Early Childhood Education

Developmental-Interaction Approach


The developmental-interaction approach represents a set of beliefs and values about teaching and learning for children as well as the adults who teach them. This approach to early childhood education is identified with Bank Street College of Education and is named for its salient concepts, including “the changing patterns of growth, understanding, and response that characterize children and adults as they develop; and the dual meaning of interaction, as first, the interconnected spheres of thought and emotion, and equally, the importance of engagement with the world of people, materials, and ideas” (Nager and Shapiro, 2000).

Rooted in the early years of the twentieth century, the developmental- interaction approach is associated with Progressivism and shares features with a democratic pedagogy, including an emphasis on humanist values and the belief that education provides an opportunity to engage in and create a more equitable democratic society. Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the founder of Bank Street College (initially known as the Bureau of Educational Experiments), was profoundly influenced by the thinking of John Dewey and other early Progressives such as Harriet Johnson, Caroline Pratt, and Susan Isaacs. In the conceptualization that is now known as the developmental-interaction approach, school and society, democracy and education are inextricably linked. Developmental theorists such as Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, Heinz Werner, Jean Piaget, and Kurt Lewin, who saw development in dynamic terms and in social context, also contributed to the conceptualization of the approach. In more recent years the work of Lev Vygotsky and his followers has come to influence the understanding and expression of developmental-interaction.

This approach specifies a set of beliefs about the learner, learning, and teaching. The learner is understood as an active maker of meaning who is curious about the world in which she lives and actively engages with the physical and social world to make sense of it. As an advocate for children, the teacher studies how children learn and grow and strives to understand the communities in which they live. She forges a practice that integrates a deep and sophisticated knowledge of subject matter, an understanding of children and learning, and a passion for social justice. Together the teacher and children create a classroom community that promotes each child’s cognitive, linguistic, affective, social, and physical development. The classroom provides a context for becoming a member of a community. School is a major part of children’s lives and should provide equitable opportunities for children to build knowledge and skills while they are also experiencing pleasure, enjoying learning, and developing competence. Learning to respect others and resolve conflicts in positive ways are fundamental to the communal learning environment.

These ideas, values and beliefs guide rather than prescribe teaching. They provide a set of principles with which the teacher makes fundamental choices about subject matter content, methodology, and the physical and psychological environment of the classroom. Teaching requires a complex set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions with which to plan, implement, and assess curriculum and children’s growth.

In the developmental-interaction approach, social studies provide the core of the curriculum. It is selected as a core curriculum because it concerns the relationships between and among people and their environments, both in the present and in the past. It provides an opportunity to integrate knowledge and skills within an experience of democratic living. Bringing her deep understanding of the subject matter together with her understanding of each individual learner, the teacher guides children’s learning and the growth of knowledge by asking meaningful questions and selecting learning opportunities such as trips, activities, books, and other materials and resources. Children learn from their experience when they engage directly and actively with the environment and pursue questions that emerge from their observations, interests, and curiosity within a framework of connected opportunities that the teacher provides. The teacher is the key person, guiding children’s inquiry, making connections to academic fields of study, and providing continuity in experiences to facilitate and enable learning.

The developmental-interaction classroom is a dynamic environment that encourages active participation, cooperation, and independence. It provides multiple and diverse opportunities for children to represent, express, and communicate their understanding. The individual is valued as a thinker and doer and also as a social and emotional being who is an important part of the community of the classroom, her family, and her larger community. This understanding of the learner generates a broad understanding of assessment in early childhood. In the developmental-interaction classroom, assessment reflects an understanding not only of competence in basic skills and knowledge but also of how the learner makes sense of his or her world, the development of analytic capacity, and depth and breadth of knowledge in subject matter areas. Equally important is the teacher’s assessment of the attitudes and characteristics of the learner in interaction with the environment, such as the ability to work both independently and collaboratively, to exercise initiative and to be a socially responsible member of the community.

The central tenets of developmental-interaction apply equally to the education of teachers. The teacher education program at Bank Street College is based on the conviction that teachers need experiences as learners that parallel the ways they will teach children. Becoming a competent teacher is tied not only to information but also to the ways in which teachers experience, internalize, and construct their growing knowledge and sense of self as a maker of meaning. Some principles that govern the education of teachers include the following:

(1) Education is a vehicle for creating and promoting social justice and encouraging participation in democratic processes.

(2) The teacher has a deep understanding of subject matter areas and is actively engaged in learning through formal study, direct observation and participation.

(3) A sophisticated understanding of the development of children and youth in the context of family, community, and culture is necessary for teaching.

(4) The teacher continues to grow as a person and as a professional.

(5) Underlying practice is a philosophy of education that provides an organized set of principles for teaching and learning.

Developmental-interaction guides both the education of children and teachers. It does not provide a codified set of procedures, but rather presents a framework for the teacher’s decision making concerning choice of content, methodology and the physical and psychological environment of the classroom. The teacher has the complex task of expressing these values and principles in planning and implementing curriculum, assessing curriculum and children’s growth, and taking on the responsibility of growing as a professional. Together, teachers and children engage actively with the environment, expand their knowledge, and grow as members of caring, intellectually challenging and democratic classrooms. See also Advocacy and Leadership in Early Childhood; Classroom Environments; Development, Social.

Further Readings: Cuffaro, Harriet, Nancy Nager, and Edna Shapiro (2005). The developmental-interaction approach at Bank Street College of Education. In Jaipaul L. Roopnarine and James E. Johnson, eds. Approaches to early childhood education, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, pp. 280-295; Nager, Nancy, and Edna Shapiro, eds. (2000). Revisiting a progressive pedagogy: The developmental-interaction approach. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Web Site: Bank Street Thinkers. Available online at http://streetcat.bankstreet.edu/ essays/main.html.

Nancy Nager