Psychology: It gets more complicated after twenty-odd years.

A few weeks before I left my last teaching job I was observed by my line manager (no, this isn’t a rant about observations). He asked me why I insisted on students repeating what they had learned and why I then had them explain it to each other.

“Because recalling information strengthens the memory trace of that information,” I explained.

He didn’t seem convinced, but then again, a week earlier he had distributed a revision pack to sixth form students that included information on learning styles. At the time of our discussion we were also seated next to my wonderful display on ‘Evidenced-based Revision Techniques’ (taken from the Dunlosky paper).

Towards the end of the meeting he asked politely what I was intending to do when I left. I explained briefly that I was interested in the application of psychology to the classroom and that I was hoping to do some work in that area.

“Well”, he said, “It’s very popular. My wife is doing the same thing – she’s training to be a mindfulness teacher”.

I nodded politely. To be fair, I wouldn’t necessarily expect a Spanish teacher (or any non-psychology teacher) to fully comprehend the deeper meaning of what I said. Although of course, he was charged with observing my lessons, so a modicum of knowledge could have been useful. Furthermore, this is simply an observation, not a criticism (Okay, a little bit of a criticism). Despite a growing interest in the use of psychology in teaching, the majority of teachers I would guess are not always aware that they are using psychological techniques in their classrooms already.

I’ve been studying or teaching psychology for more than twenty years. In that time I have studied at undergraduate and post-graduate level, designed and delivered introductory psychology courses to adult learners and spent 12 years teaching A-level Psychology; I was awarded ‘Chartered’ status by the British Psychological Society and three years after that Associate Fellowship (a fairly rare achievement for an A-level Psychology teacher). Over the years I’ve published in academic journals, popular magazines and everything in-between – I’ll stop now, but I often feel that I have to justify myself.

Some time ago I briefly engaged in a discussion around the legitimacy of non-psychology specialists to offer advice, consult and blog on psychological theories and criticise the research underpinning its methodology. The argument was that if you don’t have formal qualifications in psychology then you should keep out of it. On the one hand there was a kind of logic attached to this point of view – I suspect there are fewer English teachers offering advice on Maths than there are English teachers offering advice on Psychology, so why should Psychology be any different? On the other hand (and this was my stance during the exchange), if an English teacher (or a History teacher, or even a Spanish teacher!) wants to share what they have learned then why not? We are all the richer for it – or are we?

My concern is that our understanding of what psychology represents and how it can influence teaching and learning becomes very narrowly defined. With psychology seemingly in ‘crisis’ I’ve even noticed that many are now using the term ‘cognitive science’ and even ‘behavioural economics’ to distance themselves from what they see as a discipline in meltdown. It’s my former line manager viewing psychology as a self-help guide rather than a fledgling scientific discipline, still trying to find its place in the grand scheme of things.

Certainly, my own interests have shifted. Ten years ago it was all about memory for me, then came the ‘resilience’ years (the shift from cognitive to so-called non-cognitive). Recently I’ve somewhat shifted back with a growing (near obsessional – 60,000 words and counting type of obsessional) interest in the interaction between cognition and emotion and its impact on learning. Many teacher blogs I have read describe learning as a cognitive process, when it has been clear for some time that it’s an emotional (and social) one as well. We pick the definitions we need to justify our own position and develop a narrow framework based on limited reading – it gets more complicated than that after twenty-odd years.

Of course, like other disciplines, psychology is fragmented – biological, cognitive, social, developmental, behavioural and, yes, even the Freudians still walk the ghostly halls, unaware that they died some time ago (*waits for backlash and the accusations of inappropriate feelings towards mothers*).

Nevertheless, there is less conflict in psychology than there once was and while the replication crisis is multifaceted, it does, I believe, provide psychology with the opportunity to re-think its priorities. Unfortunately, while psychology attempts to reconcile its differences, many teachers appear hell-bent on exacerbating them.    


5 thoughts on “Psychology: It gets more complicated after twenty-odd years.

  1. chrismwparsons

    Hi Marc – love the post in general, but fascinated by your ‘near obsession’ with the link between cognition and emotion. I have for a while been wanting to properly delve into a deeper educational element to cognition – particularly with regards to the formation of ‘attitudes’ rather than just knowledge.

    If I want people to really act on the belief that drinking and driving is wrong for example, I could do lots of interleaved, time-spaced, variable-location teaching & testing of the laws about drink-driving, or I could have them or a friend be involved in a tragic car accident related to alcohol. Clearly, following the first range of options could be described as a time-wasting ‘opportunity cost’ which the second would avoid…

    Now, my (up to now limited) attempts to look into this area have tended to revolve around ‘social cognition’ or ’embodied cognition’ or such-like, without much being thrown up. Do you have any good pointers regarding this area – or indeed will your own ‘60,000’ words and counting be available to the common punter at some time? I got a decent 1st in Psychology at undergraduate level, so it’s something I’m willing to dig deep into if there is good research out there.

    Thanks for a great blog – I’ve enjoyed a few of your posts over the past hour.

    1. chrismwparsons

      Sorry – just to say that my above comment about drink-driving was hypothetical – I have no plans to do this! I guess you could say it was an attempt to involve the emotions in a cognitive thought process to derive a stronger effect.

    2. Marc Smith (@PsychologyMarc)

      There is some interesting research pairing emotionally charged images with to-be-learned information. However, I think the answer to such a problem is more about behaviour change than recall. There is some interesting research being used by so-called behavioural economists (basic things like free soft drinks for designated drivers). Shock tactic can backfire – the brain processes emotions without really identifying them as positive or negative but it does process emotionally charged information differently to neutral information.

      1. chrismwparsons

        Hi Marc – I guess we’re talking ‘Nudge’ here – Behavioural Economics does seem to have displaced social psychology in the public imagination.

        Thanks for thoughts on shock tactic – I’m not sure I could really do such things anyway! I am, however, interested in how we might nonetheless better involve the emotions when designing otherwise highly cognitive lesson activities.

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