Theories Of Development

Why are humans the way they are? Why is it that the abilities of children seem so different than those of adults? What can one do to help children become fully developed adults? These are the kinds of questions that theorists of human development try to answer.

As it is easy to imagine from questions that are so broad, the answers theorists offer are equally broad, typically telling more about people in general than about what any one person is likely to do on a particular day. Furthermore, given such questions, the answers theorists arrive at are not always the same. In some cases this is because different theorists study different aspects of human development; in other cases it is because different theorists do their work using different sets of assumptions.

These differing assumptions reflect theoretical debates about four things. First, they reflect a debate about what in fact one should look at in order to measure the course of human development—should it be someone's actual behavior or the presumed internal psychological processes that might be reflected in behavior? Second, theorists debate how best to portray humans—are humans autonomous, self-directed individuals or ones acting largely in response to external events? Third, theorists differ as to the generalizability of their findings—is there one theory that explains the development of all people in all places at all times or are there many theories, each specific to a historical time and place? Finally, theorists differ as to the actual methods that should be used to divine the answers to all of these questions.

One useful way to understand these different approaches to the study of human development is to think of them as reflecting relatively distinct world-views. A worldview is not a theory but something larger. It represents a set of assumptions that a theory may draw upon to serve as the foundation of that theory's investigations. Three worldviews are evident in the work of developmental theorists. They are referred to as the Mechanistic Worldview, the Organis-mic Worldview, and the Contextualist Worldview. Theories that share the same worldview, even if they are not studying the exact same thing, are nevertheless said to belong to the same family of theories.

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