Developmental Discourses


Developmental Psychology
Lifespan Psychology
Stage Theories
Structural Stages Theories


Qualitative shifts in modes of cognition

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … the range of developmental possibility
  • Knowing is … stage-influenced interpretations of prior construals
  • Learner is … a transforming individual (sometimes, an individual-in-context; rarely, a collective)
  • Learning is … construing and reconstruing
  • Teaching is … occasioning, prompting, triggering, listening




Within Developmental Discourses, learning is understood as a recursively elaborative process rather than a linear accumulative one. Most Developmental Discourses focus on how learners’ key habits of perception and interpretation – that is, their strategies and preferences for construing and reconstruing ­their webs of understanding – change amid predictable sequences of biological, psychological, and emotional transformation. The basic idea dates back centuries, but it wasn’t until the 20th century until a range of empirically grounded theories emerged, reaching across matters of individual cognition and social engagement. Associated discourses and constructs include:
  • Early Childhood Education (Early Years Education; Early Experience) ­– the Formal, Non-Formal, and Informal Learning (see In-/Non-Formal Learning) experiences of a child from birth to the start of schooling, at about age 5
  • Growth – in principle, any sequence of changes that contributes to expanded psychological and/or physical possibilities for an agent. That said, among Developmental Discourses, “growth” is often (but not always) treated as a synonym for “development” – and, by consequence, it is often interpreted to stop when the agent reaches “maturity.”
  • Hurried Child (Hurried Child Syndrome) (David Elkind, 1980s) – stress-linked behaviors arising from expecting too much of children too soon – often in the context of academic performance, but also in physical, social, and emotional matters
  • Maturational Lag – slowness in some aspect(s) of physical development (relative to agements), typically with consequences for cognition and behavior
  • Multistage Theory – a descriptive category that includes any model or theory that is framed in terms of movement through or across multiple, well-defined levels or stages
  • Pedology (various, 1920s) – a movement focused on the scientific study of child development.  Strong emphases are place on testing ability and determining individual differences
  • Personality Development – an umbrella term used to describe and collect discourses that address processes and consequences of self-creation, including tactics of distinguishing one’s self from others’ selves, sites of collective identifications, life-altering events, and ever-evolving contexts across the lifespan. Associated discourses include:
    • Positive Adult Development (Michael Commons, 2000s) ­– a model of constructive and lifelong personal development in element that is structured around six processes: hierarchical complexity (i.e., sequenced levels), knowledge, experience, expertise, wisdom, spirituality


Developmental Discourses were initially criticized for models of growth and change that seemed to offer universal developmental stages, failing to account for differences across cultures and settings. Current theories have responded with appropriate qualifications and elaborations. A second common criticism is that models of development are often interpreted in terms of ladders or lock-step linear trajectories. While some developmental theorists had that sort of imagery in mind, most envisioned something more like expanding spheres of possibility, with each new stage including but transcending prior stages.


  • Early Childhood Education (Early Years Education; Early Experience)
  • Growth
  • Hurried Child (Hurried Child Syndrome)
  • Maturational Lag
  • Multistage Theory
  • Pedology
  • Personality Development
  • Positive Adult Development

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Developmental Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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