Me, a Social Scientist? Educational Psychology on the Menu


Having decided that this weekend is to be devoted to concentrated study, I borrowed several of our reading-list books from the library with the intention of dipping into them for useful material.  Matt Jarvis, The Psychology of Effective Learning and Teaching (Cheltenham: Nelson Thomas, 2005) looks a suitable place to start!

Since I won’t manage to read every book from cover-to-cover, I thought I’d get an overview by looking at the chapter headings, then decide where to start reading!

  1. The Learner and the Teacher
  2. Cognitive Development and Learning
  3. Intelligence and Academic Ability
  4. Styles of Thinking, Learning and Studying
  5. Thinking Skills
  6. Motivation
  7. Emotional Factors in Learning
  8. ICT and Learning (Information and Communication Technology)
  9. Teacher Stress
  10. Education Research

The first chapter looks at different psychological approaches to the roles of both learner and teacher.  Rachel Drury touched on this in the second online Thursday night session for our ‘Teaching Artist’ module, when we were focusing on the Context Setting Study that was part of our course requirement.  Rachel looked at ‘Ways of viewing the learner’, whilst Mary Troup gave a presentation focusing on learning theories.  Mary reminded us that learning theories could be brought into consideration during lesson planning, and also referenced Phil Race (we have four titles by him in the Whittaker Library), who identified ‘five factors underpinning successful learning’: we learn from feedback; when we want and/or need to learn; when what we’re learning makes sense; and we learn by doing.  (Slide 4 of Mary’s Powerpoint.)  This book goes into greater theoretical depth but in a quite intensive, sharply-focused way – possibly more so than we actually need at this stage.

Jarvis introduces us to a range of different psychological theories.  Cognitive Psychology views ‘the learner as information processor’. (p.3) We use various mental processes when we learn, and although some experts think that intelligence is quantifiable, there is also the belief that (a) we can learn thinking skills and (b) different people have different learning styles. Jarvis deals with these in Chapter 4, not here.  I’ve read in the press that not everyone agrees with the idea of different learning styles (eg auditory, visual, sensory, kinetic), but I’ll visit his exposition of the concepts and see what I think.  Jarvis comments that children’s brains develop as they grow up; and also alludes to Jean  Piaget and Lev Vygotsky’s ‘cognitive development theories’, which he deals with in Chapter 2.  Since my teaching is with young adults, and I’ve also occasionally worked with mature adults (I taught English as a foreign language at a summer school for teenagers and adults, and also folk guitar evening classes at a technical college many years ago), I’ve decided to pay more attention to aspects of educational psychology that will help me in these areas, rather than spending time reading about school teaching and learning.

Jarvis next introduces the concepts of Psychodynamic psychology and the emotional learner – which acknowledges the fact that both learners and teachers can have an emotional response to ‘learning situations’, and that these might affect how they react either to the subject matter, or to the individual student or teacher working with them. Humanistic psychology, on the other hand, not only looks at relationships but also matters of motivation and the learner’s urge for self-improvement.

Jarvis next says that the socially constructed learner is a concept connected with postmodernism. Fortunately for me, he goes on to explain that,

“… psychologists influenced by postmodernism, broadly known as social constructionists, encourage us to look for the influence of social, political and historical influences on the development of popular ideas.  Such ideas can then be reframed not as facts but as ‘social constructs’…. it can instructive to think of the ways in which current political and social agendas affect our view of education.” (pp.5-6)

I think I understand this.  Certainly, I can understand how a curriculum can be influenced by political and social factors.  However, whereas Jarvis is looking at the effect of these influences on the learner, I am more familiar with this kind of idea in terms of my own musicological specialisms, in which I look at the way literary and cultural influences affect the music collections being compiled and published.  Thus, I have been applying this approach to the subject matter being taught, whilst educationalists look at the way social and political situations affect students (and, surely, their teachers, too).  Actually, I can see that if we recognise the influence of ‘current political and social agendas’, then we can draw parallels with historical political and social agendas, but I realise that this is not really in any way connected with Jarvis’s psychological theories.

From the student, Jarvis now turns our attention to different ways of viewing the teacher’s role.  Socrates viewed the teacher as a subversive, which would not make them very popular!  Neither would it go down well today.

More interesting is the classification of the teacher’s role as ‘executives, therapists and liberationists’ (p.7).  Skills, knowledge and efficiency preoccupy the former; the ‘therapist’ is more concerned with pastoral issues; whilst the ‘liberationist’ focuses on encouraging the student to become an independent learner.  Since, as I’ve mentioned before, I am usually parachuted into a teaching situation to deliver single sessions, it is hard for me to identify with any of these roles particularly strongly; I don’t have the opportunity to develop a teacher-student relationship with individual students unless they subsequently come and seek me out in the library.  However, I do occasionally go to concerts in which our students perform, or I may exchange a few words with them in passing, so I get to know them a bit better in this way.  It is always gratifying when a student ‘gets’ what you have been sharing with them, and wants to explore the musical repertoire further, or shares some aspect of their studies that they’re preoccupied with.  Jarvis concedes that the three different roles will all be present in any particular teacher’s role, so I don’t feel it’s necessary to define myself and my own approach too precisely.

(In our online session, Rachel invited us to look back at our own school days and see if we could slot any of our teachers into any of these categories.  My own school days are so long ago that I’m afraid most of my teachers were decidedly ‘old school’, telling us what to study and how to do it.  However, independent learning was very much in evidence when I was an undergraduate at Durham.)

Jarvis raises interesting questions about whether teaching can be considered ‘Craft-knowledge‘ or a professional skill, and also looks at the importance of reflective practice.  He differentiates between ‘reflection in action’, and the kind of reflection that takes place in planning a lesson, or in debriefing afterwards, also alluding to mentoring and supervision, and CPD. This blog is itself part of my own reflective practice.  I consider that I am doing precisely what he advocates, since I’m contemplating how theory/research relates to my practice; reflecting on my own personal response to what I’m reading about psychological theory/research; and reflecting ‘on personal characteristics as identified by psychological theory and/or research’. (p.11) I’m not only trying to get my head around the psychological theories, but also asking myself whether I agree with them, and whether they have anything to offer in my quest for the best ways to teach in my own unique situation.




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