Developmental Teaching and Learning

By: Terri O'Fallon

This is my 50th year of teaching; I started as a first grade teacher at the age of 19, with 30 children, 25 boys and 5 girls and two children that didn’t speak English. It was a tough year for a young naïve teacher, with only two years of college and no prior classroom experience; through that experience and subsequent years of teaching (the gifted, developmentally disabled adults, all levels of grade school K-8, some high-school, administrative work including Elementary Principal, Special Education Director and Superintendent of Schools; college and university teaching, private corporate teaching, online teaching) it has been a humbling and exquisitely delicious time in which I learned far more than I ever taught. 


There has been so much learning during these years, but the most important insight I have gained is the beneficial effects on learning and teaching that occurs when we know the developmental trajectory of individuals, from tiny babies to the epitome of the wise elder, as well as the developmental arc of our human family as a whole. It is a pure miracle, how each one of us actually grows up and wakes up in our own individual way, in a pool of other humans (who are also doing so at variable rates and capacities) in communities that are themselves, generally centered at particular developmental worldviews.


There is a different educational theory for every developmental perspective and while a mentor can teach certain important skills regardless of their developmental level, the way those skills are taught will be influenced by their model of teaching; teachers are likely to select a teaching model that fits their own developmental view. Individuals in the process of growing up…babies, elementary children, middle school children, high-school students, college students, higher education students, and othersare all being taught by teachers or mentors who are also in the process of growing up, and in that growing up space, their own path is affecting those they are teaching. They are often teaching the way that suits them and their own developmental needs without considering where the student is at developmentally; projecting their own developmental needs on the student. Also influencing teachers are the way they themselves have been taught and their personal experience of each developmental level as they lived it themselves—how a level was expressed for them in an earlier time is often very different than the way people experience these levels now. Developmental levels are not only vertical but they are horizontal and diagonal.


I can use myself as an example. When I grew up in a “little house on the prairie” environment so many years ago, a concrete conventional community was a small church community sharing common neighbors whose children went to the one room country school I attended and to the small farming high-school of 80 students.  All these settings were supported by a strong set of conventional behavioral rules to which we mostly complied. We often think of “Amber” or “Diplomat" (i.e., ethnocentric) cultures to be “close knit” collectives that follow the same rules, and while this may be true, these days, a child’s “close knit” community may actually reside all over the world, given the access they have of the internet, texting, tweeting, and other technological approaches to communication, as well as the domestic and international travel that many enjoy. Learners can be mentored by and influenced by someone on the other side of the globe, as  “conventional” space has expanded exponentially and continues to do so.


In addition, if children with early conventional perspectives have post-conventional parents who live out their worldviews in the home environment, these children may have the diagonal experience of learning many postmodern terms and conventions even as they are still very early in their development, for their parents are constructing post-conventional contexts for the child to put their conventional development into, ready or not. A child who might thrive on rules may simply not have any in the face of the “humane” intentions of their parents.  Development often isn’t a conscious part of the teaching act even though it is the DNA that carries so much learning. 


In these conditions, the question we must ask is:  What does a basic understanding of developmental education for children and parents and teachers look like, if we are all growing up and waking up together at different levels? We are currently compelled to live in an era in which these worldviews concur and shift very quickly. How do we address the needs of the children, parents and teachers, so that everyone has the opportunity to evolve in learning environments that support their particular developmental needs?  Children aren’t experiencing the same thing we did when we were at their level of development. Brothers and sisters aren’t even experiencing the same contexts, they are changing so quickly. What might a teacher do? (And by teacher I mean parents, who are the child’s first teachers, school instructors at all levels, coaches and anyone who is in any kind of mentoring role to anyone else, older or younger.)


First, we can support children in understanding that they are growing and developing. They love to look at pictures of themselves when they were younger and a parent or mentor can call attention to how they have grown, not only concretely, but also subtly—what do they know now that they didn’t when they were younger. This can be a constant subtle process of reminding and sharing with children, perhaps using electronic portfolios, and a rapid review process every now and then so that the children themselves begin to understand in a fundamental way that they are changing, eternally developing beings through their lifetime, and to be able to recognize these concrete and subtle changes for themselves. This simple early focus can begin the autopoietic, self-replicating process of awareness of one’s own concrete and subtle changing through time.


Secondly, we can learn what perspective taking is:

  • What, specifically, is a first person perspective?
  • Can we distinguish that from a second person perspective in those we are connecting to?
  • Do we recognize when our children/students/friends are in transition from one perspective to another?


Regardless of the fast paced changing contexts these perspectives are living in, these 1st through 6th person perspectives are part of our deep structure and are quite predictable; they can be seen by the trained eye despite changing contexts. The capacity to recognize when a child (or an adult) is taking a particular perspective can be very helpful in the teaching/learning moment. If you understand basic first, second, third and fourth person perspective taking and their patterns, you can adjust your mentoring and support for those you are working with. You can also notice your favorite ways to teach, mentor and parent, and perhaps, note the urge to use your favorite approach, rather than what the student may learn best from. You can also notice the level of the contexts that can be created and begin to construct contexts for your students that are appropriate to their developmental level, which may or may not be congruent with the one you prefer to mentor in and teach in. You can learn to be fluid in your teaching and context building, as students transition from one level of perspective taking to another.


Lastly you can support a subtle commons; that is, the right for every person to know their own level of perspective taking, and to have the means to monitor their own growth without undue cost such that most people on the planet can access this knowledge. This is not, at this point, a human right; but as Ken Wilber says, knowing one’s own developmental level is psycho active; it helps one grow up and wake up to simply have access to that knowledge.


For me, developmental understanding, recognition, teaching and context construction paves the teaching road with compassion. It helps me step out of my own urges to support another’s deepest learning needs in the moment, and in that act, I find myself developing as well, one of my greatest joys.

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