Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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However, even with such compelling advantages, the classical approach to theory has not been immune to criticism. One criticism is that, historically, the classical approach has failed to provide a convincing general account of theory and theorizing in all areas of inquiry. For example, it has proven difficult to make sense of the theoretical structure of psychology and evolutionary biology in terms of general laws (Beatty, 1980). This has led some historians and philosophers of science to conclude that the classical approach fails precisely because of its emphasis on laws or universal generalizations (Beatty). For present purposes, this raises the possibility that there are legitimate domains of inquiry that are simply not governed by general laws. If this is so, then perhaps a theory of developmental education is possible that does not require the formulation of laws of human learning or development. One such alternative conception of theory not based on laws is the model-based approach, which I shall discuss in the next section.

The Model-Based Approach to Theory

Advocates of this approach hold that a theory is essentially a collection of “models.” The models of a theory are abstract entities that serve to characterize and define certain kinds of systems (Beatty, 1980, p. 410). As such, models are like maps of an unknown territory: they provide an abstract representation of “the lay of the land,” how the parts of the unknown territory might be arranged or fit together, and how the parts might interact. In the context of theories and theorizing, such models represent some phenomenon or process we are trying to understand and explain. For example, Newtonian mechanics looks like this if we adopt the model-based approach: “A Newtonian mechanical system = [df] a system of objects which behave according to Newton’s three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation” (Beatty, 1980, p. 400).

Thus, instead of equating the theory of Newtonian mechanics with laws and specific causal factors, the model-based approach equates the theory with a simple definition of a model or system that satisfies Newton’s laws. The difference may seem trivial, but it is not. For the classical approach, axioms or laws constitute a theory, whereas for the model-based approach axioms or laws simply serve as one way to constrain possible models. For the classical approach, the laws constituting a theory apply directly to some part of the real world—the laws are either true or false. For the model-based approach, the models constituting a theory are what apply to some part of the real world, and instead of a model’s being true or false we focus on how well the model fits. In other words, the claim that a model fits some part of the real world may be true or false, but this does not make the model itself true or false. To evaluate a model’s fit amounts to evaluating how well the model represents.

Applied to developmental education, the model-based approach offers a more inclusive view of theories compared to the classical approach. Instead of requiring that we find the causal factors and the laws governing a specific domain, the model-based approach would have us construct a family of theoretical models that accurately represent the phenomena of student learning, success, failure, teaching, learning styles, temperament, self-concept, and so on. The de-emphasis of laws allows this family of models to draw inspiration from a broader and more inclusive base that includes assumptions, hypotheses, postulates, and, if forthcoming, universal laws. In this way, the model-based approach emphasizes the construction of models of developmental education over the discovery of laws.

The model-based approach is also more inclusive in another sense. Because it does emphasize broad-based model building, it can more readily accommodate the diversity of institutions, practitioners, disciplines, and theoretical frameworks that seem to be a fact of life in developmental education. That is, while the classical approach appears to be committed to finding the single best theory of developmental education, the model-based approach allows for the construction of clusters of models from diverse sources. To formulate a comprehensive theory of developmental education the challenge would be to forge coherent connections among these clusters; this contrasts to the classical approach, in which a small and powerful core set of laws would be used to unify the disparate and heterogeneous subdomains of developmental education.

Advocates of the model-based approach have pointed to one main advantage of their view: that it more accurately and more faithfully captures the actual state of affairs in some areas of inquiry. In other words, while the core “natural sciences” may well be in the business of discovering universal laws and forging a single best theory for each domain, this is simply not the case for all areas of inquiry. In fact, some areas of inquiry do not appear to be governed by anything like universal laws, and some areas of inquiry appear to require a plurality of theories to adequately account for and explain their domains (Beatty, 1980; Longino, 1990, 2000). Given that there are such lawless and pluralistic domains, the model-based approach provides a useful means of understanding theory in these contexts.

With respect to a theory of developmental education, the foregoing discussion prompts us to consider two questions: Are there laws of developmental education? Can a single, unified theoretical framework explain our domain adequately? If we answer “yes” to these questions, then the classical approach offers distinct advantages; if, on the other hand, we answer “no” to these questions, then the model-based approach might be preferable.

The fact that the model-based approach is more inclusive, however, opens it up to criticisms from both the classical and the contextualist approaches. From the perspective of the classical approach, the model-based approach seems too inclusive. That is, even though it’s not the case that “anything goes” in the model-based approach, it certainly seems as if “everything goes.” How, after all, are we to halt the unending proliferation of models and clusters of models? Or, put differently, how are we to forge a manageable and coherent theory given the inclusion of all perspectives and points of view allowed by the model-based approach?

From the perspective of the contextualist approach, on the other hand, the model-based approach is not inclusive enough. That is, from this point of view neither the classical nor the model-based approach adequately accommodates the human and social context in which theory and theorizing occur. According to the contextualist, then, not considering these contextual factors and their role in theory making renders both the classical and the model-based approach fundamentally incomplete.

The Contextualist Approach to Theory

In the previous two sections, I presented two general approaches to theory and theorizing. But the manner in which I presented those approaches itself becomes problematic once we try to make sense of theory and theorizing from the contextualist point of view. In particular, I presented both the classical and the model-based approaches as abstract and general philosophical positions without reference to the specific contexts in which they originated or in which they might be deployed. For the classical approach, we need to focus on systems of universal generalizations—because that is what a theory is. For the model-based approach, we need to focus on families of abstract models—because that is what a theory is. But one basic tenet of the contextualist approach is that knowledge, explanation, justification, and theorizing cannot adequately be understood unless we realize that all these things are intricately bound up with specific human and social contexts (Longino, 1990, 2000).

What I am calling the contextualist approach, then, is a broad umbrella term that includes postmodernism, poststructuralism, feminism, literary theory, social constructivism, and deconstruction. For purposes of illustrating a contextualist approach to theory, I will present just one thread of this complex skein by focusing on feminist philosopher of science Helen Longino.

Longino’s overall goal is to demonstrate that “scientific knowledge” is best understood as a form of social knowledge (Longino, 1990, 2000). She accomplishes this by providing an analysis of evidential reasoning, arguing

that evidential reasoning is always context-dependent, that data are evidence for a hypothesis only in light of background assumptions that assert a connection between the sorts of thing or event the data are and the processes or states of affairs described by the hypotheses. Background assumptions can also lead us to highlight certain aspects of a phenomenon over others, thus determining the way it is described and the kind of data it provides. (Longino, 2000, pp. 215-216)

Longino’s emphasis upon the efficacy of background assumptions clearly has implications for how one is to view theories and theorizing. After all, to the extent that evidential reasoning plays a role in the development of theories and in testing them, Longino’s argument would highlight the importance of background assumptions for theories as well. And if background assumptions come into play in specific contexts, then this is one sense in which theories might be seen as context dependent.

Longino (2000) continues by arguing that the ubiquity of background assumptions leads to a problem that can be solved by adopting a “social account of objectivity” (pp. 215-216). The problem is that background assumptions can include “subjective preferences” and “opinions” (pp. 215-216). Given that background assumptions are as important as Longino makes them out to be, how can scientific practice ever result in objective and intersubjective knowledge? Clearly, “there must be some way of minimizing the influence of subjective preferences and controlling the role of background assumptions” (pp. 215-216).

Longino’s (2000) solution to this problem is the key to her account of science as social knowledge. Basically, she argues that individualistic subjective preferences can be overcome by the right kind of community and social interactions. As she puts it, “The background assumptions that determine evidential reasoning are those that emerge from the transformative interrogation by the scientific community…” (p. 216). “Transformative interrogation,” which is also called transformative criticism elsewhere, amounts to “…subjecting hypotheses, data, reasoning, and background assumptions to criticism from a variety of perspectives” (p. 274).

The right kind of community is one in which such transformative criticism is nurtured. More specifically, such a community is distinguished by “. . . establishing or designating appropriate venues for criticism, uptake of criticism (i.e., response and change), public standards that regulate discursive interactions, and equality of intellectual authority…” (p. 275). Longino’s arguments concerning science as social knowledge thus highlight the contextual role of a particular community’s “methodological choices, commitments, or standards” (p. 278) as essential to understanding how that community can produce objective and well-justified knowledge.

With the above overview serving as background, we can now make sense of Longino’s (1990) claim that

[The] theory which is the product of the most inclusive scientific community is better, other things being equal, than [a theory] which is the product of the most exclusive. It is better not as measured against some independently accessible reality but better as measured against the cognitive needs of a genuinely democratic community. (p. 214)

I take it that a community becomes more “inclusive” by nurturing transformative criticism and by fostering social interactions that distribute power as equally as possible among members of that community. The startling conclusion that follows from Longino’s account is that inclusive communities actually produce more objective and better justified knowledge than communities that are exclusive, homogeneous, hierarchical, and in which the interchange of ideas and criticism is limited.

The upshot for those interested in pursuing theory in developmental education is that the contextualist approach broadens the meaning of theory and to theorize to encompass communities and their epistemological standards. So, to construct a good theory requires that we do more than merely identify causal factors and laws or merely develop families of abstract models. Instead, we must be mindful of the community from which our theories arise, and we must nurture communication and criticism within that community. This is so because the contextualist account implies that better theories require a certain community structure and a certain ongoing social interaction within that community.

One advantage of the contextualist approach is that it values the diversity we find in developmental education. That is, it is implicit to Longino’s position that a diverse community can do a better job of producing knowledge and theoretical frameworks exactly because such communities contain different points of view. Adopting a contextualist approach to theory would therefore allow developmental educators to present the field’s incredible diversity as an asset instead of a liability.

In a similar vein, the contextualist approach provides a novel resolution to a tension some developmental educators may experience regarding the call to do theory. That is, many developmental educators are committed to the field because they view it as a means of reforming traditional higher education and especially the academy (e.g., Spann & McCrimmon, 1998, pp. 44-45). After all, the students we serve have been systematically rejected by the academy and thus denied access to higher education and its benefits. For many, this is a political as well as an intellectual issue. Insofar as the call to theory is interpreted as a call to become part and parcel of mainstream academe—to “do theory” and conform to the standards of the academy—then this amounts to becoming exactly that which developmental education has traditionally stood against. But the contextualist approach recasts the meaning of theory. Instead of considering theory as abstract, disconnected from practice, intellectual, and hegemonic, the contextualist links theory to social interaction in particular communities at particular historical moments. Theory thus becomes bound up with the local, the pragmatic, the social, and the political.

On the downside, other developmental educators may recoil from the contextualist’s broader conception of theory. The problem is that such a conception stretches the meaning of theory significantly beyond what has traditionally been meant by that term. For example, those who are sympathetic to the classical approach to theories may well find Longino’s contextualism interesting but nonetheless irrelevant to the real business of making, testing, and refining a theory.


As developmental educators increasingly encounter and reflect upon theory, they will find themselves forced not only to think within a particular theoretical framework but also to think more about theoretical frameworks and approaches in general. Just as we have become mindful of different student learning styles, so must we become mindful of our colleagues’ different theory styles.

The classical, model-based, and contextualist approaches to theory discussed in this chapter each enshrine a different set of intuitions regarding theory and research. It is worth stressing that none of these approaches is “inherently” or “naturally” superior to the others. As I have tried to show, each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages. Rather than fall into the trap of arguing that one approach is the right approach, it would be very instructive for each of us to take a current research project and to consider it through the lens of classical theory, model-based theory, and contextualist theory. Doing so would allow us to make more informed criticisms of alternative approaches to theory, and it would lay the foundation for creating a robust theoretical framework unique to developmental education.


Beatty, J. (1980). What’s wrong with the received view of evolutionary theory? Philosophy of Science Association 2, 397-426.

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.

Giere, R. N. (1991). Understanding scientific reasoning. San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Longino, H. E. (1990). Science as social knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Longino, H. E. (2000). Toward an epistemology for biological pluralism. In R. C. Creath & J. Maienschein (Eds.), Biology and epistemology (pp. 261-286). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.

Lundell, D. B., & Collins, T. (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.

Silverman, S. L., & Casazza, M. E. (2000). Learning & development. San Francisco: Jossey–Bass.

Spann, M. G., & McCrimmon, S. (1998). Remedial/developmental education: Past, present, and future. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), Developmental education: Preparing successful college students (pp. 37-47). Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, University of South Carolina.

Stratton, C. B. (1998). Transitions in developmental education: Interviews with Hunter Boylan and David Arendale. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), Developmental education: Preparing successful college students (pp. 25-36). Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, University of South Carolina.

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

The Student Personnel Point of View

Jeanne L. Higbee, Associate Professor

Developmental Education

This chapter provides a history of The Student Personnel Point of View and explores how this theoretical perspective provides a foundation for developmental education theory, research, and practice. In 1926 the American Council on Education (ACE) established the Committee on Personnel Methods to explore student personnel programs and services in higher education (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators [NASPA], 1989). This committee, led by H.E. Hawkes, conducted a survey authored by L.B. Hopkins to determine specific institutional practices designed to promote students’ individual development. The results of this research, published in 1926 in The Educational Record (NASPA), prompted further investigation and innovation in the area of testing and measurements. In 1936 ACE replaced the Committee on Personnel Methods with the Committee on Measurement and Guidance. In April, 1937, the Executive Committee of ACE sponsored an invited meeting to examine ACE’s role in further study and clarification of student personnel work.

The Original Student Personnel Point of View

The following individuals participated in the 1937 conference that developed The Student Personnel Point of View: Thyrsa Amos, F. F. Bradshaw, D.S. Bridgman, A.J. Brumbaugh, W.H. Cowley, A.B. Crawford, Edward C. Elliott, Burton P. Fowler, D.H. Gardner, H.E. Hawkes, L.B. Hopkins, F.J. Kelly, Edwin A. Lee, Esther Lloyd-Jones, D.G. Paterson, C. Gilbert Wrenn, C.S. Marsh, D.J. Shank, and G.F. Zook, then president of ACE (NASPA, 1989, p. 38). This list represents a virtual “who’s who” in the history of the profession of college student development. Their report resulted in the formation of the ACE Committee on Student Personnel Work.

The Student Personnel Point of View (ACE, 1937; reprinted by NASPA, 1989) is divided into four sections: (a) Philosophy, (b) Student Personnel Services, (c) Coordination, and (d) Future Development. However, it is in the first two paragraphs that the authors established the theoretical framework that is the essence of The Student Personnel Point of View:

One of the basic purposes of higher education is the preservation, transmission, and enrichment of the important elements of culture: the product of scholarship, research, creative imagination, and human experience. It is the task of colleges and universities to vitalize this and other educational purposes as to assist the student in developing to the limits of his potentialities and in making his [sic] contribution to the betterment of society.

This philosophy imposes upon educational institutions the obligation to consider the student as a whole—his intellectual capacity and achievement, his emotional make up, his physical condition, his social relationships, his vocational aptitudes and skills, his moral and religious values, his economic resources, his aesthetic appreciations. It puts emphasis, in brief, upon the development of the student as a person rather than upon his intellectual training alone. (NASPA, 1989, p. 39)

The authors noted that prior to the Civil War “interest in the whole student dominated the thinking of the great majority of the leaders and faculty members of American colleges” (NASPA, 1989, p. 39). However, in the latter decades of the 19th century the emphasis of American higher education, reflecting the influence of the German model, shifted

through scientific research, upon the extension of the boundaries of knowledge. The pressures upon faculty members to contribute to this growth of knowledge shifted the direction of their thinking to a preoccupation with subject matter and to neglect of the student as an individual. (NASPA, p. 39)

It is fascinating that this comment, made in 1937, mirrors the viewpoint of many educators regarding the mission of the research university during the last decades of the 20th century as well.

As a result of this change of emphasis, administrators recognized the need of appointing a new type of educational officer to take over the more intimate responsibilities which faculty members had originally included in their duties. At the same time, a number of new educational functions arose as the result of the growing complexity of modern life…. (NASPA, p. 39)

Thus, student services such as admissions, orientation, financial aid, counseling and testing, career planning and placement, student activities, residence life, and health centers emerged on campuses across the country, often under the auspices of the Dean of Men and Dean of Women, positions that later merged under the title of Dean of Students, and later Vice President for Student Affairs or comparable position. “These officers were appointed first to relieve administrators and faculty of problems of discipline; but their responsibilities grew with considerable rapidity…” (NASPA, p. 39).

The authors of The Student Personnel Point of View remarked on their preference for the term “student personnel,” rather than terms like “guidance” or “counseling” to refer to their philosophical point of view, which the authors considered “as old as education itself” (NASPA, 1989, p. 40). They went on to specify the types of services that should be included in student personnel work, and provided guidelines for the coordination of these services. They stated,

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