works better for kids and teachers. And if we can somehow socialize beginning teachers to that way of teaching, I think that would be very important to do.

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I just want to emphasize that there, again, are no simple solutions to educational problems. They are very complex, and there is no single answer, and that the most important point is to keep kids in mind. That kids are the aim and goal of education. You have to park your egos at the door but some of you may need valet parking.

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