Critical thinking about development

The following exercise is a way to see if students are able to apply critical thinking to some of the big ideas that they have been studying in developmental psychology. This will test their understanding of theories and research relevant to the following learning objectives:

  • Evaluate psychological research (that is, theories and/or studies) relevant to developmental psychology
  • Discuss how social and environmental variables (for example, parenting, educational environment, poverty, diet) may affect cognitive development.
  • Examine attachment in childhood and its role in the subsequent formation of relationships. 
  • Discuss potential effects of deprivation in childhood on later development.

In order to carry out the task below, they should be familiar with some of the following studies and theories.

Poverty Attachment
Pollitt (1995) Ainsworth's attachment styles
Bhoomika et al (2008) Harlow's early studies on primates
Main Effect Theory Bowlby's Internal Working model
Rutter (1981)
Hazan & Shaver (1987)
Simpson (1996)
Fonagy et al (1991)

The Task

Knowledge of theories and studies is not enough. They also have to be able to demonstrate analysis, evaluation and synthesis of ideas in order to do well on their exams.

Each of the following statements could be used as a topic sentence - that is, the first sentence of a paragraph - in order to demonstrate critical thinking relevant to the question. Working together with a partner or in a small group, students should write the rest of the paragraph.

I have my students write them in a Google Doc and share it with the class. Then I have another group edit and expand on the first group's work. If it is in a Google Doc, I can also project it for the whole class while they look at it on their screens. I can give tips and make connections which they have missed. The topic sentences I have them develop are below. Following each topic sentence, I have some suggestions of what I would think that students would write.

TS1: Children in poverty are exposed to more risk factors than protective factors.

This response demonstrates how analysis can be used to demonstrate critical thinking.

One of the most important points when writing about the role of poverty on development is that it is a combination of factors and not a single, agreed upon construct. What we can agree on is that there are more risk factors. Students should be able to discuss the risk factors caused by poverty that affect cognitive development - that is, malnutrition, lack of a stimulating environment and access to education, stress caused by the environment. They also should be able to discuss how protective factors play a role in improving the cognitive development of children - that is, access to education and health care, adequate diet, social mobility. Most importantly, it is difficult to isolate the role of individual risk factors. They may interact with each other and result in the overall slower development of children living in poverty. It is important that students recognize that the number of risk factors may change over time and that development is not permanently stunted, but is simply delayed.
TS2: In general, there are several problems with carrying out research on the effect of poverty on cognitive development.
There are several points which students may address here. First, there is the difficulty of a common definition of the construct of poverty. Poverty in the UK looks very different from poverty in Sudan. They may also discuss the ethical considerations in studying poor communities as well as the difficulties of carrying out etic research on poor communities in different cultures. Many studies are retrospective and cross-sectional in nature. Finally, there is the difficulty of isolating the factors within poor communities which may have the most effect on a child's development. In Pollitt's study, they found that increasing the protein in mothers' and children's diet had a significant effect on the child's development compared to other children in the community; however, they were still delayed in their development when compared to urban middle class children on a simllar diet.
  TS3: Although Ainsworth’s Strange Situation test is the basis for defining attachment styles, the test itself has strengths and limitations.
One of the strengths is that the test is a highly standardized procedure that is highly reliable. It has also been shown to have cross-cultural validity in that the number of securely attached children appears to be rather constant across cultures. There are, however, several problems with the test. It is argued that the test is artificial in many cultures. Japanese mothers, for example, rarely leave the child unattended, let alone with a stranger. In addition, the test results are cross-sectionally. The information that is gathered gives us a sense of how a child tests at that moment. The test is not longitudinal in nature, although it could theoretically be administered several times over the course of a child's development. Finally, the test ends up labeling a child's behaviour based on perceived trends. It does not explain why a child has a specific attachment style, so the results lack any explanatory function. However, the styles that are observed have been useful in predicting future interpersonal behaviour.
  TS4: Rutter challenged Bowlby’s study of juvenile delinquents; however, in addition to the different results he found, there were many similarities in the two studies.
Both studies were correlational studies, looking to see the relationship between juvenile delinquency and a lack of attachment with the mother. Both studies were also retrospective and relied on the memories of the individuals. We know from our research on reconstructive memory that such self-reported data is highly unreliable - especially since the researchers were asking for information from the first two years of the child's life. The findings were the key difference here. Rutter challenged Bowlby's original study, arguing that is it not the absence of the mother that may lead to delinquent behaviours, but rather whether or not their was a justification for the mother's absence and whether the child experienced stress as a result of the absence.
  TS5: Fonagy’s findings of the effect of childhood attachment style on later relationships is stronger than either Hazan & Shaver’s or Simpson’s studies.
All three studies attempt to test the role of Bowlby's Internal Working Model of attachment on future relationships. Both Hazan & Shaver and Simpson's studies have many limitations. In both cases, the research is dependent on self-reported data. Hazan & Shaver's questionnaire asked about how they perceive relationships. This was then correlated with their self-reported attachment style. Simpson had a dating couple discuss a sensitive topic. In both cases, the data is correlation and it cannot be said that the attachment style alone is responsible for the behaviours. Fonagy's research was prospective in nature, looking to see if the attachment style which was reported before a woman became a mother would affect her parenting. In addition, Fonagy carried out a single blind study so that when he was assessing the strange situation test of their 12-month-old children, she would not be biased based her knowledge of the mother.
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