A Professional Dilemma

Content Coverage vs. Developmentally Appropriate Practices

James J. Sheehan and Karl F. Wheatley

The following scenario describes a hypothetical dialogue between a preservice teacher, a classroom teacher, and a university professor. The preservice teacher has been asked to teach a unit on the American Revolution to a third grade class, but there is a problem with doing so: there is an apparent conflict between the demand for teaching state-mandated content and the need for developmentally appropriate practice (DAP). In the discussion that follows the dialog, we hope to share some insights from both the “content” perspective and the DAP perspective.

Preservice Teacher: I really don’t know anything about the American Revolution.

University Professor: Didn’t you learn this material in college?

Preservice Teacher: I wasn’t required to take a course on the American Revolution.

Classroom Teacher: You did, however, study the topic in middle and high school. So now, as an adult scholar, you need to give yourself a quick course in the topic by reading some key works. We can suggest some resources for you. But then, the question becomes, “What do you need to do to prepare a lesson for teaching a unit to eight year olds?” I know that some parts of the American Revolution may not be developmentally appropriate, but there may be some aspects that would be appropriate for these children.

University Professor: At the university, we talk a lot about developmentally appropriate practice, but we don’t do a good enough job of teaching teachers how to make the curriculum developmentally appropriate. What are some aspects of the American Revolution that would be developmentally appropriate for a third grade class?

Preservice Teacher: I’m really not sure.

Classroom Teacher: Well, one thing we are sure of is that the American Revolution will be addressed on our state proficiency test. So, your third grade students will be tested on this material, whether we like it or not.

Preservice Teacher: I have a question. In my third grade class, there is a wide range of ability levels among the students. How do I adequately address individual needs and teach about the American Revolution and prepare all my students to pass the proficiency test?

Classroom Teacher: Good question. And to make life more difficult, some of the material that needs to be covered on the proficiency test apparently is not developmentally appropriate for the students. For example, the revolutionary cry “No taxation without
representation!” is difficult to make meaningful to eight year olds.

University Professor: I guess the dilemma we’re facing is how to address the content reflected in the proficiency tests, while also making that content meaningful to students, and making it developmentally appropriate for students with different abilities, different levels of maturity, and varied prior knowledge.


The Dilemma

This scenario represents a conflict in the elementary social studies curriculum. Specifically, the traditional approach of developmentally appropriate practice is being challenged by the increased push for integration of subject matter into the elementary curriculum. State-mandated proficiency tests measure student subject matter knowledge, and the assumption is that elementary teachers will teach their students that content. This is where the conflict ensues: while elementary teachers acknowledge the importance of teaching content, they strongly believe in developmentally appropriate practice. More specifically, a heavy emphasis on subject matter is often seen as leading to developmentally inappropriate teaching.

In terms of elementary social studies, preservice teachers are often not prepared for the rigors of teaching the subject matter because they may not have taken a college-level course on the subject. Elementary teachers are not required to pursue an academic discipline to the extent that middle and secondary teachers are. This is because elementary educators will not only teach social studies, but also teach math, science, reading, and other subjects. Their knowledge must be broad, but not academically deep in any one field.

In recent years, the elementary curriculum has often emphasized developmental outcomes (for example, self-esteem) and has not given as much attention to subject matter. In the worst cases, developmentally appropriate practice has been used as an excuse not to teach the content. Because it is not clear how content can to be broken down into understandable bits, a teacher might have chosen to just not teach it. But now the pendulum of opinion is swinging the other way, and teachers are being encouraged to force a lot of information on children, whether the children are ready for it or not.


Relating to Children’s Experiences

There are various ways that we can improve the developmental appropriateness of subject matter that we must teach. One approach is to be sure that the curriculum is organized largely around concepts that have broad importance in children’s lives (and across subject matters), and thus are meaningful to children. Thus, children should learn about the American Revolution in the context of thematic units on fairness, dreams for the future, and political power. In studying these concepts, stories of fairness regarding the American Revolution can be studied alongside stories of fairness from children’s own lives. Stories of power from the American Revolution are examined along with discussions of power in the operation of their classroom, school, or local government. Taught in this way, children “experience” the American Revolution over and over again throughout their school years. However, it is not experienced as a large topical unit that seems to be of vague relevance to their own lives. Instead, the main themes of the American Revolution are repeatedly experienced in relationship to issues that students experience daily.

Including Children’s Voices

A second approach to making content more developmentally appropriate is to include in the lesson plans time and space for students to voice their thought and feelings about the topic. In child development, feelings are particularly important because of their effect on thinking and on motivation to learn. Dispositions (habits of mind and action, such as open-mindedness, creativity, motivation, self-regulation, and persistence) affect achievement and life outcomes in numerous ways. Supporting positive fee ings and dispositions through lessons (not just knowledge and skills) is crucial for making teaching developmentally appropriate. Dispositions and feelings cannot be written or assessed in the same way as the lesson plan objectives that many of us are accustomed to. Nevertheless, these “affective” outcomes are not only important in their own right for students’ lives, they are essential for optimizing students’ motivation and achievement. They are essential if children are to develop a joy of curiosity, a lifelong habit of learning.


Interesting Content

Challenging subject matter, taught well, is also important for children’s development. Self-esteem is a highly prized goal in elementary education, but it is best supported by success at challenging tasks, not by frequent success on easy tasks. Elementary social studies content is not simply more advanced content that has been summarized and watered down. Fundamental questions about rules and fairness (civics), knowledge about the past (history), finding our way around (geography), and managing resources (economics) are no less exciting and no less personal for the eight-year-old than they are for the adult citizen. Exciting and challenging content, not laundry lists of facts, is what social studies should be about.

It might be worthwhile for teachers to read through the state proficiency standards, not only at the elementary level, but at all levels. This will enable elementary educators to see whether the knowledge and skills they teach will indeed build the foundations for later social studies learning and adult responsibilities. It might help if teachers (and test writers) keep “the long view” in mind, preparing children not simply to do well on end-of-the-year standardized tests, but to confront the real world responsibilities and struggles faced by adult citizens.


Improving the Curriculum

Teachers should also give feedback to the writers of the state standards and state proficiency tests if the curricula seem disjointed, illogical, too crammed with content in any one year, or developmentally inappropriate at any specific grade level. In some states, business executives have more input into the mandated curriculum than do classroom teachers! This situation will only change when teachers speak up, which is easier to do (and can be more effective) if teachers can band together and speak as a group. Indeed, there may be opportunities here for collaboration between preservice teachers, classroom teachers, and university professors.


Standardized Testing

Proficiency testing is a powerful force in education, in states, and in the nation. However, from a developmental perspective, high-stakes testing can do more harm than good. Proficiency testing often leads to “teaching to the test,” which is dull drilling that undermines the development of important dispositions, feelings, and even learning. Those who are concerned about developmentally appropriate practice recognize the importance of subject matter content, but realize that achieving these content outcomes must be balanced with promoting positive dispositions and feelings in students, with lessons that are exciting, relevant, and geared for the age of the learner.

Knowledge of child development improves the effectiveness of social studies education. Knowledge of the social studies subject matter allows a teacher to construct an age-appropriate lesson. Both disciplines have necessary information for the classroom teacher, the curriculum committee, and the authors of the state proficiency test. The conflict between content coverage and developmentally appropriate practice is a challenge inherent in thoughtful teaching. Working apart from each other, social studies specialists, elementary educators, developmental psychologists, state administrators, and test writers are not likely to generate a balanced approach to this problem. We need more collaboration among professionals with different areas of expertise to build elementary social studies curriculums—and standardized assessments—that are both academically challenging and developmentally appropriate.

Suggested Readings

Carol Gestwicki, Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Curriculum and Development in Early Education (2nd ed., Albany, NY: Delmar, 1999).

Marjorie Kostelnik and Anne Soderman, Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education (2nd ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merril, 1999).

Gail Perry and Mary Duru, eds. Resources for Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Recommendations for the Profession (Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2000).

David Richey and John Wheeler, Inclusive Early Childhood Education: Merging Positive Behavioral Supports, Activity Based Intervention, and Developmentally Appropriate Practice (Albany, NY: Delmar, 2000).

James J. Sheehan and Karl F. Wheatley are assistant professors in the Department of Specialized Instructional Programs in the College of Education at Cleveland State University, Cleveland Ohio.