Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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The college also offers a range of academic support services and courses to prepare students for a successful transition. GC hosts numerous unique programs such as the Student Parent Help Center, TRIO programs such as Upward Bound, an Academic Resource Center, and the Commanding English Program. The college also supports externally funded grant programs linking the college with the local urban community, such as the Commanding English program’s English as a Second Language (ESL) bridge courses taught in the local high schools. GC also supports the Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy (CRDEUL), which promotes and develops multidisciplinary theory, research, and practice in postsecondary developmental education and urban literacy.

GC’s curricular model includes a multidisciplinary range of Base Curriculum (BC) courses integrating both skills and academic content. This multidisciplinary programmatic model, which does not focus on traditional “skills-based” models for developmental education—at least not apart from integrating that with academic content—provides students with a range of perspectives and academic training for continuing work directly in their majors. Students can take writing, math, art, biology, sociology, anthropology, literature, freshman seminars, multicultural communication, and law and society. In doing so successfully, they fulfill some of their university graduation requirements while receiving full academic credit for transfer to degree-granting colleges of the university, which typically takes place some time during their second year. Faculty, administrators, and staff in this program incorporate a wide range of theories and methods in developing their curricula. In addition, they fulfill GC’s mission of conducting and disseminating research in both developmental education and their disciplinary content areas.

Given the breadth of courses and services GC offers, and given GC’s long history as a self-contained developmental education program, the college offers a fundamental point of reference for the field. Similarly, it can inform current definitions and theories in developmental education given its unique format and location within a public research university. Like all developmental education programs and services, there is a sense of uniqueness in its definition and model as GC is viewed by the University of Minnesota as its main point of preparation and access for many students. It is not strictly an open admissions college, but it does serve a diverse range of students for whom immediate entry into the university would not have been possible. Because of this history, it is important to share this work more broadly to examine GC’s theoretical, research, and pedagogical foundations.

GC Perspectives

This monograph specifically offers perspectives from GC faculty and staff who have responded to the recent call to articulate the field’s theoretical foundations (Collins & Bruch, 2000). In particular, this group of authors has begun to explore not only the theories that inform their own classroom practice specifically, but they offer some theories that have relevance for developmental education more broadly. By collecting a set of theories from a group of teachers within one program, it is easy to see the wide range of overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, theories that are influential to developmental educators. These authors all teach within the same program, under the same general mission, but their approaches diverge in interesting and effective ways. They represent a broad range of academic content and advising areas: sociology, anthropology, English composition, psychology, mathematics, history, multicultural education, philosophy, logic, and student support services.

In this publication, many of these authors reflect on areas that have not yet been addressed explicitly in the field, and several expand or critique current theories that are outlined in the NADE definition. For example, theories of democratic education and civic engagement, race-critical and multicultural theories, and theories from cultural studies have not been lenses with wide application in developmental education, yet they are articulated and applied more widely in other fields and arenas of higher education. Some of these authors focus on theories about institutional and cultural issues affecting students, while some focus on issues of individual development or behavioral theory. The layers and tensions present here are important because they demonstrate why it is difficult to articulate a single theory of, or a full range of theories for, developmental education. Perhaps no one lens can provide a complete answer to the rich range of questions and situations that are produced in the wide variety of services, courses, teaching methods, and students that make up these programs.

General College also represents some unique subject areas that are not typically taught in developmental programs or thought of as developmental core courses. This can provide yet another unique perspective for the field as there is work being done in these areas that can and should be considered for developmental education. It is a hope and goal of this publication to consider that definitions of developmental education might continue to address some of the issues these authors have begun to explore in their own work. Because most developmental educators come to the field from a specific content area, it is important to continue to let the research in those areas inform and expand frameworks for developmental education. In the future, it will also be necessary to apply these new theories for the field more directly to classroom practice and within the rich variety of contexts within which developmental educators work.

Transforming Theory, Research, and Practice

As Martha Casazza (1998) wrote, it is evident in producing this publication, that

These theories raise as many questions as they provide answers. The next step is to engage in a process of critical reflection regarding practices in developmental education to see if they lead to a reconstruction of the principles currently used as a framework. (p. 43)

It appears that in the field of developmental education, we are at the point of critical reflection, but we are also still in the position of needing to articulate theories. Silverman and Casazza (2000) have demonstrated an innovative way for education professionals to push the current theoretical trends in the field, to incorporate new research and theory into an examination of practice that transcends the traditional model for educating students. For example, they note that passive forms of education, such as the banking model (Freire, 1970), are outdated and do not assist students in developing important skills such as critical thinking and active learning stances. Although we have known this for awhile through research in education, it has taken awhile for these concepts to be instituted in definition, theory, and pedagogy that informs other disciplines. In developmental education, this translates into a push for continuing to transform our work at the levels of research and theory that more effectively responds to student needs as they make educational transitions with the support of a wide range of developmental programs and services.

Multi-disciplinary models for theory, research, and teaching seem to provide the best range of answers to our questions about student learning (Bruch & Collins, 1999; Casazza, 1998; Silverman & Casazza, 2000). The richer the range of definitions and approaches we provide in developmental education, the more responsive our classrooms and programs can be to the diverse range of students we serve. Additionally, as Silverman and Casazza (2000) clearly address throughout their work, theories and research that can be transformative to the profession provide fertile ground for defining more successful future directions for education. Specifically, they argue that educators must view themselves as ongoing agents of transformation, and that they are in the most important position for illuminating future goals.

Change agents challenge the status quo. They are not satisfied with repeating past successes or accepting failures. Most important, they motivate themselves and others, including students, administrators, and colleagues, to explore new directions and take risks. We support this view as a foundation for making changes in practice and using theory and research to guide the way. (p. 260)

Their model for integrating a wider range of theories, applied directly to student experiences through case studies, provides a clear direction and instructive example for how developmental educators can continue to create change for students specifically, and the profession more broadly. Their vantage points include a wider range of theories than present definitions have outlined, including sociolinguistic theories, constructivist models, adult learning frameworks, cognitive development theories, and multicultural education and intercultural communication theories. Their rich range of applied theories demonstrates that current individualistic models alone, which presently dominate definitions and practice in developmental education (Lundell & Collins, 1999), do not offer a complete enough response to understanding students.

In this monograph, it is clear that we can adopt even more vantage points to add to our work in research and practice. In particular, some of the multicultural and sociolinguistic models for education appear to provide a new standpoint, as well as constructivist models applied in history and science classrooms. No matter which discipline is examined, it is important to take a step toward doing this type of critical theoretical reflection. The authors and editors of this publication hope they have offered something to trigger new conversations about theories of, and theories for, developmental education.


Boylan, H. R. (1999). Exploring alternatives to remediation. Journal of Developmental Education, 22 (3), 2–10.

Casazza, M. E. (1998). Strengthening practice with theory. Journal of Developmental Education, 22 (2), 14-20, 43.

Center for Postsecondary Research and Planning. (2000). The national survey of student engagement (NSSE) report: National benchmarks of effective educational practice. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

Collins, T., & Bruch, P. (2000). Theoretical frameworks that span the disciplines. In D. B. Lundell & J. L. Higbee (Eds.), Proceedings of the first intentional meeting on future directions in developmental education (pp. 19-22). Minneapolis, MN: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, General College, University of Minnesota.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Higbee, J. L. (1993). Developmental vs. remedial: More than semantics. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 9 (2), 99-105.

Higbee, J. L. (1996). Defining developmental education: A commentary. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), Defining developmental education: Theory, research, & pedagogy (pp. 63-66). Carol Stream, IL: National Association for Developmental Education.

Lundell, D. B. (2000). Institutional fit: Mission and structure of programs within different types of institutions. In D. B. Lundell & J. L. Higbee (Eds.), Proceedings of the first intentional meeting on future directions in developmental education (pp. 51-53). Minneapolis, MN: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, General College, University of Minnesota.

Lundell, D. B., & Collins, T. C. (1999). Toward a theory of developmental education: The centrality of “Discourse.” In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), The expanding role of developmental education (pp. 3-20). Morrow, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.

Malinowski, P. (2000). Defining developmental education as a profession: Students, programs, and services. In D. B. Lundell & J. L. Higbee (Eds.), Proceedings of the first intentional meeting on future directions in developmental education (pp. 17-18). Minneapolis, MN: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, General College, University of Minnesota.

Maxwell, M. (1997). Improving student learning skills: A new edition. Clearwater, FL: H&H.

National Association for Developmental Education (NADE). (1995). Definition and goals statement. Carol Stream, IL: Author.

Silverman, S. L., & Casazza, M. E. (2000). Learning & development: Making connections to enhance teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

STARLINK. (Satellite Telecast). (2000, September 21). Developmental education: Best practices and exemplary programs. Dallas, TX: Texas Association of Community Colleges.

Wambach, C., Brothen, T., & Dikel, T. N. (2000). Toward a developmental theory for developmental educators. Journal of Developmental Education, 24 (1), 2-4, 6, 8, 10, 29.

Approaching Theory in Developmental Education

Carl J. Chung, Assistant Professor

Philosophy and Logic

The purpose of this chapter is to provide developmental educators with a useful initial framework within which to identify and reflect upon preconceptions concerning the nature and purpose of “theories.” I accomplish this by presenting three general approaches to theory: the classical approach, the model-based approach, and the contextualist approach. Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, and each approach offers a different vision of the fundamental features of a theory of developmental education. I argue that no single approach is inherently superior to the others, and I suggest that learning to appreciate the strengths of each approach might lay the foundation for a robust theoretical framework unique to developmental education.

Recently developmental educators have been urged to embrace theory (Collins & Bruch, 2000; Lundell & Collins, 1999; Silverman & Casazza, 2000; Spann & McCrimmon, 1998; Wambach, Brothen, & Dikel, 2000). What is more, the reasons given to support this change implicate the very future of developmental education with this choice: we either embrace theory or face academic extinction. For example, in the Proceedings of the First Intentional Meeting on Future Directions in Developmental Education, Terence Collins and Patrick Bruch (2000) write that “Given the gains to be made through the process of vigorously theorizing our practice, ‘developmental education’ as simply a hodge-podge of contingent local practices guided by inexplicit and largely unintentional theoretical frameworks is no longer good enough” (p. 19). In an interview on the future of developmental education, Hunter Boylan asserts that

An essential component of a successful program in the future will be research and development. The most successful programs are theory based. They don’t just provide random intervention; they intervene according to the tenets of various theories of adult intellectual and personal development. (Stratton, 1998, p. 33)

Milton G. Spann and Suella McCrimmon (1998) characterize the importance of theory as follows:

The field of developmental education currently faces an identity crisis. For the most part, it has little knowledge of its roots or a widely understood and articulated philosophy, a body of common knowledge, or a commonly accepted set of theoretical assumptions congruent with that philosophy. (p. 44)

Finally, Dana Lundell and Terence Collins (1999) echo similar concerns when they write: “Much of the published literature in developmental education lacks a theoretical base through which the motives and goals of seemingly disparate practices might be understood as constituting a unified core of disciplines” (p. 4). They motivate their call to theory by citing two main reasons:

1. Work in developmental education has matured intellectually to the point where we must be overt in theorizing our enterprise so that our research and curriculum studies can compete with each other for credibility in full view of the assumptions that are their intellectual foundation.

2. Attacks on developmental education are very easy to mount when the grounds for discussion are subject to redefinition at the whim of every legislator or academic vice-president who questions the value of our practice. That is, we need to know why we do what we do, and we need to say these things aloud. (p. 4)

As these quotations indicate, those advocating a larger role for theory do so for a variety of reasons, including overall program success, the identity and credibility of the field of developmental education, and the defense of the field against ongoing attacks from outside sources. In addition, this call to theory is, at least for some of those making it, overtly reformist. For example, the quotation by Collins and Bruch (2000) is critical of current theoretical frameworks that are “inexplicit” and “unintentional.” That is, current theoretical frameworks have only managed to produce a “. . . hodge-podge of contingent local practices . . .” (p. 19). We, as developmental educators, are thus urged to be more systematic, explicit, and intentional in our theorizing.

One could respond to those advocating theory in a number of different ways. For example, one might agree (e.g., “Yes, this is obviously right; let’s get on with it . . .”), one might ask for clarification (e.g., “What exactly do you mean by ‘explicit’ and ‘intentional’ theorizing?”), or one might disagree (e.g., “No, the ‘theoretical state’ of developmental education is just fine; I see no need to accept these recommendations . . .”). But no matter which response one adopts, we, as a community, are going to find ourselves having conversations about theories and about theorizing in the context of developmental education and its future as an academic discipline.

The main goal of this chapter is to try and ensure that those conversations about theory are constructive and not divisive or polarizing. This is a legitimate worry, for two reasons. First, the terms “theory” and “theorizing” are loaded in the sense that they encompass a range of possible meanings and associations, which in turn often reflect different underlying assumptions, values, and explanatory frameworks. Second, there is the incredible diversity to be found within the field of developmental education, including institutional diversity, practitioner diversity, disciplinary diversity, and theoretical diversity (e.g., Collins & Bruch, 2000, pp. 19-20). This diversity only multiplies the number of perspectives and assumptions we are likely to encounter, and it increases the opportunities for disagreement and miscommunication.

To accomplish this goal I present three general approaches to understanding what a theory is and what it means to theorize: the classical approach, the model-based approach, and the contextualist approach. For each, I set out some advantages of that approach, some disadvantages, and then I discuss how the approach would characterize the fundamental features of a theory of developmental education.

The point of doing this is not to offer a definitive typology of theoretical approaches, and it is not to defend one approach over others. Rather, I hope to provide readers with a useful initial framework within which to identify and reflect upon their own assumptions concerning theory and what a theory of developmental education ought, eventually, to look like.

The Classical Approach to Theory

One promising way to make sense of theory and theorizing is by clarifying what those terms mean in the context of our best examples of scientific inquiry. After all, physics and chemistry are well developed, robust, and time tested. If anything is going to count as a theory or theorizing, surely Newtonian mechanics and the mathematical modeling and experimental methodology of physics have got to be prime examples. Even if it is not possible for developmental educators to perform controlled experiments or to come up with mathematical equations, advocates of the classical approach nonetheless believe that the theories of the natural sciences embody an ideal standard worthy of emulation.

To identify some of the details of that standard, an example will help. Consider Newton’s theory of motion, which is defined by three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation (Beatty, 1980; Giere, 1991):

First Law of Motion. If there is no force acting on a body, the momentum of that body will remain constant.

Second Law of Motion. If there is a force acting on a body, that body will accelerate by an amount directly proportional to the strength of the force and inversely proportional to its mass.

Third Law of Motion. If one body exerts a force on a second, then the second exerts on the first a force that is equal in strength, but in the opposite direction.

Law of Universal Gravitation. Any two bodies exert attractive forces on each other that are directed along a line connecting them and are proportional to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between them. (Giere, pp. 69–70)

Several key points flow from this example. First, it is clear that the main ingredients of a theory are laws or universal generalizations. Second, taken together these laws explain why bodies move the way they do by identifying and interrelating certain causally relevant factors: force, momentum, acceleration, mass, and distance. Third, the laws allow us to predict movements of a body by extrapolating the effects of force, momentum, acceleration, mass, and distance from earlier to later times. For what I am calling the classical approach, then, a theory is essentially a collection of universal generalizations that allows us to explain and predict phenomena in a particular domain.

For many, this classical interpretation of theory is intuitive and obvious. Applied to the field of developmental education, the first step toward forging a theory of developmental education would be to isolate and clarify the causally relevant factors governing student development, learning, retention, and success. So just as Newton had to isolate and clarify what he meant by force, acceleration, and momentum, so must development educators isolate and clarify what they mean by such factors as, for example, motivation, learning style, identity formation, self-regulation, and demandingness (cf., Silverman & Casazza, 2000; Wambach, Brothen, & Dikel, 2000).

The second step would be to formulate the laws or principles governing the causally relevant factors. Examples of such laws or principles might be: “All students who possess learning style A will succeed when taught with teaching method B”; or “All students in affective state C in environment E will fail unless they achieve affective state D”; or “No student with cognitive disability F succeeds without intervention G and teaching method H.” If it turns out that generalizations of such universal scope (i.e., All A are B) cannot be formulated, statistical generalizations would still work (e.g., Most A are B; P are probably Q; S follows in X percentage of cases studied).

Finally, the third step would be to verify and refine the laws or principles by further experiment or research. Ideally, this would result in a unique set of laws or principles that best explained student development, learning, retention, and overall success. This collection of laws or principles would constitute the core of a theory of developmental education.

Advocates of the classical approach to theory can point to a number of advantages of their approach. First, the classical approach allies itself with the prestigious tradition of the natural sciences, a tradition that boasts some of the best examples of theory. In addition, because of its emphasis on laws, it is clear that a classical theory will be verifiable, testable, and, in the long run, refinable. The classical approach also provides an intuitive conception of how a theory explains and predicts, again due to the emphasis on laws: basically, explanation or prediction of a given phenomenon occurs if we can identify specific causal factors and then cite a law governing those factors. Finally, applied to developmental education, the classical approach provides a clear “recipe” for forging a theory of developmental education, and such a theory would have the legitimacy and advantages noted above.

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