Psychology in Education and Instruction

Robert Burden. The International Handbook of Psychology. Editor: Kurt Pawlik & Mark R Rosenzweig. Sage Publications. 2000.

One area of human endeavor to which psychologists have devoted a considerable amount of time and both academic and professional investment is that of education. From its earliest beginnings in Europe and the USA psychology has been represented by pioneers dedicated to solving some of the most complex mysteries of human development. How do people learn? Do babies, children, and adults learn in the same way? Is the process of human learning basically the same as that of animals? Why do some children seem to learn very quickly whilst others struggle to master even the simplest mental tasks? How much, if anything, can we learn without being taught? What makes a good teacher? Are some forms of learning more difficult or more worthwhile than others? How much of what we learn is shaped by our cultural environment?

These and thousands of similar questions have been investigated in one way or another by psychologists at various times throughout the past century. Because such investigations can legitimately be considered to be related to the process of becoming educated, they have tended to be seen as representing that branch of psychology normally referred to as educational psychology, although the dividing lines between educational, developmental, social, and even clinical psychology are not always easy to distinguish.

Educational psychology is a far more complex area than its title might seem to imply. At first sight, the marriage of psychological theories, principles, and methods to various aspects of educational practice appears to be relatively straightforward and uncontentious. Indeed, such a long-held assumption would seem to underpin a recent and widely accepted definition of educational psychology, produced by the American Psychological Association (APA), which refers to ‘the application of psychology to education by focusing on the development, evaluation and application of theories and principles of learning and instruction that can enhance lifelong learning’ (Kaplan, 1990).

However, a few moments’ reflection should reveal that such a definition begs a number of important questions. Firstly, it suggests that a narrow focus on learning and instruction represents those areas of education alone to which psychology can and should be applied. Secondly, in fostering a simple additive model, it denies the possibility that educational psychology might exist as a unique discipline with its own developed theories and methods. This definition might also be interpreted as suggesting that there is general agreement amongst psychologists in their understanding of what is involved in successful learning and instruction, when little could be further from the truth. In fact, as will be demonstrated in the next section, the history of educational psychology can be largely represented in terms of contrasting theories about what is meant by learning and how humans learn.

The first purpose of this chapter, therefore, will be to trace some important historical developments in educational psychology from the work of the early pioneers who attempted to construct general theories of learning which could be applied right across the phylogenetic scale. In parallel with this has been an associated interest in theories of teaching or, as it has been commonly referred to in the United States, instruction. Subsequent developments in Europe, and even more recently in non-Western societies, have led firstly to an emphasis upon the individual within the learning process and then to a focus upon the importance of context and culture, as will be revealed in a later section. Further issues which will be explored relate to the practical applicability of psychological theories within education and the evolution of school psychology as a profession of applied educational psychologists, the nature and appropriateness of different forms of research within educational psychology, and, finally, a recon-ceptualization of the discipline which is grounded more within recent developmental, social, and educational theory than within a traditional psychological approach based upon the physical sciences.

Historical Overview

In many ways the history of educational psychology, in its early years at least, mirrors the evolution of theories of learning. Phye (1993) suggests, for example, that conceptions of learning have evolved from an essentially transactional perspective, as epitomized in the early writings of William James and John Dewey, through the environment-focused emphasis of Skinnerian behaviorism, leading to an inner-centered reaction of cognitive approaches, only to return once more to transactional perspectives as provided by the socio-cultural theories of Vygotsky and his followers.

To begin at the beginning, it could be argued that much of early American psychology was synonymous with educational psychology. Certainly, the definition by William James of psychology as ‘the science of mental life’ in his seminal text The Principles of Psychology (1890) lent itself naturally to the investigation of such questions as ‘How do people learn?’ James is considered by many to be the father of modern psychology, at least in the USA, who conceived of mind as a function rather than an entity and emphasized the dynamic nature of the interplay between accumulated habits and conscious thoughts. By doing so he sought to synthesize empiricist/reductionist and holistic views of thinking and learning. In one famous metaphor, he likened thoughts to ripples or waves on a lake formed by the oscillatory dynamics of the brain and nervous system. He later attempted to relate his functionalist ideas to education in a series of highly influential talks to teachers, thereby placing educational psychology at the very center of the newly developing discipline of psychology.

Many of James’ ideas were taken up and built upon by John Dewey who developed the notion of action and of learners as active participants functioning in a cyclical, transactional manner with their environments. Thinking was thereby interpreted as a form of action to be encouraged within the educational context. For Dewey, engagement in problem-solving activity genuinely arising within specific contexts was one of the primary functions of education. Here the role of the teacher is to act as a facilitator in enabling students to solve the problems that they meet, rather than as an instructor aiming to achieve specific, pre-determined goals.

At this point we can see a division emerging between the fundamental beliefs of the early pioneers in educational psychology as to how learning should be conceived and studied and the importance of the role played by the teacher or instructor in this process. It could be argued that much of educational psychology since that time has been devoted to one or another aspect of that debate.

Another important distinction that began to emerge at this time was the differing emphasis that succeeding theorists placed upon the importance of thinking in the learning process. Dewey in particular emphasized the involvement of thinking as essential in developing learning in a broader context than the mere accumulation of isolated skills. He saw thinking as itself being stimulated by engagement with genuine problem-solving activities, with its enhancement therefore becoming a primary function of education.

Educational psychology, however, began to be pulled in another direction, reflecting an increasing determination by mainstream psychology to be recognized as a science on a par with the natural sciences. One of the earliest and most influential exponents of taking a scientific approach to educational psychology was Edward Thorndike, considered by many to be the founder of educational psychology as a separate discipline. Through his 40 years of research into such areas as attention, memory, and learning habits and his experimental approach to teacher training, Thorndike promulgated an empiricist approach to developing knowledge in the new discipline, an approach which was firmly rooted in theories of learning derived from a reductionist perspective. In this way he developed such influential psychological constructs as learning curves, feedback and reinforcement, and massed vs. spaced learning (Walberg & Haertel, 1992).

For Thorndike, educational psychology was seen as providing ‘knowledge of the original nature of man and of the laws of modifiability or learning, in the case of intellect, character, and skill’ (Thorndike, 1913, p. 1), thereby setting the scene for much of what was to follow. One consequence was a longstanding emphasis upon the importance of empirical and scientific study for educational psychology with the aim of discovering and organizing new knowledge related to pedagogy. This also led in Thorndike’ case and in those of many subsequent educational psychologists to the production of textbooks on the application of psychological principles to a variety of school subject areas such as mathematics and literacy.

It should be noted at this point that educational psychology was developing elsewhere than in the United States. The work of Alfred Binet in France in constructing what is generally recognized as the world’ first intelligence test was taken up by Terman in the United States and later by Burt in the UK as a means of highly significant social intervention. In the USA this led to the Army Alpha Examination and Terman’ lifelong work on the origins and consequences of giftedness, whilst in the UK several generations of professional educational psychologists based the bulk of their contributions to schools on their understanding (often misguided) of the predictive validity of the IQ. Moreover, the whole of the British secondary educational system was restructured after World War II on the basis of ability testing at the age of 11 as the best possible predictor of later academic success.

Within the United States, however, an even more powerful force was emerging with the rise of behaviorism. The roots of this approach can be traced back to early Associationist ideas and the learning theories of Hull, Spence, Guthrie, and others (see Hilgard & Bower, 1966, for a thorough review of such theories) and to Soviet work, particularly that of Ivan Pavlov, on classical conditioning. The strongest early advocate of behaviorism was J. B. Watson who rejected all mentalistic concepts of thought and claimed instead that learning and behavior could best be accounted for in terms of stimulus—response contingencies.

These early ideas were taken up by B. F. Skinner who is generally considered to be the central figure in the rise of behaviorism as the predominant force in educational psychology in the United States (and to a somewhat lesser extent in the UK and the rest of the world) during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Moreover, it is still the case that many ideas arising from Skinnerian behaviorism, such as the importance of reinforcement in learning and instruction, the relative effectiveness of rewards and punishments, criterion-referenced testing, and objectives-based curricular activities, dominate much of current educational debate.

The unique contribution that Skinner made to behaviorism was to introduce the notion of operants, i.e., the range of behaviors that organisms perform or are capable of performing. By shifting the emphasis from the stimulus in the S—R (stimulus—response) chain to a focus upon the ways in which behavior is shaped by the consequences of previous behavior, i.e., by emphasizing the importance of the environment, Skinner was able to represent learning in terms of a change in response rate following reinforcement. Learning was therefore seen as only that behavior which was observable, with short shrift being given to considerations of hidden purposes or meanings behind any actions. It was not that Skinner rejected such mentalistic notions, but that he saw them as unhelpful and attempted instead to account for all human activities in environmental terms.

In directing his ideas towards the improvement of instruction in schools (for behaviorism is essentially concerned with ways in which the instructor as reinforcing agent can manipulate and control environmental contingencies), Skinner suggested four simple procedures which he incorporated into his ideas on programmed learning. These were that

  • Teachers should make explicit what is to be taught;
  • Tasks should be broken down into small, sequential steps;
  • Students should be encouraged to work at their own pace by means of individualized learning programs;
  • Learning should be ‘programmed’ by incorporating the above procedures and providing immediate positive reinforcement based as nearly as possible on 100% success.

Programmed learning achieved a brief spell of success, but proved to be of limited attraction to most teachers interacting with their students in more meaningful ways. It did have a continuing powerful influence within the field of foreign language learning, however, where the popular approach known as audiolingualism was based upon the development of good language habits involving pattern drills, memorization of dialogues, or choral repetition of structural patterns, all of which were accompanied by abundant ‘reinforcing’ praise. Nevertheless, as in other educational areas, the passive role afforded to the learner and the lack of attention to the application of meaningful cognitive strategies in learning a new language meant that here too the influence of behaviorism was inevitably limited.

Partly as a reaction to behaviorism led by the distinguished linguist Noam Chomsky, but also quite independently in Europe, a cognitive revolution was taking place in the 1960s as an alternative approach to understanding how learning occurs. Although cognitive theory is commonly presented as the main significant rival to behaviorism, it would nevertheless be far too simplistic to present this as one coherent approach or even several related approaches. What cognitive theories of learning have in common is a concern with how the human mind thinks and learns. (Even to make this point is to suggest a mind/body dualism with which not all cognitive psychologists would agree.) How they approach that particular issue, however, is vastly different. At the same time, it should be noted that some forms of cognitive theory are constantly evolving and building upon what has gone before.

In the USA cognitive psychology came to be largely synonymous with information-processing models of the mind. Returning to Dewey’ earlier preoccupation with problem-solving, Herbert Simon, one of the creators of the concept of artificial intelligence, began in the 1960s to simulate on the computer possible ways in which the mind might deal with such problems. From this a whole range of possible applications to human learning were developed, particularly with reference to such areas as attention, memory, knowledge acquisition, and reading. Subsequent work became directed towards the differences between novice and expert learners and to ways in which cognitive and metacognitive strategies might be usefully employed for overcoming various forms of learning difficulties (Walberg & Haertel, 1992).

Despite the refreshing emphasis upon the active role of the learner within the learning process that information-processing approaches were able to bring to bear, in their extreme form they nevertheless placed little or no emphasis upon the ways in which individuals developed the power to think and learn nor upon the personal sense that individuals made of learning opportunities. By contrast, the radical constructivist approach of the Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, emphasized the ways in which right from birth human infants began to explore their environments through various senses and thereby construct their own personal knowledge of the world. Piaget’ genetic epistemology is far too complex to describe in a few brief paragraphs and the interested reader is referred to Elkind (1976) and Furth (1970) for excellent summaries of various key aspects of his work and its contribution to education. The important point to emphasize here is the main underlying assumption of constructivism that individuals are actively involved throughout their lives in constructing personal meaning from their experiences.

In many respects Piaget was much more concerned with understanding how knowledge is constructed than with the practical applications of his theories. Nevertheless, he has had a profound effect upon pedagogical practice in Europe, particularly during the 1960s. Some of the resultant assumptions were entirely sensible, such as the importance of taking account of learners’ unique ways of constructing meaning, the relationship between thinking and learning, the nature of developmental stages and the need to match the requirements of any task to the cognitive level of which a learner is capable. Piagetian concepts such as schema, assimilation, and accommodation have also made a useful contribution to our understanding of educational processes. However, there have also been misinterpretations of Piagetian theory, the most dangerous of which has been the assumption in some quarters that there is no place for direct instruction in teaching since children must be left to learn at their own rate. It is also possible that Piaget, particularly in his early work, underestimated the importance of language and the social context in the development of thought.

An important figure in introducing the work of Piaget to American audiences has been Jerome Bruner, who became a persuasive advocate for the discovery approach to learning. A true educationalist, like Dewey before him, Bruner considered the process of education to be at least as important as its product. Recognizing that learning in schools should be seen to have a purpose, Bruner posed the challenge for educators to find the optimum conditions for learning. He offered advice on the structure of the curriculum as well as on ways in which learners could be motivated and helped to remember what they had learned. An original thinker in his own right, Bruner also extended aspects of Piagetian theory by suggesting that educators needed to take into account different modes of thinking—enactive, iconic, and symbolic modes of thought.

Bruner can also be considered a significant ‘bridging’ figure in the history of educational psychology because of his discovery on a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1960s of the work of the great Russian educational psychology Lev Vygotsky and his part in arranging for the translation of Vygotsky’ key work Thought and Language into English. For Vygotsky the socio-cultural background within which learning took place was of vital importance, as also was the application of language in the development of thought. In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky emphasized the social context into which children are born and the way in which their thinking was shaped by that context. In particular, Vygotsky was interested in the ways in which more competent adults or peers guided the novice child into and through what he termed the zone of proximal development, that level of skill or knowledge which is just beyond that with which the learner is currently capable of coping.

With Vygotsky we can see the pedagogical seesaw swing back once more to the importance of the teacher in the learning process. The term used by Vygotsky was mediation, which he considered took place by means of various tools, the most important of which was language, as well as by other semiotic means. This concept of mediation has been independently developed by the Israeli psychologist and educator, Reuven Feuerstein in his theory of structural cognitive modifiability. Feuerstein combined elements of Piagetian and Vygotskian theory with aspects of behavioral analysis and reinforcement to produce a cognitive development program known as Instrumental Enrichment together with a form of dynamic assessment which is implemented by means of his Learning Potential Assessment Device (LPAD). Essentially, Feuerstein argues that any person of any age, however handicapped, can become a fully effective learner, the key to which lies in the efficiency of the mediation process by which that person is taught. Much of Feuerstein’ later work was devoted to the identification of key aspects of mediated learning experiences which underpin his intervention program.

A final few words in this historical overview should be afforded to a group of psychologists working in parallel with their behaviorist and cognitive counterparts but emphasizing far more the holistic, affective aspects of human development and education. Referred to in general as humanistic psychologists, this group includes such significant figures as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Rogers in particular emphasized that independence, creativity, and self-reliance are most likely to flourish in learning situations where external criticism is kept to a minimum and where self-evaluation is encouraged. At the same time, he considered that the most socially useful kind of learning to prepare young people to cope with the demands of the modern world is learning about the process of learning itself. This, he felt, could best be accomplished in an atmosphere of ‘unconditional positive regard’. Thus a vitally important element of all good teaching is to convey warmth and empathy towards the learner in order to establish confidence and a relationship of trust.

This overview of some historically central figures and ideas influencing the development and direction of educational psychology over its first hundred or so years has revealed both its cyclical and often contradictory nature. The predominance of one set of ideas over another appears to have been as much due to the exigencies of time, place, and fashion as to any coherent sense of knowledge progression or the emergence of an overarching meta-theory.

Educational Theory versus Psychological Practice

One of the dilemmas faced by educational psychology is reflected in the title of a highly influential textbook, Educational Psychology: A realistic approach (Good & Brophy, 1977). What was recognized by these authors was the gap that many educational practitioners noted between theories of learning and the practice of teaching. They begin with the basic assumption that the key to successful teaching is the integration of concepts into teaching strategies that are responsive to the learning needs of particular groups of students. Thus, they stress the need to interpret psychological concepts so that they apply to specific learning settings and emphasize pragmatic decision-making by teachers faced by realistic problems, constraints and limitations in students, in classes, and in themselves.

Good and Brophy take an eclectic approach in seeking to draw together various theories, concepts, and research findings in educational psychology in so far as these enable them to offer concrete advice to teachers. Their overall approach is nevertheless objectives-based in that each chapter of their text begins with a brief list of specific behavioral objectives that will have been attained once the reader has mastered the material provided in that chapter. Moreover, the successful teacher in their terms is one who makes her or his goals explicit, uses class work as a means of attaining these goals, and uses feedback to determine how well the goals are being achieved. Task-analysis is seen as a helpful means of sequencing activities, but emphasis is placed also on the importance of what the student brings to the learning situation and the constraints of the learning context.

Good and Brophy’ classic text is a first-class example of this particular genre in that it represents much that has been found to be of value in the application of psychological theory to education. However, it also illustrates some of the inherent weaknesses in that chapters are grouped in various sections side by side without any explicit coherent thread drawing them together. This, after all, is one of the features of eclecticism. Thus, there is a section on various aspects of child development, followed by a section contrasting behavioral and cognitive approaches to learning, and sections on motivation, classroom management, instruction, individual differences, and measurement and evaluation. The advice to teachers under each of these headings is often excellent, but the depth of psychological theory upon which it is based is not always readily apparent, particularly if one seeks a coherent thread which binds the various sections together.

One severe and influential critic of his own field of educational psychology has been David Ausubel, who described it as ‘a superficial, ill digested and typically disjointed and watered-down miscellany of general psychology, learning theory, developmental psychology, social psychology, psychological measurement … and child centered education’ (Ausubel, 1968, p. 1). This withering attack was one which received substantial support from many in the 1960s and 1970s as highlighting the fact that educational psychology had lost its way. In trying to apply ‘psychological science’ to every educational issue under the sun, educational psychology, it was claimed, had become a ragbag of studies and dogma unconnected by any form of coherent theoretical structure.

The approach taken by Ausubel was to focus more narrowly but in far greater depth than many of his contemporaries on what actually took place in classrooms, most specifically in a cognitive approach to school learning. His work was even more specifically concerned with meaningful symbolic learning which occurred both by means of direct instruction and by discovery. From this, it should be noted, he deliberately excluded the learning of values and attitudes.

This tension between practical relevance and theoretical coherence is one which has bedevilled educational psychology from its earliest beginnings. In seeking to classify itself as a science on a par with the natural sciences, mainstream psychology has tended to take the empirical route in its acceptance of what constitutes evidence and to favor by patterns-testing, experimental designs in its pursuit of that evidence. In seeking respectability it has therefore allied itself philosophically with logical positivism and has constructed its theories accordingly. This assumption of rational objectivity is not one, however, which necessarily fits easily with everyone’ conceptions of education. Here, for example, values have a central role to play, as do beliefs and the search for meaning.

Moreover, the goals of education can be viewed as somewhat at variance with the view of psychology as an objective science. If, for example, two primary educational goals are seen as the intergenerational transmission of culture and the preparation of people to meet the learning demands of a rapidly changing world, then a more integrated, theory-driven conceptualization of educational psychology may be called for. In place of the ‘middleman’ conception of James and Dewey, linking a science to an art by some form of bridging process, or of the view of educational psychology as a ‘masterscience’, acting as some kind of ‘umbrella’ for psychologists and other scientists who just happen to be interested in the problems of education, there is a strong case to be made for educational psychology as a discipline in its own right.

A valiant attempt to get to grips with this dilemma has been made by a working party commissioned by the British Psychological Society to provide evidence to the United Kingdom Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (Tomlinson, Edwards, Finn, Smith, & Wilkinson, 1992). Whilst acknowledging that pedagogy must be seen as pluralist and interdisciplinary in its resources, the document produced by this group argues for the centrality of psychology in that a psychological perspective is by definition concerned with the nature of action and experience within and between individuals. The document begins broadly by suggesting that teachers need to have practically applicable understanding of

  • The nature of the intended learning outcomes they are attempting to achieve;
  • The learning experiences and activities that can lead to these acquisitions;
  • The internal and external influences on action which may affect these activities; and
  • The ways learners vary as individuals and groups.

Given such understanding, teachers should be in a position to identify helpful strategies for managing effective learning activity which is appropriately matched to particular pupils, teaching aims and contexts, and effectively assessed for progress and achievement.

From a psychological perspective, intended learning outcomes can be viewed as cognitive, behavioral, and affective (knowledge, skills, and attitudes). The learning experiences and activities will entail the acquisition of concepts, knowledge, and understanding, the development of skills and learning strategies, and the shaping up of attitudes. Internal and external influences on action reflect the nature of motivational processes, social communication and group processes, and the effect of school organization and climate. The importance of the nature of individual and developmental variation among learners is revealed in a consideration of special educational needs as these relate to aims and processes of learning and teaching, equal opportunities, provision and issues relating to race, gender, and class.

Teachers need to be able to deploy a range of teaching tactics, strategies, and styles in order to achieve particular purposes. These will include explanation, questioning, the management of group discussion, and various forms of teacher—pupil interaction including the appropriate use of rewards and sanctions. Appropriate matching of tasks to pupils requires not only an awareness of individual pupil differences and an ability to analyze tasks, but also a critical awareness of the potential effects of different forms of pupil grouping for learning. Finally, it is essential that teachers understand the differences between formative and summative assessment and can carry these out by means of norm-referenced and criterion-referenced techniques on their pupils’ and their own work and encourage their pupils to do the same.

A particularly helpful aspect of this kind of approach is that it provides a comprehensive framework within which the complex nature of the teaching—learning process can be encompassed. As such it represents one form of the social interactionist model represented in Figure 24.1.

This model suggests that there are four key elements involved in the educational process: teachers, learners, tasks (or activities), and contexts, all of which constantly interact in a dynamic manner. Teachers bring to this process their beliefs and attitudes about education, about schools, about learner potential, and about their own capabilities. They also bring their own particular interests, values, and abilities. Each individual learner brings her or his own characteristics and orientations towards learning and towards schools as institutions. Schools and other educational institutions, families, and communities are the main contexts within which learning takes place and, as such, exert a powerful influence upon the nature of what is learnt and upon the teaching—learning process. Within such contexts both the formal and informal (or ‘hidden’) curriculum determine the nature of the learning tasks and activities, the implementation of which is itself influenced by the teacher’ beliefs and other characteristics and the learner’ ability and willingness to learn. The purpose of educational psychology can be seen, therefore, as providing information about each of these elements together with a deeper level of understanding about how such knowledge can be employed to enhance the educational process.

The question nevertheless remains as to how helpful information and ideas acruing from psychological theory and research can best be made available to those more centrally involved in the process of education—teachers, parents, and the learners themselves. Attempts to face up to this issue have led to the separation of educational psychology into two distinct, but not always complementary strands (Burden, 1994). These are most commonly referred to as educational and school psychology, although the latter descriptor tends to vary from one part of the world to another; those who are termed school psychologists in the USA are called psycho-pedagogists in Italy, psychological counsellors in Portugal, and guidance officers in parts of Australia. In the UK, somewhat confusingly, both groups are referred to as educational psychologists, despite the fact that their terms of reference, their professional orientation, and even their main focus of interest are likely to differ markedly.

Although it is not the function of this chapter to describe the evolution and subsequent contribution of school psychology to education (see Saigh & Oakland, 1989, and Burden, 1994, for a review of international perspectives in this area), a brief overview of the main differences between the two groups should throw further light on some of the dilemmas alluded to earlier. As has been demonstrated in a previous section, the academic study of psychology in education has given rise to considerable research and theory building on ways of enhancing teaching and learning in particular, which tends to be disseminated in academic books and journals from university departments of psychology and education. In practical terms the information generated by such writings is most likely to be passed on to teachers in pre-service training courses or through research for higher degrees. Students demonstrating an interest in the practical manifestation of psychological knowledge to educational settings whilst undertaking first degree courses in psychology, on the other hand, are offered the opportunity of further study and training to become school psychologists. In the United States this normally entails study to at least Master’, but preferably Doctoral level. In the UK a similar pattern has emerged, with the additional requirement of at least three years’ teaching experience. There is, however, considerable variation across the rest of the world in pre-service requirements for working as a school psychologist.

School psychologists are traditionally employed by local school boards or government education ministries and are based in schools, specialist clinics, or psychology service centers. From these bases they seek to provide advice and support of a psychological nature to schools, families, and communities in promoting the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. In practice, particularly where statutory requirements for extra funding depends upon a psychological assessment and recommendation, the role of the school psychologist has tended to become rather more limited than would ideally be the case. In large measure, this situation appears not to have changed since a seminal paper by Bardon (1983) described school psychology as ‘a specialty in search of an identity’.

The main differentiating issue here is most likely to be one of focus. How this focus is determined is inevitably a result of historical, economic, and socio-cultural factors. School psychologists tend to view themselves as applied educational psychologists. However, if we consider the development of applied educational psychology in the UK from its beginnings in the 1920s, it becomes clear that the overriding interest of the first appointed UK educational psychologist, Cyril Burt, in the development and employment of psychometric tests had a profound and long-standing influence on the future direction of professional practice. Similarly, the introduction of psychodynamic ideas into educational psychology training a few years later led to the establishment of the Child Guidance movement which held sway until the mid-1970s. Thus, issues of assessment and therapeutic intervention became two major components of the work of the applied educational (school) psychologist in the UK for more than half a century.

It will not be possible to gain a proper understanding of the complexity of the issues surrounding the one-hundred-year history of educational psychology without an awareness of this major and, to many, incomprehensible division. It has led on the one hand to a view of educational psychology as a somewhat esoteric, academic subject divorced from the practical problems faced by teachers and learners in school settings and, on the other, to a view of school psychology as an essentially atheoretical profession seeking in an often futile manner to act as a ‘fire-brigade’ service to the ills of the educational system or as a much-maligned gatekeeper to sparse educational resources.

Neither of these extreme views is entirely appropriate, but each contains a germ of truth which has been more or less prevalent at various times within the history of both branches of educational psychology. A major task for both professions continues to be that of finding ways to draw them more closely together to develop a coherent theoretical foundation for applied practice within educational contexts such that illogical and unhelpful boundaries are removed. This issue will be returned to in the final section, but first we must turn to a consideration of differing approaches to psychological research and their applicability to educational issues.


Educational psychology has been both helped and hindered in its close association with and dependence upon the notions of science and attendant research methodology prevalent within mainstream psychology. In particular, the legitimization of experimental and quasi-experimental research designs within the traditional logical-positivist paradigm has placed great emphasis upon the collection of empirical data and the recording of observable behavior at the expense of more introspective methods. This, in turn, has led to the proliferation of what has come to be termed process—product research (Shulman, 1986), seeking to identify the nature of relationships between teaching performance and student achievement. Examples of research within this tradition include examinations of the ways in which measurable student learning outcomes are affected by specific teacher actions, by the amount of ‘academically involved’ time and by aspects of classroom ecology. In his summary of research in this field, Creemers (1991) concludes that variation in teaching behaviors relates systematically to variation in learning outcomes both in cognitive and affective domains. However, there is still no common agreement within the literature as to what makes an excellent, good, or effective teacher.

A significant weakness of many process—product studies is that they seek to establish causality, often by means of correlation techniques, which at best can only indicate that an association is likely to exist between selected variables. Efforts to improve the sophistication of such studies led naturally to the application of meta-analyses, whereby data from a large number of studies are gathered and submitted to statistical analysis in a search for underlying stable relationships which go beyond the limitations of studies on particular teachers working in particular contexts. Other high-powered statistical techniques such as multiple regression analysis and structural equation modeling also make it possible to move beyond simple measures of association.

Two examples of meta-analytic studies which are pertinent to the concerns of the present chapter were carried out by the Australian educational psychologist John Hattie and his colleagues. In the first study (Hansford & Hattie, 1982) a meta-analysis was carried out on 128 studies into the relationship between measures of self-concept and measures of performance and achievement. This is an area of particular relevance to educational psychology because it is commonly assumed that such a relationship exists, even though the causal direction of that relationship is open to considerable dispute. It also illustrates very clearly many of the aspects of process—product research—the transformation of concepts like achievement and self-esteem into numbers by means of standardized tests or structured questionnaires, the application of those tests to matched samples of experimental and control groups, and the manipulation of the resultant data by means of appropriate statistical techniques.

By means of meta-analysis, Hansford and Hattie were able to draw upon a combined sample of over 2,000 subjects and produce a database of over 1,000 correlations between self-ratings and performance measures. By this means they came to draw the authoritative conclusion that a small but significant positive relationship exists between self-concept and achievement. More recent research has tended to suggest that initially the former will tend to be a reflection of the latter but that over time a two-way reciprocal relationship develops.

Another meta-analytical study (Hattie & Marsh, 1996) examined 58 investigations into the relationship between research and teaching in universities, and synthesized their results. Here it was found that only 20% of the 498 correlations examined were significant, which led to the conclusion that, at best, research and teaching are very loosely coupled. Even single cases of ‘the quintessential academician Nobel Prize winner who can enthrall an undergraduate class’ were few and far between. The highest correlations were found between research and the presentation aspects of teaching, where good researchers were seen as a little more likely to be better prepared as teachers and to have better presentation skills than non-researchers.

As a result of a meta-analysis of some 8,000 comparative process—product studies, Fraser (1991) was able to identify nine factors as the chief influences on cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning. These factors were conveniently grouped under three headings:

  • Student aptitude, which included ability (or prior achievement as measured by psychometric tests), development (as indexed by chronological age or stage of maturation), and motivation;
  • Instruction, which included the amount of time in which students were engaged in learning, and the quality of instructional experience (including psychological and curricular aspects);
  • Psychological environments, which included the curriculum of the home, the morale of the classroom social group, the influence of the peer group, and optimum leisure-time television viewing.

There is clearly a close correspondence between most of these factors and those identified earlier within the social interactionist model.

The main alternative to process—product research studies has been offered by what are generally termed interpretative-meaning centered approaches (Shulman, 1986). Such research is sometimes referred to as ‘post-positivist’ or even, by its detractors, unscientific, in that it begins from a very different set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the ways in which this is constructed.

In contrast to the essentially pragmatic and often atheoretical nature of many process—product research studies, interpretative researchers view learning as a qualitative transformation of understandings rather than a quantitative accretion of information. Thus teaching ceases to be seen as a means of providing instruction and becomes instead a way of facilitating new understandings. Within this paradigm both teachers and students are viewed as learners in the sense that they actively construct their own meanings within every educational situation (Gergen, 1985). There are obvious parallels between these alternative approaches to research and the differences between behaviorist and constructivist theories of learning described in Section 24.2.

Interpretative research within educational psychology has tended to emphasize the ways in which learners seek to make sense of and bring meaning to their educational experiences. Research and theory in the area of motivation, for example, has been transformed by a change in emphasis from studies focusing on drive-reduction or reinforcement contingencies to one in which the cognitive involvement and decision-making processes of individuals are seen to play a central part (Ames & Ames, 1989). The search for effective ways of promoting self-directed learning has similarly benefited from a constructivist approach (Candy, 1991), as has the teaching of school curriculum subjects such as maths and science, particularly where emphasis is placed on what has come to be termed ‘situated cognition’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991). At the same time, a growth in interest in teacher belief systems and, in particular, the notion of teachers as ‘reflective practitioners’ (Schön, 1983) arose directly from this alternative interpretative approach to research.

Process—product and interpretative-meaning centered approaches to research are generally considered to be antithetical in that they represent different paradigmatic views of the world. However, a strong case has been made for combining the two approaches and selecting methods from each which will best suit the needs of any particular investigation (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Here the researcher is seen as ‘bricoleur’, perfectly entitled to collect large-scale empirical data and submit this to quantitative analysis in order to seek answers to one set of questions, and then justified in carrying out in-depth qualitative analyses of the meanings that the participants are constructing of the process under investigation. According to this perspective, the value of the research findings is likely to be enhanced by such a marriage of approaches.

A good example of this kind of combined research is provided by Mevarech and Kramarski (1997) in their description of their innovative instructional method for teaching mathematics in heterogeneous classrooms and their investigation into its effects on students’ mathematics achievement. Based on social cognition and metacognition theories, the method consisted of three interdependent components: metacognitive activities, peer interpretation, and systematic provision of feedback-corrective enrichment. Two studies were carried out with seventh-grade students. The first focused on in-depth analyses of students’ information processing under different learning conditions, the second investigated the development of students’ mathematical reasoning over a full academic year. Both studies demonstrated significant improvements by the experimental groups in comparison with their control group peers. The authors conclude that all students can be taught higher cognitive processes (in maths) in heterogeneous classes without implementing tracking (setting) by ability. However, they emphasize also the necessity for individual teacher, departmental, and whole school commitment to the underlying principles of the particular program—in this case the principles of social cognition and meta-cognition.

It should be apparent that a central issue here has been one of whether educational psychology research should begin with questions about human activity in educational settings which it seeks to answer with all the means at its disposal, or whether it should be theory driven and seek to investigate the applicability of various psychological and developmental theories to issues and problems within education. As with the development of often conflicting theories of learning, much early research in educational psychology tended to fall between one or the other of these two extremes. This was a situation which existed in Europe as well as in the United States, as a review of forty years of research in educational psychology in Finland testifies (Olkinuora & Lehtinen, 1997).

A Wider International Perspective

The vast majority of textbooks written about educational psychology together with most of the research-related journals represent a tradition that is essentially positivist in its orientation and steeped in the culture of the United States and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe. As such they encourage an approach to theory and research which mirrors that of the natural sciences whilst taking as given certain virtues associated with a particular kind of formal education. Typical of such virtues are liberalism, rational morality, and the attainment of individual autonomy.

An alternative perspective which is more illustrative of traditional Eastern cultures is that of collectivism, reflected in the Confucian philosophy prevalent in such countries as China and Japan. In contrast to the Western emphasis upon the rights of the individual, emotional independence, personal initiative, and the search for self-fulfillment, collectivist societies stress collective identity, group decision-making, emotional dependence upon significant others, and the importance of roles, duties, and obligations.

Such cultural distinctions play a highly significant, if largely unrecognized part in the conceptualization and application of psychology to education in different parts of the world. Thus, in the construction and development of the self-concept, for example, a traditional Western view holds to the belief that every individual is a separate entity from every other and defined in terms of that individual’ own internal thoughts, feelings, and actions. A mentally healthy individual tends to be seen as one who strives for autonomy and achieves independence from close early family ties. By contrast, an Eastern (Confucian) view of self emphasizes collectivistic values and interdependence, where duty to one’ in-group is considered a primary virtue and continuous, close relationships with one’ family and friends are paramount.

The cultural transmission of such norms is clearly reflected in child-rearing practices and parent—child relationships. This in turn influences the nature of interpersonal interactions and the educative process. Individuals in Confucian societies are encouraged to harness self-interests and personal goals for the promotion of social harmony and collective good. Social harmony is seen as vitally important and great emphasis is placed within the family upon responsibility for one’ children’ actions in this respect.

Different forms of educational achievement can be seen to be related to these differing underlying cultural philosophies. On the one hand, individual achievement is viewed within Confucian philosophy as a form of moral virtue which is mainly achieved through one’ own efforts and the support of one’ family and friends. On the other hand, the notion of effort is widened to include a sense of responsibility to the group to which one belongs, i.e., one works on behalf of others as well as oneself. This sense of social-oriented achievement motivation has been cited as an important underlying factor in the remarkably high general attainment level of students in many Eastern countries in mathematics in particular.

It has been argued also that the ability of individuals from certain cultural and ethnic backgrounds to function far more effectively outside of formal school settings may be accounted for by reference to such cultural considerations. In their longitudinal study of the educational progress of native Hawaiian students within the formal U.S. school system, Tharp, Gallimore and their colleagues clearly show how early learning and development within a context of ‘shared functioning’, where the emphasis is upon collaboration and cooperation, is at variance with the individualistic, competitive environment pertaining in many schools. (See Gallimore, Tharp, & Rueda, 1989, for a summary of this work.) The authors draw helpfully upon Vygotskian socio-cultural theory to suggest ways in which children who may be seen as disadvantaged in this respect can be helped to function more effectively in mainstream schools.

The importance of the cultural context of learning becomes more and more apparent the further that we move in an educational sense from Western systems and assumptions. Research into the mathematical abilities of ‘street’ children in Brazil, for example, has shown them to be far more capable in their natural environments than would ever have been predicted by their performance in school. The potential implications of this for taking a truly international perspective on educational psychology has been clearly spelt out by Serpel (1993, p. xii) when he states ‘An indigenous theoretical conceptualisation of human development and socialisation is an essential adjunct to the adaptation of exogenous institutions for endogenous progress in the field of education.’

In his efforts to apply educational psychology in a rural area of Zambia, East Africa, Serpel came to recognize the importance of gaining a context-related understanding of such notions as educational success, intelligent behavior, and the implicit psychology of the caregivers. Eurocentric views about the nature of learning, the applicability of standard assessment techniques, and the goals of education were found to be not only inappropriate but even seriously misleading. The point to be made here is that universal assumptions about the application of psychology to education are simply not warranted.

Towards a More Coherent Framework

If we return at this point to the academic—practitioner divide referred to earlier, we can see that a central theme running through the history of educational psychology’ search for an identity has been the lack of coherence between theory, research, and practice. Towards the end of the twentieth century it became clear that this was an issue which needed to be settled if educational psychology was to continue to develop as a discipline in its own right. A social interactionist approach would appear to offer a helpful framework for tackling this dilemma.

Firstly, in drawing upon the socio-cultural theories of Vygotsky and Feuerstein, each of the elements of teacher, learner, task, and context are considered to play a significant part in the educational process. A consideration of the purposes of education becomes an essential starting point for the development of theory and the identification of appropriate research and action. It thus becomes clear that educational systems reflect the cultural and historical contexts within which they exist and by which they are shaped. Educational psychology therefore stands in relation to sociology, history, and anthropology as much as it does to ‘pure’ psychology. In the terms of a great psychological pioneer, Wilhelm Wundt, it should be seen as a representative of Geistewissenschaften (the cultural sciences) rather than of Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences).

A consideration of the aims of education from a socio-cultural perspective fits well with the first point made by the British Psychological Society report of Tomlinson et al. described earlier, namely that teachers need to be clear about the nature of learning outcomes that they wish their students to attain. Different learning goals will require different learning activities and experiences and will be achieved by different means. Acceptance of this point removes educational psychology once again from the realms of ‘objective science’ and places it within the real world where people act on the basis of values, feelings, and ideology as much as out of habit or as a result of contingent reinforcements.

This is an issue that has been faced more squarely by school psychologists than by the majority of educational psychologists. The International School Psychology Association (ISPA), for example, has a concern for the rights of the child as one of its central tenets. Thus, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a fundamental set of principles by which school psychologists across the world define their role.

The notion of teacher-as-mediator proposed by both Vygotsky and Feuerstein makes possible the incorporation of a strong constructivist perspective within which beliefs, feelings, and attitudes can be seen as central. It is in keeping, moreover, with such radical ideas as the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire (1970). Freire’ social pedagogy defined education as one place where the individual and society are constructed—a social action which can empower people to bring about social change, and to advance democracy as they advance their literacy and their knowledge. The purpose of education for Freire is to develop critical consciousness. Therefore, pedagogy must be participatory, critical, context-bound, democratic, dialogic, multicultural, research-oriented, activist, and affective (Freire & Faundex, 1989). At a practical level, therefore, one of the primary tasks of the teacher-as-mediator is to teach students how to think effectively for themselves and to teach them to learn how to learn.

A strong lead in this respect has been taken by Feuerstein, who claims to have identified a number of essential aspects of mediated learning experiences (MLE), which are seen as essential in making learning truly educational. In presenting any learning task, the teacher should have a clear intention of what is to be learnt which is understood and reciprocated by the learners. The teacher needs to make learners aware of the significance of the task so that they can see the value of it to them personally, and in a broader cultural context. In addition, learners must be aware of the way in which the learning experience will have wider relevance to them beyond the immediate time and place. These essential aspects of MLE will be enhanced by the development of several other features in learners, including a sense of competence, the ability to take control of their own behavior, seeking, setting and achieving personal goals, the search for new challenges, a recognition of their own uniqueness, and the development of sharing behavior.

This chapter has presented just a few illustrative examples of some noteworthy historical events, significant theorists, and alternative perspectives on educational psychology. It is not meant to be, nor can any such brief overview ever be, truly representative of a consensual viewpoint. Readers should, therefore, have little difficulty in funding any one of a number of texts in fundamental disagreement with this author’ reluctant conclusion that educational psychology cannot honestly be said to have yet achieved its early promise.

It may well be that William James was making a significant point which has far too long been overlooked when he wrote in one of his talks to teachers on psychology.

You make a great, a very great mistake, if you think that psychology, being the science of the mind’ laws, is something from which you can deduce definite programs and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. (James, 1899, pp. 23-24)

With this proviso in mind, an alternative starting point for the development of educational psychology in the twenty-first century might take the following form. Educational psychology is the study of how and why people think and feel and act in the ways that they do within, and as a result of, educational transactions. It is not a ‘hard’ science but a hermeneutical form of enquiry which seeks to provide meaningful interpretations of the teaching and learning processes. It is always grounded within a culture, and is not and cannot be culture free.

Applied educational psychology seeks to draw upon the insights revealed by such enquiry to promote helpful exchanges with those involved in the educational process, and value-driven changes to the education system.