Should Teachers Be ‘Psychologically Literate’?

A few years ago I reviewed ‘The Psychologically Literate Citizen’ for The Psychologist (the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society). In part I wrote:

“The editors of this interesting work have gathered together a diverse collection of articles by international researchers and writers in to examine the question of what must be taught to our students in order to ensure they are psychologically literate. By bringing a global perspective to the problem, they have produced a rather fascinating picture of where psychology currently stands and how it could move forward under a common vision”.

At the time, the phrase ‘Psychologically Literate’ was one I was only vaguely familiar with, however, about a year later I was involved in a BPS working group into the future of A-level Psychology where the phrase was used again.

This got me thinking about the extent to which teachers need to be psychologically literate and what psychological knowledge (if any) teachers would benefit from. Many teacher-bloggers are fast becoming amateur cognitive psychologists and I’ve read some great blog posts on topics that have been my bread and butter for the best part of two decades, so much so in fact that I refrain from blogging about many of these topics myself.

The majority of people become psychologically literate through academic study. The British Psychological Society retains what is known as a ‘watching brief’ over A-level Psychology (they advise but have no real input) whereas the majority of undergraduate psychology degrees are BPS accredited, meaning that they provide the foundation for graduates to work towards chartered status (the BPS hold the Royal Charter and therefore remain the only organisation that can award ‘Chartered Psychologist’ status – although the title ‘Psychologist’ remains unprotected). Undergraduate degrees in Psychology, therefore, need to include certain components deemed necessary by the BPS for psychological literacy.

Many teachers are psychologically aware, at least in terms of cognitive psychology (if you’ve read Dan Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ you’ll have a basic grounding in cognitive psychology). However, psychology is much more than cognition and there is always the danger that it will take precedent over other possible fruitful areas such as developmental, behavioural, social and the complex interplay between cognition and emotion.

To be psychologically literate is also to be research literate, and again many teachers are becoming more skilled at spotting the weaknesses in educational and psychological research.

For example, many research studies into memory:

  • Are conducted using undergraduate psychology students (even though many published papers omit this and other details), leading to the possibility that participants will second guess the nature of the study and alter their behaviour accordingly.
  • Are carried out in highly controlled and artificial environments (thus lowering the chance that any results can be applied to real-world situations such as classrooms).
  • Look for general rules, thereby downplaying or ignoring individual differences.

There are ways of mitigating these problems, for example psychologists have used case studies of individuals whose memory has been impaired through disease or brain damage. While case studies provide incredibly detailed and rich data (much more so than laboratory experiments) they concern themselves with a single individual so cannot reach general conclusions.

While many teacher-bloggers are well aware of these and other problems, others lack the psychological literacy (and often the research literacy) to successfully critically evaluate many research studies. There is much more to critical analysis than sample size and at times the study may in fact warrant a smaller number of participants. One example might be a longitudinal study using a method such as experience sampling, which can produce huge data sets with a much lower number of participants. In this case, the researcher might be looking for variations at multiple time points rather than at two time points or between groups.

The possible danger here is that we employ strategies that looked great in the controlled conditions of the laboratory but simply don’t work in the classroom (or don’t work for the majority of students) and we start to kid ourselves that it works because that’s what this study or that study tells us.

I’m still pondering over whether teachers should be psychologically literate at all. If we conclude that they should be, then what do they need to know in order to make them so? If we conclude that there is no need, then should they refrain from employing psychological techniques in the classroom?


2 thoughts on “Should Teachers Be ‘Psychologically Literate’?

  1. Steven Watson

    This is good Marc. I have been saying to trainee maths teachers for the last couple of years that we should have the same amount of time as medical practitioners get on anatomy, physiology and other disciplines. Teachers are lucky to get a few hours on underlying disciplinary knowledge. Teachers should have a good understanding of psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience etc. After my PGCE it took me several years to understand the theory I had learnt and apply it in practice, and to make measured judgements. That was through further study as well. I wish teaching required an education doctorate,


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