Tag Archives: Research

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.

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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?

Justin Bieber, The Illuminati and Educational Research

Justin making the sign of the Illuminati

Justin making the sign of the Illuminati

I became embroiled in the most bizarre conversation recently. For some reason my lesson took an unexpected turn when a student suggested that Justin Bieber was a member of the shadowy Illuminati, the centuries old secret sect that reportedly rules the world and made famous by author Dan Brown (so not so secret after all). I then made the mistake of suggesting that this couldn’t possibly be true because the Illuminati themselves didn’t exist.

“They must exist,” retorted the student, “because Justin Bieber is a member, and so is Rihanna.”

The evidence base for this assertion was that one erroneous belief (the existence of the Illuminati) was supported by a second erroneous belief (that Bieber was a member of the said shadowy organisation).

Now this might simply seem like one of these daft conversations we often have with teenagers (and there are many) and yet it can be compared with other assertions made by the likes of purveyors of alternative medicine. One such ploy would be to suggest that the research community refuses to conduct trials on this therapy or that homeopathic remedy because it’s so effective that it would render all drugs redundant and destroy the profits of the pharmaceutical companies. In other words, the absence of evidence leads to the assumption that it must work.

Now, I’m not saying that education works in the same way, but I am drawn to the following quote on learning styles (specifically VAK) which appears in a 2001 edition of a book on accelerated learning by a well known educationalist:

The leading practitioners in NLP have spent many years characterising the ‘typical’ attributes of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. The work is not research based. It is pragmatic and based on detailed elicitation and modelling.

Of course, the standout sentence here is ‘The work is not research based’ – why did nobody hear the alarm bells ringing?

In a similar way, many teachers (and once-upon-a-time teachers) use phrases like ‘it’s common sense’ or ‘I’ve always done it that way and it works’. If psychology has taught me anything it’s that so-called common sense assumptions are often wrong (for example, if a large crowd is present during an accident, help is less, not more, likely to be forthcoming). They often use these common sense assumptions to reject evidence outright, while others will cherry-pick the data that supports their common sense assumptions and reject that evidence which does not (so-called conformation bias) – of course, this is not confined to teachers.

Some things, on the other hand, we need to accept (or leave well alone) because we simply can’t test them empirically. It’s difficult for us to claim that play is or is not vital for learning because we can’t ethically conduct a study where one group of children are deprived of play. One way we can is to study the educational attainment of those children who have been brought up in isolation or extreme deprivation (including feral children). The problem here is that many of these children have experienced both physical and psychological abuse, increasing the number of confounding variables and making it nigh on impossible to isolate one specific cause. Another problem would be defining the concept of play – is daydreaming a type of internal play? If so, then how would we prevent a child from daydreaming?

Accepting that some things cannot be tested is one thing; accepting them as fact because they can’t be tested is something else altogether. Then again, accepting that education should be evidence based is perhaps the wrong road to take and accepting that it should be evidence informed is perhaps a better one.

UPDATE: I have recently been made aware that Justin Bieber has, in fact, been assassinated by the Illuminati and replaced with a robot.

Can teachers really be researchers?

As the debate over evidence-based teaching continues there appears to be two separate strands emerging:

Strand 1: Teaching should be evidence-based (or evidence-informed).

I certainly have no issue with this, although the view of ‘what works’ is perhaps a secondary debate.

Strand 2: Teachers should also be researchers.

At a superficial level this appears like a pretty good idea – imagine the amount of evidence teachers could gather if they were all carrying out their own research studies within their own schools?

To be honest, it’s more than likely that strand 2 would lead to complete chaos. Let’s face it; there is enough bad educational research out there already, without research naïve teachers adding to it.

I view educational research through the lens of a psychologist and hold a very similar view to other psychologist-teachers (e.g. @turnfordblog) that (in terms of science) if psychology is in the Dark Ages then Education is in the Stone Age when it comes to research. Thus, I tend to make references to psychology when discussing education and, as a result, I take a positivist view of the research process.

So what’s the problem?

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does represent at least some of the issues that need to be discussed before strand 2 can be fully recognised.

1. Sample Size:

Small sample sizes are common is school-based educational research. The majority of schools in their entirety don’t have enough participants to ensure an acceptable sample size, so carrying out a study using a few classes can only give us some small indication of the effect of any independent variable. The other issue is that we can’t force our pupils to take part in a study and even when they do volunteer, they must still be given the right to withdraw themselves (or the data) from the study.

2. Replication:

The replication debate is huge in psychological research at the moment. It has been found that many of our long-standing assumptions about human behaviour are based on studies that simply cannot be replicated. Replication studies are rarely published, null hypothesis studies end up in a dusty cupboard somewhere or in a folder marked ‘failed studies’. One study doesn’t make a theory so implementing interventions based on the results of single teacher conducting a study in a single school with a small sample tells us very little about anything.

3. Generalizabilty:

Does a study conducted in a middle-class school with a low number of students receiving free school meals, below average number of ethnic minority pupils and low number of special need pupils tell us anything about those pupils in deprived, inner-city or ethically-mixed schools? If research is to be useful then it needs to inform us about learning, not just about learning is a particular school (although this data can be useful at a more local level).

4. Bias:

Accept it or not, we all want to be ‘right’. Bias is a major problem in psychology and there is no reason to believe it won’t also be an issue with the teacher who is trying to support a hypothesis (or perhaps prove a point). Bias is usually unconscious but can often also be deliberate.

5. Lack of research training:

I’m a teacher and a Chartered Psychologist. I’m also conducting research as part of a part-time PhD at the University of York. Even though I have a psychology degree, a Masters in Education, and have attended more research methods workshops and seminars than I care to recall, the process of research still often baffles me. Those teachers whose degrees have not included a substantial amount of science or social science research training are far from equipped to carry out serious research.

6. Analysing results – the use and abuse of statistics:

How would a teacher know if the results they have obtained are significant? Most undergraduates are baffled by statistics, as are many post-graduates and post-docs. A non-British academic recently told me that us Brits don’t do stats very well, mainly because the support isn’t there at undergraduate and post-graduate level. Statistical analysis is confusing and often very time consuming and even the best statistical software packages can seem like a long-forgotten language. What about p values? Should we trust effect sizes? Is it alright for us to shave off some of our outliers to get an acceptable level of significance (it’s not by the way – it’s called p-hacking and it very much a no no)? What about Type 1 and Type 2 errors?

What can be done?

I can only offer a few suggestions:

1. Don’t go it alone.

Partner up with other schools to get bigger sample sizes. Partner up with universities or research centres that can give advise on how to carry out research or involve you in some of their own research.

2. Replicate replicate, replicate.

Get other teachers in other schools to carry out the same study.

3. Publish/Blog results (even null hypotheses) – and accept advice/criticism.

Make others aware of what you are doing and take on board the advice offered. Let’s face it; sometime it’s hard to get past the egos that dominate the Internet. We all have something to say and we don’t like being criticised for it but if we’re serious about using research to inform our teaching we really need to get over it.

4. Get some training.

CPD is a major issue and most isn’t worth the time and effort (or money) involved. Introductory workshops in research methods are often cheap (and sometimes free) and there are plenty of resources available online (try OpenLearn from the Open University). Linking such CPD to a recognised research qualification would be a great incentive.

It’s perhaps time to move away from the debate about the acceptability of teacher-researchers and try to work out how it can be practically done. Even though there is a great opportunity here for educational research, there is an equally realistic possibility that it could end in disaster and confusion.

In which I ponder my life as part-time researcher.

This year I am celebrating ten years as a teacher. To be honest, I never thought I would make it this far and I have lost count of the amount of times I have considered packing it all in. I recall the exasperated looks on the faces of family andBusinessman juggling friends when I informed them that I was going to do a PGCE, “Really!” they exclaimed, “Are you sure?”

I was met with somewhat the same response when, this time last year, I decided to embark on a part-time, self-funded PhD. Some, I believe, thought me insane or at the very least suffering from some sort of psychotic break – but this was something I felt compelled to do and I’m glad that I took the deep and dangerous plunge.

So, here I am, almost at the end of my first year of what could turn out to be a six year obsession. Juggling teaching with research is a tricky task and I often feel that I would be better off doing one or the other rather than both simultaneously. Nevertheless, exposure to the research side of education is beginning to inform my teaching more and more and I am more than ever aware of the role such research could play in teaching generally. I also know a little bit more about the lives of my students because of my chosen area of research. Through tentative exploratory investigations I have gleaned information about how they see themselves as learners, how they feel about their own resilience and what they believe about intelligence (and the possible relationships between these factors). What I have certainly realised is that I want to understand more about their daily struggles; about why some of my sixth formers engage deeply with their studies while others don’t appear to be bothered about anything related to school. I’m also starting to understand a little bit more about the interaction between school and student, the complex connections between school culture and student attitudes.

I’ve also started to look at research methods in a new light and am currently investigating some exiting methods for studying students’ daily lives such experience sampling and regular ‘snippets’ of study-related conversation. I intend to blog about some of these soon.

On a more practical level, every day is hard. As a part-time student I have to organise my time carefully. I have supervision meetings, research group seminars and other events to carefully slot into my limited time. I have managed to attend only two events this year – the Institute for Effective Education conference at the University of York (for which I was granted time off from school) and the NTEN ResearchED event which was held on a Saturday. Both were excellent events – far better than any CPD course I’ve ever attended (and whole lot cheaper – an added bonus seeing as I have to foot the bill myself). I will, however, miss the British Psychological Society conference this year as well as the ResearchED conference in September but this all part of the process whereby I need to select what is necessary and what is feasible. More stressing, perhaps, is the ever-present possibility that I will run out of money before the completion of my research. There are few funding opportunities available for part-time postgraduate students and those that are available remain highly competitive – this is partly why the drop-out rate for part-timers is so high. There is also a kind of self-imposed pressure to publish during the course of the PhD and many would argue that publication is more important than the final thesis. I’m desperate to publish but there is a need to prioritise and my teaching always takes precedence.

Would I advise other teachers to embark on a PhD?
It’s a difficult question one that depends upon individual circumstances. A good supervisor is perhaps the key and I’m lucky in that respect but there are more pressing concerns related to time and finances. At some point I will need to approach other schools in order to obtain a more representative sample and this will eat further into my limited time. Family life is also an important factor to bear in mind and dividing time between study, work and family can become quite a juggling act. If you think you can do it then it can be very rewarding but remember that you don’t need to do a PhD to do research.

Teachers are ideally placed to engage in all kinds of research and there are plenty of ways to learn the basics of research design and implementation. The rewards are unlikely to be financial – a PhD just makes you an over-qualified teacher so it’s worth thinking about why you want to do it in the first place. You might be looking for a career change but for most, I suspect, it’s more to do with personal development. The financial commitment is perhaps the biggest concern (most PhD’s will set you back around £2000 a year and this could be for up to six years) and there is still that nagging feeling that self-funded PhD’s are somehow less worthy.

A PhD is challenging at the best of times but for teachers (and anyone who has to balance work with study) I suspect it’s more so. The benefits can only outweigh the costs however, both in terms of personal fulfillment and the opportunity to add to the research literature.