Psychology and the classroom: Avoiding both hype and cynicism

Teachers have long looked to psychology for theories and ideas which might inform classroom practice. However, where these fields of psychology are relatively new, they may not provide solid foundations for thinking about how we teach. On the other hand, cognitive science, especially the reliable findings from decades of research into learning, can make an important contribution to the professional learning of teachers – but it’s certainly not a panacea for all the knotty problems that keep teachers awake at night, says Nick Rose.

As a secondary teacher in a comprehensive school, I would put together a little showcase of my subject for open evening each year (as I’m sure many readers have done). Along with offering an opportunity to discover more about some of the areas of psychology that pupils could study as part of GCSE or A level, I had a presentation of optical illusions, little activities like the Stroop Test, and a few potted bios of famous psychologists and their ideas. Younger children attending the event would enjoy these activities while I chatted to older students and their parents about the courses.

However, it was also common to attract a few teachers to the room – they would peruse the textbooks or look through the course – and sometimes say things along the lines of ‘I wish I’d studied psychology; it’s so interesting and relevant to teaching.’

Education has frequently looked to psychology for inspiration and insight – from William James and John Dewey in the 19th century, to Daniel Willingham and Carol Dweck in the 21th. As you’d expect in any science, ideas and theories about learning have changed over that time – though the ideas teachers are exposed to haven’t always reflected the changes in evidence. In addition, academic psychologists are understandably keen to see their theories and findings applied, but many of the ‘big ideas’ that teachers might read about may not survive long in the crucible of science – undermined by failed replications – or are not terribly relevant to the complex environment of the classroom.

When David Didau and I sketched out the chapters for What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology, we wanted to capture this fascination with psychology and explore where it might have useful implications for the classroom, but also highlight where teachers needed to exercise a bit of professional scepticism. Quite often, we argue, enthusiasm for a branch of psychology runs ahead of the evidence, or simply lacks tried-and-tested applications.

Are we a bit naïve about neuroscience?

For example, while there’s a great deal of enthusiasm regarding neuroscience, bolstered by the advent of new technologies to examine processes within the living brain, I’d argue that the number of practical applications of neuroscience, directly useful to teaching, is approximately zero.

Jeffrey Bowers1 argues that eagerness to apply neuroscience to education is misguided: while neuroscience can grant scientists insights into the biology of learning, a teacher cares about the learning behaviour of their pupils. Whether learning involves activity in the hippocampus or pre-frontal cortex is basically irrelevant: it’s simply the wrong level of description to apply to the complex social, behavioural and cognitive problems of teaching.

Some of the recent ‘big ideas’, he argues, represent fairly trivial findings for education. For example, neuroplasticity – which describes the lasting changes to the brain throughout an individual’s life –provides the biological explanation for a phenomenon that teachers are already well aware of (i.e. that we have the ability to learn!).

Lastly, Bowers argues that important and useful findings about learning are often misappropriated as examples of neuroscience. For example, retrieval practice or the ‘testing effect’, which suggests testing of information often improves learning more than restudying, was recently included in an EEF review of educational interventions ‘informed by neuroscience’,2 despite the fact that all the research and important findings are based on behavioural psychology rather than brain scans. In fact, behavioural descriptions of ‘retrieval practice’ first emerged about 100 years ago – and have been repeatedly demonstrated using the strict controls of psychological experiments, but also found to be successful in the messy (but much more authentic) environment of the classroom. 3

Neuroscience holds powerful promise, especially as a way to help psychologists test some of their theories. However, while it’s possible that neuroscience will produce useable knowledge applicable to teaching at some point in the future, personally I doubt it. I wonder whether educational neuroscience represents an example of what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls ‘greedy reductionism’.4 The activity of neurons is a level of description so far removed from learning behaviour of children in a classroom that it essentially ignores too many important intervening levels of description and theory.

Are we too positive about positive psychology?

Another new branch of psychology, called positive psychology, is also the source of new ‘big ideas’. Angela Duckworth’s ideas about ‘grit’5 or Carol Dweck’s work on ‘mindset’6 probably represent the largest influence of this new field in education – which emphasises positive attitudes toward subjective experiences and life events.

However, the latest theories coming out of psychology are not necessarily a reliable basis for teachers to use to inform their professional learning. Both ‘grit’ and ‘mindset’ have run into problems as they come under increasing scientific scrutiny. Grit7 appears to share a great deal with ‘conscientiousness’, a dimension of personality already well established and not necessarily something that in adults is especially open to change. It may also have a much weaker influence on outcomes than the original research suggested (the overall correlation between grit and success is only about 0.18).

Mindset research has also run into some difficulty as other researchers have attempted to replicate some of the key findings. For example, many teachers will be aware of the advice that we shouldn’t praise intelligence (‘You’re so clever!’), but rather praise the process (‘I like the way you used different strategies to solve this problem!’). However, a recent study8 found that praise for intelligence didn’t appear to reduce cognitive performance and that children’s mindsets had no relationship to their school grades or improvement of grades across the year.

The debates in psychology are far from over: both Duckworth and Dweck have defended their work and perhaps future research will better support their claims. This is ‘situation normal’ in science – new ideas frequently get refined or rejected as new experimental evidence comes to light. The science isn’t ‘settled’ yet, and this makes it an uncertain platform for teachers to base changes to their classroom practice on.

Start with the ‘settled science’

Given the to and fro of scientific debate, it would be understandable if teachers adopted a cynical attitude: ‘Beware psychologists bearing gifts!’ However, I think this would be a mistake.

In contrast to the relatively new fields of neuroscience and positive psychology, there is an example of ‘settled science’ which has survived many decades of scientific testing – and has examples of applications which have been successfully trialled in classrooms. Based upon a key theory within cognitive science – working memory and its relationship with long-term memory – the field provides us with some general, reliable principles of learning which teachers can use with some confidence when thinking about changes to practice.

There are some excellent introductions to this body of science. Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?9 – along with his many American Educator articles10 exploring some of the nuances and implications of cognitive science – provides a jargon-free, invaluable starting point for any teacher. Some of the important reliable principles arising from cognitive science have also been summarised as teacher-friendly resources: for example, The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact,11 and Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning by the US-based Institute of Education Sciences.12

It is the scientific longevity of these theories and behavioural findings which means they provide a reliable set of principles that can help inform, challenge and refine our professional learning as teachers. Where we find the same results, triangulated between laboratory and real-world environments, they have potentially useful applicability within teaching. This is the sort of psychology that can make a genuine contribution to evidence-informed practice within teaching, I argue.13

However, while the principles arising from the science of learning are often well established and reliable, that doesn’t mean they are ‘plug and play’. Teachers looking to improve the revision techniques their students use, or design sequences of learning to exploit the benefits of spaced practice, still need to evaluate whether what they’ve implemented is having the benefits they anticipated.

Furthermore, let’s not pretend that this body of reliable science can solve all of the problems in education. Science can’t tell you what the ‘purpose of education’ should be, or what a ‘socially equitable education system’ should look like. Wider goals and policy within education aren’t the domain of science – but more properly the topic of social and political debate. It would be wrong to seek to circumvent that debate by making appeals to science.

Science is better thought of like a compass – it really becomes useful once you know where you want to go. Where we have a clear goal – and for most teachers I suspect helping children to learn is not the most controversial aim – this is where scientific evidence can, incrementally and by degrees, help us to move in the right direction.

Teaching has long been vulnerable to hype stemming from ‘cutting-edge’ psychological research and, given that new ideas emerging from psychology are often tentative, sometimes spurious and rarely replicated, it is understandable why some teachers might cynically dismiss the whole field. However, while it certainly is not a panacea for all the knotty problems that keep teachers awake at night, teachers would do well to steer a path avoiding both hype and cynicism. There are some reliable principles arising from long-standing and well-tested fields of psychology that should form part of every teacher’s professional knowledge.


References

1.
Bowers, J. S. (2016) ‘The practical and principled problems with educational neuroscience’, Psychological Review 123 (5) pp. 600–612.

2.
Howard-Jones, P. (2014) Neuroscience and Education: A review of educational interventions informed by neuroscience. Education Endowment Foundation.

3.
Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A. and Sundararajan, N. (2017) ‘Rethinking the use of tests: a meta-analysis of practice testing’, Review of Educational Research 87 (3) pp. 659–701.

4.
Dennett, D. C. (1995) Darwin’s dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

5.
Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

6.
Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset: changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. London: Little, Brown.

7.
Credé, M., Tynan, M. C. and Harms, P. D. (2017) ‘Much ado about grit: a meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113 (3) pp. 492–511.

8.
Li, Y. and Bates, T. C. (2017) ‘Does mindset affect children’s ability, school achievement, or response to challenge? Three failures to replicate’. SocArXiv Preprint.

9.
Willingham, D. (2010) Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

10.
www.goo.gl/K62mKZ

11.
Deans for Impact (2015) The science of learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

12.
Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M. and Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning. IES Practice Guide. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research.

13.
Rose, N. and Eriksson-Lee, S. (2017) Putting evidence to work: how can we help new teachers use research evidence to inform their teaching? London: Teach First.