Monthly Archives: March 2015

Why do so many teachers find cognitive psychology so attractive?

Over the past couple of years teachers have been discovering cognitive psychology, often viewing it as that long-awaited silver bullet that holds the secrets to unending learning. It’s an interesting phenomenon, more so because those who appear most enthusiastic are also those who reject or are highly critical of earlier psychological research by the likes of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, while academic psychologists continue to re-evaluate and extend such work in the light of more recent research.

So is this enthusiasm for cognitive psychology warranted or even helpful? Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick) recently tweeted his concern.

Personally I do understand why cognitive psychology (as opposed to behavioural, psychodynamic, social or more biologically influenced psychology) is so attractive to teachers.

First of all, cognitive psychology offers something relevant. Not only does it remain the dominant paradigm in psychology, it also offers useful solutions to the problem of learning. The fact the majority of interested teachers see cognitive psychology as being about memory doesn’t pose that much of a problem despite the approach encompassing a wide range of processes.

Cognitive psychology is also science based. There is a strong connection between cognitive psychology and biology and cognitive scientists in general are in agreement with biologists. Furthermore, cognitive psychologists are gradually moving towards neuroscience as way of gathering more evidence to support theories that have been supported in experimental conditions.

Cognitive psychology is empirical. Studies are conducted in highly controlled conditions in an attempt to establish causation. Theories are supported through replication, just like any other scientific theory, and further evidence is added to support previous conclusions. Models are constructed from the data and amended when further data is made available and those that can’t be supported are (usually) rejected. Some models, therefore, (such as Working Memory) are dynamic, shifting in response to new data, similar to models explaining evolution or the formation of the universe. To suggest that cognitive psychology isn’t empirical is too misunderstand the nature of science inquiry.

So, is cognitive psychology the silver bullet?

No, and this is what teachers need to be aware of.

Studies using experimental methods normally take place in highly controlled environments (and some might not even involve humans). Artificial situations can cause problems when they involve human beings because sometimes humans don’t behave in the way we want them to.

For example, participants often display what is known as demand characteristics, that is, they alter their behaviour because of the situation. They might try to ‘please’ the researcher by second-guessing the nature of the study and acting accordingly. Alternatively they might just want to ‘mess it up’ – particularly if the study involves young people.

Related to this is the problem of generalizability. Can we assume that the behaviour in the experimental situation will be mirrored in, say, a classroom situation?

Samples are often biased. There is some concern that many studies use undergraduate psychology students as participants, which in turn could increase the possibility of demand characteristics. Furthermore, researchers eager to support their hypothesis might consciously or unconsciously manipulate the situation in order to get the ‘right’ results, or even reject any outliers in the data (a technique known as p hacking). This isn’t unique to psychology, but it remains something to be aware of.

Finally, keeping up with advances is cognitive psychology could, in itself, become a full-time occupation – just look at the number of papers published each year into memory, not to mention the number of academic journals dedicated to it.

My concern isn’t that teachers are enthusiastic (any promotion of psychology, in all its guises, can only be a good thing) but that some teachers are unquestioningly enthusiastic and others are vehemently apposed to any evidence-based approach (in the same way that many are taking sides in the pointless ‘progressive vs. whatever the other side is today’ debate).

So “is this enthusiasm for cognitive psychology warranted or even helpful?”

Warranted? I think it is because cognitive psychology can inform our teaching. In essence, it’s useful.

Helpful? No, not if it polarizes opinion and ignores all other fruitful avenues.


How to create a helpless student

Roo Stenning (@therealmrroo) recently directed me to a 2014 blog post from John Tomsett (@johntomsett), relating to the psychological phenomenon known as ‘learned helplessness’. Interestingly, I’d been thinking about this particular concept for a while and had even swapped a couple of tweets concerning its nature with John’s partner in crime Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish).LH1

John suggested that teachers might be responsible for instilling feelings of helplessness in students by inundating them revision sessions, catch-up lessons and other interventions. My own interpretation is similar (although primarily related to day-to-day resilience) in that we often create an environment of over-dependence where our students become unable to consider ways in which they can contribute to their own learning in the absence of outside assistance.

So what is learned helplessness?

The term ‘learned helplessness’ was coined by American psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1960’s. Seligman discovered that dogs that had been subjected to inescapable pain (administered through electric shocks) would later accept their fate even when given a means of escape. Seligman’s work, although ethically questionable, went on to inform much of our current understanding of the nature of depression – when bad things keep happening to us, we eventually give up searching for the good and, instead, accept our ‘fate’.

Are our students helpless?

It might seem like a bit of leap from depression to the classroom, but such behaviourist assumptions can be applied to student motivation. Take, for example, the student who consistently performs badly on tests – bad results become the norm and no end of interventions will alter these negative attributions – they were a failure yesterday, they are a failure today and they will still be failure tomorrow. In such circumstances, the student learns that nothing they do can change the situation; there is little point in engaging in interventions and little point in revising for exams. There are, of course, many complex variables at play here and we can’t reject the influence of other factors such as poverty, gender and an individuals propensity towards self-handicapping.

Tied up within the learned helplessness construct is the issue of dependency. As teachers we have a tendency to claim that we are in the business of creating ‘independent learners’ yet in reality we appear to practice the opposite. Take, for example, my recent conversation with a year 13 student attending a revision session for AS re-sits.

Student: “Sir, can you do us a list of all the studies that we need to know for the exam?”

Me: “Couldn’t you do that yourself as part of your revision?”

Student: “Oh yes, never thought of that”.

By the time our students begin their A-levels they have become dependent on us as teachers – they no longer know how to be independent learners and no end of badgering will make a difference – dependency is something they have learned and learned well. Take away the interventions, the revision classes and, dare I say, the ‘spoon feeding’ and they become lost in an unknown wilderness with no map to guide them home.

So what can be done?

This is a very difficult question. In the mad scramble to ensure exam success, there is a tendency to increase dependency. I currently run several ‘interventions’ each week, the contents of which involve coaching students on how to answer exam questions. Those who fail to attend are the most likely to harbour feelings of helplessness (‘what’s the point of attending if I’m just going to fail anyway’) and there is always the faint whiff of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Behavioural psychology and the principles underlying behavioural economics might have a role to play here (as might some of the principles from positive psychology – Seligman’s more recent endeavour). There is also certainly a role for established models of motivation and self-regulation (think Self-Determination Theory).

What is evident is that there can be no quick fix. Dependency and learned helplessness form over time and alter an individual’s cognitive set. The trick is to ensure that the school environment promotes independence and self-regulation rather than stifling it. How we do this is the big question. The question really needs to be asked and the answer thoroughly investigated.