Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Questioning Development: Introduction to Special Issue

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Questioning Development: Introduction to Special Issue

Article excerpt

As an educator, I hope to bring about change in learners. As I see changes unfold, I find myself looking for ways to describe what I am witnessing or facilitating. It is hard to avoid the term 'development' when speaking in common sense ways about change over time and, in particular, change in learners. Teachers often describe their students as 'developing', both in general and in relation to specific domains such as skills, understandings, orientations to subjects, or identities. Outside the classroom, 'development' has wide social currency. It is used by parents to compare their own child to others and by commercial interests to promote their 'educational' products. In commonsense discourse rarely do we stop to ask each other 'What do you mean by development?'

In this special issue, a group of Australian researchers invite readers to take a step back from common sense thinking and ask questions about development. Drawing from their considerable experience of ethnographic research in schools and homes, they present analyses which address questions of literacy development, presenting perspectives which may challenge common sense understandings.

Debating development

In educational research circles the concept of 'development' has been the focus of considerable debate, particularly in the fields of literacy and language. To say that 'development' is the focus of debate means two things. Firstly, if we take for granted the idea that development occurs--that is, that there are observable changes in learners over time which educators can to some extent predict, cater for and build on--there are still questions about how to recognise such development, whether it happens in the same way for all learners and what to do when it doesn't happen as expected. Secondly, there are challenges to the very notion of development, or rather, to particular versions of this notion. Often these challenges use the term 'developmentalism' to refer to a particular view of development which, historically, grew out of the science of child study and generated descriptions of what typically can be expected of children at specific stages (Rose, 1990; Tyler, 1993). Challengers argue that a notion of 'development' as linear progression is at odds with more complex accounts of learning and works against the interests of learners, particularly those whose learning does not seem to follow the 'normal' track (Cannella, 1997).

To further complicate the issue, critiques of developmentalism do not all come from the same quarter. No fewer than five different critical perspectives on developmentalism, ranging from the conservative to the postmodernist, have been identified in a review of the field by Howley and colleagues (1999). As they are associated with different political interests, critiques of development often lead to very different prescriptions. An example familiar to literacy educators is the notion of 'readiness' which, in developmentalism indicates a period just prior to the learner entering the next stage in a developmental sequence. 'Readiness' has been challenged from across the theoretical and political spectrum, from those advocating on behalf of children of diversity, who point out that some cultures may not socialise children to display 'readiness' in ways recognised by teachers, to conservative governments looking to reign in so-called 'soft' child-centred approaches. Based on their critique of 'readiness', these different interest groups may advocate different responses from cultural awareness raising for teachers on the one hand to standardised testing and prescribed curricula on the other. So it is important to consider theories of development, and also challenges to these theories, in terms of the policies and practices that are promoted in their names (Luke & Grieshaber, 2004).

Researching development

Research is a knowledge producing activity and it has been active in constructing accounts of development in general and literacy development in particular. …

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