Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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In biology, two perspectives vied for dominance—Physicalism and Vitalism. Physicalism was mechanist, reductionist, determinist, and essentialist. Its model was the Cartesian machine whose parts operated according to a basic “blueprint.” These parts were universal and defined the essential nature of organisms. Vitalism was a reaction to this that was deemed metaphysical by the physicalists because it replaced Cartesian dualism with the concept of a “vital force” that set living things apart from the nonorganic world.

Both views were found wanting in basic ways. Physicalism simply could not explain the complexity that laboratory studies were revealing about life and had no answer for why the machine acted as it did. Vitalism foundered because it relied on essentialist notions such as the preformist hypothesis of egg development (i.e., that the essential structure—a homunculus—was present from the beginning) that were reduced to absurdity by better thinking and advanced optics. Their replacement, Organicism, took the best of both and had the decided advantage of being consistent with Darwinian theory. Its two main features, the genetic program and emergence, are thoroughly selectionist. The genetic program is subject to natural selection and provides the direction that past selection pressures deemed to be most useful.

Emergence is a developmental concept but is very different from the vitalist notion of development as unfolding—the notion that inherent form (e.g., the homunculus) simply has to be let out. Emergence progresses from lower stages through the greater complexity of higher stages. This process too is subject to selection. Development in the old vitalist, unfolding sense thus tends to be essentialist because it implies an unvarying, predetermined process. Development in the progression through stages sense is not essentialist because it is subject to environmental pressures.

The evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s united Mendelian genetics and Darwin’s theory, putting his two key principles, common descent and natural selection at the center of biology. Darwinian theory postulated two things necessary for evolution, variability and adaptability. A new, more successful species is created because its parent organisms had the genetic diversity necessary for it to be adaptable to changing environmental conditions. Importantly for developmental education, this notion can be applied to individual behavior as well as to species. With this approach, we are accepting Wilson’s (1998) challenge to demonstrate points of unity between the biological and social sciences.

The Environment and Radical Behaviorism

The most powerful determinant of evolution is the environment. Natural selection ruthlessly eliminates whole species while it allows some adaptations to survive and even flourish. We are not making a strictly evolutionary argument here but instead are reasoning by analogy. Using evolutionary concepts may strike some as inappropriate in a social context. But we feel justified because Darwin himself borrowed heavily from social science in his thinking (Sober, 1984). We trust that we have been careful enough so that our analogue does not recall the problems of so-called “Social Darwinism,” which treated winners and losers in society as the result of natural, unavoidable processes. Our argument is closer to Dawkins’ (1989) application of Darwinian thinking to culture and Wilson’s (1998) concept of gene-culture coevolution. That is, that the most adaptive characteristic that evolved in human beings is culture and that cultural transmission provides the greatest part of an individual’s environment. Because culture accounts for most of what happens in education, the parallels we draw to it are crucial to our argument. We treat an individual’s behavioral repertoire (e.g., attitudes, habits, skills, etc.) similarly to how the species concept is treated in biology. Species adapt, continue, or disappear just as an individual person’s habits do. Species have variability in the sense of genetic diversity while an individual’s behavioral repertoire can take many possible forms. Both genetic traits and an individual person’s behaviors may prove to be adaptive or not. Genetic characteristics are inherited while behavioral repertoires are transmitted through cultural mechanisms such as educational institutions. Finally, evolution proceeds over time just as a behavioral repertoire becomes more adaptive as a function of its environment.

In his development of radical behaviorism in the 1930s, B. F. Skinner adopted Ernst Mach’s approach to cause and effect (Chiesa, 1992). Mach rejected the mechanistic and essentialistic cause and effect notion of force in physical systems and replaced it with the concept of functional relation. Because “causes” suggest agency, Mach built on Hume’s assertion “that notions of agency, force, or necessity of connection are superfluous” (Chiesa, p. 1289). The Machian school also rejected a priori (e.g., Kantian) models (Loving, 1997) and signaled the developments in quantum physics and relativity theory. Skinner’s application of Mach’s philosophical approach, in concert with a selectionist approach to human behavior, was a radical innovation that is far from mainstream psychology today (Palmer & Donahoe, 1992).

Just as biologists recognize the genetics of species to be highly variable, Skinner conceived of behavior as highly variable (Palmer & Donahoe, 1992). Genes and behaviors are both selected by the environment. Both operate by the process of variability-selection-retention. A subset of behaviors from a large number of possible behaviors is retained because the environment selects them. Thus, there are few mechanistic causes of behavior with only simple mechanisms such as the salivary reflex having identifiable cause-effect relationships. The environment is the closest thing to a causal agent in that it selects and maintains complex behaviors through the reinforcement it provides naturally or through reinforcement contingencies set up by other individuals or the culture. Behavioral repertoires are functions of the environments in which they exist. Conceiving of events and behaviors as products of functional relationships means focusing on the relations rather than searching for causes inside the person that may or may not be subject to manipulation.

In contrast, most of psychology and education conceives of behavior as the product of complex mechanisms. The memory “system,” learning styles, and so on, that reside in the person are said to affect behavior. Without a demonstration of their existence apart from their status as hypothetical constructs, they are essentialist concepts. Much of developmental education has taken this approach as well.

Essentialist Concepts in Developmental Education

There are two questions that, if answered affirmatively, can identify an essentialist concept in developmental education. First, does it divide students into neat categories? Second, does it appeal to the existence of a stable trait without strong empirical evidence for its existence? That is, does it have the status of a hypothetical construct?

Ironically, developmental education exists partly because of essentialist thinking. Some students are “qualified” for regular admission while others, perhaps missing a cutoff on some qualification measure by one point, are defined as developmental students. This may be typological thinking, but just as instructors must determine the line between A and B grades, we appear to be stuck with some categorization. However, there are some types of categorization that are not so helpful.

First, within developmental education we often place students in remedial courses because they missed a cutoff score on a reading or writing placement test. This is not only typological thinking but also implicitly assumes the existence of a reading or writing competency that can be validly measured. Second, we may try to match our teaching to students’ learning styles. This categorizes students and assumes that students possess a generalized internal filter that seeks specific types of input on some a priori basis. And third, assuming that real deficits exist also assumes that there is something missing in the student and that we can measure it accurately and reliably. How can we escape these three negative aspects of concepts so basic to our field?

A Selectionalist and Functionalist Approach to Developmental Education

Recently we (Wambach, Brothen, & Dikel, 2000) proposed the broad outlines of a theory for developmental educators. This theory does not take the prototypic positivist approach as originally defined by Auguste Compte, “that a real, objective world exists independently from individual perceivers and that science merely discovers the mechanisms of this objective world” (Loving, 1997, p. 448). It is grounded in important, educationally relevant aspects of students’ environment.

The theory we proposed (Wambach et al., 2000) utilizes two process-oriented concepts: demandingness and responsiveness. These concepts characterize what is important about the environment rather than qualities of the student. Environments (e.g., college courses, instructional techniques) vary on how much they demand and how responsive they are to students’ needs. In this view, there are no essential characteristics about students that developmental educators must identify, measure, or change to help them become successful. This is not to say, however, that students do not differ in important ways. We believe it is useful to research these differences and convenient to name them as traits, attitudes, and so on, as long as we recognize them as ways of responding to the environment rather than as essential student qualities (Wambach & Brothen, 2000).

Just as demanding natural environments “fine tune” species to produce more adaptive qualities in organisms, so do demanding educational experiences select ever more effective academic behaviors. A responsive natural environment rewards positive adaptations with survival. A responsive educational environment provides feedback to students so that effective behaviors are strengthened and retained.

B.F. Skinner demonstrated the utility of a selectionist, functionalist approach for psychology. He also wrote passionately about applying these concepts to education (Skinner, 1984). We think his conceptualization of the individual as a locus of forces is useful in thinking about developmental education. Skinner often spoke of himself and others as a locus of forces (Catania, 1992). These forces provide the context in which behavior occurs. While highly interactive, they can be grouped for discussion as genetic makeup, reinforcement history, and current environment. We believe it is useful to view our students and our task in helping them according to these three forces.

First, the role of genetic makeup in student behaviors relevant to our actions as developmental educators is sketchy. Personality traits (Eysenck, 1998) and general intelligence (Jensen, 1998) are based at least in part on genetic factors. The argument has always centered on how much. It seems to us that genetic factors specify practical limits to behaviors (e.g., a very short person may never be a basketball star). But we never see such clear examples in our work with students. Perhaps the human genome project (Ridley, 1999) will settle what has always been a controversial issue, but it is not something we have any control over. There are more important things for us to focus on instead. In our own research, for example, we find the less stable, and thus less essentialistic, variable of task effort to be more important for our students’ success than academic aptitude measured by scholastic aptitude tests that are highly correlated with IQ scores (Brothen & Wambach, 2000).

Second, our students bring to us a reinforcement history that is 18 or more years long. In this time, students have acquired behaviors they typically use in academic settings. Some of these behaviors enable success in some settings and not in others. Some behaviors have led to success in the past, but need to be modified as new situations are entered. Students have also acquired some behaviors incompatible with academic success such as habitual television watching or substance abuse. They may also have acquired responses to academic environments that interfere with success such as test anxiety, falling asleep while reading, or generalized learned helplessness in academic situations. We think often of our late General College colleague Henry Borow’s comment that many of our students have been repeatedly “clobbered” by the educational system. Once again, we cannot control the past, but an awareness of it may prove useful in determining what activities might benefit our students.

Genetic make-up and reinforcement history resist our ability to directly affect them. They also have in common the notion that something is different about students because of their differing genetic programs or reinforcement histories. As long as we view these forces as affected by selection, we escape the essentialist trap and may even find useful ideas for how to do our work better. Some may not agree that genetics or reinforcement history are so important. For them, and us, we suggest an alternative. For the most part, in regards to our work as developmental educators, we can ignore them. The third force, current environment, is where we should concentrate our energies.


Throughout this paper we have made the analogy to evolutionary thinking that environments select behaviors. Central to our argument is that a selectionist approach to developmental education is useful because it helps us view our students in a more useful and optimistic way. Instead of deficits we see students who are products of environments that selected behaviors that may not be helpful in educational settings. If we continue to focus on the environment, the selectionist approach helps us decide what educational environments should look like.

Our task as developmental educators should be to create environments that select new, adaptive behaviors. Instead of viewing students with myriad learning styles before us in the classroom that would be impossible for us to accommodate equally, we see students with different reinforcement histories ready to have new behaviors added to their repertoire. Our (Wambach et al., 2000) theory focuses on current environment. It suggests that we implicitly assume that all of our students are at the same place, even though they actually may not be. It states that the social environments we create in our classrooms should be constructed in ways that foster adaptive educational behaviors. The theory states explicitly that these environments should be demanding and responsive. It is difficult to do both of these when our students have not had prior success with high school courses or with standardized tests. The findings of the Little Hoover Commission (2000) that 74% of developmental students did not progress beyond one developmental education course suggest to us this was because they did not feel challenged. But challenge without responsiveness is a recipe for more immediate failure—the educational environments we create must be demanding and responsive.

We (Wambach, 2000) have laid out some guidelines for how demanding and responsive environments should be constructed. Developmental educators currently look to mainstream postsecondary education for teaching models. We believe we must look elsewhere. Until postsecondary education in general is reformed, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, developmental educators should begin to change now. We (Brothen & Wambach, 2000) have outlined our selectionist approach in the classroom. We are certain others exist. It is important to remember that even though our classes, or students’ entire college experience, may be a small part of students’ lives, the environments we create are very likely to make a positive difference in their lives (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). We believe most developmental educators do this naturally. We hope this chapter helps us all think of ways to do this more explicitly.


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Brothen, T., & Wambach, C. (2000). A research based approach to developing a computer-assisted course for developmental students. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), The many faces of developmental education (pp. 59-72). Warrensburg, MO.: National Association for Developmental Education.

Broughan, K. (2000). The role of academic process in student achievement: An application of structural equations modeling and cluster analysis to community college longitudinal data. AIR Professional File, 74, pp. 1-22. Tallahassee, FL: Association for Institutional Research.

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Chiesa, M. (1992). Radical behaviorism and scientific frameworks: From mechanistic to relational accounts. American Psychologist, 47, 1287-1299.

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Jensen, A. R. (1998). The g factor: The science of mental ability. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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Applying Theory to Practice: Mediated Learning and the American Mathematical Association
of Two-Year College Standards

D. Patrick Kinney, Assistant Professor


This chapter considers theory and research related to computer mediated learning, a student-centered approach incorporating interactive multimedia software, and considers why mediated learning may be one approach to successfully incorporating the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year College (AMATYC) standards into developmental mathematics programs. In response to growing pressure to improve mathematics education in postsecondary courses below the level of calculus, AMATYC published Crossroads in Mathematics: Standards for Introductory College Mathematics Before Calculus in 1995 in an effort to set standards for intellectual development of students, pedagogy, and content for these courses. Implementing these standards has proven to be a challenge for many developmental mathematics programs. Mediated learning environments, when structured appropriately, may be one avenue for developmental mathematics programs to incorporate the AMATYC standards.

During the 1980s and early 1990s mathematics education was under pressure to make changes at all levels. The American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC), an organization whose primary mission includes the development and implementation of curricular, pedagogical, assessment, and professional standards for mathematics in the first two years of college, responded by publishing Crossroads in Mathematics: Standards for Introductory College Mathematics before Calculus (i.e., AMATYC Standards; AMATYC, 1995). This document provides standards for the intellectual development of students, pedagogy, and content in mathematics courses below the level of calculus. Implementing these standards, however, has frequently proven challenging for developmental mathematics programs. Computer mediated learning, a student-centered approach incorporating interactive multimedia software, may be one approach to successfully implementing the AMATYC standards.

Impetus for the Development of the AMATYC Standards

In the years leading up to the publication of the AMATYC Standards (1995) a series of publications called for change in mathematics education across all levels. Everybody Counts (National Research Council [NRC], 1989) states specific recommendations for changes in mathematics programs from kindergarten through graduate school. In Moving Beyond Myths (NRC, 1991) the National Research Council recommends that significant changes be made in the undergraduate curriculum, and in Reshaping College Mathematics (Steen, 1989). Lynn Steen proposes an outline for an undergraduate curriculum.

Much of the call for change in how mathematics is taught across all levels was influenced by two factors. First, there was widespread dissatisfaction with student performance in mathematics, especially when compared with international students. The Mathematics Report Card, (Dossey, Mullis, Lindquist, & Chambers, 1988) stated, “Although more students appear to have mastered basic mathematical skills and concepts in recent years, few achieve the higher range of mathematics proficiency” (p. 7). The Underachieving Curriculum, (McKnight, Crosswhite, Dossey, Kifer, Swafford, Travers, & Cooney, 1987) stated, “From an international perspective, U.S. yield in mathematics is very low” (p. xiii). The authors describe the mathematical yield of a system as the product of two quantities: the proportion of high school students that is enrolled in advanced mathematics courses and how much mathematics those students know. The second factor that contributed to the call for change in mathematics education was the release of reports such as A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), and Everybody Counts (NRC, 1989), which suggested that the United States would be economically disadvantaged if students did not obtain stronger mathematical backgrounds. In response to these concerns, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) articulated a set of standards for mathematics education from kindergarten through twelfth grade in Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM, 1989) and AMATYC published standards for postsecondary courses before calculus in Crossroads in Mathematics: Standards for Introductory College Mathematics before Calculus (AMATYC, 1995).

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