How Do We Learn How to Promote Development?

Ellen Skinner; Julia Dancis; and The Human Development Teaching & Learning Group

Learning Objectives: How do we learn how to promote development?

  • What are evidence-informed “best” practices, and why are they important?
  • Why are all best practices culturally-attuned?
  • Explain why science is a powerful way of knowing and process of learning about ourselves and the world.
  • Identify limitations and areas of improvement for science as a social enterprise.

A primary goal of this course is to help you learn more about how to constructively influence development. Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us are shaping development every day through our decisions and actions. Sometimes this is obvious– when we are raising children or teaching preschoolers. In these situations, we know we are trying to help our children and students learn and grow. We think carefully about how we were raised or taught, about our professional training. We take these responsibilities seriously. We know what a difference people in our lives have made to our development. However, in cases where we are not explicitly charged with promoting development, we may not think as carefully about our effects on others– like our friends, romantic partners, or parents. We may not think about our own development, the ways we nurture or disparage ourselves.

In this class, we are calling all the ways we influence development “developmental practices.” By this, we mean all the decisions and actions we take in our professional and personal lives that shape our own and others’ development. When we hear the word “practices,” we often think about professional practices. But we also include personal practices, like how we parent, make decisions about vocations, and nurture our friends. From this perspective, we are all developmental “practitioners” even though we may not feel like we really understand how best to do this job. Developmental science, along with other important sources of information, contribute to our understanding of “best developmental practices.” Science is a powerful process of learning, but it also has its limitations. Science uses multiple kinds of methodologies, ways of collecting information, and designs, each with its strengths and limitations and its hidden assumptions. Since research methods are central in producing valid and useful knowledge, we have to be thoughtful and critical about the processes and tools of science. Learning more about research methods in developmental science can also contribute to your learning more about important ways to promote healthy development, both your own and others.

What is science and how does it fit with other ways of knowing?

At its core, science is a way of knowing: a set of practices for learning about the world. There are many other ways of knowing, including our intuition, emotions, and observations; the beliefs and customs of our families and neighbors; the opinions of friends and peers; communications from political and religious authorities; and messages from the media. If we bundle all these other sources of information together, they make up our“personal experience.” From this history, we form opinions about the contents of development: how people change and remain the same, what is “normal,” the causes of healthy and unhealthy development, and what we should do to be good parents, educators, and friends. Our experiences are embedded in particular cultural and historical contexts. These contexts have many strengths, but they also have their own implicit biases. Our personal convictions, based on a lifetime of experiences in these societal contexts and historical times, are naturally very compelling. We even have a name for the sets of gripping assumptions that underlie them: Naïve meta-theories of human development.

A second source of information about how to support development can be called “professional experience.” Many callings and professions shape development, like parenting, education, nursing, social work, coaching, and so on. And each comes with its own set of trainings, traditions, and practices. Some of these practices are drawn from research (as we will discuss shortly), others from personal experience of what has worked in the past, and others are simply “the way things have always been done.” Take, for example, the practices you see in our classroom: Learning takes place in groups, with a leader called the teacher, and involves readings, assignments, and grades. Such practices are based on a society’s history of carrying out these tasks, and they are reinforced by educational and training programs. Professional experiences are also embedded in the institutions of our time and place, as seen in schools, health care systems, human services, and other workplaces. These organizations, and our education and training, provide us with skills and information. At the same time, they have their own implicit biases. And, just like personal experience, professional experience has its own baked in assumptions about humans and how they develop.

What are the limitations of personal and professional experience?

The limitations of personal and professional experience are easiest to see in the past, when for example, doctors used procedures, like blood-letting, to treat patients that were not effective, or schools employed corporal punishment, or women were not allowed into certain professions. Our personal experiences can also be limiting. Often the ways we were raised seem right to us, even though all of us have absorbed implicit biases and none of us were raised by perfect caregivers. We often sense that our caregivers made mistakes, even as we find ourselves repeating those same parenting practices. Professionally and personally, we are not always sure how to shake free of our past and do things a better way.

Our personal and professional experiences are important sources of information about development. But the growing recognition of their limitations has led to the rise of what are called “evidence-based” or “evidence-informed” practices. Seen most clearly in medicine, these practices come out of the scientific study of alternative ways to care for patients and treat different conditions. Whole centers are dedicated to studying and compiling best medical practices. And doctors, as professionals, are expected to adhere to them. As knowledge about medicine progresses, these “best practices” are continually updated with new evidence.

Where do “best” practices for promoting development come from?

Best practices emerge at the intersection between the scientific study of development and the knowledge of expert practitioners. Lessons about best developmental practices are gathered, not from individual studies that test explanations and interventions, but from whole lines of work that over time replicate findings from multiple perspectives. These are called “bodies of evidence,” and they converge on insights about the most effective ways to support development. For example, even though pediatricians in the 1950s warned mothers that picking babies up when they cry reinforces their crying and spoils them, a body of evidence on attachment revealed this advice to be wrong. Infants cry less and are more secure if caregivers respond consistently and sensitively to their needs. That’s why science-based practices are called “evidence-informed.”

In a complementary fashion, expert practitioners bring knowledge about what works. Experts emerge from everyday walks of life, like wise and skilled elders, teachers, caregivers, coaches, and social workers. As we are reinventing practices, we can reflect on and bring forward their insights and lessons. For example, many cultural traditions highlight the precious nature of children and the elderly, as treasures to be cherished, and underscore the centrality of family, community, and cultural heritage in supporting their well-being and development. These insights can be used to critique and reconsider our current practices, in which those who care for children and the elderly are often undervalued, underpaid, and not well supported by the larger community.

The lessons gained from scientific evidence and expert practitioners are called “best practices,” and they are transforming all the callings and professions that shape development. A whole area of research, called “implementation science,” studies methods to promote the adoption and integration of evidence-based practices, interventions, and policies into routine settings. Sometimes practitioners need support to help them adopt these practices because evidence-informed ways of doing things run counter to conventional practice, or require more effort to learn or more work to execute. Or they can be introduced in ways that alienate practitioners. However, if implementation scientists create respectful and collaborative partnerships with parents, professionals, and other stakeholders, they can together contribute to and learn about such best practices. In the long run, best practices help all practitioners (including people not usually considered “practitioners”– like caregivers, romantic partners, and friends) become more reflective and effective in their efforts to promote their own and others’ development.

Where does the idea of culture fit into the search for evidence-informed best practices?

One important lesson learned from implementation science is that best practices have to be culturally attuned to the people and places where they are adopted. Sometimes, “good” practices are narrowly defined and reflect evidence from the study of white middle class participants. It does not make sense to treat these practices as a module that should be inserted everywhere. Many different cultural variations on a given practice are “good.” As a result, interventionists have been pressed to identify the “essential ingredients” in effective practices and study how those ingredients can be incorporated in very different ways by people from different cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. That doesn’t mean, however, that every common practice from every culture is good for development.

The complexity of incorporating culture into best practices can be seen in the example of nutrition and diet. On the one hand, science has identified the combination of essential nutrients that all humans need to support the development of healthy bodies and minds. On the other hand, there are as many variations of healthy diets as there are cultures around the world. Any diet that provides all the micronutrients that humans need are examples of best practices. On the third hand, however, it is not true that any old foods caregivers give children represent a healthy diet. The scientific study of nutrition provides a set of criteria we can use to scrutinize and critique foods– like sugary soft drinks or fast food– for their nutritional value. From this perspective, we can identify dietary practices, even ones that are very common, that we can conclude are not good for development.

Almost everyone agrees that practitioners should be using culturally-attuned evidence-informed practices. At the same time, there is vigorous debate about what these best practices really are. The tension between science, practice, and culture is productive. In general, science is good at finding narrow, relatively specific, explanations and optimization strategies. Cultures offer critiques of these strategies as well as many variations on how they can be implemented. And practitioners create more wholistic ways to integrate specific strategies, along with many other practices, into their daily interactions with developing people. Wise culturally-attuned practitioners are always pushing science– to ask questions that apply more directly to the problems they are trying to solve and the people they are trying to support. This kind of science is sometimes called “applied science” because it is purpose-driven and aims to study and help solve important social problems.

Are all recommended practices based on good science?

No. Many people claim scientific backing for their ideas and advice, when it does not really exist. This is called “pseudoscience” or simply– bad popular science. There are many ways to recognize bad popular science, as explained in this supplementary section.

Pseudoscience or Bad Popular Science [pdf]

Science as a Powerful Way of Knowing

Science is not perfect and it needs to be guided by strong ethical principles, but nevertheless it is a powerful way of knowing and an important source of knowledge. Science is based on the assumption that careful and systematic observation and thought are processes we can use to better understand ourselves and our world. The process of science describes a way of learning. Scientific knowledge is built by testing ideas using evidence gathered from the social and natural world. Initially, these ideas are tentative intuitions, but as they cycle through the process of science again and again, they are examined and tested in different ways, so we become increasingly confident about their validity. Through this same recursive process, the ideas themselves are clarified, revised, and integrated into more powerful understandings. Over time, this process serves to construct complex scientific knowledge that can be used for many purposes: to solve everyday problems, address societal issues, develop tools and technology, and make informed decisions. Such understandings satisfy our curiosity and lead to new questions.

The work of science has many strengths. First, it is a public enterprise. It takes place as part of a scientific community that scrutinizes, questions, and evaluates everyone’s work. This international community is composed of peer experts, who are charged with thinking through the quality of the research, the validity of the findings, and interpretations of the evidence. Scientists are trained to be skeptical problem-solvers and when bad science is introduced, it is usually detected and called out by experts. When independent scientists from all over the world come to the same conclusion, this strengthens our confidence in the quality of the evidence.

Second, science is informed by deep reservoirs of accumulated knowledge, but it is also inherently open, challenged daily by new ideas and updated with new evidence. Scientists spend their adult lives developing expertise, learning everything there is to know about their areas of study. As part of research teams, they construct dense, detailed, and rich understandings of complex phenomena. They use their curiosity, creativity, and determination to produce new knowledge and insights. At the same time, scientists question everything. They remain skeptical. They look for flaws and limitations in their own and others’ work and consider alternatives. When research is done ethically, a scientist’s goal should not be to prove their own theories right. They should be committed to finding out what is really happening, even if that means proving their ideas wrong. The best science, which is not as common as it should be, is dedicated to this higher pursuit.

Third, science continually critiques and reinvents itself. Scientists create new tools and strategies that allow us to see more and learn more from what we are seeing. In research on human development, these innovative methods and technologies range from new devices to collect data daily, to new laboratory experiments and simulations, and new ways to learn about what babies are thinking. Some of the most exciting breakthroughs are produced by new tools for collecting and integrating information. This way of learning also leads to major shifts in scientific understanding, called “scientific revolutions” or “paradigm shifts,” when accepted theories are stood on their heads and we must reconsider everything we thought we knew.

Science is a challenging and fascinating process. The evidence it produces, messy and confusing at times, leads cumulatively to insights and understanding. It is an important way of knowing and learning– this collective public process of observing and making sense of what we see and then, based on this new way of thinking, going back and taking a second (and third and fourth) look. Over the last 100 years, much has been learned about humans and how we develop, but many more questions remain. We strongly encourage you to incorporate the knowledge that developmental science has gleaned in your own everyday decision-making and practices. In fact, you might even consider a career in developmental science!


What are the shortcomings of science as a way of knowing?

Science is embedded in particular sociohistorical contexts and so is subject to all the shortcomings of any social enterprise. Serious critiques focus on the assumptions underlying western science today, and the ways they contribute to exclusion and distortion in ongoing scientific work. Science today is dominated by researchers from the United States, Canada, and northern Europe. The most prestigious scientific journals are published in English, which is also considered the “international language” at conferences. Psychologists routinely study phenomena from a Eurocentric perspective (Teo & Febrarro, 2003), but they assume that this position is the default– both normal and universal. They are often unaware of the perspectives of non-western psychologists, and dismiss knowledge from non-western researchers. Such research is sometimes called “African psychology” or “Turkish psychology” without labeling western science as “Euroamerican psychology.”

Second, scientists often assume that science has a monopoly on ways of knowing. However, many disciplines outside of the social and natural sciences reveal important insights about the nature of humans and how they change and grow. These include the humanities and arts, like creative writing, (e.g., memoirs, novels, science fiction), theatre arts (e.g., plays, motion pictures), music (e.g., songs, drumming, and choral singing), and dance. These are sometimes called illuminative tools, and can be useful in capturing and sharing insights about the human experience. In the same vein, many cultures have accumulated knowledge about a wide range of human activities, like teaching and rearing children, and supporting families. This knowledge is often more wholistic, systemic, and better attuned to humanistic values, like environmental stewardship and social justice. However, scientists often dismiss or exclude this knowledge from teaching and learning (Pillay, 2017). Systemic practices that exclude specific groups of people from science and universities narrow the range of talent, cultural expertise, and lived experience researchers can bring to bear on these important issues.

A third critique focuses on assumptions commonly held by scientists from the dominant culture that distort the scientific study of marginalized or minoritized groups. Scientists (often unknowingly) accept entrenched societal myths about marginalized groups. For example, until 1973, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Such problems are also obvious in deeply troubling programs of research that explain achievement gaps and differential drop-out rates for children and youth from ethnic and minority backgrounds, by arguing for “deficiencies” in children or “cultural disadvantage” in families (Valencia & Solórzano, 1997). These issues are explained as individual or family problems, instead of being studied as the accumulated results of systemic societal inequities. The resilience and strengths of families and communities in the face of these inequities (Yosso, 2005) are often either dismissed or relied upon as the sole avenue of intervention, rendering discriminatory institutions invisible.

These biased diatribes have a long history in the scientific community. Such disinformation, which is both harmful and dangerous, continues to appear in mainstream scientific outlets today and is used to justify and protect anti-Black racist policies and institutions. In condemning such research, it is important to reflect not only on the individual prejudices that underlie these research programs, but also on the larger scientific and academic systems that sponsor, publish, and amplify this work. An important source of insights and critique can be found in the interdisciplinary work in Black or Africana Studies, Indigenous Nation Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies. By decentering study from the dominant culture, scientists, humanists, and researchers in these fields surface and challenge default assumptions, and offer alternative critical sociohistorically-informed accounts of development.

Fourth, current theories and research methods have been critiqued from inside developmental science based on their underlying assumptions about humans and their development (e.g., Overton, 2015). You have seen how theories fall into meta-theoretical camps and the use of specific theories creates a kind of tunnel vision about our target phenomena. It turns out that research methods also have meta-theoretical assumptions baked into them. For example, if we bring children into the lab to learn more about them, we are assuming that we can remove a person from their natural context and still understand their functioning. For this reason, we often refer to “research methodologies,” instead of “research methods,” to acknowledge that all methods bring along with them their own assumptions about ways of knowing or epistemologies. Individual scientists, as well as the research community as a whole, must regularly and actively reflect on and critique our methods, to understand the role they play in shaping our understanding of developmental processes.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with ways of knowing. Epistemologies are theories of knowledge: what can be known, what qualifies as valid knowledge, how knowledge is gained, what kinds of methods or tools can be used for learning, who can be a knowledge builder, and so on. Each meta-theory of human development not only has its own assumptions about the nature of people and their development, but also its own assumptions about epistemology, or ways of knowing. For example, mechanistic meta-theories assume that people and contexts are made up of parts, so they can be taken apart and studied separately. In contrast, contextual meta-theories assume that person-context interactions are the basis of all development, so they must be studied together; if you take them apart to study them you destroy your target phenomenon.

Developmental science will be stronger to the extent that scientists intentionally and openly discuss, criticize, and improve the process of science itself. Scientists must open their collective minds to international researchers, multiple disciplines, and a wide range of cultures as important sources of knowledge. Universities, as institutions that practice science and train scientists, must also open their collective doors, by more actively welcoming, recruiting, nurturing, and learning from researchers from a broad range of backgrounds, especially those who have been historically marginalized and excluded. As science and universities are more successful in their inclusion efforts, researchers should also be ready to participate in cultural transformations within the scientific enterprise. Global and multidisciplinary hubs along with university-community partnerships create platforms that support complementary ways of knowing, and can enrich and transform processes of developmental science.

Take Home Messages about Science as a Way of Knowing and Learning about the World

We would underscore four big ideas from this section:

  1. A primary reason science is a crucial way of knowing is that it complements other ways of knowing, like personal and professional experience, which together help us identify and test “best practices” for promoting our own and others’ development. By “practices,” we mean our decisions and actions, not only at work but also at home (e.g., in our parenting, how we relate to and support ourselves, our family members and friends, contribute to our communities and political systems, and so on).
  2. All ways of knowing, including science and experience, are historically and culturally embedded, and so best practices need to be continually scrutinized for biases and attuned culturally when they are collaboratively adapted to improve personal or professional practices. Cultures and current practices are rich sources of developmental knowledge.
  3. Science is a powerful way of knowing because it is a process that relies on careful thought and observation of the social and natural world, is carried out by the scientific community as a public enterprise, and is inherently open and continually critiquing and reinventing itself.
  4. Science itself is a historically- and culturally-embedded social enterprise and so has serious shortcomings. Critiques focus on the exclusion ofcertain kinds of research (e.g., non-Euroamerican) and ways of knowing (e.g., non-scientific), the harmful effects of researchers from dominant cultures’ deficit-based and individualistic analyses of the development and functioning of people from marginalized and oppressed groups, and the meta-theoretical assumptions baked into conventional scientific methods. Science and universities will benefit from ongoing openness and inclusion, reflection, critique, reform, and transformation of its practices and institutions.
Adapted fromSkinner, E. A., Kindermann, & Mashburn, A. J. (2019). Lifespan developmental systems: Meta-theory, methodology, and the study of applied problems. An Advanced Textbook. New York, NY: Routledge.


Overton, W. F. (2015).  Processes, relations and Relational-Developmental-Systems. In W. F. Overton & P. C. M. Molenaar (Eds.). Theory and Method.  Volume 1 of the Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (pp. 9-62) (7th ed.), R. M. Lerner (Editor-in-Chief). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Pillay, S. R. (2017). Cracking the fortress: Can we really decolonize psychology? South African Journal of Psychology, 47 (3), 135-140.

Teo, T., & Febbraro, A. R. (2003). Ethnocentrism as a form of intuition in psychology. Theory & Psychology13(5), 673-694.

Valencia, R. R., & Solórzano, D. G. (1997). Contemporary deficit thinking. The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice, 160-210.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race ethnicity and education8(1), 69-91.

Video Attribution:

Why Developmental Science? by the Society for Research in Child Development is licensed All Rights Reserved and is embedded here according to YouTube terms of service.


How Do We Learn How to Promote Development? Copyright © 2020 by Ellen Skinner; Julia Dancis; and The Human Development Teaching & Learning Group. All Rights Reserved.