Developmental Theory as Understood by Tracing Cultural Trends

In Cultural Psychology, an elective course taught by Dean of Academics Jan Healy, students recently studied developmental theory including the work of Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan, and Erickson. To better understand Lev Vgotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development, students selected a topic in which they were interested and knew something about and then, working with a partner or a source with additional knowledge, they traced the history of their topic over a 100 year span to understand the impact of time, place, and culture on that topic. Students studied the evolution of wide-ranging topics including music, makeup, toys, bathing suits, dyslexia, feminine hygiene products, and LGBTQ history. Bouncing ideas and discoveries off classmates and then consulting expert sources helped the students understand Vgotsky’s premise that interaction with peers is an effective way to challenge one’s assumptions and grow one’s knowledge base.

Sophomores Taylor W. and Tess G. studied toys and discussed the cultural conditioning behind “girl toys” and “boy toys” and the impact of historical events like the Great Depression, wars, the Baby Boom, television, and the growth of technology on toy production.

Una M. ‘20 traced the history of feminine hygiene products and delved into women’s access to these materials based on income, social position, changing roles, and prevailing values.

Elise W. ‘20 and Cat S. ‘20 looked at our understanding of dyslexia over time and noted how educational  strategies to compensate for it have often lagged behind the research both in the United States and elsewhere.

Fiona K. ‘19 and Annie U. ‘21 found that infrastructure changes like railroads improved access to beaches and public swimming areas which necessitated the development of swimwear. The materials from which bathing suits were made also changed as women entered the workforce, took up swimming as sport, and defined and displayed their sexuality.

Abby B. ‘20 and Gabby G. ‘22 followed a similar vein, comparing and contrasting women’s application of make-up over time. They too discovered that the fashion of make-up was heavily influenced by changing cultural norms, from the conservative 1930’s and ‘40s to the flamboyant 1980’s.

Slide from Hannah P. ’19 and Marietta A. ’19’s presentation

Hannah P. ‘19 and Marietta A. ‘19 presented 100 years of music, highlighting the changes in recording technology as well as social movements as major forces in how music has developed over time. They developed a playlist to highlight musical eras and also spoke about the increased frequency with which music is released saying, “Today, you are not at the top for very long so you have to keep releasing songs to stay on the map.”

At the end of the presentations, the girls discussed their understanding of their topics when they started their projects and how their knowledge developed as they conducted further research utilizing peers and expert sources. Many of the students noted that their presentations changed a number of times as they learned more about their topics. For example, Abby M. ‘21 and Morgan B. ‘21 thought the focus of their study on LGBTQ history would focus primariliy on the U.S. and recent law changes. However, their research showed them that a number of countries around the world are far more progressive when it comes to policy shifts around LGBTQ rights and the U.S. has lagged behind. They also found themselves caught up in how popular culture in the form of movies and television shows has shaped and in many cases transformed public opinion on LGBTQ issues.

The 100 Years Project was a fascinating look at the history of cultural trends but, more than that, it provided the students an opportunity to step back and understand their learning based on Vygotsky’s developmental theory of the Zone of Proximal Development in a very practical way.