5 reasons to be wary of choosing the development option

Travis DixonCurriculum, Developmental Psychology

I'd be thinking very carefully before making the decision to go with developmental psych' as one of my options.

This post was originally called: “5 reasons why I wouldn’t choose the development option,” but I’ve changed it so it’s less scary for those teachers who are keen on the option.

If you’re contemplating which options to go for in the new course, I personally wouldn’t be rushing into choosing development as one of them. I’ve only recently come to see just how messy and filled with potential landmines this optional topic is and so I thought I’d write this post just to share a few insights I’ve had into the issues in the hope that it might help your course planning.

Personally, I’ve always taught abnormal psychology and human relationships as the two options topics in IB Psychology. There are a few reasons for this. First and foremost, in my first year teaching the course many years ago these are the options that my students chose, and it’s been the same every year since. Another reason why I like these options is because they do a good job of covering topics from the core approaches as well (not to say that health and development don’t, mind you). They’re also the most popular options across all teachers and schools, so there’s plenty of good material available.

If you’re keen on development, of course, go for it. But I just want to provide a few words of caution and things to bear in mind before you take the plunge.

So here are five reasons why I won’t be choosing development as an option.

#1. The “ands” 

The development option is filled with ands. For example, in the first topic, Influences on cognitive and social development, we have:

  • Roles of peers and play
  • Childhood trauma and resilience
  • Poverty/socioeconomic status

The third bullet has a slash, which means that the IB is considering these two variables (poverty and socioeconomic status) to be one and the same. The fact that the others have an “and” (and not a slash) suggests that the IB is saying that they both need to be taught and can’t be used interchangeably.

So in just one topic, students have to be prepared to write entire essays on the following, using studies to support their arguments:

  • The role of peers on cognitive development
  • The role of play on cognitive development
  • The role of peers on social development
  • The role of play on social development
  • How childhood trauma affects cognitive development
  • How resilience affects cognitive development
  • How childhood trauma affects social development
  • How resilience affects social development
  • How poverty/socioeconomic status affects cognitive development
  • How poverty/socioeconomic status affects social development
  • Research methods used to study influences on cognitive and social development
  • Ethical considerations related to studies on cognitive and social development

Not to mention the “integration of biological, cognitive and sociocultural approaches” with all these topics.

It’s a similar story in the second topic, “developing an identity.”

The specimen paper on the OCC shows just how the exam questions could be phrased, as it has a question that requires students to understand how poverty/socioeconomic influences cognitive development. This means that students would need to be prepared to write an essay on how this variable influences cognitive development, and also be able to write an entirely different essay on how this variable influences social development (in case it was an exam question). That’s an intense amount of content – and this is a slash topic. Imagine what it is going to be like for the “and” topics!

#2. Ambiguous topics

It’s quite difficult to figure out in the development option if the titles in the “content” column are causes or effects, if they’re IVs or DVs. There’s a lot of ambiguity that makes effective exam preparation rather difficult.

Let’s take “attachment” for example. Now I would have thought that this could be taught as a behaviour, an effect, a DV. If I was teaching this option, I may have thought to teach the role of oxytocin in attachment. This would address the integration of biological factors as well. However, in the specimen exam paper posted by the IB, one of the exam questions requires students to understand how attachment influences development. Now if I had have taught it the way I originally intended (as a DV), my students would be unable to answer this question.

But later in this topic we have “development of empathy and theory of mind.” Now are these variables influencing development, or are they behaviours being influenced by other variables? Surely it’s the latter, but the exam question on attachment has me unsure. This topic in particular is pretty messy and I would find it very difficult to be confident in having my students exam-ready for this one.

#3. Restricted overlaps with the core

Undoubtedly the best way to teach an engaging, enriching and exciting IB Psychology course is to combine the options and the core. But the ambiguity surrounding the topics in the development option, in particular the uncertainty as to whether the topics are causes or effects, cuts down on the potential to overlap with the core approaches. This is because the core approaches often provide us with the independent variables (e.g. hormones,  genetics, enculturation, cultural dimensions, etc.)  and this makes it easy to overlap with options if the options topic is a behaviour (e.g. prejudice, conflict, prosocial behaviour, psychological disorders, etc.). But since it’s not clear in the development option which is which (are the points variables influencing behaviour or behaviours themselves – IVs or DVs), it makes planning for overlaps with the core a little bit harder. As a result, I’d be wary of putting my exam eggs in this basket.

#4. The abstract nature of topics

The “developing an identity” topic is filled with really abstract ideas. I’m not one to shy away from the abstract, but if you couple this with the ambiguity surrounding what students are expected to understand, it makes it difficult to approach with any sort of confidence.

Understanding what “identity” is in itself is pretty difficult, as this is rather abstract. Throw in ideas like empathy, theory of mind and social roles and it makes for a pretty full-on topic. Don’t forget, we’ve only been allocated 20 hours to teach this entire option, which leaves about 6 hours per topic. Unless there could be considerable overlaps with other areas of the course, this would be difficult.

#5. I can still teach the best bits of developmental psychology

I firmly believe that education has the power to sow the seeds of positive social change. This is a belief that guides all my course planning and so despite all that I’ve said above, I think teaching concepts related to developmental psychology is absolutely essential. I’m also a parent, and my favourite lesson of the year is when I get to bring my son to class and we observe him playing with a bunch of toys.

I really want students to graduate understanding how poverty can influence the brain, and how this can have an effect of cognitive development. Because perhaps understanding this now will enable future leaders to help make steps towards reducing the gaps between rich and poor.

I also think that as most of our students will one day be parents, they should probably understand the importance of stimulation and how this can have a positive influence on the brain. Understanding how stress, abuse and trauma has a negative impact is also essential if we’re to help our students become better parents and members of future societies.

But I don’t need to teach the entire development topic to cover these essential ones. For example, I plan on teaching poverty’s effects on brain and cognitive development as a sociocultural explanation for differences in prevalence rates of PTSD, as well as an example of neuroplasticity in the biological approach. So I can use this same core topic in other areas of the course.

In the HL extension on animal research, I intend to look at epigenetics by showing how early life abuse/stress can alter the brains stress response, reducing cortisol levels in response to stress as an adult, which in turn reduces TPH-2 gene expression, which reduces cerebral serotonin, which could explain correlations between early life abuse and later antisocial behaviour as an adult. Because if we can understand this, our students in the future won’t be so fast to condemn those who are violent, but will (hopefully) strive to understand underlying origins and work to reduce the circumstances in society that produce violent and abusive behaviour. If I teach this well, perhaps I could be a factor in the efforts to help break the cycle of violence that is observable in so many communities, especially in my home country of New Zealand. And if nothing else, after learning about this students will hopefully have a desire to do what they can to fight against child abuse.

So I still think I’m teaching what are, to me, the best bits of developmental psychology. I’m cherry picking and this is actually a sensible approach, because we know in the new exams that one question will come from each topic from the options (three questions total), so while my students will be more than ready to answer questions from abnormal and relationships, they’ll also know that there’ll be one question on Paper Two from the topic “developing as a learner” from the developmental option that will be there as a safety net. I’m far happier with this set of circumstances, than I would be trying to get them prepared for any possible exam question from the other developmental topics.

What do you think?