Psychology and Education: It’s Good To Be Critical.

Psychology is still a very young discipline and one fraught with competing theories, multiple paradigms and methodological problems. It’s also become very popular with teachers, especially with those who are eager to understand how psychology can be used in their own practice.

This interest has led to a flurry of Edu-bloggers and Tweeters taking up the mantle of advising others on how they might go about applying psychology to their classrooms. Often, these amateur psychologists use the knowledge they have gained through reading or attending conferences to engage others and further the knowledge of others.

What I have noticed, however, is that many are so taken by what they have learned that they become uncritical of the information they have acquired. They may be approaching psychology from a cognitive perspective or from any one of the other paradigms available, without applying any kind of critical gaze. When others read these blog posts or engage in online discussion, they often assimilate the information in an equally uncritical way.

If you study psychology formally (as an undergraduate of even an A level student) criticality becomes vital. All paradigms (from Freudian Psychodynamics through to Behavioural, Cognitive, Evolutionary and everything in between) are assessed for their validity and relevance. Indeed, this criticality and understanding of competing paradigms are necessary for a Psychology degree course to be accredited by the British Psychological Society – the first step on a long road to becoming a Chartered Psychologist.

Take, for example, cognitive psychology. We can learn a great deal from studies within this paradigm, especially as it applies to education (cognitive psychology is also the current dominant paradigm). Nevertheless, studies into memory and other cognitive processes are often conducted in highly controlled artificial environments with many of the participants drawn from the psychology undergraduate population. This means that such studies suffer from both low ecological validity (results can’t necessarily be applied to the real world) and sample bias. A 2010 study found that 96 percent of participants in psychology studies represented only 12 percent of the world’s population, while others have found that a large percentage of studies rely solely on student samples (a detail that is often omitted from the published paper). This also raises concerns over the use of non-naïve participants. It’s easier for more knowledgeable participants to second guess the purpose of the study and alter their behaviour according (generally referred to as demand characterises).

Many studies don’t travel well from the laboratory to the classroom. For example, Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets fails to support her earlier findings when they are introduced into a real world environment. However, with such a widely known theory, it remains difficult to find any genuinely naïve participants, certainly within the teaching profession.

What about genes? Surely this is proper science that can’t be disputed? The more recent discipline of behavioural genetics certainly shows promise but also prompts controversy. Much of the controversy concerns the equally controversial construct of general intelligence, or G, (measured as IQ). Statistically, there is little doubt that IQ correlates highly with a large number of positive outcomes. Children of high IQ parents are more likely to have similar IQ’s to their parents (even when raised outside the family) and studies using identical twins support the genetic link, yet the concordance rates are never 100 percent, indeed, they range from about 40 percent up to about 80 percent in some studies. It’s difficult to argue with the statistics, however, those who wholeheartedly support the genetic basis of intelligence are often also those who are highly critical of correlational studies – it’s often their first point of criticism – correlation doesn’t imply causation. Indeed, G itself is a correlation, prompting some to argue that IQ is merely a reification, something that has been made concrete even though it should only exist in abstraction.

Whether we support the existence of a genetic basis of intelligence or not (and I must admit that I don’t doubt the findings), without applying a critical gaze we are in danger of omitting important aspects.

Genes do interact with the environment through what is known as genotype-environment correlation, the view that both the environment and our individual genotype interact in different ways. These correlations can be passive (for example, low achieving/low aspiring parents will pass both their genes and their attitude to education on to their children – providing them with a home life which is educationally uninspiring). Correlations can also be evocative whereby certain behaviours are promoted through the child’s genetic predispositions. Finally, such a correlation can be active in that the child actively seeks out opportunities and challenges based on their genetic predisposition (see Plomin and Asbury for a much deeper discussion on this). Such considerations are often conspicuously absent from blog posts, perhaps as a way of supporting a personal ideology, but most likely through a lack of criticality, understanding or simply not reading widely enough.

On a superficial level, even the amateur psychologist understands that there are multiple, often competing paradigms in psychology. While learning tends to be cognitive based, behaviour management is often behaviourist in nature, differing little from the early studies of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner, where teachers are urged to keep order through simple methods of reward and punishment. The potential problem here is that we ignore the ever present social processes taking place, the kids who will endure the sanction because of the belief that they will win points from within their peer group, or emotional aspects where students employ defensive tactics as a way of coping with anxiety or other psychological problems.

Curiously, in a bid to become more critical, many teachers appear to be becoming less so, accepting what they are told by self-styled educational gurus or accepting only the evidence that supports their own view. Unfortunately, Twitter is a poor platform for wider debate and few minds have been changed in 140 characters.


One thought on “Psychology and Education: It’s Good To Be Critical.

  1. Benjamin Doxtdator

    Thank you for writing this post!
    Aside from the ecological validity of cognitive science studies, it’s also worth looking at what Gert Biesta calls ‘complexity reduction’, or the extent to which we would need to transform our classrooms to become more ecologically like the lab to get the results to hold. This always raises questions of power and educational purpose.
    Developmental biology and Developmental Systems Theory have a lot to tell us about the causal story of development that behavioral genetics simply doesn’t address. Indeed, the whole concept of the gene itself has been crumbling for awhile. For what it’s worth, this was my response:


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