Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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In the application of constructivist theory, the broader student role is subdivided into three specific roles: the active learner, the social learner, and the creative learner. Students are cast in an active role where they discuss, organize and analyze information, observe activity, and then hypothesize and reach conclusions. Knowledge and understanding are not constructed individually but in dialogue with others, and facts are only “true” in that social context. Thus, historical truths depend upon the social perspectives of the original observer and the later interpreters, while scientific truths rest upon social assumptions and are determined through a social critical process that belies their supposed objectivity. Constructivists believe that the learner creates or recreates knowledge and understanding, and the teacher’s role is to facilitate the student’s creativity by providing class activities that allow the student to discover theories and perspectives leading to a deeper understanding of the knowledge (Phillips, 1995).

Creating a constructivist classroom requires imagination, persistence, and dedication. “It is easy to imagine [classrooms] in which ideas are explored rather than answers to teachers’ test questions provided and evaluated. . . . Easy to imagine, but not easy to do” (Cazden, 1988, p. 54). Some learners will not welcome the high levels of cognitive reasoning required for constructivist learning, preferring to be told the content information. Some students have developed successful strategies for the traditional classroom and may perceive the constructivist techniques deceptive, manipulative, and time consuming (Perkins, 1992). For the teacher, lecturing, asking questions, and fielding answers is much simpler and more controlled than creating the activities that allow students to construct their own understanding. Testing recall of knowledge provided by the instructor is much easier than assessing the understanding and knowledge constructed by each individual student.

A variety of outside pressures exist that tend to inhibit the use of constructivist theory. At the secondary level, the recent widespread efforts by state governments to increase accountability and establish state wide standards and evaluations emphasize the factual recall tests to the detriment of constructivist teaching methods (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). At the collegiate level, large class sizes, common exams for multiple sections, prerequisite requirements, serial courses, and transfer comparability all tend to place the emphasis on the coverage and delivery of content rather than on the facilitation of individual students to construct their own knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately, the comprehension of learning theory is limited among political leaders and the media, and they tend to utilize those evaluation methods that are the most readily available and easiest to understand. As a result, teachers at all levels may find it safer to use traditional methods because they can clearly document content coverage and focus on the recall knowledge needed for the test.

Constructivism and Developmental Education

The contrast between traditional instruction and constructivist learning is comparable to the shift in terminology and philosophy for the education of at-risk students from remedial education to developmental education. Remedial education focuses on the reiteration of missed content so that past academic failures can be rectified, while developmental education recognizes the student as a work in progress and fosters both cognitive and affective growth. Remedial models seek to “fix” students, while developmental models recognize the array of strengths and weaknesses that each student brings to the class and seeks to develop the whole student (Boylan, 1995; Higbee, 1993). Within this frame of reference, traditional instruction aligns well with remedial education, while constructivist activities are very compatible with developmental education.

Constructivism and developmental education have broad intersections. Both conceive education in the broadest terms, are student-centered, and display ultimate respect for student capabilities and contributions. Both focus on enhancing student skills and potential; fostering creative, flexible, and diverse teaching methods; and elevating the intellectual discussion in the classroom. Constructivism recognizes that the outcome of the constructive process is different for each student, while developmental education recognizes the mixture of strengths and vulnerabilities that each student exhibits.

Developmental students have had limited success with traditional forms of instruction and evaluation and should not only benefit from constructivist methods, but should welcome the change. “Rather than focus on intense, encyclopedic recall, constructivist learning leads to deep understanding, sense-making, and the potential for creativity and enterprise” (Abbott & Ryan, 1999, p. 68). Many developmental students bring life experiences or cultural perspectives that would not be expressed in a traditional class but could be elicited by a constructivist instructor for the benefit of the entire class. Developmental students have affective needs as well as cognitive needs, and some measures of those affective needs are more accurate in predicting success in college than achievement tests or high school grades (Higbee & Dwinell, 1990; Higbee, Dwinell, McAdams, GoldbergBelle, & Tardola, 1991). The most successful programs for poorly prepared students “also deal with the affective side of being a student: poor self-concept, passivity, lack of confidence, fear of failure, lack of interest in subject matter, and so forth” (Astin, 1984, p. 11).

Historical Simulations in the Classroom

In a historical simulation, students are given the role of historical decision makers, provided with sufficient background information to evaluate the various decision options, and then asked to render a decision in the historical situation. Simulation design and student groupings vary depending on the historical material and the desired learning outcomes.

Simulations are effective in stimulating lively class discussion and promoting critical thinking. They can prompt students to reconsider prevailing assumptions and adopt new perspectives as well as serve as a stimulus for a number of individual student or group research projects. These research projects could include investigating the historical background of the situation, identifying the factors that promote or inhibit a resolution, contrasting the simulation with actual decisions, or assessing the influence of particular individuals or groups in the final outcome.

A series of research studies into the educational effectiveness of classroom simulations and games has determined three general benefits when compared to traditional instruction. First, the use of simulations in instruction greatly enhances the retention of content information over longer periods. Second, simulations promote student interest in the particular topic of the simulation and in related class content and assignments. Moreover, students assume a more favorable attitude toward the subject area, in general, and are more motivated to do well in the course. Third, simulations prompt increased student interaction and a greater willingness of students to communicate and contribute in small group discussions. All of these attributes would be very beneficial to developmental students and enhance educational outcomes (Bredemeier & Greenblat, 1981; Druckerman, 1995; Randel, Morris, Welzel, & Whitehall, 1992).

Simulations involve some level of role playing by the students, but these roles can be very specific, as an historical individual; more general, as a representative of a country, region, or state; or very generic, as in a decision maker assessing the historical options. An example of a generic role playing simulation would be Recent World Crises in which groups of four or five students simulate a United Nations commission seeking a political resolution to one of the following world crises: Northern Ireland, West Bank, Bosnia, or Kosovo. Students receive ethnic and religious data for the region in dispute and the two countries contending for the region, but all labels and names are fictitious so the students cannot determine which crisis they are considering. Subsequent discussion can contrast the decisions of the student groups, compare aspects of the four crises, or focus on any discomfort or shift in position when the identities in the crisis are revealed.

Maps may be employed in some simulations to convey information to the students, to designate various territorial options, and to ultimately visually display student decisions. Map simulations are particularly appropriate when focusing on diplomatic conventions, trade agreements, explorations, and colonization. An example of a map simulation would be the Treaty of Versailles that requires student triads to determine the boundaries of the new countries in Eastern Europe following World War I. Each triad receives one map depicting the location of ethnic groups, a second map indicating the areas that contained religious majorities, and a transparency map to superimpose over the others. In the process of determining boundaries, students discuss various aspects of nationalism and the relative importance of religious and ethnic identities as well as recognize a variety of boundary disputes that have plagued the region throughout the twentieth century.

A reward system may be incorporated in the simulation that creates a competitive situation between groups while fostering cooperation within each group. These game simulations are particularly useful when simulating political disputes where groups of students seek their own rewards, but must also negotiate and compromise to reach a consensus or political bargain that achieves their goals. An example of a game simulation would be Sectional Politics, in which students consider six political issues and negotiate resolutions acting as the U. S. Senate between 1830 and 1850. Each six-student senate has one pair of students representing the Northeast, one pair the Southeast, and one pair the West. Each pair argues for their region’s positions and receives points for decisions favorable to their region.

The competition inherent in the game simulations promotes learning because long-term memory is enhanced by activities or ideas that elicit emotion. One of Caine and Caine’s (1994) twelve principles of brain-based learning states that “emotions and cognition cannot be separated and the conjunction of the two is at the heart of learning” (p. 104). The game points achieved in the simulation have no effect on student grades or evaluation and are meaningless outside of the simulation. Yet, winning and losing in the simulation generates emotions in the students. In the Sectionalism simulation, the negotiations sometimes result in one region consistently being left out of the political bargaining, resulting in student frustration and even anger. This provides a teaching moment because the students can consider the emotion of northerners who feared that “Slave Power” controlled the government, or of southerners who perceived that the other regions of the country were “ganging up on them.”

Johnson and Johnson (1979), renowned for their work in cooperative learning, claim that conflict in the classroom can be positive or negative depending on its management. Conflicts provide “valuable opportunities to increase student motivation, creative insight, cognitive development, and learning” (p. 51). Disagreements within the group result in increased interest and creativity, a reassessment of assumptions leading to conceptual conflicts, and higher levels of reasoning and problem solving. Creating controversy in the classroom promotes learning and intellectual development because the purpose of controversy “within a cooperative group is to arrive at the highest quality solution or decision that is possible” (p. 56).

Constructivism and Classroom Simulations

Classroom simulations provide a method for implementing constructivist principles into developmental classrooms. “The central problem that constructivist educators face is not a guiding theory, but concrete strategies and tools for institutionalizing these theoretical and practical understandings into more inclusive classrooms” (Hyerle, 1996, p. 15). The simulation experience provides a variety of possible interactions, sequences of events, and alternate resolutions. Students construct meaning based on their interpretation of the simulation experience and the knowledge acquired in the process.

Simulations seem well suited for a constructivist approach to developmental education. They promote student interest in the simulation topic and related subject matter while encouraging participation in a social learning process that exposes students to new concepts and ideas (Druckman, 1995). Lack of motivation is a characteristic often attributed to developmental students and often suggested as the explanation for their previous lack of success in traditional classrooms (Lowery & Young, 1992). Also, “for decades, developmental educators have argued informally that many of their students bring to the classroom a certain, often indefinable, savvy about the world and how it works that escapes detection on standard diagnostic and placement tests” (Payne & Lyman, 1996, p. 14). Simulations provide students with a variety of opportunities to display their array of talents and abilities.

In their article, “Constructing knowledge, reconstructing schooling,” Abbot and Ryan (1999) write,

In constructivist learning, each individual structures his or her own knowledge of the world into a unique pattern, connecting each new fact, experience, or understanding in a subjective way that binds the individual into rational and meaningful relationships to the wider world. (p. 67)

Classroom simulations provide an experience that each student can interpret, analyze, and place into his or her own context. Role playing activities involve preparing students to participate in active learning situations that teach both content and specific skills (Glenn, Gregg, & Tipple, 1982). This experiential learning of social or political interactions may be more important to the developmental student than the factual knowledge conveyed by the simulation.

The social learning process of students is promoted by their interactions in these activities. Simulations “expose students to teamwork activities” and are “effective as vehicles for team-building” (Druckman, 1995, p. 184). Sharan (1980) found that team learning methods fostered relationships with group members, enhanced individual student involvement, and improved attitudes toward learning, while increasing cognitive learning and promoting the construction of meaning. The student who would score well on paper-and-pencil tests due to an extensive factual knowledge, might also have an advantage in simulation negotiations. However, success in the simulation would also require the exchange of information, negotiations, and bargaining over positions, and ultimately, the determination of group decisions.

Instructors employ a variety of small group activities and techniques in the conduct of classroom simulations as well as in the assignments that are associated with the simulations. Helen McMillon (1994) conducted a study to evaluate the effects of small group methods on the academic performance of underprepared minority college students. She found that “they developed a strong cohesive and collaborative system for working together as a group, enhancing their individual cognitive and affective skills: analytical thinking, comprehension, decision making, problem solving, communication, assertiveness and motivation” (p. 76).


The theoretical foundations and basic concepts of constructivism are very compatible with the goals of developmental education. Both are student-centered, showing respect for student capabilities and contributions while focusing on enhancing student skills and potential. Both require diverse, creative teaching methods and innovative systems of evaluation that elevate the intellectual discussion in the classroom. Simulations provide very versatile active learning situations for implementing constructivist principles into developmental classrooms. Utilizing a variety of formats, they can be designed to foster cooperation, collaboration, information exchange, consensus building, and individual or group competition. Simulations provide alternate decision options and a variety of possible results, allowing students to construct meaning based on their interpretation of the simulation experience and the knowledge acquired in the process. These activities increase student interaction, foster class discussion and provide various opportunities for related assignments in the course. Simulations also stimulate student interest in the subject and promote long term retention of content material.


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Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1993). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Brooks, M. G., & Brooks, J. G. (1999). The courage to be constructivist. Educational Leadership, 57 (3), 18-24.

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Glenn, A. D., Gregg, D., & Tipple, B. (1982). Using role-playing activities to teach problem solving: Three teaching strategies. Simulation & Gaming: An International Journal, 13, 199-209.

Higbee, J. L. (1993). Developmental versus remedial: More than semantics. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 9 (2), 99-107.

Higbee, J. L., & Dwinell, P. L. (1990). The high risk student profile. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 7 (1), 55-63.

Higbee, J. L., Dwinell, P. L., McAdams, C. R., GoldbergBelle E., & Tardola, M. E. (1991). Serving underprepared students in institutions of higher education. Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 30, 73-80.

Hyerle, D. (1996). Visual tools for constructing knowledge. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1979). Conflict in the classroom: Controversy and learning. Review of Educational Research, 49 (1), 51-70.

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Getting Basic: Exposing a Teacher’s Deficiencies

Amy M. Lee, Assistant Professor


This article traces the evolution of a teacher-researcher’s conception of her work as both scholar and teacher in basic writing. She questions how her pedagogical goals and practices should change in light of her research within a developmental education program. It is her realization that these questions require a deeper reflection on and articulation of the theories that inform both basic writing and developmental education, and their impact on teachers and students. In particular, she emphasizes the importance of challenging the still dominant, though often implicit and unintentional, deficit models.

Last year, at my first research presentation in my new job at the University of Minnesota’s General College (GC), I told my colleagues I was wrestling. In my classroom, in my thinking, and writing, and reading, I was wrestling with the question of how my teaching of writing should change in light of the fact that I was teaching basic writing (BW) in a developmental education (DE) setting. Should I spend much more time explicitly and directly teaching something called “academic discourse?” Would I spend more time “correcting” rather than responding to their writing? Should I stop having them write in multiple forms–poetry, dramatic monologue, because those wouldn’t be immediately or directly relevant to the rest of their university writing, even if I believe it would help them develop as writers? How would I balance teaching them the conventions and expectations that I knew would be imposed on their texts, with teaching them to simply write, to become more comfortable and confident as writers in any given form?

My research project grew out of these subsequent questions. However, I now am questioning that question itself. What was it that prompted me, in spite of 11 years of teaching writing at every level, from basic writers to senior-level writing majors to English as a Second Language students to doctoral students, to even imagine I should abandon what I have learned about writing development simply because I was now in an institutional setting formally marked as “developmental” or “basic?” Why was it that, implicitly, I was adapting my standards to those imposed from without, and to standards I know do not enable and support the development of writers when they are used as the primary basis for teaching or assessing writing? Why was it that I was suddenly so attuned to watching out for what my students lacked? What they could not do?

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