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Educational Psychology

Educational Psychology

Present status and concerns


A definitive history of educational psychology is still wanting. Existing histories of areas of psychology are generally addressed to other purposes, with the development of educational psychology treated incidentally (for example, Boring 1929; Murphy 1929). Burt (1957) prepared a history of educational psychology but it was limited to Britain.

Early origins. The beginnings of recorded speculation about the relationships between human nature and the educational process may be found in the classical Greek period (Brubacher 1947). The writings of such pre-Socratic philosophers as Democritus (5th century, B.C.) stressed the effects of the home on the learner and anticipated, among modern notions, the belief in the value of training children to manage property by sharing property with them.

The most detailed treatment of psychological matters relevant to education in this early Greek period is found in the works of Aristotle. Of particular significance for the course of subsequent developments in education were his emphasis on the intellectual aspects of behavior and education and his support for a “faculty” psychology, which asserted some independence among components of mental activity and the possibility of training these components, or “faculties,” through their “exercise.” Aristotelian influence remained strong through ensuing centuries and may still be found in some current views on the conduct of education.

Possibly the next major influence on educational-psychological thought occurred in the efforts of Scholastics to rationalize Aristotelian thinking in terms of the doctrines of Christianity. The most complete and influential product of this effort lies in the magnum opus of Aquinas, Summa theologica, which for the most part continues to constitute the educational frame of reference for a significant group of Catholic educators and psychologists.

Faculty psychology versus associationism. In the seventeenth century came the first strong attack by empiricists on the entrenched faculty psychology of Aristotle and on Descartes’s thesis that “true knowledge” is based on ideas that are innate in man rather than learned. According to the protest, epitomized by Locke (Brett 1921), the mind at birth is blank (tabula rasa), rather than a repository of preformed ideas. Ideas, Locke maintained, result from the sensory experiences of the child and his reflection upon these sensations. This empiricist position found many adherents—although many of them rejected the postulated “faculty” of reflection—and led to a psychology of learning called “associationism,” in which Aristotelian “faculties” were firmly rejected in favor of explanations of learning through the association of sensory experiences and ideas. It is ironical that this “non-Aristotelian” explanation was quite congruent with some of Aristotle’s own thinking. It was Aristotle who first enunciated the principles of learning through “similarity,” “contrast,” and “contiguity.”

By the eighteenth century, there had emerged two sharply competing educational psychologies: faculty psychology and associationism. The conflicting viewpoints controlled the pedagogical scene through the next century, with faculty psychology in the more influential position. Toward the close of the nineteenth century, the two schools of thought, then even more sharply differentiated, were represented in two textbooks, one written by Alexander Bain and the other by James Sully. In Outlines of Psychology With Special Reference to the Theory of Education (1884), Sully emphasized the faculty-psychology position. Bain utilized the associationist position in Education as a Science (1879).

Formal discipline. In the principles and practices of education in the United States and England during the nineteenth century, formal discipline was the pedagogical rule, and curriculum content was largely selected not for the instrumental value of the knowledge area, but rather for its promise of providing rigorous and systematic exercise of the postulated mental faculties. Nor were those educators with associationist views free of this formal-discipline approach to education. Apparently their practices partook of the same type of discipline, providing formal training of the senses in the same fashion in which their counterparts were training mental faculties (Brubacher 1947, p. 143).

Child-centeredness. A resistance to both faculty psychology and formal discipline began to develop early in the nineteenth century. Johann Pestalozzi, the Swiss social reformer, and Friedrich Froebel, the German mystic, made strong petitions for the recognition of the importance of the learner’s unique interests and abilities in selecting educational ends and curriculum content. At the same time, another German, Johann Friedrich Herbart, introduced the concept of “apperceptive mass,” the totality of conscious ideas, constituting the synthesizing agent of experience—and implied the importance of the learner’s interests in structuring the procedures of education. Those who later were to adopt the “child-centered” orientation in education and child rearing found frequent cause to refer to the ideas of Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Herbart, as well as to those of the earlier Rousseau.

Emergence of a scientific posture. In contrast to the earlier, almost exclusively speculative, approach to the nature and nurture of learning, the closing decades of the nineteenth century saw the rise of systematically empirical and experimental treatments of relevant questions. It has been suggested that the formal beginning of educational psychology should be placed in the 1880s, when the experimental and empirical studies of Sir Francis Galton (association, reaction time, sensory acuity), G. Stanley Hall (“contents” of children’s minds), and Hermann Ebbinghaus (memory) were published.

In the next decade, Hall began the publication of the Pedagogical Seminary, and William James effectively began to popularize psychology in education through his Talks to Teachers and public lectures.

Intelligence testing. It was also in the 1890s that Alfred Binet, of France, began the work that was to dominate the thinking about intelligence and educability in the twentieth century. Faced with the task of developing procedures for identifying mental retardation among Parisian pupils, and in collaboration initially with V. Henri and finally with Theodore Simon, Binet developed an intelligence test around the concept of “mental age,” in which complex mental processes were examined rather than merely reaction time and sensory discrimination skill.

The 1905 Binet-Simon Scale was translated into English by Henry Goddard in 1908 and used in American schools. Frederick Kuhlmann produced a revision for the United States in 1912. Louis Terman, in 1916, extended and modified the Binet-Simon Scale (the Stanford-Binet); with subsequent revisions, the Stanford-Binet became the most widely known and used individual intelligence test in the world, and this led to translations and adaptations for widely different cultures (for example, the Tanaka-Binet in Japan). Terman’s monumental inquiries into giftedness (Genetic Studies of Genius, 1925–1929) partially relied upon and sprang from his work in the development of the Stanford-Binet Scale.

Thorndike and connectionism. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the first identifiable “giant” in educational psychology emerged—Edward Lee Thorndike, who is generally acknowledged as the first man who might appropriately deserve the label “educational psychologist.” Although Thorndike had previously made a significant contribution to the field of animal learning in 1901, he made a dramatic impact on pedagogy when he and Woodworth produced the classic studies that “slew the dragon of formal discipline” (McDonald 1964). The import of the findings was —and continues to be—that what is learned in one sphere of activity “transfers” to another sphere only when the two spheres share common “elements.” That is, the transfer of training is not inherently a property of a mental faculty or of a disciplinary content.

Later findings, including those of another pioneer in educational psychology, Charles H. Judd, suggested that the “common elements” might be as broad as the level of generalization. In any event, the implications for a teaching method and the selection of curriculum content were clear and influential on school practices—the necessity for deliberate teaching for transfer through seeking or demonstrating commonalities among different spheres, content, problems, and so on. The most recent development of this transfer-of-training “theory” is found in Bruner’s (1960) argument for identifying and teaching the basic “structure” of any knowledge area—the hypothesis being that there is a basic defining structure to any domain of concern which provides an area of knowledge with the greatest part of its generalizing and heuristic power.

The contributions of Thorndike went far beyond his transfer-of-training theory. In addition to effecting more interest in rigorous and objective research on educational problems, he proposed a utilitarian theory of learning through the formation of “connections” between stimuli and responses (now referred to as “connectionism”), advising that desirable connections be rewarded and undesirable connections punished (Thorndike 1913, p. 20). Of the many assessments of Thorndike’s work and influence, McDonald’s (1964) is particularly penetrating.

Dewey and progressive education. No discussion of educational psychology in the Western Hemisphere, eastern Europe, or the Far East can ignore the thinking of John Dewey, whose major intellectual image is not that of an educational psychologist. Dewey, easily acknowledged as the sponsor, if not the father, of the “progressive education” movement, produced ideas that effectively became embedded in psychological thinking and teaching in professional education and that continued to influence the conduct of education in the second half of the twentieth century. Of the massive elements of the philosophy proposed (known as “instrumentalism”), those most clearly bearing on the psychology of learning and teaching are his concepts of “growth” and “intelligent action.” For Dewey, learning was “intelligent action,” in which the learner continuously evaluates his experience in view of what his purposes are and what consequences he actually experiences. The product of this continued evaluation is a redefinition of purposes, continued criticized experiences, and so on without end. “Growth” (more effective purposing and more intelligent action) is the end sought by teachers and learners. In this conception, respect for the interest of the learner is a matter of high priority; similarly, the utilization of the learner’s purposes is both important and, indeed, inescapable. Individuality of the pupil and the utilization of problem solving as a pedagogical technique became shibboleths of education in the 1930s and 1940s, although there is a good reason to believe that many teachers who professed Dewey’s views failed to understand them adequately.

Between the world wars. In the period between World War i and World War ii, three additional influences were at work on the character of educational psychology: psychoanalysis, gestalt psychology, and developments in mental measurement.

Psychoanalysis. The image of Freud’s theorizing, which loomed large over psychological thinking throughout the world at the turn of the twentieth century, began to have visible impact on the emphases and practices in education, particularly in non-Catholic areas of Europe and in the United States. The conclusion that there were crucial formative influences in human behavior led to a strong interest in early childhood education and the relationship between home background and schooling. A mental health movement was born, and educators began to express interest in the non-intellectual domain of the learner, not only as a legitimate educational concern in its own right, but for its possible relationship to the problems of teaching and learning the intellectual content of curricula.

Gestalt psychology. From Germany came a strong dissent to the learning principles propounded by Thorndike. The gestaltists thought that Thorndike’s connectionism was too analytical and mechanical to account for the organization of behavior. They proposed that behavior is “wholistic”; the search should be for patterns, or “gestalten,” rather than for linkage of discrete experiences. There emerged from this view an emphasis on the “education of the whole child,” a view that was reinforced by, and in turn reinforced, the mental-hygiene developments in education and the views of Dewey. Insight and reorganization became the new watchwords, although confirming experimental evidence was difficult to find. Textbooks on educational psychology appeared with gestalt, “field,” and “organismic” biases (for example, Ogden 1926; Commins 1937).

Development in mental measurement. Although the development of mental tests had begun in the previous century, the need for effective and rapid selection and description devices in mobilizing and assigning military personnel during World War i led to intensification of activity in the measurement field. It was here that the prototype of pencil-and-paper personality scales was born and group intelligence tests were first used (Yerkes 1921). The strong popularization of these scales led quickly to their appearance in the testing programs of schools and in the programs of teacher education. The ready availability of usable measures also fostered more study of individual differences in the schools and made possible the provision of more information about pupils for use in planning curricula and in dealing with learning problems.

Present status and concerns

In general, the procedures of education since World War ii have been formulated somewhat independently of the formal theories of learning elaborated by psychologists, who have had little interest in the specifics of the school context (Bus-well 1956). Relating the two domains is difficult, in part because theories of learning are not sufficiently mature to offer reliable and confirmable predictions about particular events. Equally relevant, however is the realization that behavioral situations in the schools are complex and heterogeneous (Spence 1959, p. 88). At present, while the school represents an enormously complex psychological arena, the science of psychology is still struggling with its basic concepts and laws. The beginnings of a resolution of this dilemma are presently found in two forms: reconceptualizations of (a) the focus of research in educational psychology and (b) the nature of “teaching.”

Reconception of research

The change in the conception of research in educational psychology is best demonstrated by the difference between two yearbooks of the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE), published more than twenty years apart and addressed to the implications of the psychology of learning for educational practice. In the first yearbook (NSSE 1942), an attempt was made to identify the necessary implications for education from each of several competing theories of learning. Twenty-two years later (NSSE 1964), however, the earlier intention was overlooked in favor of finding general cues for education in learning theories by looking primarily to the daily problems of the classroom as a source of research activity in educational psychology. That is, an earlier deductive approach has given way to a less rigid inductive orientation focused on the school. An examination of the literature on educational psychology suggests that the foregoing interest is represented in research activity. Journals representing research and thinking in educational psychology have increased in number and distribution in all major areas of the world and increasingly include studies and conclusions more closely relevant to the affairs of the classroom teacher and the school administrator. At the same time, however, attempts to clarify the relevance of learning theory for pedagogy have also been accelerated.

Reconception of “teaching.”

Historically, attempts to make psychology meaningful to teachers have been handicapped by a tendency to think of teaching as the application of reliable rules and principles—that is, teachers have tended to look to psychology for immediately applicable and valid procedures—despite the fact that such dogmatic assistance is precluded by the relative instability of psychological data and the highly situational nature of teaching. In the second half of the present century, several attempts have been made to elaborate models and paradigms for teaching that would place the utilization of psychology in more reasonable perspective (Gage 1963). One implication of these reconceptions is that the act of teaching is inherently a hypothesizing act (Coladarci 1963). The educator, focused on desired changes in the learner, views his operations and arrangements as “hypotheses” about the conditions producing a change in the learner; the educator explicitly generates these hypotheses from the best available human knowledge, which is in itself hypothetical in character. There have been recent applications of this position in many areas of the world, and its impact is evidenced in changes in the curriculum of teacher education (for example, Carpenter & Haddan 1964; Calonghi 1956; Derbolav 1961; Moreira 1955).

Status of the educational psychologist

It is generally conceded that the prestige of educational psychology and educational research has tended to be low among social scientists in general and psychologists in particular (Haggard 1954). The marked exception appears to be in the Soviet Union, where the psychology of education is given high priority at national and local levels; for example, it is clear that education is viewed as the major field of application for psychology, since the Institute of Psychology in Moscow, the official center for Russian psychological research, is responsible to the Academy of Educational Sciences (Simon & Simon 1963, p. 3). Elsewhere, however, it has been thought that educational psychologists, after the Thorndike era, have been less than adequately prepared in psychology and insufficiently productive of ideas and research.

In the middle of the present century, systematic attention has been devoted to this matter by professional organizations in psychology and by universities offering doctoral programs in this field of specialization. The American Psychological Association in 1954 formed the Committee on Relations between Psychology and Education to assess the situation and make recommendations. As a result of this, among other pressures, the gulf between the standards of psychology in general and those of educational psychology is gradually narrowing. In 1964 the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychological Association provided for the Edward Lee Thorndike Award for distinguished psychological contributions to education. With increased visibility and professional acknowledgment, the specialization is gradually achieving more effective status and more rigorous training requirements. Carroll (1963), after measuring educational psychology against the criteria for a discipline, has concluded that the field may be so classified at this time.


Although specific specializations in educational psychology vary with emerging needs and changes in education, some subareas have remained stable over time and in most areas of the world. The field of tests and measurementsis well defined and popular, particularly in North America, England, the Continent, and Japan. Developments in this special field have been increased markedly by recent advances in mathematical statistics and electronic computers.

School psychology, representing the special diagnostic-clinical function in school systems, is represented in most countries and provides the bridge between clinical psychology and educational psychology. Mental hygiene, although frequently classified with school psychology, continues to carry the influence brought to bear on education initially by Freud’s work and more recently by psychiatry in general (Krugman 1958). Guidance and counseling, where it is distinguished from school psychology, represents the interests of those who provide individual counsel for students with nonpathological personal and academic problems, including vocational guidance at the secondary school and college levels.

School psychometry, rapidly becoming acknowledged as an identifiable and appropriate role, is composed of the administration of individual intelligence and personality tests in schools, together with assistance in the planning of testing programs and construction of achievement tests in various subjects. Because of the crucial importance of reading skill in education and society, the psychology of reading is attracting a growing number of psychologists. The importance of the early childhood years in education and the increase in preschool programs has led to the child development specialization, comprising both those who engage in preschool education and those with primarily research interests.

Most recently, a new specialization has emerged, social psychology of education, prompted by research and theory that emphasize the social nature of school instructional groups and the social-psychological factors in learning, motivation, aspiration, and identification. Evidence of this particular aspect has been seen in the United States, Sweden, Denmark, and France [seeReading disabilities].

Topics in educational psychology

Specific topics of study in educational psychology vary considerably over time and across cultural-national lines. Four general categories represent most of those subjects presently pursued in this field: (a) learning, which is by far the most frequent topic in the field; (b) readiness for learning, which includes the phenomena of interests, aptitudes, and motivation; (c) mental health and social adjustment, which focus on the noncognitive purposes of the school and correlates of intellectual learning; and (d) measurement and evaluation, which comprise the techniques for assessing the educational growth of learners, diagnosing learning problems, and clarifying the criteria to be used in an evaluation of the school.

Three specific aspects of educational psychology merit particular mention in view of their continuing importance, widespread concern, and critical relevance in pedagogy: the educability of the learner, individual differences, and educational technology.

Educability. The degree to which a pupil is ready to profit from instruction and the rate at which he is able to learn are patently vital considerations in education. The earlier point of view on educability supported a unitary and genetic explanation of pupil ability. The general assumption was that success in the various demands of school curricula is attributable to a general underlying ability of genetic origin. Although this view still continues in many quarters, two developments that would support a contrary view have occurred. On the basis of the work of many investigators, primarily in England and the United States, the general concept of intelligence can be seen to comprise subabilities that are not very highly correlated with one another (for example, memory, verbal fluency, arithmetic computation, and spatial perception). As a result, differential intelligence tests have been developed and are widely used in today’s schools. These tests, instead of providing a single index, such as intelligence quotient, produce a set of scores (a profile) that shows the relative ability of the learner in each of several areas. The second development is the ideological rejection of genetic explanations of educability on the part of educators and psychologists in the Soviet Union and similarly persuaded political states. The Soviet assumption is that internal conditions of the child (for example, “intelligence”) are themselves products of external forces (for example, educative treatments) (Bogoiavlenski & Menchinskaia 1959).

One development consistent with almost any conception of educability is the attempt to construct intelligence tests that are “culture fair,” that is, satisfy the assumption that each examinee has had equal opportunity to learn the demands posted in the tests. Piaget and his colleague Inhelder have attracted considerable interest in their attempt to discover a genetic order in the development of various concepts in children (Inhelder & Piaget 1955); their conclusions, however, have been met largely with reservations thus far in non-French cultures.

Individual differences. Although research in individual differences has a long history in psychology and education, work in this field continues to increase in quantity and scope. Among recent data, those affecting school procedures most significantly are the findings that differences “within” a child are almost as extensive as differences between children. That is, the various skills and achievement levels of a particular learner are not homogeneous; indeed, achievement in some areas, such as music, may be uncorrelated with achievement in others, such as mathematics. The import of this for the school was quickly realized and is exemplified in such practices as ungraded schools, differential assignment of pupils to instructional groups in curricular areas, and increased use of differential aptitude tests in pupil assignment and educational diagnosis.

Educational technology. When the radio and motion picture became available to the schools, studies in educational psychology demonstrated the effectiveness of these media in attitude change and information learning. Television, a later arrival in the technological resources of education, has been undergoing similar assessment and appears to serve the schools’ purposes at least as well as the more traditional devices. However, the foregoing media largely provided stimulus situations only; there was no incorporation of the learner’s responses. This limitation, noted by Porter (1957), has apparently been overcome in the later technological development in instruction—programmed instruction, including the use of “teaching machines.”

The development of programmed instruction, stemming from earlier work by the American psychologists S. L. Pressey and B. F. Skinner, occupied a large portion of research activity among educational psychologists in the 1960s. The basic characteristics of the procedure are: (a) breaking down the task (or content) to be learned into small sequential steps; (b) presenting the organized material to the individual learner (sometimes by machine processes) in such a way that he must respond correctly to each step before continuing to the next; (c) informing the learner of the correctness of his response; and, in some variations, (d) selecting the next step for the learner in terms of the correctness or incorrectness of his previous response. A considerable amount of research on the validity of this procedure has been completed, but much is still under way. Excellent summaries have been published by Lumsdaine (1963; 1964) and Stolurow (1961). The findings seem to indicate that such programming procedures not only reduce the amount of the teacher’s time needed for each pupil but also produce at least as much, if not more, learning in the curriculum areas involving a great deal of structure, such as algebra, and information, such as biology [seeLearning, article Onprogrammed learning].

Arthur P. Coladarci

[See alsoEducation; Teaching. Other relevant material may be found inAchievement testing; Counseling psychology; Developmental psychology; Intelligence and intelligence testing; Learning; Learning theory; and in the biographies ofDewey; Montessori; Thorndike.]


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Educational Psychology


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. 132133).


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 psychologiststhe 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 (17121778), Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (17461827), Johann Friedrich Herbart (17761841), and Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (17821852) 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 modernhe 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' developmentas 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 educationan 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 experimenta 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 organizera technique still popular in the twenty-first centurywhich 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 knowledgeputting 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 learningways 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 learningor demerits for misbehavioris 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 resourcestheir 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 awarenessthe sense that words are composed of separate sounds and that sounds are combined to say wordsin 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 focusa 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.

See also: Developmental Theory; Individual Differences; Instructional Design; Learning Theory.


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Educational Psychology

Educational psychology

The study of the process of education, e.g., how people, especially children, learn and which teaching methods and materials are most successful.

Educational psychology departments in many universities provide training to educators, school psychologists, and other educational professionals. Applied research in this field focuses on how to improve teaching, solve learning problems, and measure learning ability and progress. Other concerns of educational psychology include cognitive development , the dynamics of pupil behavior, and the psychological atmosphere of the classroom. Educational psychologists devise achievement tests , evaluate teaching methods, develop learning aids and curricula, and investigate how children of different ages learn. They often serve as researchers and educators at teacher training institutions, in university psychology departments, on the staffs of educational research organizations, and also work in government agencies, business, and the military. An educational psychologist might investigate areas as diverse as the causes of dyslexia and the measures that can be taken to help dyslexics improve their reading and learning skills; gender differences in mathematical ability; anxiety in education; the effect of television on study habits; the identification of gifted children; how teachers affect student behavior; and creative thinking in children of a specific grade level or age.

Educational psychology in the United States has its roots in the pioneering work of the 1890s by two of the country's foremost psychologists, William James and John Dewey . Jameswho is known for his 1899 volume, Talks to Teachers on Psychology pioneered the concept of taking psychology out of the laboratory and applying it to problems in the real world. He advocated the study of educational problems in their natural environment , the classroom, and viewed classroom interactions and observations as a legitimate source of scientific data. John Dewey, the country's most famous advocate of active learning, founded an experimental school at the University of Chicago to develop and study new educational methods. Dewey experimented with educational curricula and methods and advocated parental participation in the educational process. His philosophy of education stressed learning by doing, as opposed to authoritarian teaching methods and rote learning, and his ideas have had a strong impact on the theory and practice of education in the United States. Dewey's first influential book on education, The School and Society (1899), was adapted from a series of lectures to parents of the pupils in his school at the University of Chicago.

In the twentieth century, the theoretical and practical branches of educational psychology have developed separately from each other. The name most prominently associated with the scientific, experimental focus is that of Edward L. Thorndike, often called "the father of educational psychology." Applying the learning principles he had discovered in his animal research to humans, Thorndike became a pioneer in the application of psychological principles to such areas as the teaching of reading, language development , and mental testing. His Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements (1904) gave users of intelligence tests access to statistical data about test results. Although Thorndike's emphases were on conditioning and scientific measurement , he was both directly and indirectly responsible for a number of curricular and methodological changes in education throughout the United States. Thorndike is especially well-known as an opponent of the traditional Latin and Greek classical curriculum used in secondary schools, which he helped to discontinue by demonstrating that progress in one subject did not substantially influence progress in anotherthe major premise on which classical education had been based.

The work of Thorndike's contemporary, Charles Hubbard Judd (1873-1946), provided a marked contrast in its more pragmatic focus on transforming contemporary educational policies and practices. Judd served as director of the University of Chicago School of Education, where he disseminated his philosophy of education. His research interests were applied to the study of school subjects and teaching methods. Concerned with school organization as well, Judd recommended the establishment of both junior high schools and junior colleges and championed equal education opportunities for students of all backgrounds. His published books include Psychology of High School Subjects (1915), Psychology of Secondary Education (1927), and Genetic Psychology for Teachers (1939).

Other educational psychologists have focused their work on either measurement and learning theory or school and curriculum reform. The contributions of G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) to the field of intelligence testing were especially significant and influential. He passed on his view of intelligence as an inherited trait to two of his most famous students, Arnold Gesell and Lewis Terman . It was Terman who introduced the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales in the United States in 1916, creating new norms based on American standardizing groups. Gesell also made important contributions to the study of human development, and by the 1930s, this subject had become a part of the standard educational psychology texts, and today it is a central area in the field. The learning process, a related area that is also traditionally studied, includes such issues as hierarchies of learning activities, the relationship of learning to motivation , and effective instructional methods.

The study of evaluation has remained a central part of the educational psychology and includes techniques for assessing learning, achievement, and behavior; analysis of individual differences; and methods of addressing learning problems. Another relevant area is that of mental health in the classroom (personality integration; adjustment problems; teacher-pupil interaction). In recent years, the trend has been toward a more "holistic" and humanistic approach that stresses the learner's affective needs in the context of cognitive processes. A growing area of emphasis for all education professionals is educating individuals with special needs. Current psychological theory and practiceas well as federal lawrejects the traditional exclusionary approach in dealing with disabled or emotionally troubled children and adolescents. Mainstreaming such students is now common practice, with the goal of expanding boundaries and reducing the barriers between exceptional or atypical students and mainstream students. Educational psychology must now concern itself with such issues as systems for classification of children and teenagers as mentally retarded or deviant; creation of alternative educational environments and intervention programs that promote the development of the special needs population and the requisite teaching strategies and skills; and the creation, where necessary, of individualized educational plans.

Division 15 of the American Psychological Association (APA) is devoted to educational psychology. Its members are mostly faculty members at universities, although some work in school settings. In 1982, nearly 14 percent of the members of the APA were members of this division and identified themselves as educational psychologists. Professional journals in educational psychology include Journal of Educational Psychology, Educational Psychologist, Educational Researcher, Review of Educational Research, and American Educational Research Journal.

Further Reading

Dembo, Myron H. Applying Educational Psychology. 5th ed. New York: Longman, 1994.

Eysenck, Michael W. Individual Differences: Normal and Abnormal. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1994.

Farnham-Diggory, Sylvia. Cognitive Processes in Education. 2nd ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

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educational psychology

educational psychology Branch of psychology that deals with the process and context of learning. It includes attempts to measure intelligence and ability and theories of teacher training.

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