Psychology and Education

I started the final year of my MSc in Psychology last Wednesday and the focus on behaviourism in my cognitive psychology learning module got me thinking (again) about the place of psychology in education.

My teacher friends who completed PGCEs recently told me that they had not studied any psychology on their course – they had not come across Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky, Skinner et al in any way.

That’s such a shame as I found that to be one of the most interesting areas of my course and certainly influenced my own teaching. Many of the teaching techniques we use as teachers have origins in psychology – collaborative learning, scaffolding, discovery learning, spaced learning anyone? All come from psychology and the subject’s scientific sister, neuroscience. The Royal Society’s ‘Brain Waves’ report in 2011 specifically recommended that teacher training should include a component on neuroscience and it’s relevance to learning.

A quick question to my very helpful twitter network revealed that there is widespread variance. For example, Scottish teacher education (not teacher training as Derek Robertson told me) deems studying psychology to be an important part of the course, and many teachers who had completed their training a long time ago, had also covered psychology comprehensively. Steve Wheeler of Plymouth University is helpfully detailing learning theorists in his superb blog. However, others who completed PGCE training in England said it was covered very briefly, or not at all.

So why should teachers learn about psychology and neuroscience?

Well, for starters, understanding how children of all ages learn, is pretty fundamental to being able to teach them effectively.

How people learn, retain information and the ways in which this changes as a child develops can help to give teachers greater knowledge and understanding about their pupils and their learning. It can help you plan and teach better lessons, identifying different approaches to learning that may be most effective for your pupils and can give a teacher an understanding of why pupils behave in a certain way sometimes.

Psychology can teach us how we learn and assimilate information, how we use our memory, acquire language and skills. It can also teach us about social groups, child development, behaviour and learning difficulties. All of which are key aspects of education.

So, while there are people, such as the author of this article in the Guardian who advise caution when applying psychology theories in the classroom, or indeed those who say it’s of little consequence, I would suggest that researching and thinking about how pupils learn and trying out different ideas based on psychological research is better than not thinking about it, or trying anything new at all.

More evidence needed?

Yes, further robust evidence is needed, as actually advocated by the previous article and Tom Bennett in this New Scientist article, but dismissing it all as neurobollocks’ (yes, gentlemen on twitter), is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, surely?  The wider world seems to agree that with more research, psychology and neuroscience may have much to offer education.

The Welcome Trust’s announcement this week that together with the Education Endowment foundation they will be funding 6 neuroscience (a branch of psychology) research projects, shows that there is an appetite for further research in this area. Their January 2014 report on educational interventions and approaches informed by neuroscience makes an interesting read for anyone interested in finding out more. The work conducted by Sarah Jane Blakemore and her team is also of great interest to anyone who teaches (or has) adolescents. Sarah is speaking at TLAB15 (so am I!) and I’ll certainly be looking forward to hearing her.

The psychology research community is determined to improve their reputation since Stapel and other high profile cases of false positives and inaccurately reported research. Indeed, the British Psychology Society’s research digest is often quick to point out issues with studies; in this case with a study claiming to show the detrimental effects of digital devices on children.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how psychology and neuroscience develop in education in coming years. Meanwhile, I’m getting my head down back to my studies!

Update: this recent podcast from Mark Healy gives a wonderfully insightful, funny and balanced view of cognitive neuroscience.

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