Human Development-Stage Theories

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A Part of the Learning Theory Project


Stage Theories

Key Figures
Sigmund Freud
Erik Erikson
Jean Piaget
Lawrence Kohlberg

Important Studies
Heinz Moral Dilemma
Piaget's Conservation Experiments
Yurok and Sioux Identity Studies

Relevant Literature
The Growth of Logical Thinking
Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
Childhood and Society
Brain-Logo.png

The psychological study of human development has led to the creation of several stage theories--models that explain the processes of intellectual maturation. While each theory differs from the rest in profound ways, including when, why, and how a given individual develops his or her rational faculties, the three theories share several important things in common. First, they all express learning in terms of "stages," where the beginning stages of development lay the foundation on which latter stages build toward some goal. Second, the parameters that define each stage directly correspond with some specific type of reasoning or cognitive ability. Third, each stage is generally associated with a biological age, moving from infancy through adulthood. It is also worth noting that cognitive development corresponds with physical brain development in an expected way, and this fact is reflected in that most individuals pass through the majority of stages by the time they turn twenty-five years old. Half or more of this time will be spent in school as children pass from kindergarten to college. This underscores the role public learning institutions play in shaping the population since the average individual will spend his or her most cognitively malleable years in the classroom.[1]

Contents

Brief History

Sigmund Freud, one of the first men in his field to propose a stage theory for human development, began his work in Vienna in the 1870's. His study of sexual development through psychoanalysis led him to publish Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. This work laid the groundwork for Freud's Stages of Psychosexual Development (not presently covered on this page).[2] One of Freud's students, the German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, then built off his predecessor's work on psychosexual development, publishing his most famous work, Childhood and Society, in 1950. In it, Erikson articulated his Stage Theory of Psychosocial Development (an obvious spinoff of Freud's theory).[3]

Meanwhile, one of Erikson's contemporaries, Jean Piaget, was hard at work studying how children perceive and understand the world around the. He published his groundbreaking book on the development of key cognitive abilities in children several years later in 1958. Entitled The Growth Of Logical Thinking From Childhood To Adolescence, Piaget offered results from a series of now famous experiments, and these led to his Stage Theory of Cognitive Development.[4] That same year, Lawrence Kohlberg wrote his dissertation on the psychological development on morality, articulating the basics of his stage theory on this subject. The Heinz Moral Dilemma created by Kohlberg was designed to systematically separate moral thinkers into one of the six stages, and Kohlberg became famous for his moral quandaries.[5]

Each of these Stage Theories have been refined from 1958 to present, being used again and again by psychologists to understand and explain human development. Not only standing the test of time, these theories have entered into widespread usage in the fields of psychology, sociology, and education. Counselors, teachers, clinical psychologists, modern psychoanalysts, daycare workers, and parents alike all find themselves referring to the work of these men and their Stage Theories.

Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

Main Article: Erik Erikson

This German born, American psychoanalyst expanded on Sigmund Freud's psychosexual and biological development research by focusing on the psychosocial and environmental influences that shape human development. His eight-stage theory of human development begins in infancy and spans through adulthood. The stages are:

  • Stage 1: infancy: trust versus mistrust: in this stage, infants learn whether or not the world around them is trustworthy, and this initial impression, provided by their parents, sets the tone for their social interactions for the rest of their lives. According to Erickson, infants whose parents regularly provide them with food, care, and comfort will develop a sense of security, believing that people they encounter can be reasonably relied upon in times of need. Conversely, infants with negligent or abusive parents will ultimately come to mistrust others, having learned a form of dysfunctional self-reliance birthed out of insecurity.
  • Stage 2: early childhood: autonomy versus shame and doubt: In this stage, children gain motor control, which leads to basic mobility. This increase in physical activity leads to toddlers' increased interaction with the world around them. They are able to feed themselves, go to the bathroom, and explore their surroundings as means of exercising an autonomous will. Parents must be careful not to demand too much from the toddler, as doing so will lead to frustration, forcing the child to focus on his or her inability. Shame and doubt result. To prevent this, parents need to allow children to exercise their autonomy, become increasingly self-sufficient, and progress at their own pace.
  • Stage 3: preschool: initiative versus guilt: In this stage, the preschooler (age 4 to 6) moves from exploring the world to attempting to master it. A sense of personal initiative leads to ambition, where children are likely to seek to fulfill their own desires on their own. This desire, of course, builds on the autonomy they have developed and is itself the stepping stone to industry in the next stage. At this crucial age in psychosocial development, it is vital that parents and educators support children in their endeavors. Belittling these ambitions, or worse, condemning them, creates and unhealthy tension between internal desires and external requirements. Shame is often the result.
  • Stage 4: school age: industry versus inferiority: Children (age 6 to 12) begin to develop a stronger sense of creative ability and a corresponding sense of accomplishment as they achieve in their endeavors. Almost entirely self-governed projects characterize this period, where children initiate the project, stick to it, and feel good about their success. If this process is encouraged, children discover their identity as industrious individuals capable of contributing to society. If the process is discouraged, children begin to doubt their ability to carry personal projects to completion. This can make them feel inferior to their parents, teachers, and peers.
  • Stage 5: teenage: identity versus role confusion: During adolescence, the transition from childhood to adulthood really begins. Children begin to explore the possibilities available to them, hoping to shape a clear, independent identity based on their own volition. Success at this crucial point in social development sets the tone for a healthy locus of control. These individuals become capable of finding their "role" in the greater social environment around them. Conversely, children unable to establish a healthy identity, whether because of a lack of freedom or a lack of opportunity, dysfunction results along with confusion about how to apply their abilities to advantageous ends.
  • Stage 6: young adulthood: intimacy versus isolation: As individuals move into adulthood, both the capacity and need for meaningful intimacy becomes increasingly relevant, and a desire to find personal fulfillment through relationships with non-family members emerges. When this desire is adequately met in stable, committed, and rewarding relationships, a feeling of safety and a sense of belonging develop, leading to the development of a clear social identity--the individual finds meaning in his or her community. Failure to form long-term relationships based on commitment can cause frustration and fear, leading to avoidance tendencies as a defense mechanism against potential rejection. Long-term isolation often precipitates feelings of loneliness and depression. When this is not corrected, chronic depression becomes extremely debilitating.
  • Stage 7: middle adulthood: generativity versus stagnation: During middle adulthood, individuals typically establish a career, develop and maintain a romantic relationship, begin families, and carve out a personal niche in a given community by which they are defined. Success in these endeavors gives a sense of purpose and meaning to life Productivity takes many forms--children, wealth, work, etc.--and validates the effort invested up to and throughout this stage. Stagnation occurs when people fail to find avenues to expend their efforts productively, resulting in a sense of aimlessness and crises dealing with purpose.
  • Stage 8: old age: ego identity versus despair: The final stage in life deals mostly with reflection and assessment. The elderly reflect on the lives they have led and seek to determine if they were meaningful. Success leads to a sense of accomplishment and positive identity. Failure leads to depression, hopelessness, and regret. The former is a consolation to the dying; they have used their time well. The latter is distressing; the guilt and shame that result from feeling that life has been wasted becomes increasingly difficult to bear.

It is worth noting that stages 3 - 6 are of particular importance to K-12 educators since students will most likely succeed or fail at moving through these stages while within the walls of the school. During Erikson's 3rd stage, teachers serve their student's best by giving them a wide array of educational activities to choose from, helping them engage in completing their chosen tasks as is necessary, and affirming the fruit of student effort upon completion. During the 4th stage, teachers continue the process began in the previous stage, but help move children away from random tasks toward meaningful projects, emphasizing student creativity and how that creativity contributes to the class as a whole. By the 5th and 6th stages, secondary educators can begin to add collaboration and complex group work to student projects. The projects should become more meaningful, require each student to contribute, and be almost entirely student-led. These are the insights Erikson's theory offers educators.[3][6]

Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Main Article: Jean Piaget

The Education Psychologist Jean Piaget began looking at human intellectual development in the early 1900's. He posited a stage theory in which "the growth of knowledge is a progressive construction of logically embedded structures superseding one another by a process of inclusion of lower less powerful logical means into higher and more powerful ones up to adulthood." Jean Piaget's stages of development, unlike Erikson's, focus predominantly on the types of thinking an individual is capable of. These stages are:

  • Stage 1: the sensorimotor stage from birth to 2 years (infancy): In this stage, cognitive development is demonstrated through increased motor activity without the use of symbols. Knowledge of the world develops based on physical interactions and experiences, and remained limit to these confines accordingly. Physical development leads to limited mobility that allows the child to begin developing new intellectual abilities. Some symbolic abilities are developed in the form of language by the end of this stage.
  • Stage 2: the preoperational stage from 2 to 7 years (toddler and early childhood): In this period, intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, both verbal and non-verbal communication emerges. Language use matures at a increasingly quick rate, and conventional memory and imagination develop. However, thinking is done in a illogical, non-reversable manner. Impulse based action from the first stage continues to prevail, and egocentrism predominates personal and environmental perspective.
  • Stage 3: the concrete-operational stage from 7 to 12 years (childhood and early adolescence): In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Theoretical thinking begins to form in the most basic way, still tightly bound to the material world. Operational thinking develops in the form of: classification, conservation, reversibility, identity, seriation, and compensation. This is perhaps the greatest shift in cognitive perception.
  • Stage 4: the stage of formal operations that characterizes the adolescent and the adult (the only stage not reached by all mentally healthy and mature adults). In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. The learner is liberated from the physical world and can think in increasingly unencumbered terms. Egocentric thinking re-emerges early in this period. It is worth noting, also, that only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people never think formally during adulthood, suggesting that this stage is the result of cultural development rather than physical development.

These stages help explain why teaching methods in successful classrooms vary greatly depending on age. Educators serve their students best by constantly revisiting these stages and using them to outline what their students can and cannot do cognitively speaking. It is worth noting that the final stage--formal operations--seems to be the product of formal education in many respects, particularly a formal education based in the western philosophical tradition. If this is true, and formal operations is a culturally developed cognitive ability, it follows that one of the primary roles of higher education ought to be ensuring that all cognitively mature adults reach the formal operations stage. This can best be achieved by encouraging students to solve hypothetical problems, consider abstract principles, develop complex value systems ( morality, government, economics, etc.), and think critically about their world.[4][7]

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development

Main Article: Lawrence Kohlberg

Building off the work of Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg decided to study moral development--the formation of moral reasoning--in children and adults. This led to his development of a six stage model where the stages are grouped in pairs and movement from pair to pair marks a dramatic shift in moral reasoning. They are:

  • Pre-conventional moral reasoning (Stages 1 & 2): the child uses external and physical events (such as pleasure or pain) to determine whether or not an action is morally right or wrong; standards and compliance with rules are understood first, in terms of avoiding punishment, and second, in terms of fulfilling desires. A child thinks egocentrically about the situations that arise and seeks to resolve them in that light.
  • Conventional moral reasoning (Stages 3 & 4): the child or adolescent views moral standards as the means of acquiring and retaining the approval of both peers and authority figures, chiefly his or her parents and teachers. The child follows prescribed guidelines, judging success or the need to change based on how an action impacts relationships. Careful attention is paid to authority response when one is present. At this point, moral standards are held to rest on a positive evaluation from others, rather than on a simple fear of punishment. Conformity is important.
  • Post-conventional moral reasoning (Stages 5 & 6): the adult bases his moral standards on increasingly internalized principles that he or she deems valid, regardless of outside opinion. This form of morality develops over a long series of life experiences, being refined along the way. For this reason, it is deeply personal. Recognizing generalities associated with social standards as insufficient guidance for the intricacies of moral living, individuals at this level revise, edit, and fill in the gaps left by authority figures. They do this first by adding fluidity to social norms, realizing that these rules are subject to revision as the needs of those they govern change with time. Moving from this, universal truths about justice, equity, love, compassion, etc. begin to govern individual behavior regardless of the consequences, appealing to some greater, abstract good.

A major criticism of contemporary educational institutions is that they are designed to create "ravenous consumers" and "obedient workers." While arguing the truth of these claims lies beyond the scope of this page, it is worth considering how such desires would affect Kohlberg's stages. A system designed to create compliant citizens would want to train students in morality up to the conventional stages but no further. This makes governing easy--the status quo simple to maintain. Post-conventional thinkers will be more likely to oppose unjust laws, resist perceived corruption,and propose the revision of social values. Educators, then, are faced with a question. Do they serve society best by educating students capable of challenging the status quo, or do they serve society best by providing it with stability? How educators answer that question will determine the level of moral development they seek to establish in their students. Either way, these values are instilled both by reiterating and by demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of the various methods (much like Kohlberg did with his moral dilemmas).[5][8]

Classroom Applications

Understanding the psychology behind student learning is vital to successful teaching for two main reasons. First, biology plays a factor. Early childhood educators in particular must realize that their students are limited to the confines of their physical development and that those instructional methods and disciplinary approaches that require levels of reasoning beyond the biological, sociological, and psychological development of their students will be ineffective--useless at best and perhaps detrimental. Second, since successive stages build on one another, it becomes possible, through relatively simple trial and error, to determine what particular stage a given student is at, identify manifesting dysfunctions, and apply "stage-conscious" pedagogy to individualized teaching that will maximize individual progress. In short, understanding where students are in terms of development allows teachers to teach to where they are at, making effective use of the zone of proximal development as proposed by Vygotsky.[9]

For that matter, the role educators play in moving a child from one stage to the next in the various theories cannot be understated. The capacity to advance or succeed or to think differently does not necessarily mean that students will do so. Case and point, Erikson provides two possible outcomes at each stage in his theory--success and failure. Teachers can play a role here. Likewise, Kohlberg's post-conventional reasoning and Piaget's formal operations are neither inevitable. Those individuals that reach these advanced levels of human psychological development do so because they willfully continue down a path of personal education not traveled by many of their peers. Teachers, particularly secondary and post-secondary educators, exist to facilitate this advancement, and can do so by challenging their students to apply their thinking in increasingly complex ways.

See Also

Learning Theory (Provided by ED2130 on GGCWiki)
Jean Piaget (Provided by ED2130 on GGCWiki)
Erik Erikson (Provided by ED2130 on GGCWiki)
Lawrence Kohlberg (Provided by ED2130 on GGCWiki)
Sigmund Freud (Not yet provided)
Cognitivism (Provided by ED2130 on GGCWiki)
Developmental Psychology (provided by Psych2000 on GGCWiki)
Heinz Moral Dilemma (Not yet provided)
Conservation Experiments (Not yet provided)

References

References are provided in APA format as footnotes since footnotes are standard format for Wiki and APA is most useful for individuals in the Education program at Georgia Gwinnett College. Note that these references would usually appear on a separate reference page and in-line citations would exist in the body. If a standard for The Learning Theory Project comes into usage that is more useful than the current method, this section should be edited accordingly. It is also worth noting that a subscription to the online Encyclopædia Britannica is required to view full articles in some cases.


[1] human behaviour. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/275332/human-behaviour
[2] Sigmund Freud. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/219848/Sigmund-Freud
[3] Erik H. Erikson. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/191536/Erik-H-Erikson
[4] Jean Piaget. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/459096/Jean-Piaget
[5] Lawrence Kohlberg. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/321081/Lawrence-Kohlberg
[6] Davis, D. & Clifton, A. (1995). Psychosocial theory: Erik Erikson. Retrieved from http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/erikson.stages.html
[7] Boeree, C. G. (2006). Personality theories: Jean Piaget. Retrieved from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/piaget.html
[8] Crain, W. C. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136. Retrieved from http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm
[9] Eggen, P. & Kauchak, D. (2011). Education. Pearson Learning Solution. pp. 202, 211

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