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Educational Psychology

History, Contemporary Views of Learning and Motivation, Issues and Controversies

Educational psychologists "study what people think and do as they teach and learn a particular curriculum in a particular environment where education and training are intended to take place" (Berliner, p.145). The work of educational psychologists focuses "on the rich and significant everyday problems of education" (Wittrock, pp. 132–133).


Long before educational psychology became a formal discipline, scholars were concerned about what people think and do as they teach and learn. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle discussed topics still studied by educational psychologists–the role of the teacher, the relationship between teacher and student, methods of teaching, the nature and order of learning, the role of affect in learning. In the 1500s the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives emphasized the value of practice, the need to tap student interests and adapt instruction to individual differences, and the advantages of using self-comparisons rather than competitive social comparisons in evaluating students' work. In the 1600s the Czech theologian and educator Johann Amos Comenius introduced visual aids and proclaimed that understanding, not memorizing, was the goal of teaching. Writings of European philosophers and reformers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841), and Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782–1852) stressed the value of activity, prior experience, and interest. All these ideas are consistent with current work in educational psychology.

In the United States, psychology was linked to education and teachers from its inception. In 1890 the American philosopher William James founded psychology in America and then followed with a lecture series for teachers titled "Talks to Teachers about Psychology." These lectures were given in summer schools for teachers around the country and then published in 1899 both as a book and in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Again, some of James's ideas were quite modern–he supported the use of discussion, projects and activities, laboratory experiments, writing, drawing, and concrete materials in teaching.

James's student, G. Stanley Hall, founded the American Psychological Association and was its first president. Teachers helped him collect data for his dissertation about children's understandings of the world. Hall founded the child-study movement in the United States and wrote extensively about children and adolescents. He encouraged teachers to make detailed observations and keep careful records to study their students' development–as his mother had done when she was a teacher. Hall's ideas influenced education through courses in child study introduced into normal schools beginning around 1863.

Hall's student, John Dewey, founded the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago and is considered the father of the Progressive education movement. Another of William James's students, Edward Lee Thorndike, wrote the first educational psychology text in 1903 and founded the Journal of Educational Psychology in 1910.

Psychology and key ideas in education. Developments in education continued to be closely tied to psychologists in the first half of the twentieth century. In fact, in 1919, Ellwood Cubberly dubbed educational psychology a "guiding science of the school" (p. 755). It was not uncommon for psychologists such as Thorndike, Charles H. Judd, or their students to be both presidents of the American Psychological Association and authors of materials for teaching school subjects or measuring achievement in reading, mathematics, or even handwriting. The work of Thorndike, Alfred Binet, Jean Piaget, and Benjamin Bloom illustrate earlier connections between psychology and education.

Thorndike, teaching, and transfer. Although Thorndike is most well known in psychology for his research on learning that paved the way for B. F. Skinner's later studies of operant conditioning, his impact in education went beyond his studies of learning. He developed methods for teaching reading and arithmetic that were widely adopted, as well as scales to measure ability in reading, arithmetic, handwriting, drawing, spelling, and English composition. He supported the scientific movement in education–an effort to base teaching practice on empirical evidence and sound measurement. His view proved narrow as he sought laws of learning in laboratories that could be applied to teaching without actually evaluating the applications in real classrooms. It took fifty years to return to the psychological study of learning in the classroom, when the Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 startled the United States and precipitated funding for basic and applied research on teaching and learning. Thorndike also had a lasting effect on education by demonstrating that learning Greek, Latin, and mathematics did not "exercise the mind" to improve general thinking abilities. Partly because of his research, required study of the classics decreased.

Binet and assessments of intelligence. About the time that Thorndike was developing measures of reading and arithmetic abilities, Alfred Binet was working on the assessment of intelligence in France. Binet, a psychologist and political activist in Paris in the early 1900s, was charged with developing a procedure for identifying students who would need special education classes. He believed that having an objective measure of learning ability could protect students of poor families who might be forced to leave school because they were assumed to be slow learners. Binet and his collaborator Théodore Simon identified fifty-eight tests, several for each age group from three to thirteen, that allowed the examiner to determine a mental age for a child. A child who succeeded on the items passed by most six-year-olds, for example, was considered to have a mental age of six, whether the child was actually four, six, or eight years old. The concept of intelligence quotient, or IQ, was added after Binet's procedure was brought to the United States and revised at Stanford University to become the Stanford-Binet test. The early Stanford-Binet has been revised four times as of 2002, most recently in 1986. The success of the Stanford-Binet has led to the development of several other modern intelligence tests.

Piaget and the development of thinking. As a new Ph.D. working in Binet's laboratory, Jean Piaget became intrigued with children's wrong answers to Binet's tasks. Over the next several decades, Piaget devised a model to describe the thinking behind these wrong answers and to explain how humans gather and organize information. Piaget's theory of cognitive development is based on the assumption that people try to make sense of the world and actively create their knowledge through direct experience with objects, people, and ideas. Maturation, activity, social interaction, and equilibration (the constant testing of the adequacy of understanding) influence the way thinking and knowledge develop. Piaget believed that young people pass through four stages in their cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete-operational, and formal-operational. Piaget's theory transformed education in mathematics and science and is still a force in the early twenty-first century in constructivist approaches to teaching.

Bloom and the goals of instruction. Also during the 1950s and 1960s, results of a project directed by Benjamin Bloom touched education at all levels around the world. Bloom and his colleagues developed a taxonomy, or classification system, of educational objectives. Objectives were divided into three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. A handbook describing the objectives in each area was eventually published. These taxonomies have been included in hundreds of books and articles about teaching and testing. Teachers, test developers, and curriculum designers use the taxonomies to develop instructional objectives and test questions. It would be difficult to find an educator trained in the past thirty years who had not heard of Bloom's taxonomy in some form. The cognitive domain taxonomy was revised in 2001 by Lorin W. Anderson and David R. Krathwohl.

Moving toward contemporary educational psychology. In the 1960s a number of educational psychologists developed approaches to teaching that foreshadowed some of the contemporary applications and arguments. Jerome Bruner's early research on thinking stirred his interest in education. Bruner's work emphasized the importance of understanding the structure of a subject being studied, the need for active learning as the basis for true understanding, and the value of inductive reasoning in learning. Bruner believed students must actively identify key principles for themselves rather than relying on teachers' explanations. Teachers should provide problem situations stimulating students to question, explore, and experiment–a process called discovery learning. Thus, Bruner believed that classroom learning should take place through inductive reasoning, that is, by using specific examples to formulate a general principle.

David Ausubel disagreed. He believed that people acquire knowledge primarily through reception rather than discovery; thus learning should progress not inductively from examples to rules as Bruner recommended, but deductively: from the general to the specific, or from the rule to examples. Ausubel's strategy always began with an advance organizer–a technique still popular in the twenty-first century–which is a kind of conceptual bridge between new material and students' current knowledge.

Contemporary Views of Learning and Motivation

Educational psychologists have studied cognition, instruction, learning, motivation, individual differences, and the measurement of human abilities, to name just a few areas that relate to education and schooling. Of all these, perhaps the study of learning is the most closely associated with education. Different theories of learning have had different impacts on education and have supported different practices.

Behavioral views of learning. The behavioral approach to learning developed out of work by Skinner, whose research in operant conditioning showed that voluntary behavior can be altered by changes in the antecedents of the behavior, the consequences, or both. Early work focused on consequences and demonstrated that consequences following an action may serve as reinforcement or punishment. Skinner's theories have been used extensively in education, by applying principles of reinforcement and punishment to change behaviors, often called applied behavior analysis. For much of the 1960s Skinner's ideas and those of behaviorists who followed him shaped teaching in regular and special education, training in the military, coaching, and many other aspects of education. Principles of reinforcement continue to be important for all teachers, particularly in classroom management and in decisions about grades and incentives for learning.

In the 1970s and 1980s a number of educational psychologists turned their attention from research on learning to research on teaching. Their findings shaped educational policy and practice during those years and since. Much of the research that focused on effective teaching during that time period pointed toward a model of teaching that is related to improved student learning called direct instruction or explicit teaching.

Cognitive views of learning. Behaviorists define learning as a change in behavior brought about by experience with little concern for the mental or internal aspects of learning. The cognitive view, in contrast, sees people as active learners who initiate experiences, seek out information to solve problems, and reorganize what they already know to achieve new insights. In fact, learning within this perspective is seen as "transforming significant understanding we already have, rather than simple acquisitions written on blank slates" (Greeno, Collins, and Resnick, p. 18). Much of the work on behavioral learning principles has been with animals in controlled laboratory settings. The goal is to identify a few general laws of learning that apply to all higher organisms (including humans, regardless of age, intelligence, or other individual differences). Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, focus on individual and developmental differences in cognition; they have not sought general laws of learning. Cognitive views of learning are consistent with the educational theories of Bruner and Ausubel and with approaches that teach learning strategies, such as summarizing, organizing, planning, and note taking.

Constructivist theories of learning. Constructivist perspectives on learning and teaching are increasingly influential today. These views are grounded in the research of Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, the Gestalt psychologists, Fredric Bartlett, and Bruner as well as the Progressive educational philosophy of Dewey. There are constructivist approaches in science and mathematics education, in educational psychology and anthropology, and in computer-based education. Some constructivist views emphasize the shared, social construction of knowledge; others see social forces as less important.

Even though there is no single constructivist theory, many constructivist teaching approaches recommend the following:

  • Complex, challenging learning environments and authentic tasks
  • Social negotiation and shared responsibility as a part of learning
  • Multiple representations of content
  • Understanding that knowledge is constructed
  • Student-centered instruction

Inquiry is an example of constructivist teaching. Dewey described the basic inquiry learning format in 1910. There have been many adaptations of this strategy, but the teacher usually presents a puzzling event, question, or problem. The students formulate hypotheses to explain the event or solve the problem, collect data to test the hypotheses, draw conclusions, and reflect on the original problem and on the thinking processes needed to solve it. Like discovery learning, inquiry methods require great preparation, organization, and monitoring to be sure everyone is engaged and challenged.

A second example of constructivist teaching influenced by Vygotsky's theories of assisted learning is called cognitive apprenticeships. There are many models, but most share six features:

  1. Students observe an expert (usually the teacher) model the performance.
  2. Students get external support through coaching or tutoring (including hints, feedback, models, reminders).
  3. Conceptual scaffolding (in the form of outlines, explanations, notes, definitions, formulas, procedures, etc.) is provided and then gradually faded as the student becomes more competent and proficient.
  4. Students continually articulate their knowledge–putting into words their understanding of the processes and content being learned.
  5. Students reflect on their progress, comparing their problem solving to an expert's performance and to their own earlier performances.
  6. Students are required to explore new ways to apply what they are learning–ways that they have not practiced at the professional's side.

Motivation in education. Much work in educational psychology has focused on student motivation: the engine that fuels learning and the steering wheel that guides its progress. Just as there are many theories of learning, there are quite a few explanations of motivation. Behaviorists explain motivation with concepts such as "reward" and "incentive." Rewards are desirable consequences for appropriate behavior; incentives provide the prospect for future rewards. Giving grades, stars, and so on for learning–or demerits for misbehavior–is an attempt to motivate students by extrinsic (external) means of incentives, rewards, and punishments. Humanistic views of motivation emphasize such intrinsic (internal) forces as a person's needs for "self-actualization," the inborn "actualizing tendency," or the need for "self-determination." From the humanistic perspective, motivation of students means to encourage their inner resources–their sense of competence, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-actualization.

Cognitive theorists believe that behavior is determined by thinking, not simply by whether one has been rewarded or punished for the behavior in the past. From this perspective, behavior is initiated and regulated by plans, goals, schemas (generalized knowledge), expectations, and attributions (the causes we see for our own and other people's behavior). Social learning theories of motivation are integrations of behavioral and cognitive approaches: They take into account both the behaviorists' concern with the effects or outcomes of behavior and the cognitivists' interest in the impact of individual beliefs and expectations. Many influential social learning explanations of motivation can be characterized as expectancy and value theories that view motivation as the product of two main forces: (1) the individual's expectation of reaching a goal and (2) the value of that goal to the individual. Attempts to build a sense of efficacy for classroom learning are educational applications of this approach.

Issues and Controversies

The application of psychology to education has seen many controversies. The psychological content of teacher preparation moved from Hall's emphasis on child study to Thorndike's connectionist approach to learning; to educational psychology texts for teachers in the 1920s that included measurement and the psychology of school subjects; to an emphasis in the 1950s on mental hygiene, child development, personality, and motivation; to a greater emphasis on learning theories and programmed instruction in the 1960s; to research on teaching in the 1970s; to the dominance of Piagetian theories and the resurgence of cognitive approaches in the 1980s; to current texts that emphasize Vygotskian influences and constructivism along with a return to the instructional psychology of school subjects. Once a requirement in virtually all teacher preparation programs, educational courses have been replaced, renamed, redesigned, and integrated into other education courses. As examples of two issues in educational psychology and schooling, consider conceptions of intelligence and approaches to the teaching of reading.

What does intelligence mean? The idea of intelligence has been with us for a long time. Plato discussed similar variations more than 2,000 years ago. Most early theories about the nature of intelligence involved one or more of the following three themes:(1) the capacity to learn; (2) the total knowledge a person has acquired; and (3) the ability to adapt successfully to new situations and to the environment in general.

In the twentieth century there was considerable controversy over the meaning of intelligence. In 1986 at a symposium on intelligence, twenty-four psychologists each offered a different view about the nature of intelligence. More than half of the experts mentioned higher-level thinking processes such as abstract reasoning, problem solving, and decisionmaking as important aspects of intelligence, but they disagreed about the structure of intelligence: Is it a single ability or many separate abilities? Evidence that intelligence is a single basic ability affecting performance on all cognitively oriented tasks comes from consistent correlations among scores on most tests of specific mental abilities. In spite of these correlations, however, some psychologists insist that there several separate "primary mental abilities." In 1938 Louis Leon Thurstone listed verbal comprehension, memory, reasoning, ability to visualize spatial relationships, numerical ability, word fluency, and perceptual speed as the major mental abilities underlying intellectual tasks. Joy Paul Guilford and Howard Gardner are the most prominent modern proponents of the concept of multiple cognitive abilities. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has had the greatest impact on education. According to Gardner there are at least eight separate kinds of intelligences: linguistic, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and environmental.

Ability differences in schools. In the early 1900s, before group intelligence tests were readily available, teachers dealt with student achievement differences by promoting students who performed adequately and holding back others. This worked well for those who were promoted, but not for those who failed. The idea of social promotion was introduced to keep age-mates together, but then teaching had to change. When intelligence test became available, one solution was to promote all students, but group them by ability within their grade level. Ability grouping was the basis of many studies in the 1930s, but fell from favor until 1957 and the era of Sputnik, when concern grew about developing talent in mathematics and science. Again, in the 1960s and 1970s, ability grouping was criticized. In the early twenty-first century, teachers are encouraged to use forms of cooperative learning and heterogeneous grouping to deal with ability differences in their classes.

Learning to read. Educational psychologists have made great progress understanding how students learn different subjects. Based on these findings, approaches have been developed to teach reading, writing, science, mathematics, social studies, and other subjects. Reading instruction has been the focus of great controversy. Educators have debated whether students should be taught to read and write through code-based (phonics, skills) approaches that relate letters to sounds and sounds to words or through meaning-based (whole-language, literature-based, emergent literacy) approaches that focus on the meaning of the text.

Research in educational psychology demonstrates that whole language approaches to reading and writing are most effective in preschool and kindergarten because they improve students' motivation and interest and help them understand the nature and purposes of reading and writing. Phonemic awareness–the sense that words are composed of separate sounds and that sounds are combined to say words–in kindergarten and first grade predicts literacy in later grades. If children do not have phonemic awareness in the early grades, direct teaching can dramatically improve their chances of long-term achievement in literacy. Excellent primary school teachers use a balance of explicit decoding-skills teaching and whole language instruction.

Testing in education. By 1925 Charles Judd proclaimed that "tests and measures are to be found in every progressive school in the land" (p. 807). In fact, psychology has had a profound impact on education through the adoption of testing. On the average, more than 1 million standardized tests are given per school day in classes throughout the United States. But tests are not without controversy. Critics of standardized testing state that these tests measure disjointed facts and skills that have no use or meaning in the real world. Often test questions do not match the curriculum of the schools, so the tests cannot measure how well students have learned the curriculum. Supporters assert that tests provide useful information. As Joseph Rice suggested more than a century ago, a good way to judge if teaching has been effective might be to test what the students learned. The test, however, does not tell all. Also more than 100 years ago, William James suggested that with test results must be combined with observations made "upon the total demeanor of the measured individual, by teachers with eyes in their heads and common sense and some feeling for the concrete facts of human nature in their hearts" (p. 84).

Expectations of the profession. Increasingly technology offers an alternative or addition to traditional materials in teaching and learning. For example, the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University has developed a problem-based learning environment called anchored instruction. The anchor is the rich, authentic, and interesting situation presented via videodisk or computer that provides a focus–a reason for setting goals, planning, and using mathematical tools to solve problems. Anchored instruction is an example of cognitive apprenticeships described above.

It is likely that educational psychologists will continue to contribute to education as they learn more about the brain and how learning occurs; the development of intellect, affect, personality, character, and motivation; ways of assessing learning; and the creation of multifaceted learning environments. It also is likely that some issues will spiral through these contributions. What is a useful and appropriate balance of discovery and direct instruction? How can teachers, who must work with groups, adapt instruction to individual variations? What should be the role of testing and grading in education? What are the goals of education and how do instructors balance cognitive, affective, and psychomotor objectives? How can learning technologies be used to best advantage for students? How can teachers help students understand, remember, and apply knowledge? These questions may not be as new as they seem upon attendance to the history of psychology and its applications to education.


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