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Developmental Psychology vs. The Open Classroom

** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Footnotes originally indicated by half-sized superscripts have been entered in [square brackets].


Kenneth R. Conklin, "Developmental Psychology vs. The Open Classroom," EDUCATIONAL FORUM, XXXIX, 1 (November, 1974), pp. 43-47.


Developmental Psychology
vs. The Open Classroom

Kenneth R. Conklin

It is common knowledge that growing children go through stages. This bit of folk wisdom has sustained many beleaguered parents who felt assured that patience would enable them to outlast their children's periodic obnoxiousness. Philosophers throughout history have tried to characterize the developmental stages, and within the last few decades the techniques of empirical science have helped us understand with greater precision the descriptions, sequencing, and universality of these stages. Hegel, Kant, Locke, and Rousseau all influenced the thinking of educators either directly by enunciating stage theories or indirectly by providing foundations for later theories. Freud, Froebel, Pestalozzi, and America's own G. Stanley Hall formulated stage theories that greatly influenced American education until the early decades of this century, while the current interest in Kohlberg, Maslow, and Piaget has made stage theory once again fashionable among educators.

To some extent the current interest in stage theory is merely a fad. Faculty psychology went out of style as Pavlov, Thorndike, and then Skinner unpacked the dogmas of associationistic behaviorism. This trend in psychology manifested the general trend toward logical positivism and linguistic analysis in philosophy. Now the pendulum is swinging back as "humanistic" philosophy and psychology become tolerated and even welcomed. The new theories of developmental stages are modern versions of the old


Kenneth R. Conklin is an associate professor in the School of Education at Boston University.

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idea that humans have cognitive and affective faculties which unfold in orderly sequences corresponding to physiological maturity and environmental stimulation. Thus, despite the faddishness of much current interest, stage theory is an old idea whose respectability is augmented by modern scientific corroboration.

At the same time as interest in psychological stage theories reemerged, interest also began to grow in such educational concepts as the open classroom, non-graded curricula, schools without walls, deschooling society, and student power, for example. The fact that these concepts became popular at the same time as stage theories led people to believe that the two were somehow connected. Indeed, many educational innovations are so utterly lacking in theoretical justification that people who favor them naturally seize the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and claim support from stage theory. But it is largely an accident of history that stage theory and the open classroom as an innovation, for example, became popular simultaneously. Stage theory implies opposition to many of the open classroom concepts.

What the stage theories and open classroom innovations have in common is their "humanistic" orientation. Everyone recognizes that Skinnerian "behavior modification," when taken to extremes, can result in the dehumanization of the children, prisoners, or workers who are subjected to it. The behavioristic approach in psychology regards people as objects to be measured and manipulated, and human behavior is explained in terms of brutish drives, material rewards, or mindless response to mundane stimuli.

By contrast, the stage theories of Piaget, Maslow, and Kohlberg all stress the ascent of the human spirit to increasingly higher levels of awareness. Man is regarded as a creature with positive potentialities waiting to be actualized -- potentialities for cognitive generalizing (Piaget) [1], self-realization and aesthetic awareness (Maslow) [2], and moral courage (Kohlberg) [3]. This optimistic, humane view of man is also present in the open classroom innovations which stress creativity, spontaneity, cooperation, and recognition of the dignity of a child's personhood. The humanistic orientation of both stage theory and open classroom innovations is part of a growing new humanism central to all areas of endeavor and popular among young people, so it is not surprising that both became simultaneous fads in education.

The modern stage theories are also "humanistic" in the sense that they remain faithful to certain great traditions in the history of ideas which stress the significance of man's control over himself and his environment. Stage theories all recognize that environment does not determine character; environment merely facilitates or hinders the unfolding of innate capacities. Thus the new stage theories harken back to Plato's notion of the teacher as a midwife who facilitates the actualization of potentiality rather than viewing the teacher as a programmer who creates a child's attitudes and beliefs.

Hegelian dialectic, as interpreted in Freudian psychotherapy and Froebelian cognitive "method of opposites," is translated into Piaget's and Kohlberg's recognition that a child makes progress toward the next stage of development when he confronts the contradictions between the environment and his current stage of development. Kant's theory of "categories" and Locke's theory of "powers of the mind," as interpreted in Pestalozzi's "object lesson"

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with the categoies of language, form, and number, are translated into Piaget's and Kohlberg's recognition of categories of childhood perception and understanding (conservation, reversibility of operations, and universalization of moral judgments) which unfold as physical and social experiences lead toward cognitive and affective maturity.

While the current stage theories have venerable intellectual roots, the same cannot be said about the open classroom innovations. Proponents of open classrooms often commit the same errors for which Dewey scornfully citicized his alleged followers among the Progressives. What we find is lack of rigor, anti-intellectualism, and unwillingness to be systematic or planful, based on the mistaken assumption that only action which is spontaneous could be authentic. Thinking is all too often eliminated in favor of unthoughtful and (hence) unmeaningful doing. These unfortunate excesses of the open classroom innovations are fully in keeping with the "turn on, tune in, drop out" mentality of the mateialistically oriented hedonistic segment of the "now generation." Such excesses may be examples of education transmitting the culture, but they are neither justiied by nor even sympathetic with stage theory.

What is most clear about the stage theories of past and present is their insistence that there are invariant sequences of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor development that are uniform across all nationalities and socioeconomic classes. Individual stage theories disagree about speciics, but all agree that the stages are universal and occur in the same order. The universality of these stages gives reason for recognizing that there is an essential humanness that gives dignity to all people. The invariance of the sequence of development implies that educators could make plans and implement speciic, well-deined programs. The fact that growth becomes stunted or grotesque when intermediate stages are not gotten through completely or successfully implies that educators have a duty to make plans carefully and deliberately in view of the needs of the child.

The greening of America [4] may well be taking place. But each person's maximal acquisition of tolerance, gentleness, peace of mind, and awareness of self and others can be achieved only through carefully planned and challenging nurturance. Every stage theory implies the educational imperative that curricula, teaching methods, and techniques of classroom control must be structured with speciic goals in mind that will help a child overcome environmental blockages, master the requirements of his current stage of development, and move successfully toward the next stage.

Stage theory tells us that instruction must be pitched within a speciied range of sophistication to be effective -- too low and it is boring or does not lead to growth; too high and it is beyond a student's ability to understand. Stage theory also tells us that instruction pitched at an inappropriate level may actually interfere with growth or lead to undesirable effects. The proponents of the open classroom innovations seize upon these facts to claim that simultaneous delivery of preplanned curriculum to groups of students is bad, because individual differences among students are bound to make the instruction miss the proper level for most of them.

But the innovators are mistaken. Left on their own, children are likely to select activities that are interesting to them, but are comfortably located at or even below

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their current personal levels of development. It is necessary for teachers deliberately to steer children into activiies that challenge them to ascend toward the next level, and such activities must be organized and planned ahead of time so they will be available to the child when the occasion arises. The open classroom is really a collection of children who are each following their own (albeit unplanned) programs, and who cooperate with each other when their programs coincide. In the open classroom, teachers do not impose programs on children with the same heavy-handed uniformity and authoritarianism that is present in traditional classrooms, but preplanning is still important, and so is individualized steering. Without a teacher who plans and steers, the open classroom becomes little more than an ordinary playground. What distinguishes the good open classroom from the traditional classroom is that different students often do greatly different things, and each student has a feeling that he chooses his own activities without obnoxious coercion.

Individualization does not require that different members of a group do different things. Groups may be assembled precisely to bring together a number of people to do what they would otherwise be doing separately. Thus, by having short-term modules of instruction and multiple tracking of students, each student may have a tailor-made program, while groups of students assemble to receive simultaneous instruction in a module which belongs to all their programs.

Stage theory supports the post-Sputnik "structure of knowledge" concept much better than it supports the present open classroom notion. Stage theory suggests that each student should have a program of study prepared for him to meet his current needs and help him move to the next stage. Something like Bloom's taxonomy of objectives for the cognitive domain [5] should be written for each of Piaget's cognitive stages, while something like Krathwohl's taxonomy of objectives for the affective domain [6] should be written for each of Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning and each of Maslow's stages leading toward self-realization. Criterion-referenced modules [7] could then be established for appropriate clusters of objectives, and individualized programs could be witten to provide each student the modules he needs in a sequence that is correct according to the stage theories.

Perhaps this logical structuring of subject matter to be delivered in group settings programmed in advance sounds too heavy-handed. It sounds like old-fashioned authoritarian repression coming down on the students. This brings us to the second of two important distinctions between a traditional classroom and a good open classroom. We have already seen that the individualization of the open classroom is not opposed to preplanning or standardized modules, and that planning is essential for success in any classroom. Now we must show that programming students through preplanned sequences of instructional modules can be done without the appearance of coercion and indeed can be done in a way that makes students feel they are choosing their own activities.

The open classroom automatically meets a child's felt needs because the child selects whatever activities he pleases; but it often fails to meet his unfelt long-range needs unless there is deliberate steering of choice by a teacher. Stated in terms of stage theory: the open classroom assures activities at or below

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the current stage of development, but fails to challenge a child with activities that will move him to the next stage unless a teacher steers the child into such activities. One example is Rousseau's suggestion [8] that a boy be induced to learn how to read by making sure that at a proper stage of his development he receives a written party invitation which everyone refuses to read for him. A better example is Dewey's suggestion [9] that history should be studied "backwards," beginning with inquiries into lively and controversial current events whose causes could then be probed.

Skillful teachers always try to use colorful materials, games, skits, weird or noisy demonstrations, and other devices of showmanship to get students to pay attention to serious subject matter. Modern stage theories are beginning to sketch the general outlines of all intrinsic sequences such that items at any given stage can be regarded as inducements for subsequent items in the next stage, while also being regarded as objectives for items in the previous stage. This is reminiscent of Dewey's continuum of means and ends, according to which any situation must be evaluated as both a means to some further goal and also as a goal-in-itself that has been produced by a prior sequence of means.


1. Piaget identifies four major stages in the development of a child's cognitive powers and numerous substages. Two authoritative expositions of his work are: John H. Flavell, The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1963); and Hans G. Furth, Piaget for Teachers(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970). A good anthology is Irene J. Athey and Duane O. Rubadeau, eds., Educational Implications of Piaget's Theory (Waltham, Mass.: Ginn-Blaisdell, 1970).

2. Abraham Maslow originally identified a hierarchy of human needs in Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper and Row, 1954). His theory has been clarified and expanded in Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964); and Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1968).

3. Lawrence Kohlberg, "The Child as a Moral Philosopher," Psychology Today 2 (September 1968): 24-30. An exposition of Kohlberg's six stages of moral reasoning ability, together with examples illustrating the stages, is available in a booklet which could be used by good students in a high school social studies class: Alan Lockwood, Moral Reasoning (Middletown, Conn.: American Education Publications, Xerox Corporation, 1972). For a more scholarly survey of some developmental theories and their implications for curriculum, see Lawrence Kohlberg, "Early Education: A Cognitive-Developmental View," Child Development 39 (December 1968): 1013-1062.

4. Charles Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1970).

5. Benjamin S. Bloom, ed., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain (New York: David McKay, 1956).

6. David R. Krathwohl, Benjamin S. Bloom, Bertram B. Massia, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook II: Affective Domain (New York: David Mc¬ Kay, 1964).

7. Robert Mager, Preparing Instructional Objectives (Belmont, Cal.: Fearon Press, 1962).

8. Jean Jacques Rousseau gives numerous detailed examples in his classic book Emile, especially in Part III.

9. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), Chapter 16.

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