Living & Learning

Psychologists at Santa Cruz are taking a 'sociocultural' approach to the study of human development and, in the process, are reshaping the underlying principles of their field.

At the Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose, a UCSC researcher records the interactions between a father and son to determine how parents help their children develop "scientific literacy."

By Jennifer McNulty

The wonders and complexity of human development unfold like the pages of a family photo album. Infants coo, toddlers take their first wobbly steps, kids start school, teens battle to establish their independence, and adults juggle work and family responsibilities as their own parents grow old.

Within the field of psychology, developmentalists have the fascinating task of demystifying the cognitive, social, and emotional growth that takes place at each stage of life. They strive for insights that will help children become active learners who enjoy a well-defined sense of themselves and a close connection to friends and family. It is work that helps parents and educators understand what's happening with kids, and it helps all of us recognize the common ground that unites us.

Developmental psychology at UCSC was born in 1987 when Professor Catherine Cooper was hired to build the program. In only 10 years, Cooper has created a working group with a reputation for excellence that complements strong sibling programs in social and cognitive psychology.

At UCSC, developmental psychologists explore language and communication, learning, personality, friendship, and cultural issues across the life span. And they are working to create a more inclusive view of human development, recognizing that psychology's focus on middle-class, European American families has ignored too many people for too long.

Because children develop in a variety of social spheres, psychologists at UCSC study children at home, at school, and in the community. Professors Barbara Rogoff (left) and Catherine Cooper visit youngsters at UCSC's Child Care Services.

The theme that underscores the direction of developmental psychology at UCSC is that children are seen as navigators, making their way through the rich and varied contexts of their daily lives. They learn to participate in the realms of family, school, and community--and in today's increasingly diverse world, many speak one language at home and another at school.

Several faculty members are exploring human development by conducting research in partnership with museums, academic outreach programs, day care centers, as well as schools, religious institutions, and community groups. Developmentalists today believe that a big part of what we learn as we grow up is how to operate in these different spheres. "These resources offer real pathways to kids, and our faculty are beginning to map these worlds for scholars, policy makers, and practitioners," says Cooper.

Schools are an especially important arena for research, and UCSC researchers have earned high marks for collaboration in their ongoing school-based projects. "Our rapport with schools is good because we treat teachers as partners," says Cooper. "We don't walk in and say 'We want to get data from your class.' We ask, 'What questions do you want us to include in this study?'"

Cathy Stefanki-Iglesias, principal of Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz, says working with Associate Professor Margarita Azmitia has prompted substantial changes at her school. Azmitia began a major study of childhood friendship at Gault and also helped Stefanki-Iglesias by running parent focus groups soon after the new principal arrived at Gault three years ago. "We've done major restructuring as a direct result of Margarita's work," says Stefanki-Iglesias. "It's valuable, hands-on research, and we really listen to it. She's exceptional."

Researchers work in a number of K-12 schools in the region, including Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz, where the principal, Cathy Stefanki-Iglesias (left), welcomed Margarita Azmitia's study of childhood friendship.

Professor Roland Tharp, another member of the developmental program who is well known for his research on improving education for Native Hawaiian and Native American children, is currently directing a five-year, $20 million national research effort funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The UCSC-based Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence (CREDE) is bringing together researchers from around the country to focus on five factors that affect the success of students: race, geography, poverty, limited English proficiency, and cultural background. CREDE's goal is to identify strategies that work for all kids and to influence policy from the local to the national level, says Tharp. Four other UCSC developmental faculty members are conducting research under the auspices of the center.

UCSC's commitment to a "sociocultural" approach to developmental psychology is helping to reshape some of the fundamentals of the field, says Professor Barbara Rogoff, a leading scholar who joined the faculty in 1992 and is now UC Santa Cruz Foundation Professor of Psychology. Over the past century, the leading developmental theorists fashioned goals of healthy development that tended to reflect their own values and life experience, says Rogoff.

"But people growing up in different communities may have different priorities," she says. "Literacy is important, but is being able to take multiple-choice tests important? It depends. The field is going beyond assuming that universal models of developmental goals fit all children."

As senior members of UCSC's developmental psychology program, Cooper and Rogoff are involved in numerous research projects, and each has made major contributions that have helped shape the field. Rogoff's 1990 book Apprenticeship in Thinking is widely recognized as a landmark in the field of cognitive development. For years, she has studied Mayan Indian communities in Guatemala and middle-class European American families in the United States to gain insights into the culturally specific ways that children's learning is encouraged by parents and caregivers. That work has revealed important similarities as well as differences that have deepened our appreciation of the role of culture in development. Rogoff's ongoing research projects with an innovative school in Utah and with the Exploratorium in San Francisco are exploring the different concepts of learning being developed by U.S. institutions.

Cooper's work traces how children and teenagers forge their own identities by integrating their cultural and family traditions with those of their schools, communities, and work. Her research with schools focuses on efforts to reduce dropout rates. She studies a variety of cultural and ethnic groups, including African American, Latino, European American, Japanese American, and Japanese youth, to illuminate cultural similarities and differences and contribute insights that will help policy makers seal leaks in the "academic pipeline" from kindergarten to college. These issues, which she investigates with colleagues, students, and community partners, form the core themes of her next book, "The Weaving of Maturity: Cultural Perspectives on Adolescence." Her role in bringing diversity to the center of UCSC's program has attracted national attention.

Cooper says she is "gratified beyond words" by the maturation of the program: Junior faculty have earned tenure and taken on leadership roles in the program, and the first generation of doctorates and postdoctoral trainees are landing teaching and research positions around the country. Showcased below are several outstanding research projects that Cooper and Rogoff expect will further enhance UCSC's standing in the world of developmental psychology and the program's contributions to children's well-being.

Those Darn Questions

Why is the sky blue? Where do babies come from? Why do we have to die?

Any parent knows that children ask the darnedest questions, but can parental responses encourage scientific thinking in children as young as four? Yes, says Associate Professor Maureen Callanan.

In partnership with the San Jose Children's Discovery Museum and a team of UCSC researchers, Callanan and postdoctoral researcher Kevin Crowley are observing spontaneous interactions between parents and kids to see how parents help their children develop "scientific literacy." The museum setting, brimming with hands-on exhibits, is rich with examples of children exploring unfamiliar subjects.

"Even though parents may not always give the 'right' answers, the way they answer can encourage children to wonder about and investigate the world around them," says Callanan.

In one example of how youngsters integrate scientific information into their lives, a five-year-old boy was captivated by an exhibit that used time-lapse photography to demonstrate how plants grow and then die when they're not watered. Watching his mother water the garden two days later, the youngster announced: "Now I know why you're watering the plants. Otherwise, they'd die like the plants at the museum."

The development of scientific reasoning is a gradual process, says Crowley. "Change doesn't necessarily happen instantly," he says. "It's not like a staircase where you go from one level to another. It's more like overlapping waves, with good ideas and bad ideas washing over each other."

One consistent but unsettling finding is that parents are roughly four times more likely to explain exhibits to boys than girls, regardless of the age of the child. "It's depressing, but it mirrors classroom studies that show that teachers often pay more attention to boys," says Callanan, who is encouraged by the eagerness of museum staff to modify exhibits based on her research.

"What we're doing is a real partnership with the museum," she says. "We're not only doing our scientific work, but we're able to help make the museum better, too."

Playground Promises and Self-Esteem

For children and adolescents, school is a place to learn, and it's often the hub of their social lives, too. Intrigued by how children manage friendships and how social issues affect self-esteem, Associate Professor Margarita Azmitia and her student researchers are conducting an in-depth study of more than 250 fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in Santa Cruz County.

"At one time or another, we have all worried about whether we belong," says Azmitia, who uses a combination of observational studies, questionnaires, and interviews to gather data.

Issues of trust and loyalty are emerging as key sources of conflict, and the older students appear better able to resolve conflicts without ending friendships. Unlike some studies, Azmitia's has not detected a widespread drop in self-esteem among girls during the transition from elementary to junior high school. "More than 90 percent of the students had positive self-esteem, and there was no evidence that girls had lower self-esteem than boys," says Azmitia.

The bad news, however, is that the 10 percent who had low self-esteem "seemed to be going through a very difficult time," says Azmitia. "They didn't think school had much purpose, and they had trouble keeping friends and working through problems. The girls, especially, had trouble moving beyond problems in their friendships, sometimes thinking about them almost to the exclusion of everything else."

Heeding the Muse

One of the cartoons on Associate Professor David Harrington's office door shows a man saying to a woman at a cocktail party: "I'm a writer, but not, thank heavens, the kind who has to write every day or he gets depressed."

Despite stereotypes of the tormented artist, creative expression can be a source of real comfort for writers, painters, dancers, and musicians. In a decade-long study of artistically talented adolescents, Harrington has found that being struck by the muse at a young age can play a strong role in boosting self-esteem and building relationships--it can even help motivate kids to stay in school.

To examine the role of creativity in development, Harrington has teamed up with the California State Summer School for the Arts, an annual month-long residential summer arts program for 450 high school students who are active in theater, music, dance, creative writing, film and video, visual arts, and animation.

Every year since 1987, Harrington has used questionnaires, interviews, observation, and follow-up studies to develop a rich psychological portrait of the participants. Creativity, he says, helps adolescents in several areas, including development of:

There are costs associated with a high level of creative activity, however. A big source of tension for adolescents can be the sheer number of hours spent pursuing one's art, which leaves less time for friends and school, says Harrington, who adds that competition among creative adolescents can be unsettling, and the way in which artistic talent makes individuals stand out also can be stressful.

Language Development Is Hard Work

Nameera Akhtar's work on language acquisition in early childhood is shaking up the worlds of developmental psychology and linguistics.

Akhtar, an assistant professor of psychology who joined the faculty in 1995, studies how children learn new words and learn to speak grammatically. Her work began with a hunch that conventional linguistic theories about language acquisition were wrong. Those theories postulate that children have an innate ability to use language that is suddenly "triggered," the way the flick of a switch turns on a light.

Akhtar's hunch was a good one, and her work is providing compelling new evidence that important aspects of language are learned gradually. In a typical study, Akhtar uses sentence structure from three different languages--English, Japanese, and Irish--to see when preschoolers demonstrate an understanding of standard English word order. Unlike in Japanese and Irish, English speakers rely on the subject-verb-object sentence structure to interpret meaning--who is doing what to whom. Akhtar uses made-up verbs and novel actions that children wouldn't have a name for to ensure that the children have no previous understanding of a word's correct usage or meaning. Sample sentences look like this:

Big Bird dacking grapes. (English: subject-verb-object)

Big Bird the grapes tamming. (Japanese: subject-object-verb)

Gopping Big Bird the grapes. (Irish: verb-subject-object)

Although all of the children showed a preference for standard English word order, the two- and three-year-olds were much more likely to use Akhtar's "weird word order" than were the four-year-olds, who consistently "corrected" Akhtar's use of non-English structures. The results indicate that the younger children were still in the process of learning conventional English word order.

By documenting the way children's language abilities progress over time, Akhtar's research is poking holes in linguistic theory--and taking a little heat off parents. "Children are actively engaged in learning language," says Akhtar. "They're not waiting for someone to teach them."

Speaking of Gender

If parents want to help their children escape the trap of gender-stereotyped communication patterns, one of the best things they can do is encourage boys and girls to play together, says Associate Professor Campbell Leaper.

Leaper, who studies the role of language in the construction of gender, has found that different activities foster different styles of communication. For example, playing army tends to elicit "task-oriented" talk as participants plot strategy and discuss how to "get the job done."

By contrast, playing with dolls or toy dishes involves storytelling and more "collaborative" communication, says Leaper. "Traditionally, girls get a lot of opportunity to practice intimacy-related skills, and boys get a lot of practice with work-related skills," says Leaper.

Both types of activities are important, but the problems arise when activities are segregated by gender. To the extent that boys and girls choose different activities as children, they develop different communication styles, says Leaper. "By the time we're adults, everyone is reaching for the latest pop psychology book about why women and men can't talk to each other," he says.

Minimizing gender segregation will help boys and girls develop similar styles. "If boys and girls don't play together as children, how can we expect men and women to get along in the workplace or in love relationships?" asks Leaper.

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