Rheta Goolsby DeVries

Education Faculty

Rheta Goolsby DeVries

by Betty Zan, University of Northern Iowa

The distinguished developmental psychologist and Piaget scholar Rheta DeVries died on May 28, 2012.  A pioneer in the application of Piagetian theory to early childhood classroom practice, DeVries was possessed of a penetrating intellect.  Her career in developmental psychology began in the 1960s at the University of Chicago, where she obtained a Ph. D. in developmental psychology.  There she met Lawrence Kohlberg, who introduced her .to Piaget's Moral Judgment of the Child and started her on the path of studying young children's moral development.  Kohlberg was her teacher, mentor, and friend, and exerted a profound influence over her work throughout her life.  Their collaboration lasted until his untimely death in 1987.

DeVries was an insatiable scholar.  Early in her career she traveled to Geneva to study Piaget's theory at the University of Geneva and attend Piaget's weekly meetings at the Center for the Study of Genetic Epistemology.  For two years, she was immersed in Piaget's research and scholarship and developed deep reservoirs of knowledge that she drew on her entire career.  It was there that she met her other mentor, Hermina Sinclair, whose friendship she enjoyed until Sinclair's death in 1997.

A meticulous researcher, DeVries pursued topics that included the study of children's conceptions of shadow phenomena, perspective taking, Piagetian measures of intelligence, developmental levels in young children's game playing, the effects of classroom socio-moral atmosphere, and early childhood science education.  Her work was published in leading journals in the fields of developmental psychology and education, including the publication of her dissertation research on constancy of generic identity in an SRCD Monograph.  In this study, she taught Maynard the cat to wear a dog mask and a rabbit mask, and interviewed young children about whether Maynard was still a cat, or whether he had become a dog or a rabbit.  This study is cited in textbooks to this day, complete with photographs of Maynard wearing his masks.

DeVries was passionate about theory and utterly intolerant of theoretical inconsistencies.  She was devoted to her students--unendingly generous with her time, thoughtful with her feedback, and willing to help any student who was willing to work hard.  At the same time, she was a demanding mentor, who would not abide sloppy thinking or undisciplined writing.

DeVries served on the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she conducted some of her earliest curriculum development research on what she and her collaborator, Constance Kamii, termed constructivist education.  With Kamii, she wrote two ground-breaking books on the application of Piaget's theory to early education:  Physical Knowledge in Preschool Education: Implications of Piaget's Theory and Group Games in Early Education: Implications of Piaget's Theory.

After a brief time at the Merrill-Palmer Institute, she moved to Houston, Texas, in 1981, where she was Professor of Human Development and Family Studies and Director of the Human Development Laboratory School at the University of Houston.  She transformed the laboratory school into a model demonstration program of constructivist education, continued to conduct research, and wrote two more books:  Programs in Early Education: The Constructivist View (with Lawrence Kohlberg) and Moral Classrooms, Moral Children: Creating a Constructivist Atmosphere in Early Education (with Betty Zany.

In 1993, she accepted an appointment at the University of Northern Iowa, where she served as Professor of Cur-
riculum and Instruction and Director of the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education and continued to
pursue research on constructivist education.  Her frustration with the ways in which the term "developmentally
appropriate" was being used in the 1990s to justify any play-based program for young children, regardless of how
devoid the curriculum was of educational content, led her and her colleagues at the Regents' Center for Early
Developmental Education to write Developing Constructivist Early Childhood Curriculum: Practical Principles and Activities.

Perhaps the accomplishment that brought her the greatest joy while she was in Iowa was the creation of the Freeburg Early Childhood Program, a laboratory school and model demonstration program of constructivist education for children from very low income families.  It was at the Freeburg program that she was able to pursue in much greater depth her earlier interest in science education, culminating in her book, Ramps and Pathways, written with Christina Sales.  After her retirement in 2009, she moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she continued to write until her death.

Beginning at the University of Houston and continuing after she moved to the University of Northern Iowa, DeVries conducted periodic reading seminars in which faculty and students joined together to read and interpret Piaget's most foundational texts.  Generally at least as many faculty as students participated in these seminars, and I was fortunate to participate in many.  When we stumbled on passages that we could not understand, Rheta would turn to her copy in French, read it, and then proceed to explain the passage (or maybe assert that our difficulty was due to an awkward translation).

DeVries was devoted to translating Piaget's theory into educational practice.  A former classroom teacher, she had a deep and abiding respect for teachers and was steadfast in her determination to travel a two-way street between theory and practice in early education.  She enjoyed international travel throughout her career, and her books were translated into many languages.  Despite her failing health, she continued to travel after retirement, most recently to Brazil, Mexico, and Korea to conduct workshops with teachers. Her legacy includes countless teachers across the US and abroad, who claim that she changed their teaching forever.  Many teachers have told me that they have a tape loop that runs through their heads, constantly asking (in Rheta's voice), "What is the child's purpose in this activity?  What is there for the child to figure out how to do?"  DeVries was a fierce advocate for young children, and her substantial contributions to the field of early education will live on through the lives of all of the teachers whom she influenced over her many years of teaching, scholarship, and service.

Copyright SRCD Newsletter (Newsletter of the Society for Child Research and Development), volume 55, number 3 (July 2012), pages 14-15.

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