July 03, 1996
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  Order in Chaos

GSE professor Fischer explores human development

By Donna Coch

Special to the Gazette

Babies usually crawl before they begin walking, yet some crawl on their hands and knees, others push themselves along on their stomachs, some crawl for months on end, others for weeks before walking, and a few skip crawling altogether. Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Kurt W. Fischer argues that in order to fully understand development, one must be able to comprehend both general consistency (crawling before walking) and variability (not crawling at all, crawling for a week, crawling for months). Standard developmental theory, however, overemphasizes the universal consistencies in development -- so-called milestones such as the first steps taken by most children by age one -- at the expense of variation. Fischer believes that this narrow focus has caused a crisis in contemporary developmental theory.

Fischer explains that, historically, developmental psychologists have relegated variability -- one of the defining characteristics of human beings as a species -- to the back burner in research and theory. Paradoxically, the pervasive fact of variability in development is part of the reason that researchers have shied away from attempting to understand and explain it.

The task appears daunting: There are so many potential influences on development, how to sort through the complex chaos? Is it possible to even begin to account for all of the interacting sources of influence on a child's development? Fischer answers a resounding yes. A scholar of human development for 30 years, he has developed dynamic skills theory, a groundbreaking new framework within which researchers can explore variability, consistency, and the relationship between them in development.

Fischer contends that systematically analyzing the variability in development, usually dismissed as random, actually reveals specific patterns of organization within the variation. In assuming that consistency and variation are essential, interrelated aspects of human development, Fischer's approach has the potential to move the field beyond its current crisis.

Fischer and his frequent collaborator, Thomas R. Bidell of Boston College, characterize dynamic skills theory as representing a shift from "thinking about order and variation [in human development] dichotomously to thinking about these two characteristics as intrinsically related."

Fischer's work highlights four important sources of variability that illustrate the connection between variation and organization in development: emotions, social context, specific task at hand, and cultural context.

Emotional Dynamics: Nice and Mean

The idea that emotions affect behavior seems obvious. Most teachers, for example, know that when a child is emotionally content, she often exhibits greater mastery (intellectually, emotionally, physically, interpersonally) than when she is emotionally upset or stressed. And yet, contrary to common sense, traditional developmental research rarely takes into account the emotional state of the participants as a possible source of influence on scientific results.

To better understand the dynamics of emotions and social context, Fischer set out to investigate children's reactions to positive (nice) and negative (mean) social interactions. In the "nice and mean" research paradigm, an experimenter tells children stories about girls or boys playing together and acting nice or mean toward each other. The stories differ in the complexity of the social interactions described, and after each one is told, the children are asked specific questions that probe their understanding of the story.

For example, one "nice" story is about a girl who gives a boy a ball, and the boy in turn gives her a piece of candy, and one "mean" story is about a girl who grabs a ball from a boy, and the boy in turn pushes her.

The results show that there is a developmental progression in understanding such stories. Not until about 4 years old can a child provide answers to questions about these low-complexity stories that demonstrate an understanding of both the nice and mean social reciprocity; when asked what happened in the stories, a 4-year-old will say things like "She was nice to him, and so he was nice to her, too," or "She was mean to him, and so he was mean back."

However, there is large variation in the developmental pattern, especially for children who have been exposed to trauma such as abuse or neglect. Due to their overexperience with the negative, many abused children focus on and understand "mean" stories earlier and better than they understand "nice" stories of equal complexity. More generally, these children organize their worlds around the negative in contrast to nonabused children who organize their worlds around the positive.

As a consequence, abused children's understandings of relationships and social interactions are focused more on the negative than on the positive; they understand "mean" stories better because they have experienced more mean things. Thus, continuing into adolescence and adulthood, they organize themselves and their relationships around their main emotional experiences.

Within a dynamic skills approach, variations in the development of social relationships and self concepts as well as other skills can be explained only by considering the influence of emotions. Specific investigations of the emotional state as a source of variation have revealed several different emotion-dependent patterns of development. Fischer and his collaborators, Harvard Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor Catherine Ayoub and the late Samuel Priest Rose, pointed out that abused children are not simply immature in their understandings of social interactions or cognitively deficient in some way, but instead they are developing along a different pathway. He calls this "affectively organized development," the idea being that emotions can act as a source of variation in development and that, in analyzing the variation, patterns begin to emerge.

Contextual Dynamics: Self-in-Relationships Study

Another study conducted by Fischer and Bruce Kennedy, who earned his Ed.D. from Harvard in 1994, exemplifies the effects that the task at hand and the amount of social support can have on adolescents' conceptions of themselves.

The "self-in-relationships" study had two conditions. In the low-support condition, an adolescent was simply asked to describe herself in different relationships in an open-ended interview format typically used in assessments of self-concept. For example, the interviewer would ask the adolescent to describe herself when she was with her mother, and then when she was with her best friend.

In the high-support condition, the adolescent constructed a detailed diagram of self-generated descriptions of herself in different relationships and answered a series of specific questions about herself in those relationships. For example, under the guidance of the interviewer, the adolescent would write down words that described her when she was with her mother and then words that described her when she was with her best friend. Then she would place those self-descriptions on a diagram, which she could consult as the interviewer asked her a series of questions designed to probe her understanding of herself in relationships.

Both conditions assessed adolescents' self-concepts, but differences in the task and the degree of social support between the conditions produced consistent variations in a sample of American adolescents. When placed on a developmental scale, the level of self-concept understanding demonstrated in the low-support condition was consistently lower than the level of self-concept understanding demonstrated by the same adolescent in the high-support condition. The combination of the self-created visual diagram and the structured, conversational interview in the high-support condition apparently primed adolescents to function at a higher level. Within the dynamic skills theory framework, experimental variation of the specific task and the degree of social support was accompanied by a predictable increase in level of self-concept development.

Cultural Dynamics: Cross-Cultural Comparisons

The self-in-relationships study also included a sample of Korean adolescents, in part because, as Fischer and Kennedy note, "scholars have often claimed that the collectivist nature of Far Eastern cultures means that people there have no clear self-concept comparable to that of people in the West." Indeed, in the low-support condition, Korean adolescents showed "simple, primitive self-descriptions." However, in the high-support condition, their self-descriptions were much more complex -- only about one year behind in level of complexity in comparison to American adolescents. It is not surprising that growing up in a culture that de-emphasizes the self affects the ease with which a child spontaneously talks about herself. However, traditional developmental researchers have concluded that Asian children do not have well-developed self-concepts primarily from evidence gathered during open-ended interviews that require spontaneously talking about oneself.

While Korean adolescents demonstrated a level of self-understanding similar to that for American adolescents in the high-support condition, the content of their self-concepts was quite different. In contrast to American adolescents, Korean adolescents when describing their selves-in-relationships discussed school more positively, focused more centrally on their mothers than their fathers, and demonstrated an extreme split between public and private personas.

Fischer and Kennedy conclude that the content of self-concepts is highly dependent on cultural context, while level of self-understanding at a given age is similar across cultural contexts. By using multiple assessment conditions with varying degrees of contextual support, the dynamic skills approach can demonstrate not only the effects of task and social support on development, but also the effects of culture. Culture is another real source of variation in development, inextricably interconnected with organization in development.

Developmental Dynamics: A Range of Competencies

Human development is complicated and dynamic, and Fischer's research suggests that the simplistic, traditional view that a child has a certain fixed level of competence is simply inaccurate. Instead, a child has a range of competencies, depending on the sources of variability influencing the child. For example, do adolescents from a collectivist culture have complex self-concepts? Fischer's research seems to say yes and no -- it depends on how much of the complexity surrounding development a researcher is willing to consider.

Fischer takes a similar view of the traditional notion of intelligence. Rather than having a fixed level of intelligence (like an IQ score), Fischer believes that people have a range of intelligences -- dependent on the sources of variability at play at any given moment.

The results of Fischer's research overwhelmingly support both his theoretical position that it is no longer useful to blindly look exclusively at the consistencies in development, and his contention that emotional status, task, social support, and culture are critical variables for theories of development. Without considering such sources of variability, Fischer believes that a scientific understanding of development cannot be achieved.

Responding to those who are intimidated by the notion of accounting for variation and who are overwhelmed by developmental variability, Fischer and Bidell take an example of geology to illustrate the point: the coastline of Maine. The numerous bays, sandy stretches, sheltered coves, craggy outcroppings, and jutting peninsulas may appear to be a random and chaotic jumble of features shaped by wind, water, and time. Yet there is pattern within the variation. Using a dynamic systems approach to studying nature, geologists can now create mathematical models of the relationship between organization and variability along seacoasts; they can actually explain the vicissitudes of the New England coastline.

Human development is characterized by similar intricacy and complexity. Fischer's dynamic systems approach to development may offer the analogous possibility of explaining and predicting the vicissitudes of the developing child. In dynamic skills theory lies the promise of a scientific understanding of both the variation and organization in human development, the promise that there is indeed order in the chaos, and the promise that developmental theory can outlast its current crisis.

Donna Coch, a Samuel Priest Rose Research Fellow, is a doctoral candidate in Human Development and Psychology. This article appeared originally in the Harvard University Graduate School of Education's Education Bulletin.


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