Developing as a learner 


ATL: Essential understandings

Physical development is concurrent with cognitive development.

Cognitive development appears to follow a universal pattern of stages.

Development is the result of a child interacting with his or her environment.

If you have ever been able to witness the development of a newborn baby over the first twelve months, you will know that amazing things happen. This is partly due to a process called maturation - the development of behaviours that are genetically programmed for all humans - or in other words they are “hard-wired”.

These developmental milestones include smiling, raising his head, tracking objects with her eyes, gripping objects in his hands and reaching out for dangling objects - all in the first three months.  In the next three months other signs of maturation include rolling over from front to back, babbling, laughing and sitting up with support.

Another factor in development is learning. This is sometimes defined as the systematic changes in behaviour, thoughts, and feelings as a result of experience. As we will see, physical maturation and learning - or cognitive development - go hand in hand. Researchers agree that a child’s genetic make-up determines his or her developmental potential, but also that development of this potential is very much dependent on the environment in which the child grows up. Today, rather than a "nature vs nurture" approach to development, psychologists have adopted an interactionist approach, by taking biological, cognitive, and sociocultural factors into consideration.

Research methods in developmental psychology

Researchers who study development use a number of methods and designs. Observations and interviews in naturalistic settings are now used extensively, but these methods are open to demand characteristics and lack sound control over extraneous variables. To control for this, laboratory experiments are still widely used, but researchers are aware of the problem of ecological validity.  The case study method can offer insight into developmental factors, although there are ethical issues to consider in sensitive case studies - for example, cases of children who have suffered abuse. The balance between collecting scientific data and still respecting a child’s integrity is important in developmental research.

There are three common approaches to the study of human development: longitudinal designs, cross-sectional designs and cross-sequential designs.

In longitudinal research, researchers study a cohort - a group of people born at or around the same time -  carrying out observations, interviews or psychometric testing (for example, IQ tests) as members of the cohort age. Longitudinal studies are prospective in nature - researchers collect data early in the life of an individual and then continue to test the individual over a period of time to measure change and development.

There are two key goals of such a design. One goal is to measure change over time. A second goal is to draw conclusions about which types of development are universal and which types vary between individuals. A strength of a longitudinal study is that it provides the rich data and since the same children are studied over time, participant variables do not influence the results of the study. There are also limitations of a longitudinal design. Longitudinal studies often require large amounts of time and funding. In addition, participants may leave the study if the research runs for a long time. When data are lost in this way, it affects the possibility of generalizing from the findings of the study.

In order to address some of the limitations of a longitudinal study, researchers may use a cross-sectional design, a short-term study that compares individuals of different ages at the same time. It provides a snap-shot of a behaviour across a range of different ages.  A cross-sectional study uses different participants to represent the different age groups under investigation. This means that one cannot be absolutely sure that the differences found are not due to participant variables. The cross-sectional design is often used in spite of this, because it is not as time-consuming as the longitudinal design, and fewer participants drop out of the study.

Research in psychology: The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children

One of the most well known longitudinal studies is the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).  This is a cohort study of children born in Avon, England during 1991 and 1992.  Altogether 15,247 pregnant women were recruited for the case study.

Watch the short video below which explains how the study was organized.

As a result of the rich data that the researchers have obtained over the past 25+ years, they have produced over 1500 academic papers.  Some of their findings include:

  • Children whose parents interacted more with them when they were very young – by reading books, playing games and
    restricting the amount of TV watched – had an early advantage at school.
  • Children who were looked after by a family member or by a friend before eighteen months old didn’t develop quite as quickly as children who were looked after by their parents or who went to formal daycare.
  • If a child had a healthy diet of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish before the age of three, they were likely to score significantly higher on intelligence tests than children who were raised on a processed food.
  • When assessed at eight years old, children of divorced parents who had little or no contact with their natural father had more adjustment issues than children who had regular contact with their father, even if only by phone.

This is a very small number of the findings of the study - and the study is still ongoing.  Notice that the results are correlational - meaning that cause and effect relationships between variables cannot be determined.  However, comparing this case study to other similar case studies - like the ELSPAC study in the Czech Republic - makes the possibility of cause and effect relationships more likely.

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