Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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Why is this important to developmental education? In my view, developmental education seeks to meet students at their level of proficiency and work with them to unearth their potential. This involves the teaching of discipline related skills, critical thinking, and college expectations, but it also involves the holistic development of the person. The understanding of who we are as individuals is deeply tied to our ability to reach our full potential.

Secondly, developmental students are a diverse group of learners. This not only demands that we have a greater understanding of their diversity, but that we as educators use this rich tapestry of difference to allow students to teach each other. In addition, it is interesting to note that students taking developmental courses are “more likely than those not receiving [developmental] help, to have a family income of less than $20,000 annually, to have been born outside the United States, to speak a language other than English at home, and to be people of color” (Burd, 1996). This suggests that many of our students have experienced the systemic effects of marginalization in multiple avenues of their lives and identities. To acknowledge this is important, and to allow students to learn how to be self-advocates is part of the developmental process. Given these realities and themes, I believe there is a powerful connection between the work of developmental and multicultural educators, and that cooperative learning provides a vehicle by which we serve the needs and target the potential of our students.

Applying Cooperative Learning to
the Multicultural Classroom

There are some distinct connections between the philosophy of developmental education, cooperative learning theory, and multiculturalism. Each perspective acknowledges the role and needs of the individual, the give and take between student and teacher, and the powerful role of peer relationships in the classroom. Yet, the issue of resistance is one that many of us face in the classroom.

How do we reach a level of honest dialogue and intellectual exchange around multicultural issues when students are deeply fearful about venturing into this dangerous territory? Given this dilemma, the concept of creating a classroom that is a “safe space” is critical and yet difficult to attain. Simply requiring a cooperative spirit does little to create it. Hence, the idea of cooperative learning involves an active process in which students are invited to define the very space they want to inhabit. Allowing students to own and belong to the process of developing trust is one way to begin.

Early advocates of multicultural education argue that “the ideology of multicultural education is one of social change—not simply integrating those who have been left out in society, but changing the fabric of society” (Sleeter & Grant, 1988, p. 139). With this concept of change comes fear, acted out as active or passive resistance (Chan & Tracy, 1996). This resistance is further aggravated because students in a given classroom are at different levels of their own identity development (Tatum, 1996). Thus, creating a sense of ownership in the classroom process is integral to developing trust and dissolving resistance.

A first step is to let the students define what they understand by the word community. Working in small groups to collectively define the meaning of community allows students to initiate ownership and accountability of the classroom experience. One group in my Multicultural Relations seminar generated the following definition of community: “community is a group of people of different races, colors, cultures and gender who come together to learn, teach, communicate to become stronger, develop friendships and understand one another’s problems.” Rather than perpetuating individualistic competition, having students articulate what they hope for in terms of peer interaction creates a “personal transaction among students and between faculty and students” (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991, p. 10).

Tied to defining community is the necessity to stipulate rules by which the community can thrive. Although rules are sometimes associated with a teaching paradigm that seeks to control student engagement, rules can also serve as positive guidelines that provide the structure needed for trust and safety in the multicultural classroom. Again, it is the students who must take responsibility for developing these rules. The reality is that this task may be daunting for first year developmental students. One option is to provide each small group with a template of rules allowing them to add, subtract, and revise the template. Groups can then be invited to share their final result while articulating their reasoning behind each rule. As students begin to develop the rules, it is often their definitions of community that guide the creation of rules. Working in cooperative groups within the first week of the semester, students in my Multicultural Relations seminar created the following stipulations for their classroom community: “Each person has an equal voice. We will create a safe environment and protect one another and our surroundings. We will work together for common goals. Each person will contribute by doing their share.”

As the semester moves on, the instructor can model and facilitate appropriate use of the rules established by the students themselves. In addition, the process of developing collective rules gives students an early experience in constructing and articulating their own ideas and addressing the importance of individual accountability within the group.

Embedded in the model of cooperative learning is the use of classroom space. There are two pieces to the concept of classroom space. The first is the actual physical space. Is it accessible? Can students who are required to participate in cooperative groups physically look at each other? “Face to face promotive interaction” (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991, p. 19) is critical to the process of sharing opinions, working on shared tasks, and engaging in creative conflict. If our classroom set-up does not allow students to look at each other, know each others’ names and hear each others’ stories, then the depth of the interaction is already limited. When students struggle to define their experiences with racism, or to share deep ideological differences around women’s roles, their ability to engage in authentic conversation is already reduced if they cannot see each others’ faces, emotions, and most importantly each others’ humanity.

Although the effective use of physical space is vital, metaphoric space is also important. Parker Palmer (as quoted in Claxton, 1991) discusses the paradoxes that are inherent in creating a safe classroom space. He suggests that although it is important to create a liberating space, this openness must be tempered with some boundaries. For example, as students gain trust and begin to articulate their opinions and prejudices, this can only happen effectively if there is some assurance that the discussion will not turn into an experience resembling daytime television talk shows. It is here that the modeling of classroom rules becomes important for the instructor. In addition, as we push students to examine systemic institutionalized oppression, there must be space to allow students to apply the abstract to the lived experience. For example, when speaking of social construction of race, students can be invited to discuss how this relates to their own identity. One multiracial student in my Multicultural Relations seminar said “I have found that society forces you to be in one box or another, the boxes I am referring to are the Black and White boxes. It is crazy how being just what you are is not good enough.” Thus, the classroom space must allow for “the little stories of the individual and the big stories of the disciplines” (Palmer, 1998, p. 76).

With the establishment of trust comes the opportunity for creative conflict. This, too, involves practiced efforts. Inherent in the idea of engaging in constructive controversy is the capacity to listen. Most of our students, and indeed many of us, are so involved in expressing our own ideas that we do not fully hear the ideas of our peers. Group exercises that push students to fully hear and digest the thoughts of their peers are integral to developing their capacity to engage in meaningful dialogue with one another.

Given that the notion of creative conflict is new to many students, there is a necessity to provide them with structured means of engaging in the process of disagreement. By providing students with case studies or mock scenarios around multicultural issues, we give them a vehicle to engage in constructive conflict and create a forum within which they can weave their own voices into the context of theory. This format also provides them with a safe and somewhat structured environment in which to air difference, share perspective, and apply what they have learned to the lived experience. Once trust is established, students are likely to engage in creative conflict without the safety net of case studies or debates. Rather than enhancing tension, constructive controversy has been found to “promote greater liking among participants than either concurrence seeking or individualistic efforts” (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2000, p. 6).

Although cooperative learning strategies enhance the development of community and constructive conflict, the reality is that resistance is inherent to any type of learning that requires a paradigm shift. Thus, it is quite normal that expressions of student resistance range from dissonance and confusion to frustration and even anger. One way to address this is simply to acknowledge the reality of resistance. If the instructor can bring the idea of resistance into the collective consciousness early in the game, students have the opportunity to engage in self-reflection and can examine the source of their fear. Allowing students to express their feelings in writing via e-mail or in-class responses provides an outlet for this resistance.

As instructors we can bring various issues into the classroom by allowing students time to self-reflect and then summarizing these themes in the classroom. One student in my Multicultural Relations class wrote via e-mail: “This white [sic] privilege thing has thrown me for a loop. A teacher in high school touched on it for a day but wouldn’t discuss it. How that it is being thrown in my face to look at and acknowledge, I don’t want to. Almost that I don’t want to accept it is true.”

Given that this was not a lone response, I was able to readdress the issue of White privilege by asking students to describe their feelings around the concept. This resulted in a productive discussion that could not have occurred without engaging students in individual self-reflection.

Finally and most importantly, our own identity as instructors and our level of comfort with the learning paradigm will shape the classroom experience. Parker Palmer (1998) wrote that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique, good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p. 10). Thus, as we ask our students to develop as change agents, we must continually examine our own ability to take risks and model cooperative learning.


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Chan, C. S., & Tracy, M. J. (1996). Resistance in multicultural courses. American Behavioral Scientist, 40 (2), 212-312.

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Constructivist Perspective and Classroom Simulations in Developmental Education

David L. Ghere, Associate Professor


Constructivism and developmental education both conceive of education in the broadest terms, are focused on student needs and abilities, and demand instructor creativity and flexibility. The theoretical foundations for constructivism are very compatible with developmental education, and constructivist methods are effective with developmental students. Simulations provide an effective method for implementing constructivist principles into developmental classrooms. Classroom simulations are versatile, active learning activities, which can be designed to foster cooperation, collaboration, information exchange, consensus building, and individual or group competition. Simulations also stimulate student interest and involvement in the course, and promote long term retention of content material.
This chapter describes the compatibility of constructivist learning theory with classroom simulations as a teaching method in a developmental education context. First, the theoretical basis, principle concepts, and educational implications of utilizing a constructivist approach are explained and examined. Secondly, parallels and correlations are drawn between constructivism and developmental education. Finally, classroom simulations are discussed as an effective teaching method for implementing constructivist learning theory with developmental students. The simulation examples provided were created and designed by the author for use in history classes in the General College at the University of Minnesota. The General College provides developmental education by integrating academic skill development into freshman level content courses.

Classroom simulations are active learning activities that place students in the role of decision makers assessing the various options available in a particular situation. Students discuss the options, negotiate with others, and ultimately reach consensus or majority decisions concerning the issues under consideration. These activities can generate multiple outcomes providing the opportunity to compare and contrast the various results and reach a deeper understanding of the concepts involved. The emphasis is on understanding why something happens and not on memorizing how it happens. Short (e.g., 20 to 40 minute) classroom simulations are efficient in the use of class time, adaptable to a variety of teaching objectives, and enjoyable for the students. They can be designed to foster cooperation, collaboration, information exchange, consensus building, individual competition, group competition, or a mixture of these at different levels or stages in the simulation. Activities can have students working individually, in pairs, triads, small groups, medium sized groups, or as a whole class.


Constructivism is founded on scientists’ best understanding of the brain’s natural cognitive processes and growth: new information or concepts are integrated with old knowledge to derive new insights (Feldman, 1994). The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has defined constructivism as “an approach to teaching based on research about how people learn. . . . each individual ‘constructs’ knowledge instead of receiving it from others” (Scherer, 1999, p. 5). According to Caine and Caine (1994), “The brain needs to create its own meanings. Meaningful learning is built on creativity and is the source of much joy that students can experience in education” (p. 105). “Inquisitiveness is what drives…learning, and constructivism is the theory that cognitive scientists have devised to explain how an individual progresses from inquisitiveness to new knowledge” (Abbott & Ryan, 1999, p. 66).

Student experiences generally run counter to this perception of the learner playing the crucial, determining role in his or her education. The traditional classroom is focused on the teacher as the provider of content knowledge, perspective, and analysis. These components are conveyed by the instructor through a lecture format, in structured activities, or in an exchange of probing questions and student responses. The student role is primarily passive and limited to listening, reading, and working through routine exercises. Evaluation consists of students repeating recently received factual information in the form of papers or responses to test questions (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).

Constructivist theory posits a much more balanced interaction with knowledge passing from teacher to student, from student to student, and from student to teacher. Likewise, students as well as teachers can be the sources of perspective and analysis. Constructivist teachers assist students in processing, transforming, and internalizing new information. Although there are many commonly used evaluation methods for the imitative behavior required in the traditional classroom such as multiple choice tests or essay exams, assessing the deeper individual understanding achieved through constructivist methods is considerably more difficult. Teachers must develop methods and strategies to assess this student-constructed knowledge (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).

Smith (1977) assessed critical thinking in college classrooms, focusing on four activities: instructor encouragement, questioning procedures, cognitive level of participation, and interaction with peers. Active involvement in the class resulted in higher critical thinking scores than for students with minimal involvement. Teachers developing and implementing instruction based on constructivist theory employ methods and activities that promote “active, hands-on learning during which students are encouraged to think and explain their reasoning” (Scherer, 1999, p. 5). Thus, in a constructivist classroom, student experiences and perspectives are valued and teachers specifically develop lessons to elicit and challenge student suppositions.

Theoretical Foundations

Constructivism has a rich theoretical foundation. John Dewey (1936) advocated experiential learning through field studies and immersion activities, arguing that “isolation of subject matter from a social context is the chief obstruction in current practice to securing a general training of the mind” (p. 79). Jean Piaget (1970) believed that mental structures developed gradually as learning was constructed through the organization and integration of new information and experiences. His concept of discovery learning had students manipulating objects and content information, analyzing what they observed, and reaching conclusions based on this evidence. He theorized that, in the process of assimilating this knowledge, students will think differently about a concept as a result of their experience and interaction with other learners. Lev Vygotsky (1978) claimed that individual learning was primarily the result of a social process. He argued that “human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them” (p. 88). Meaningful social interaction allows the student to construct a group meaning of a complex idea and then internalize this idea with a deeper individual understanding.

Human intelligence is much more complex and varied than our traditional narrow definitions of it (Armstrong, 1994; Gardner, 1983, 1993; Lazear, 1993). Gardner (1983) recognized intelligence as the human capability to solve problems and identified multiple intelligences consisting of verbal, logical, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. This multidimensional concept of intelligence has implications for the ways students learn, the application of effective teaching methods, and the need for a variety of assessment methods. Each student has available a variety of different sensory mechanisms to support integration of new information with existing knowledge. To facilitate this process, the instructor utilizes a wide array of teaching methods that enable the students to construct their own understanding and knowledge of the topic.

Brooks and Brooks (1993) have identified five central tenets of the constructivist teacher’s role in the classroom. First, the students’ points of view are valued and sought by the teacher, who then designs and modifies instruction based on that knowledge. Second, students’ suppositions based on their life experience are challenged through class activities or discussion. Students are afforded the opportunity to reassess their suppositions and either confirm, recant, or modify them. Third, constructivist teachers convey the relevance of classroom activities and knowledge to the students’ lives. Fourth, lessons address major concepts promoting a deeper understanding of the whole rather than the memorization of small factual data. Fifth, assessment of student knowledge and understanding is conducted in the context of daily classroom activities, not as a scheduled paper-and-pencil test at the end of a unit of study.

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