Educational psychology an Important Tool in Teaching

HGS Prematunge

From cradle to casket, education is a lifelong activity. And a major part of the responsibility for imparting it lies with teachers. Every student, like every individual in society, is psychologically unique. Consequently, teachers must be equipped with a sound knowledge in psychology to deal with such differing psyche. Education psychology helps teachers get to know the student, identify his or her potentialities, capabilities, strength and weaknesses; to provide guidance; to plan lessons and learning material; to decide which teaching and learning tools maximize student participation and to create a conducive learning environment. Consequently, education psychology is a desirable addition to the local teacher-training programmes from preschool upwards.

As discussed in the previous article education psychology encompasses social and emotional processes that are involved in learning of all ages. It investigates a broad spectrum of topics such as how humans learn in educational settings, how they retain new information, efficacy of educational interventions, psychology of teaching, social psychology of schools, learning outcomes, teaching process, individual learning styles, gifted children and learning disabilities.

Benefits of psychology to teachers

In ‘The role of educational psychology in teacher education programs’, Akbar Soleiman Nezhad and Majid Vahedi point out that psychological knowledge is used to base reforms in teaching and schooling. Psychology helps in the application of teaching and learning principles. For example the Pygmalion effect or Rosenthal effect has found that student performance depends on teacher expectations. This is a prime example for Behaviorism discussed later in this article.

In the 1963 study conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, teachers of California elementary school were led to believe that some of their students were intellectually superior.

The students’ whose names were made known to the teachers, wound up showing a mean gain in IQ, just because of the teachers’ response towards them. What’s more interesting is that the results were more pronounced in the youngest children, meaning that the younger the child, the more impressionable they are.

Rosenthal believed that even attitude or mood could affect the students positively. It’s safe to assume that the same could apply for negative attitude or mood of teachers, which could have a negative effect on students. The experiment showed that the teacher may pay closer attention to and even treat differently, those children whom the teacher thought was highly intelligent.

Although stereotyping children as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is not the ideal education method, children can be positively reinforced by leading them to believe that they are capable of academic achievement.

Learning theories

As discusses in the previous article, learning theories such as behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism and lately connectivism, explain how a person learns and understands various concepts. Through such concepts educators can better understand and capitalize on how students acquire knowledge.

Behaviorism is learning in response to external stimuli. It focuses on how certain behaviour is either reinforced through reward or punishment. Praising a child or scolding him or her are the most basic example of external stimuli discussed in behaviorism. Grading is another apt example. If a student gets an ‘A’ for math, it’s likely he or she would be encouraged to study hard the next term as well. Children as well as adults are often motivated by incentives and rewards.

Cognitivism is a learning process which involves acquiring and storing information. It explores how people develop knowledge and meaning through the sequential development of cognitive processes such as recognition, reflection, application and evaluation. For example, when a student reads something new, he or she ‘recognises’ it, reflects upon it, applies the knowledge and is then evaluated on that knowledge. The process helps to integrate new concepts. The theory discusses how humans acquire and store information through lectures, memorizing math facts, while this kind of learning has the added benefit of creating connections in our brains that allow us to remember shopping lists and phone numbers making life in general more negotiable.

Lev Vygotsky introduced the Zone of Proximal Development concept (courtesy Wikipedia.org)
Lev Vygotsky introduced the Zone of Proximal Development concept (courtesy Wikipedia.org)

Constructivism is a process of building an understanding. It focuses on how humans develop knowledge and meaning from experiences. For example, when a child burns his or her fingers when touching a flame, the child learns that fire burns and learns to stay away. Constructivism is heavily influenced by the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who introduced teaching concepts such as the Zone of Proximal Development and teaching methods such as instructional scaffolding in support of this concept.

The Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD is a skill set that a student cannot aspire towards without help. Scaffolding involves working with a teacher or a more advanced student to acquire these skills. As the theory goes students learn more effectively when collaborating with others with a wider range of skills and knowledge, as opposed to learning independently. For example a preschool child, who is familiar with the alphabet, can read short sentences with the help of a teacher. This skill is within his or her ZPD. But he or she cannot read a novel at this stage, which is beyond the preschooler’s ZPD.

Lastly, Connectivism is a learning process that connects information sources and is dependent heavily on technology, recognizing the role Internet plays in helping people expand their learning experience. Connectivism is a learning theory that had arisen due to the humans’ ability to gather and share information electronically. But the principle behind it is by no means novel. In an age old form of connectivism, scholars, scientists and artistes have often sought the benefits of peer groups to further and share knowledge. In a sense, humans are by nature Connectivists.

Benefits to students

Students, by understanding these theories of learning as well as one’s own personal learning style can better decode information and develop positive study habits. Another way in which a little psychology can help students is knowing what type of learner one is. People have particular strength in one of three areas; visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Knowing one’s strong suit can make learning more effective.

For example visual learners can use objects such as flashcards, take short notes, draw diagrams and pictures using different colours, highlight important passages and reread lecture notes. Auditory learners decode and commit information to memory best by listening. Recording and playing back lectures is a tested method used by university students even in Sri Lanka. Reading aloud can also help. Kinesthetic learners’ best understand and remember concepts with hands on experience, by repeating something several times over, through role play or experiments. Depending on their learning style, students can tweak their study skills and methods to get the most of their education.

(This article is the 25th instalment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

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