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DAP, Developmentally Appropriate Practices

    An extremely pervasive phrase heard in "modern" education is "developmental appropriate practices" or DAP. In DAP, meaty subject content is intentionally withheld from children in earlier grades. As a result, young students do a "social studies" lesson in what kinds of toys pioneer children played with, a science lesson on what kinds of things float or a "language arts" lesson that is no more than coloring.

    To ascertain whether young children are in fact capable of assimilating a richer structure of knowledge, ask any 7-year-old boy to list all 150 Pokemon and to explain their groupings, relative strengths, and evolving sequences.

    In his article, History IS Fun (PDF, The Concord Review, November 10, 2003) Will Fitzhugh writes,

    The Progressive argument that little kids can only care about their home and neighborhood cannot stand before the fact that lots of kids are fascinated by dinosaurs and superheroes, which are very rarely seen in contemporary communities, and that most kids love fantasies of faraway people and great adventures. Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University has pointed out that if Piaget is right that youngsters are only capable of concrete operations, how can their enjoyment of Peter Rabbit (etc.) at an early age be explained?
    There is an incredible irony: Visit a school, such as a Core Knowledge school, that provides its children with meaty, engrossing topics starting in first grade. Typically, they laugh at the majority of schools for trying to shoehorn American history into fifth grade, or world history into sixth grade. In Core Knowledge schools, learning is measured, substantive and pervasive through all the years of grade school, giving plenty of time and opportunity for thoughtful reflection.

    When schools first started lumping the disciplines of history, geography and civics together under the label "social studies" critics feared that this would lead to a dilution of content. This is exactly what has happened. Worse, social studies in later grades in most schools is dominated by heavy use of "research", "projects", webquests, essays, artworks, and other non-instructional uses of time, many of which have little to do with any substantive academic content.

    The University of Chicago's Bruno Bettelheim once said about this,

    "...The presently taught curriculum in the social sciences in the early grades is a disservice to the students and a shame for the educational system ... Children of this age are sufficiently surrounded by the realities of their lives. ... What children of this age need is rich food for their imagination, or a sense of history, how the present situation came about. ... What formed the culture of the past, such as myths, is of interest and value to them, because these myths reflect how people tried to make sense of the world."
    An even stronger condemnation of DAP practices comes from Dr. Kieran Egan, a recipient of the Gravemeyer Award for research into early childhood education:
    "[The elementary social studies curriculum] expresses a contempt for children's intelligence. ... Much more is to be gained by teaching disciplined historical thinking than by having [students] engage, while conceptually unprepared, the crucial issues that beset our society at the present."
    A very powerful critique of DAP and the dumbed-down social studies curriculum in most schools is provided by education historian Diane Ravitch, in her ground-breaking paper " Tot Sociology: What Happened to History in the Grade Schools". Click the link for the full text. Here are some excerpts:
    "The more closely I examined the social studies curriculum, the more my attention was drawn to the curious nature of the early grades, which is virtually content-free. The social studies curriculum for the K-3 grades is organized around the study of the relationships within the home, school, neighborhood, and local community. This curriculum of 'me, my family, my school, my community' now dominates the early grades in American public education. It contains no mythology, legends, biographies, hero tales, or great events in the life of this nation or any other. It is tot sociology.

    Jean Piaget
    "In the course of my research, I was told by many educators that the present K-3 curriculum was based on years of educational research. No one was able to point to any specific research, but they assumed that it was validated by the developmental studies of Jean Piaget. However, Piagetian theory is about how children learn, not what they are taught. In fact, Piagetian theory permits teachers to teach virtually any content so long as they proceed from the concrete to the abstract.

    "Leading scholars in the fields of cognitive psychology, child development, and curriculum theory know of no research justifying the expanding environments approach. In fact, they make repeated references to the 'vacuousness' and the 'sterility' of the content offered to young children in their social studies classes."

    What is the source of this weird idea that teachers should teach less? The constant drilling of new teachers in this dumbing-down belief starts in the schools of education. Charles Shields, writing in the south suburban Star newspapers, summarizes,
    "So pervasive is the fascination with how to teach -- instead of getting results -- that some teacher training programs in primary education argue kids shouldn't learn anything until, well, those programs aren't sure when kids should learn anything. This is called the 'developmentally appropriate' approach to learning. The 'developmentally appropriate' experts say learning is a natural unfolding that occurs at different times for different children. Children should be discouraged to read and write before they are 'ready.' Fortunately, such egregious baloney doesn't sit well with everyone."
    The impact of developmentalism (DAP) was well described by Prof. E. D. Hirsch, founder of the The Core Knowledge Foundation, in testimony before Congress:
    "To withhold demanding content from young children between preschool and third grade has an effect which is quite different from the one intended. It leaves advantaged children with boring pabulum, and it condemns disadvantaged children to a permanent educational handicap that grows worse over time."
    Prof. Hirsch discussed DAP at greater length in testimony to the California State Board of Education on April 10, 1997. Here is an excerpt:
    "The phrase 'Developmentally Appropriate Practice' has been very effective politically. It has played on our love and solicitude for young children. It is used as a kind of conversation stopper. If one is told that an educational recommendation is 'developmentally inappropriate,' one is supposed to retreat and remove the offending item from the early curriculum. But this retreat has to stop. We must stand up to unsupported rhetorical bullying, and rely on the people who know the research. To cave in to intimidating rhetoric is to harm our children, not help them. [It] is wasting minds and perpetuating social inequities. ... One of the greatest services we can provide to our children would be to start inducing self doubt in those early-childhood experts who have been wielding the word 'inappropriate' like a battle-ax."
    A powerful yet scholarly look at developmentalism (DAP) is provided by Dr. J. E. Stone in his paper, "Developmentalism: An Obscure but Pervasive Restriction on Educational Improvement" published in the Education Policy Analysis Archives. Dr. Stone says,
    "Developmentalism's ... most recent expressions include 'developmentally appropriate practice' and 'constructivism.' ... Today it impedes efforts to hold schools accountable for student academic achievement."
    Dr. Martin Kozloff, Distringuished Professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington is quite blunt in assessing the education industry's fascination with DAP:
    There has been no longitudinal experimental research comparing the achievement and affect of students taught with one set of practices (allegedly "developmentally inappropriate") with another set of practices (allegedly "developmentally appropriate"). The phrase is best understood as a rhetorical device by which a group of self-styled "child-centered" educators and publishers valorize "progressive" "practices" whose validation rests more on mere repetition of the phrase "developmentally appropriate" than on any research.
    Dr. Kozloff is even more emphatic about DAP in his essay, Fad, Fraud, and Folly in Education:
    The phrase "developmentally appropriate" is a rhetorical device by which self-styled "child-centered" educators and publishers try to convince gullible education students, teachers, and parents that what they sell ("inquiry learning," "discovery learning," "constructivism," "whole language") is good, and that direct instruction, practice, and teaching elemental skills first are bad. There is no serious research whatever to support claims about what is developmentally appropriate. Instead, the validation is nothing more than repetition of this vapid phrase -- a chant. The pernicious side is that advocates of "developmentally appropriate practices" believe that preschool and early elementary age children (even young children with known disabilities) should not be taught language and reading in a systematic fashion because this would be unnatural. Consequently, advocates of "DAP" either do not know (are so blinded by their beliefs that they do not care) that disadvantaged students and students with disabilities will be denied exactly the sort of instruction they need to catch up with advantaged peers. (See Hart and Risley's Meaningful differences .) This is how "educational philosophy" means the same as "the higher immorality."
    None of this is mere philosophic debate. Read about one parent's battle with DAP in this newspaper article, "It's Not Elementary: 'Developmentally Appropriate Practices' create a big stir." The article starts, "Gloria Hoffman started out asking why her daughter's first-grade portfolio contained nothing but a handful of art projects. She ended up in the middle of a national controversy."

Additional Articles

  • What Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice? by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator, American Federation of Teachers, Summer 2008. "What is 'developmentally appropriate practice'? For many teachers, I think the definition is that school activities should be matched to childrenıs abilities‹they should be neither too difficult nor too easy, given the childıs current state of development ... [but] this notion of developmentally appropriate practice is not a good guide for instruction."

  • History is Fun (PDF) by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review, January 26, 2004. "The Progressive argument that little kids can only care about their home and neighborhood cannot stand before the fact that lots of kids are fascinated by dinosaurs and superheroes, which are very rarely seen in contemporary communities, and that most kids love fantasies of faraway people and great adventures. Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University has pointed out that if Piaget is right that youngsters are only capable of concrete operations, how can their enjoyment of Peter Rabbit (etc.) at an early age be explained?"

"Expanding Horizons"

    Developmentalism is particularly evident in the vapidity and mindlessness of the typical program for social studies in the early grades. The form this usually takes goes under such names as "expanding horizons" or "expanding environment." To see how this dumbs down early grades, see the section on expanding horizons on our page covering social studies.

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