home  news  search  vre  contact  sitemap
 Education for all (home)



Section 4. Developmental Process

Nature or nurture? An old debate, but one which cannot be ignored in exploring the limits and possibilities of what can be learnt.

Key points

  • The environment of home and family in the early years and development of key skills such as language and sociability are crucial to subsequent development.
  • Knowledge and understanding accumulates over time through the interaction of development and experience.
  • Expert teachers work with, and extend, the developmental capabilities of learners.
  • Neurological development continues through life, and capacities are not biologically fixed.
  • Development and learning, particularly in supportive contexts, extends to the fourth age.

The Importance of Development and Learning
Having reviewed evidence on the way social and economic contexts affect achievement, we now turn to what the reviews have to say about the influence of learning and development. The 2008 Foresight Report on Learning Through Life (MCWP) (xii)asserts its significance:

Learning through life has a critical role in unlocking a wide range of benefits, both for the individual and for society. Such benefits are diverse in nature, and can provide substantial and lasting outcomes. Examples include its potential to play an important role in engendering wellbeing and good mental health in the individual, and in promoting social cohesion within society. ... Older people in particular often require reskilling and professional development, along with non-work-related learning opportunities that might help delay the onset of neurodegeneration. Children and adults with special educational needs also benefit from appropriate educational provision. ...  (MCWP, p.8)

Early Years
As may have been expected, the reports under review particularly stressed the significance of the early years for later educational outcomes, as reflected by research into physical, emotional and intellectual growth (CPR ch.7; NCDS p.22; WBL p17, TLRP 2).  Hard evidence is available. For example, the cohort data of NCDS shows categorically the progressive impact of childhood disadvantage and is one of the data-sets that informed Sure Start and other contemporary policies for early childhood provision in England.  The significance of the quality of social interaction within home environments and pre-school settings, and thus on the efficacy of early years enrichment, is also well researched(xiii).

Primary Education
In relation to primary education, CPR (ch 7) recalls the work of the Plowden Committee(xiv) and the developmental psychology which influenced it so much.  Of particular contemporary consequence is the conceptualisation of the development of psychological schema to enable understanding.  Analysis of such processes has a long history, with Frederick Bartlett and Jean Piaget leaving a lasting legacy for education and popular understanding of such matters.  Bartlett (xv) viewed knowledge as a network of mental structures representing an individual’s understanding of the world.  Piaget(xvi) proposed processes through which new experiences lead to the accommodation of pre-existing cognitive structures, whilst assimilation enables people to use such schema to make sense of new experiences. Through the interaction of accommodation and assimilation, new levels of understanding develop.  However, CPR records (p90) that the implication of fixed developmental stages with limited recognition of variability and social influence has caused this cognitive theory to be heavily qualified. 

The Cambridge Primary Review cites a number of ‘post-Plowden insights’ (p90/1).  These include:

  • Children are ‘able to think and learn in the same ways to adults, albeit in rudimentary forms’.
  • The strong influence of heredity on intelligence ‘is now accepted’ but the emphasis in research is on the ‘key role of environment for explaining variability’.
  • ‘Social interaction plays a vital role in children’s development and learning’.
  • The ‘social environment in which children grow up can explain variation in their achievement in areas such as literacy and numeracy’.
  • Schools often ‘neglect the considerable funds of knowledge that children themselves bring to school’.

Teaching, and Learning
Such awareness of the social influences on learning particularly reflects the influence of Vygotsky(xvii) and of socio-cultural psychology.  This is also manifested in a renewed emphasis on the role of teachers, or more knowledgeable others, in supporting or extending understanding.  The crucial role of teaching is thus directly asserted.  The most successful teachers are thus seen to combine awareness of learner development with strong subject knowledge.  In parallel, learning is seen as a social process through which meaning and depth of understanding is derived.  These aspects are combined in dialogic teaching, group-work and innovative approaches to interaction and learner engagement (TLRP 2, CPR Ch 15).
More broadly, as CPR argued (Ch 13, Ch 14), the bodies of knowledge which learners experience are socially constructed and reflect the history, culture and priorities of their society.  They are learned though both formal education and informal experiences.  TLRP also reflected this perspective in citing the principle that effective teaching and learning ‘engages with valued forms of knowledge – with the big ideas, facts, processes, language and narratives of subjects’ (TLRP 1, 3). 

The significance of language in learning and development, particularly of young children, can hardly be exaggerated.  Indeed, some have argued that language determines thought and that linguistic categories frame and limit cognitive categories – the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis(xviii), but this is now seen as being too deterministic in its extreme form.  There is no doubt however that the early development of language, and its continued development through social interaction, is a crucial foundation for educational success.  As the CPR puts it: ‘language development, along with perceptual and spatial development, underpins children’s progress in reading and numeracy’ (p 97). 

Physical Development
Physical development and health is considered in both the CPR and IFLL.  Topics considered include child obesity, nutrition and infectious diseases.  Whilst levels of infection, such as measles, have fallen in recent decades, the quality of nutrition is variable and overall levels of obesity have grown. Overall, CPR records significant concerns with children’s health.

Neurological development
The Reviews also begin to document neurological and biological conditions throughout the life-course. IFLL (p.89) highlights: ‘mounting evidence to show that young people continue to mature for longer than was originally thought, physiologically and otherwise’.   Indeed, it is reported that: ‘neuroscience does not reveal a magical age at which the brain becomes adult – the brain develops well into the 20s’.  And further IFLL asserts that: ‘neuroscientific research confirms the plasticity of the brain ... the capacity to continue to change across the life course’ (p.32). There is thus potential for continuing learning into the ‘Fourth Age’ of 75 and beyond.

The interest in neuroscience was taken up by TLRP 2 and in CPR (p.96, 106). However, as the former reminds us, these are early days to draw conclusions for teaching strategies - even though ‘90% of teachers thought that knowledge of the brain was important in the design of educational programmes’ (TLRP 2). More understanding of how the brain functions, and of the practical implications of this, is needed.


Conclusions can be drawn from the evidence provided to TLRP 2, the Cambridge Primary Review and the National Child Development Study to the effect that:

  • children, young people, adults and the elderly have particular developmental needs;
  • the early years are crucial. Support for parents in conditions of disadvantage is likely to be highly cost effective over the long term.
  • it is not helpful to view children’s thinking as being limited by stages, for they can learn in as many different ways as adults;
  • meaningful social interaction and the influence of teachers and peers make crucial contributions to cognitive development and to school learning;
  • ‘biology is not destiny’ - for the capacities of the brain can be developed and remain adaptable from experiences throughout life.

An appreciation of human development is essential when considering teaching and learning.  It thus has implications for the policy frameworks which create the opportunities or constraints though which potential is explored.

(xii) This Foresight Report is an outcome of the Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project from the Government Office for Science.  It was written by Feinstein, L., Vorhaus, J., and Sabates, R., Centre for the Wider Benefits of Learning, Institute of Education, University of London.

(xiii) Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Siraj-Blatchford, I., and Taggart, B., 2004, The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project.  Final Report.  London: DfES.

(xiv) Plowden Report, 1967, Children and their Primary Schools, London: Central Advisory Council for Education (England).

(xv) Bartlett, F.C. (1932), Remembering: An Experimental and Social Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(xvi) For example, Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. 1973. Memory and intelligence. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

(xvii) For example: Vygotsky, L. S., 1962, Thought and Language.  Cambridge, MIT Press.  And 1978, Mind in Society: the development of higher psychological processes.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(xviii) Whorf, B. (1956), John B. Carroll (ed.), ed., Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, MIT Press.




homepage ESRC