The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) as the "framework of principles and guidelines for best practice in the care and education of young children" (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). DAP draws on knowledge gained from research on the development of children and also on the knowledge of effective educational strategies in order to promote maximal learning and development in children (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). DAP (2009) is important because, when used, it helps teachers make educational decisions that are appropriate for the students' age group, set goals for students that are both challenging and achievable, and ensure intentionality in all their teaching practices.
The decisions that teachers make in their classrooms can potentially have a great impact on students' learning experiences. Positive learning experiences lead to future positive learning behaviors such as persistence and flexibility (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). When making decisions regarding the education of their students, teachers must take into account the general developmental characteristics and learning capabilities of children in the age range that they are teaching and also the individual characteristics and learning capabilities of students within his or her classroom (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). All facets of development and learning are important and interrelated, and it is not until a teacher fully understands where his or her students stand physically, cognitively, and emotionally that effective decisions regarding their education can be made (Spano, 2004).
The decisions being made by teachers lead to the setting of goals in the classroom. Not only do teachers need to ensure that students achieve these goals, but they also need to challenge students to build on the knowledge they already possess to reach a higher level of understanding and development. These challenges must always be presented as the next logical step according to the child's stage of development (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). In general, the stages of child development are well-documented and follow a predictable sequence (Spano, 2004). However, it is true that each individual child reaches each stage of development at a different time which makes it important for teachers to know the general characteristics of the age group as well as the individual students' characteristics. If a teacher is not aware of their students' individual developmental levels, goals may be set either too high or too low, and learning will not occur (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009).
Another reason that DAP is important is that DAP ensures intentionality (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). Intentional teachers use their knowledge of their students' development to plan all aspects of their class, from the classroom set-up to the use of various teaching strategies to the types of assessments administered. Teachers must understand that development and learning take place best in situations where the child is secure in his or her surroundings and that positive learning experiences shape their motivation (Helping your child, 2005). They should also keep in mind that children learn in a variety of different ways, so various approaches to the material should be made. When teachers design their classes with developmentally appropriate intentions in mind, a much more effective learning environment is created (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009).
Now that the importance of developmentally appropriate practices has been defined, a detailed description of the characteristics of the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor development of adolescents ranging from age twelve to sixteen will be reviewed while discussing the impact that these characteristics have on teaching and learning.
The developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, classified the stages of cognitive development in children (Anderson, 2004). In his theory, there are four stages of cognitive development (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational) (Anderson, 2004). Early adolescents (roughly ages 11 to 13), says Piaget, experience the transition from the concrete operational stage to the formal operational stage (Anderson, 2004). Adolescents at this stage should be moving away from the concept of egocentricism, or the understanding that one's perspective is not necessarily the perspective of someone else (as cited in Malerstein & Ahern, 1979).
Another aspect of this transition is that adolescents move from concrete thought to more abstract thought, meaning that they are able to think about details that do not pertain to an actual object or event. Concepts such as love are more understandable to adolescents than to younger children (as cited in Malerstein & Ahern, 1979). Also, individuals in the formal operational stage of development are able to think more scientifically (Anderson, 2004). This means that, when presented with a problem, the individual will go about solving the problem by forming hypotheses and testing each hypothesis until the correct outcome is reached (as cited in Malerstein & Ahern, 1979).
Adolescents in this age range become increasingly concerned about the future rather than the present with early adolescents being concerned mainly with the near future while middle adolescents (age 14 to 16) are more concerned with future careers and life plans (Spano, 2004). These individuals are becoming more interested in their own potential, and also in the opinions of others (Helping your child, 2005). The idea of adolescent egocentricism is basically the development of self-consciousness (Elkind, 1967). Adolescents normally have thoughts that everyone is watching them, known as the imaginary audience (Elkind, 1967). This may stem from the physical changes that they are experiencing (i.e., puberty), which will be discussed in more detail later on. Another form of adolescent egocentricism tied to physical development is the idea of personal fable, where individuals perceive themselves as ultimately unique and possibly invincible (Elkind, 1967).
The implications of cognitive development on learning and teaching at this age range are quite important. Because adolescents now have the capacity for abstract thought, their verbal problem-solving skills are much greater (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). Teachers can now use inquiry-based learning at a more advanced level (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). For example, in the biology classroom students at this level of cognitive development may be choose a relevant topic, develop a research question, form hypotheses, test the hypotheses, observe the results, make conclusions, and communicate the importance of the findings to other classmates (Mississippi Science Framework, 2001).
Socially and emotionally, adolescence is a very turbulent time (Helping your child, 2005). During puberty, sex hormones, bodily changes, and neural pruning (the cutting back of unused neural pathways) lead to inexplicable mood swings (Helping your child, 2005). This is also a time when adolescents are developing a personal identity and sense of self (as cited in Hamachek, 1988). Erik Erikson's theory of the eight stages of development states that the most important stage for this age range is stage five: identity versus identity confusion (as cited in Hamachek, 1988). In this stage, individuals are beginning to establish a stable self-concept that does not change. However, Erikson also says that individuals in this stage can vacillate between being sure of themselves and uncertainty which may be due to the rapid changes that adolescents experience during puberty (as cited in Hamachek, 1988). In stage four of Erikson's theory, the individual begins to develop a sense of industry and inferiority (as cited in Hamachek, 1988). This means that by age about age twelve, adolescents should be aware of their own capacity to produce things as well as the fact that they may not be as good at some things as others (as cited in Hamachek, 1988, Helping your child, 2005). A sense of inferiority creates self-conscious feelings about oneself which may lead the adolescent to act shyly or aggressively but also to gain or lose motivation in academic endeavors (Spano, 2004).
Also at this age, adolescents are moving away from dependence on parents and closer to interaction with peer groups (as cited in Hamacheck, 1988). They begin to value the opinions and interests of their friends over the opinions and interests of their parents, and they also begin to take interest in building stronger relationships with people outside their immediate family (Spano, 2004). Therefore, peer pressure can be a major factor in behavior (Helping your child, 2005, Spano, 2004).
Even though adolescents are seeking independence from their parents at this age and determining their individual personalities, they can also revert back to acts of childish in times of stress (as cited in Hamachek, 1988). One must keep in mind that just because adolescents have the appearance of young adults, they are still somewhat children cognitively and emotionally (Kipke, 1999). So in the classroom, teachers should remember to set goals that are challenging but not too challenging (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). Presenting a challenge that can be accomplished with some effort gives the student a sense of self-confidence in his or her own abilities which can lead to a greater sense of identity, whereas presenting impossible challenging can have negative effects on self-esteem and deter positive learning behaviors (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009).
Teachers should also keep in mind that students are highly social at this time, so cooperative learning is a positive teaching strategy (Developmentally Appropriate, 2009). For example, in the biology classroom, have students work together on an assignment such as dissecting a frog while the teacher acts as a facilitator and moves about the room to help groups when they cannot answer the questions on their own (Mississippi Science Framework, 2001). Just remember that, in the classroom, social interaction should not stray too far from the content.
The most evident forms of development in adolescents are psychomotor and physical development. Roughly between the ages of eleven and fifteen, teenagers undergo puberty, or the development of secondary sex characteristics (Kipke, 1999, Spano, 2004). At this point in their lives, adolescents become capable of reproduction which entails a number of physical changes such as an increase in height and weight and body hair, etc. (Spano, 2004). This drastic change in bodily proportions, coupled with the phenomenon of neural pruning (which is the reduction of unused neuronal pathways in the brain during adolescence), sometimes leads to awkwardness and deficits in coordination as well as changes in affect (Coch, Fischer & Dawson, 2007).
Physical changes interact closely with emotion and cognition (Coch, Fischer & Dawson, 2007). Due to all the physical developments, adolescents spend a significant portion of time focused upon themselves which gives adults the impression of self-centeredness; and because they are so focused on themselves, they feel like others are focused on them as well which is the notion of the imaginary audience (Elkind, 1967). These rapid changes make them feel self-conscious and over-concerning about their physical appearance (Spano, 2004).
Although student may be awkward or clumsy at this age, implementing strategies that require honing of fine motor skills is a good idea (Coch, Fischer & Dawson, 2007). Having students prepare their own wet slides in a biology class is a valuable tool because it requires students to pay attention to detail and develop concentration and a new skill set that can be used later on (Mississippi Science Framework, 2001).
All of these new developments in adolescents lead to new opportunities in learning. Cognitive development allows young adolescents to complete more in-depth problem situations and focus for longer amounts of time (Helping your child, 2005). Adolescents are also developing a sense of self and personal interests, so they are capable of branching out into extracurricular activities that they enjoy such as music or art (Hamachek, 1988, Helping your child, 2005). This is also the time in life where individuals form lifelong reading habits, so encouragement to read is important (Helping your child, 2005).
In summary, the years of adolescence (ages 12 through 16) are a time of major development not only cognitively but emotionally and physically as well. For teachers, structuring content around developmentally appropriate practices is extremely important. Without keeping in mind the level of cognitive ability of their students, teachers run the risk of creating lessons that are either too long and advanced or too easy and short. Teachers need to understand what their students are going through emotionally and socially as well. Implementing teaching strategies where the students get to interact with one another is a positive motivator for adolescent students.
In the science classroom, all these implications are just as valid as in any other classroom. Designing lesson plans that allow the students to develop an interest in different topic and solve problems that are challenging will help them to reach a high level of development, and presenting the material in various ways helps students with varying personalities learn the material. Without use of developmentally appropriate practices, effective teaching is not possible.