Lifespan development, also known as human development, is a field of study that is devoted to understanding constancy and change throughout a person’s lifespan (Berk, 2010). Lifespan development begins with infancy and looks at several points in a person’s life in which significant change takes place. The study of children did not begin until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Berk, 2010). Throughout the years, there was much speculation about how people grow and change and when combined with research, theories of development surfaced. These theories were vital and provided organized frameworks for observations of people and they are verified by research and provide a basis for practical action (Berk, 2010).
Many theories developed to study the development of infants and children through out life and these theories continue to have an impact on society and research today. There are many notable development researchers and schools of thought such as Locke, Rousseau, Arnold Gesell, Ivan Pavlov, Lawrence Kohlberg, Social Learning Theory, Stages of Moral Development, and Ethiological Theories just to name a few (Crain, 2005). There are some researchers and schools of thought who still have an impact today such as Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, Jean Piaget and his Cognitive-Developmental theory, and the Psychoanalytic theory first developed by Sigmund Freud.
Charles Darwin is significant to developmental studies today because it was he who paved the way, or opened the door for the many schools of thought that followed. Darwin is known as the forefather of scientific child study (Berk, 2010). Darwin was a naturalist who observed the variation among plant and animal species but along with that, he also noticed that within a specific species, no two individuals were alike (Berk, 2010). Darwin developed his theory which emphasized the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Darwin’s theory stated that certain species survive in particular environments because they have characteristics that fit with or are adapted to their surroundings (Berk, 2010).
Those within the species that best meet the survival requirements live long enough to reproduce and keep the species going (Berk, 2010). Darwin, in his travels and research, noticed some similarities in prenatal growth among species. Darwin noted that the embryos of most species are highly similar in their early forms revealing their descent from a common ancestor (Crain, 2005). Today, in the broad scheme of things, Darwin’s theory is correct in that there is variation within species and only some survive long enough to reproduce and pass along traits. What Darwin did not understand was the mechanisms underlying the transmission of traits (Crain, 2005). Because of this, Darwin is considered the starting point for the vast amount of research done on lifespan development.
Another important aspect of the study of lifespan development is the Cognitive-Developmental theory of Jean Piaget. Piaget’s theory stated that children actively construct knowledge as they manipulate and explore their world (Berk, 2010). Piaget did not believe that a child’s learning depended on reinforcers as the behaviorists believed. Piaget developed stages and he realized that children pass through his stages at different rates and did not pay specific attention to the ages at the various stages but noted that they all pass through the stages in the same order (Crain, 2005). Piaget’s theory consisted of four periods: Sensorimotor Intelligence (birth to 2 years), Preoperational Thought (2 to 7), Concrete Operations (7 to 11), and Formal Operations (11 to adulthood) (Berk, 2010; Crain, 2005).
Piaget was able to convince people that children are active learners whose minds consist of rich structures of knowledge (Berk, 2010). Piaget’s research influenced much of the research today that focuses on children’s concept of self, other people, and human relationships. Many educational philosophies and programs that place emphasis on discovery learning and direct contact were encouraged by Piaget’s theory (Berk, 2010; Crain, 2005). Piaget’s theory did not come without criticism and challenges. Some researchers believe that Piaget actually underestimated the competencies of children. This called for much research to be conducted to challenge and refute Piaget’s theory and also to find ways to expound upon and improve his theory.
The most influential school of thought is that of the Psychoanalytic perspective developed by Sigmund Freud. This perspective states that people move through a series of stages in which they confront conflicts between biological drives and social expectations. (Berk, 2010). The school of thought basically focused on the fact that psychological change is governed by inner forces such as feelings, impulses, and fantasies (Crain, 2005). Freud had all of his patients use free association in their sessions allowing them to talk freely about the painful events of their childhood (Berk, 2010). Freud developed the psychosexual theory based on theiry unconscious thoughts. This theory states that how parents manage their child’s sexual and aggressive drives in the first few years is crucial for healthy personality development (Berk, 2010).
Freud’s theory was considered the first to place importance on the influence of the early parent-child relationship and its involvement in development (Berk, 2010). Freud’s theory received much criticism because he did not study children directly and was heavy on the sexual influences in development (Crain, 2005). The controversy surrounding this particular school of thought, prompted much research making it one of, if not the influential theories in development. Research on the many aspects of emotional and social development which includes infant-caregiver attachment, aggression, sibling relationships, child-rearing practices, morality, gender roles, and adolescent identity grew from the theory of Freud (Berk, 2010).
There are many different ways in which development is researched. One way is systematic observation. There are different ways in which observations of children and adults can be conducted. Some researchers choose to go into the field or the natural environment and record the behavior which is known as naturalistic observation (Berk, 2010). Through naturalistic observation, researchers are able to get a first hand look at the subjects. On the other side though, some people may not display the same behavior in their everyday life. Structured observations happen when the researcher sets up a laboratory situation that evokes behavior of interest so that every participant has equal opportunity to display the response (Berk, 2010). The ways that the research is gathered varies depending on what is being researched. Systematic observations tell how people actually behave but fail to provide the reasons behind the behavior.
Self-reports allow participants to provide information on their perceptions, thoughts, abilities, feelings, and other things of that nature. They are normally structured interviews, unstructured interviews, questionnaires, and tests. Clinical interviews allow for researchers to use a flexible, conversational style to probe for the participant’s point of view (Berk, 2010). Structured interviews, which includes tests and questionnaires, asks all participants the same set of questions (Berk, 2010). They are easier to score and the researchers are able to identify a behavior of interest because the participants is given alternatives in answer choices.
The case study methods brings together a wide range of information on one person, including interviews, observations, and test scores (Berk, 2010). This method is generally used when one wants to study a particular group that may be small in size but varies in characteristics. This method can be viewed as bias because the information that is collected is sometimes done unsystematically and is subjective and geared toward the researchers theoretical perspective. There are other ways of studying development such as ethnography which is aimed at studying a culture as a whole or a distinct social group through participant observation.
Ethics plays a major role in the study of development as well. It is important to consider things such as the rights of the participants. This includes, protection from harm, informed consent, privacy, knowledge of the result, and beneficial treatments (Berk, 2010). Informed consent is especially important because it provides safeguards for children and elderly people who are cognitively impaired or have to be cared for in settings for the chronically ill (Berk, 2010). Research generally creates ethical issues because of the search for scientific knowledge and at the same time has the opportunity to exploit people.
Berk, L.E. (2010). Development through the lifespan. (5th Ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon Crain, W. (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. (5th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall
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