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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Critical thinking and child development concepts: Introduction

This post and several subsequent posts comprise an unpublished paper dealing with teaching issues and on the use of critical thinking concepts as they apply to the understanding of child development.

Critical Thinking and the Mastery of Child Development Concepts

Developmental psychology, developmental science, child development, childhood and
adolescence, lifespan development: all these terms can be used for courses that attempt to teach
how developmental change functions in humans from conception through adolescence. Why so
many different names? Part of the answer has to do with the ways course materials are organized
and divided, but more is related to rapidly changing characteristics of a field that is quite
different from what it was fifty years ago.
A changing field creates a challenge for instructors, but the study of child development
(to choose one of the labels) presents other challenges too. Child development courses involve
more natural science components than other psychology courses, with the exception of
physiological psychology and of sensation and perception. Students, and even instructors, may
find it unexpectedly difficult to master neuroscience and genetics concepts for which they may
have little background. Research design and its implications are essential to the understanding of
causal factors in child development, but few psychology curricula have statistics or research
methods as prerequisites for child development courses, even though variability is at the heart of
any discussion of development. These natural and mathematical science aspects of child
development courses are particularly difficult to combine with more value-related material
(“how should parents behave?”) or material with immediate practical effects (“how should
schools be run?”)
Further challenges arise because of expectations and beliefs about development which
students bring into the class. One problematic expectation is that everyone’s personal
experiences are a good background for study of child development-- that in fact everyone,
having been a child, already knows a good deal about developmental change in childhood.
However, although students think they have a lot of knowledge about development, the evidence
seems to be that adults actually have a rather poor understanding of development, especially of
its social and emotional aspects (Daniel Yankelovitch Group, 2000).
Complex material like developmental science requires a high level of critical thinking for
mastery. In this paper, I will discuss some important critical thinking issues relevant to the
teaching of child development courses, and will propose some practices that may help harness
critical thinking skills and improve student understanding.

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