Thoughts on the Psychology of Education

Below are five essays I wrote over the past few days for my Educational Psychology course at Daytona State College. All references to the textbook reference this book (PDF, 3MB, 365 pg.).

E-Journal 1 (4%): What is the role of educational psychology in understanding teaching and learning? How can we use research to understand and improve teaching?

Educational psychology is the study of how students learn and develop, so understanding it helps teachers adapt their lesson plans and teaching strategies to promote independent learning, cooperation, caring, collaboration, metacognition and psychological development, while demoting frustration, fears of helplessness, dependency, and apathy.

One example of a theory that may help with understanding learning is the chart on page 69 of our textbook (Golobuk & Fivush, 1994), which says that teachers often give praise to boys for correct knowledge and to girls for compliant behavior, overlook compliant behavior with incorrect knowledge in boys and misbehavior with correct knowledge in girls, and criticize misbehavior in boys and incorrect knowledge in girls. This means that teachers will often praise boys just for behaving, even when they are misinformed, whereas girls are praised for good behavior, with inappropriate behavior and the core lesson plan being overlooked. Knowing this, a new teacher or a veteran teacher can adapt his/her lesson plan to avoid such pitfalls, while being careful not to overcompensate in the opposite direction.

Research helps us to understand and improve teaching by giving us a deeper example of learning. For example, it has been shown that fluent bilingualism gives a definite cognitive advantage by allowing students to understand that languages assign words to objects or concepts which can be manipulated and changed (pg. 72). Therefore, teaching students English and Spanish or another language can help them write stories and essays with more depth and understand complex text materials more easily.

E-Journal 2 (4%): Describe, in detail, Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.

Kohlberg divides moral development into three categories with two stages each, giving six stages in all (table 3.5, pg. 53). In the pre-conventional category, the stage of obedience and punishment is characterized by the egocentric belief that actions that are rewarded and not punished are good, and that superior power defines superior morality. For example, taking a cookie is good if it triggers praise from adults and bad if it triggers criticism. The subsequent stage is “market exchange,” where the child begins to show a limited interest in the needs of others, but only to further his/her own interests by securing their continued assistance. This is often morally relative, and an adolescent or adult who stays at this level may find it okay to pay others to do his/her homework or provide sexual favors to receive special treatment (pg. 54).

At the conventional level, the third stage is often called the “ethics of peer opinion,” where the individual views his/her peers’ arbitrary social conventions as indicators of morality. This can be good if the individual’s peers are all upstanding, but if they settle on bad practices such as bullying, dereliction, or shoplifting, an individual at this stage of peer opinion will go along with it. The subsequent stage is the “ethics of law and order,” where the individual looks at the community as a whole for guidance. This is a step up, but still not ideal.

The post-conventional level is divided into the stages of the ethics of the social contract and the ethics of self-chosen, universal principles. The former places an emphasis on democracy, even when the majority decides to be unfair to a minority. The latter is based on personally held principles which the individual applies to him or herself and the community, which may or may not agree with peers, customs, the law, or even the social contract.

E-Journal 3 (4%): According to your text, what does “intelligence” mean? How is intelligence measured? What should teachers know about intelligence? Have you ever known someone “really smart”? What were they like? Was everything “easy” for them?

Classical definitions of intelligence have tended toward defining it as a singular, broad-spectrum ability which allows an individual to solve complex problems and perform academic tasks more easily depending on the level of intelligence the person has (pg. 64, Educational Psychology global text). This idea is supported by research, but teachers should also know about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which proposes eight forms of intelligence that operate independently and explain why some people are gifted in one area and average in others. The eight intelligences are linguistic, musical, logical/mathematical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist, and each person has a combination of each. While many researchers criticize the theory for relying on anecdotes (pg. 66), it is still a useful tool for debate.

Intelligence is difficult or impossible to directly measure, but may be approximated using assignments, observation, constructive learning, aptitude tests, and “intelligence quotient” tests. Teachers should know that some students are gifted in certain areas and disadvantaged in others, and exceptional student education should always be a priority, even if it requires individualized instruction for certain students.

When I was in my Physics class at Daytona State College in fall 2008, there was a student who was 16 years old, barely studied or did homework, and usually had an intuitive understanding of all the concepts which allowed him to ace the exams. While everything seemed easy for him, he would also obsess over calculus derivations which barely seemed of interest to me.

E-Journal 4 (4%): Discuss Token Reinforcement Programs that apply to the classroom.

Token reinforcement involves giving recognition to children who perform well on assignments and demonstrate good behavior, usually through stars on assignments and occasional pieces of candy. Tokens that are slightly delayed may prove more effective than instant gratification, but tokens that are given too late may become disconnected with the positive achievement they are intended to reward (O’Leary). However, reinforcement can be misdirected for the wrong strategies, and the most dangerous type is a “partial schedule of reinforcement,” where the student generalizes simplified behavior to more complex problems based on what he or she was rewarded for before.

An example of overgeneralizing is when a student adds multiple two-digit numbers together by adding the digits, i.e. 13 + 19 = 1+1 and 3+9 = 212 instead of 32, because token reinforcement has led the student to abandon common sense (Edu. Psych. global text, pg. 87). This approach works when none of the summed digits exceed 9, but when they are 10 or above, borrowing and carrying over is required. From a behaviorist point of view, this is an example of thinking everything is a nail because you have a hammer—the same technique is being used to solve different problems, sometimes correctly and sometimes wrong. A broken clock is right twice a day, but the human tendency to mentally construct order from chaos makes this proclivity frustrating and discouraging unless both the student and instructor work together with neither giving empty flattery or dismissing the other as unteachable. One way to stay on track is to introduce a neutral third party which cannot be blamed, i.e. a computerized graphical or graphing calculator.

E-Journal 5 (4%): Does anxiety promote or inhibit learning? Should anxiety be used as a stimulus for learning?

Anxiety can promote or inhibit learning depending on the student, teacher, and how it is applied. Just like a knife or a pencil, it is a tool that can be used and abused but remains philosophically neutral. Some teachers may apply it to promote fear in students of being held back a grade, or of social ostracism, not succeeding in life, not learning vital knowledge, or some other cause, just as other teachers or the same teachers may apply it to promote competition and learning in students who wouldn’t normally be motivated to study. Other teachers may not use anxiety at all, and many students will create their own anxiety about tests (Edu. Psych. global text, pg. 211), which will cause them to become flushed or in a state of mental anguish while taking a test, which may negatively or positively affect their performance (but usually negatively).

Additionally, many institutions and institutionalized practices, such as the Florida FCAT test, and the SAT and ACT college entrance exams, are set up as high-stakes tests which single-handedly shape students’ futures. While it may be better to have a greater number of low-stakes tests which do not alone determine whether a student will be held back a grade or not get scholarships or admission to college, it is more convenient for the bureaucracy to have fewer, all-encompassing high-stakes tests, since this simplifies management and allows students and schools to be fit into neat little boxes based on their test scores or test averages. For some students, it creates a great deal of anxiety, but for other students, it may be a powerful motivator to study and learn, and students who do well on high-stakes tests may enter a positive-feedback loop where they associate test-taking with success. Similarly, other students may do poorly and enter a negative spiral, associating education with failure.

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