The Role of Chronological Age. As is apparent from our age-graded educational system, chronological age is an important characteristic for many aspects of thinking and learning. As a group, older children are generally better prepared for learning more complex ideas and skills than younger children. Indeed, one way of thinking about very young children is that they are “universal novices” (Brown and DeLoache, 1978, p. 14). Growing older translates into becoming increasingly better prepared to acquire knowledge and understanding. As a result, when exposed to the same lessons or experiences, older learners are generally prepared to learn more from the experience than are younger learners.
Conceptualizing Developmentally Appropriate Education. Many educators and scholars have used the term “developmentally appropriate” to capture the notion that educational efforts should take age-linked changes into account. At this level of generality, the committee endorses the importance of the notion (also captured by the phrase “educationally appropriate”). It is important to caution, however, that the term developmentally appropriate has often been assigned extremely narrow meanings in developmental psychology and education. Thus, we must clarify what we do and do not mean when we suggest that learners of different ages have typically moved to different points along the novice-to-expert path.
From the perspective of developmental psychology, the committee means that age is an excellent predictor of how advanced an individual is in a variety of arenas—physical, cognitive, and social. It does not, however, mean that simple chronological age itself determines that level of preparation. Thus, for example, the committee is not suggesting that every child of age X is unprepared to learn concept Y. It would argue that there are some developmental constraints to learning: some aspects of understanding evolve gradually and sequentially. However, there is usually a broad range of possibility within any given age. From the perspective of education, the committee does mean that a developmentally appropriate curriculum takes the learner’s preparedness into account in what and how it teaches. It does not mean that structured, teacher-directed programs that follow a relatively fixed sequence (as opposed to child-directed, “discovery learning” approaches) are necessarily doomed to failure, a way in which developmentally appropriate has often been interpreted in education (see Golbeck, 2001, for a discussion of this controversy in early childhood education).
Developmental Theories and Learning. Of the theoretical perspectives that are useful for conceptualizing developmentally appropriate learning, the committee focuses on three that have the broadest application and impact: those of Vygotsky, Piaget, and Bruner.
Vygotsky (1935, 1978) focused on children’s cognitive development within the broader social context. More specifically, he suggested that at any given point in development, a child might evidence one level of skill independently, but with appropriate supports by the surrounding social context, the same child could show a higher level of functioning than had first been evident. For example, parents, teachers, or even peers might act as supports to extend the child’s functioning. Supports would help to push toward the higher end of what that child is positioned to accomplish—what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development.
Piaget (1970) offered similar ideas in his concepts of assimilation and accommodation. He argued that as the child encounters new experiences that go beyond existing levels of understanding, the existing concepts are stretched. Later investigators demonstrated the viability of using these ideas to facilitate learning (e.g., Inhelder et al., 1974).
Bruner (1960) proposed a “spiral curriculum” that “respects the ways of thought of the growing child.” Although he argued that instruction needed to be appropriate to the child’s logical abilities available at any given time, he also argued that “any subject can be taught effectively in some