‘Love, Mary’ is a movie about a dyslexic teenager who beats the odds by earning an MD degree and achieving a career in family medicine despite her condition. What is dyslexia? Dyslexia entails difficulty to learn reading or writing, despite normal intelligence. This includes difficulty with phonological awareness, phonological decoding, processing speed, auditory short-term memory, and/or language skills or verbal comprehension…so goes the text book definition. Before she became Dr. Mary Groda-Lewis, she was sent to reform school due to her ‘troubled behavior’ where she met her counselor, who helped her gain confidence and excel in studies. This goes to show how vital educational psychology is, to ensure that students like Mary Groda-Lewis don’t fall through the cracks.

Psychology helps to identify kids who need extra help and develop teaching methods to cater to their specific needs. It’s a win- win situation, as the process results in creating innovative learning methods. Mary Groda-Lewis is a case in point.

Dr. Mary Groda-Lewi, defied the odds and earned a medical degree (courtesy Hilo Medical Centre)
Dr. Mary Groda-Lewi, defied the odds and earned a medical degree (courtesy Hilo Medical Centre)


Johann Herbart, considered the father of educational psychology, believed that a student’s interest in a topic was vital to the learning outcome and held that teachers should consider this interest along with prior knowledge when deciding on the method of instruction. English philosopher John Locke, formulated the concept of tabula rasa or ‘clean slate’, in 1689,  in ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’. He suggested that the mind is essentially a blank slate at birth and knowledge is then developed through experience and learning. Influential American psychologist and educational reformer, John Dewey believed that schools should focus on students rather than on subjects. He championed active learning and held that hands-on experience is vital to the learning process.

In 1936 Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget formulated his highly influential theory of cognitive development on how humans gradually come to acquire, construct and use knowledge. Piaget was intrigued by the fact that kids of different ages made different kinds of mistakes while learning. His famous stages of cognitive development strove to understand how children think at different stages of development. Using such guidelines educators can create instructional methods and material based on age group.

Essential to education

Educational psychology is a discipline that 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.

Education psychology is the marriage of cognition and instruction and borrows heavily from developmental and behavioral psychology. It encompasses social and emotional processes that are involved in learning of all ages. For example, factors such as memories, beliefs, emotions and motivations contribute to the learning process. The discipline strives to understand kids’ motivation to learn, how they remember and how they solve problems.

Educational psychology allows educators to improve the efficiency of the learning or teaching process. Using psychology in education, individual learning differences and characteristics of each student can be identified. Psychology also goes a long way in creating a conducive learning environment, what’s referred to by educationists as a ‘socio-emotional’ climate. Learning strategies and teaching methods can be developed and catered to student needs and progress.

In ‘What Good is Educational Psychology? The Case of Cognition and Instruction’, Richard E. Mayer points out that education needs a set of scientifically valid methods of instruction based on research evidence and tested theory. And psychology proves vital in achieving this goal. Mayer observes that research-based psychological theory can help guide the design of instructional methods and educational curricula.

For example, psychologies of subject matter concern learning specific subjects such as reading, writing, mathematics, science and history. Psychologically examining how a child learns to read would help teach children to better master the skill of reading.

Johann Herbart believed that learning outcomes were based on a student’s interest in the topic. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Johann Herbart believed that learning outcomes were based on a student’s interest in the topic. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Teaching psychology

At a time when students are assigned to counsellors at university level, it’s surprising how psychology has been left out of the Sri Lankan school system. Teachers, in the traditional sense of the word, is obsolete.  Teachers today need to double as mentors and even counsellors, at times. Teachers should be able to provide guidance to students so they can solve their own problems. Knowledge in psychology equips teachers with the ability to provide educational and vocational guidance to students of different ages.

Evaluation is just as important as teaching among teachers’ job responsibilities and helps to gauge student learning outcome. Psychology also helps in the application of teaching and learning principles. For example, psychology can help to establish learning objectives. Educationists have found that different learning processes results in different behaviours in students. Psychology could go a long way towards deciding on which learning method fits which student depending on desired behaviour. Psychology can also help teachers to decide on what media to use in the classroom. For example, kids may find it easier to relate to audio-visuals than a text book. Psychology could also provide pointers on how educational technology can be used in a classroom.

That’s easier said than done in Sri Lanka, where 40 or so students are taught using a single time-tested tradition, while the overworked teacher hopes no one falls through the cracks.

In the global educational arena several learning theories, such as behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism, explain how a person learns and understands various concepts. Through such concepts students can better understand and capitalize on how they acquire knowledge. These concepts will be discussed in the Part II of Education Psychology which will focus on how educational psychology can benefit students, among other things.

(This article is the 24th instalment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)



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