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.