Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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According to Bartholomae (1993), basic writing students have been short-changed, even though there seems to be a current interest in the field of developmental education. He calls for a need to define exactly what kind of phenomenon the designation basic writing represents, rather than just consider it a course of instruction. Bartholomae (1980, 1993) and Shaughnessy (1976) hold that we simply know too little about the students who are placed in such classes and programs: we know little about their performance as writers, we know little about their prior experience, and preciously little about how they themselves experience their basic writing classes. Teachers just assume that basic writers fail to perform effectively what other conventional freshman writers are successful in doing. We need further details on their supposed lack of success in academic writing.

Additionally, in composition research, both Bartholomae (1980) and Williams (1981) have lamented the early over-emphasis on mechanical and grammatical correctness and “error hunt” that often seems to occur in writing instruction in high school English classes, as well as in developmental writing classes in college. By reducing student writers to working with isolated sentence level issues, we neglect the fact that these students bring with them diverse experiences that can help them develop academic writing skills, and much the same can be said about ESL writers (Leki, 1995). In other words, a preoccupation of teaching sentence level skills will most likely only stifle and alienate these students further in their acquisition of critical writing and thinking skills (Kim, 1997; Williams, 1981), as it does not help them develop the language of written academic discourse. As a result, college freshmen often exhibit limited confidence in terms of their writing skills.

The problem with this type of practice has been expressed by Perl (1979), who has stated that students will begin to “conceive of writing as a ‘cosmetic’ process where concern for correct form supersedes development of ideas. As a result, the excitement of composing, of constructing and discovering meaning, is cut off almost before it has begun” (p. 333). However, if we in developmental writing classes (basic as well as ESL writing), focus on critical thinking skills as a tool for these students to reflect on the extensive and diverse experiences they bring with them to their college classes, we should be able reinstate the excitement of composing into these students. Consequently, their awareness of academic writing standards can be developed through their own experience, which is likely to be more effective than trying to teach the students narrow technical skills.

These ideas can be further illustrated by Yeh (1998), who talks about student writer empowerment through acknowledgment of different cultural and social backgrounds of students in academia. When socio-cultural issues are taken into account, it becomes clear that isolated sentence level instruction and grammatical drilling and exercises will not be sufficient for the successful learning or acquisition of academic writing.

This is similar to ESL learning, where attention to cultural and social issues is essential for the ESL learner in order to acquire the necessary skills to perform and communicate academically in English. In fact, Johns (1995) credits the emphasis on communicative competence within the ESL writing field to the process movement in the general field of college composition, as this process approach has helped steer ESL pedagogy and research away from looking at academic writing as merely an afterthought in the teaching of reading and spoken language into becoming a separate and legitimate field that may hold similarities with the general field of college writing involving both L1 and L2. If we look at college writing in this more global context, mastering the discourse of academic writing as well as writing in context will essentially be the same as gaining communicative competence in that particular type of discourse.


An attempt to combine research in traditional rhetoric and L1 composition with research in contrastive rhetoric and L2 composition will benefit all sub-fields of college writing instruction, especially developmental writers in basic and ESL writing programs. The composition skills needed to communicate effectively in an academic context should be acquired slowly through acculturation (Sternglass, 1998), which is a process that is likely to be very similar regardless of whether we are dealing with basic writers or ESL writers. Bringing L1 and L2 writing instruction and research closer together this way should also help us move toward some kind of standard or consensus for teaching written English composition in academic and cross-cultural contexts. Early research within the field of English college composition was almost exclusively devoted to examining products and processes of native writers, but with the current intercultural outlook of the English language, we will have to take second language and “second culture” writers further into consideration in future research.

With all these implications in mind, it seems inevitable that there also is a need for bringing the requirements, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment of ESL writing and native English college composition in better synchronization with each other. In her chapter on “Recommendations for Instruction,” Sternglass (1998) emphasizes that acculturation to academic writing conventions takes time, and early instruction is crucial. Consequently, it is naive to believe that we can turn students into finished writers in the course of a freshman writing class or class sequence of a semester or academic year, regardless of whether we are working with traditional students, basic writers, or ESL writers. The acculturation process could take several years, which means that composition instructors can only initiate the process by providing the students with tools for future use. Such tools should involve critical reading and critical writing immediately from the beginning of this process. For that end, Sternglass (1998) argues that “students in basic writing classes . . . should not be treated differently from students in so-called regular composition classes . . . all students should be exposed to the challenges central to their development as thinkers and writers” (pp. 297-298). This, among other things, means that no students should feel that they are in a particular writing class because they lack the basic skills that other students may have.

As Williams (1981) has argued, writing teachers tend to categorize developmental writers as a group of students who simply need help in overcoming mechanical and grammatical errors and improving their language use and vocabulary. By reducing basic writers and ESL writers to working with these isolated issues, we neglect the fact that these students bring with them diverse experiences that can help them develop academic writing skills. Urzua (1987) has expressed similar concerns and concluded that when ESL students were given more freedom and control over their writing topics and learning to communicate content, their voices came through more strongly and the writing became more effective on all levels from content and development to grammar and other surface structures (see also Savignon, 1983). In other words, it seems the tendency is to emphasize higher-order skills such as critical thinking, content, and student experience in traditional freshman composition classes, but when it comes to basic writers and ESL writers, we may tend to get preoccupied with teaching more basic, technical writing skills on the sentence level, which is likely to alienate these students further from academia, as it does not help them develop the rhetorical language of written academic discourse (Kim, 1997; Sternglass, 1998; Williams, 1981).

In short, through this type of disservice, we may be separating and removing developmental writers (L1 basic writers and ESL writers) further from traditional freshman writers, which is the exact opposite of the ultimate purpose of basic writing and ESL writing programs.


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New Directions in Science Education for Developmental Education

Randy Moore, Professor


Despite decades of reform, science remains a hostile neighborhood for most students in developmental education. To remedy this, and thereby increase the number of students considered to be the “best and brightest,” I propose that science instruction move from objectivist teaching to constructivist learning by changing what and how science is taught. These changes include (a) emphasizing discovery-based activities; (b) supplementing discovery-based instruction with tutoring, cooperative learning, and interactive learning; (c) addressing the social and cultural aspects of science; and (d) emphasizing communication skills and multiple ways of learning. These changes will increase the success in science by all students, especially those in developmental education.

Throughout the past century, science education has been repeatedly “reformed.” For example, following World War I, science education was reformed to help students participate more effectively in democracy. Many of the most popular science textbooks of that time, such as George Hunter’s (1914) A Civic Biology (the textbook made famous by the Scopes “Monkey Trial”; see Moore, 1998a), had titles that emphasized the connection of science with society. Ironically, few people noticed that this goal—that is, helping people participate in government—was denied to many disadvantaged students, ethnic minorities, and women.

The next wave of science education reform was triggered by the Soviet Union’s launch on October 4, 1957, of Sputnik I, the first orbiting artificial satellite. This event announced to America that nature’s secrets—unlike political secrets—could not be concealed and that the United States had no monopoly on the laws of nature. Worried that the United States could not compete in a technology-based world (Gabel, 1994), policy-makers spent millions of dollars to put science education back in the hands of scientists. Much of this effort involved sending thousands of high school teachers to universities for graduate degrees and summer training, as well as hiring scientists to develop curricular materials to equip teachers with the latest scientific information (e.g., the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study; see Majumdar, Rosenfield, Rubba, Miller, & Schmalz, 1991; Moore, 1998b). Funding for science increased dramatically as science became increasingly popular; thousands of students wanted to be scientists and astronauts. However, science also became very competitive; challenges such as “Are you good enough for science? If so, you may be good enough for NASA!” became common. Teachers began to select the “best and brightest” students, but paid relatively little attention to the individual needs of students or the social constraints of science and teaching (Hurd, 1970). Many students—especially women, ethnic minorities, and those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds—continued to be denied access to science and the benefits of reform (Anderson, 1983).

In the 1980s, students’ poor scores on standardized tests again caused policy-makers to worry if the United States could compete in international markets (Education Commission of the States, 1983; National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). The resulting wave of science education reform focused on educational standards and teacher preparation (Hurd, 1983) and ultimately led to programs such as Science for All Americans (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989). Science for All Americans described skills that all students should possess such as an understanding of the key concepts of science, a familiarity with the natural world, an understanding of the interdependency of science and technology, and the ability to use knowledge and skills to enhance the quality of one’s life. In most cases, however, “all Americans” continued to exclude students in developmental education programs.

More recent attempts to reform science education have involved “systemic reform” aimed at producing “a coherent system of curriculum controls” (Fuhrman & Malen, 1991, p. 244) that emphasize standards for teaching and learning science. When these programs were implemented, many educators hoped that the much-publicized “science education crisis” had been addressed. As in the past, however, those hopes were largely unfounded, for today’s “college science courses [remain] notorious for poor teaching,” and “the vast majority of college students are not ... learning science” (Leonard, 2000, p. 386; also see Lord, 1994; Seymour, 1995). Although science can be an attractive place for many of the best and brightest students, it remains hostile to most at-risk students, especially minorities and women.

Many of the groups of students who have been repeatedly ignored by the various reforms of science education are students who are disproportionately represented in developmental education programs (Atwater & Brown, 1999; Minicucci, et al., 1995). The promise of “science for all Americans” (e.g., National Research Council, 1996; National Science Foundation, 1996) has remained elusive. As noted by Donmoyer (1995), it has been “easier to give something to everyone rhetorically than it is in reality” (p. 34).

How Science Education Often Excludes At-Risk Students

Many science programs continue to exclude large numbers of students, especially at-risk students in developmental education. This exclusion results from several long-standing and deeply entrenched biases regarding how and what science is taught:

1. Science virtually everywhere is taught with an objectivist approach based on knowledge being a commodity that can be imparted. Objectivists rely overwhelmingly on lectures because they believe “they can open the student’s head, pour in knowledge, close the student’s head and then have the student take a test” (Leonard, 2000, p. 386). This objectivist approach, even when instructors describe their teaching as “hands on” and “student centered,” is based almost exclusively on declarations of “facts” rather than on science being a discovery-based process influenced by culture and society (Roychoudhury, Tippins, & Nichols, 1993, 1995). Large, impersonal, and pedagogically monolithic courses emphasize and reward the memorization of these facts, an approach that is reinforced by eight-pound “introductory” textbooks and instructional approaches that give little consideration to alternate ways of knowing or teaching. This is important, because the lack of appropriate learning-strategies, especially student-centered strategies, is the largest variable that contributes to attrition of students in science classes (Cannon, 1999). Although the objectivist, lecture-based approach to teaching science minimizes the cost of delivering a course, it is inconsistent with how science is done. Moreover, it often discriminates against students, especially those in developmental education, who have alternate ways of learning.

2. Students able to compete effectively within the narrow objectivist approach to science are deemed to be the best and brightest students. Not surprisingly, these students are seldom from developmental education backgrounds. On the contrary, they are usually younger versions of the scientists themselves.

3. There is a strong selection-pressure for students who fit the narrow, prescriptive criteria of most science courses, and an equally strong selection-pressure against virtually all other students. These selection pressures often discriminate against students who comprise developmental education populations. As a result, science usually continues to be presented as it always has been presented—namely, from a narrow perspective that excludes or stereotypes women and minorities (Figure 1) and, in the process, alienates many students in developmental education (e.g., Harding, 1991; Kahle & Meece, 1994). Clearly, if this approach to teaching science continues, few new groups of students will benefit (Atwater & Brown, 1999).

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