J M Blackbourn, William Barrios, Keith E Davis, Jennifer Fillingim. Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and Administration. Editor: Fenwick W English. Volume 2, Sage Reference, 2006.
Psychology, in its broadest sense, is the study of human behavior. It involves the investigation of learning, motivation, memory, personality, intelligence, and leadership. Psychological theory provides the framework by which causation, prediction, and control of behavior can be systematically addressed. Those types of psychology most closely related to the field of education include
- Developmental psychology
- Humanistic psychology
- Descriptive psychology
- Social psychology
- Cognitive psychology
- Psychometry and psychological testing
Behaviorism, or behavioral psychology, is based primarily on the work of Edward Thorndike and B. F. Skinner. It is an attempt to address human behavior from a scientific, functionalist, objectivist perspective. Behaviorism relies on direct observation of measurable behavioral phenomena. The prime focus of behavioral psychology is to determine the effect of consequences on behavior and thereby enhance learning, motivation, and performance. The construct encompassed in Thorndike’s law of effect, that behaviors that are followed by positive consequences tend to be repeated and those that are followed by aversive or neutral consequences tend to fall out of use, is the basis for the application of behaviorism in educational settings. By understanding the manner in which consequences are delivered (reinforcement schedules), the nature of past consequences (reinforcement history), and the strength of specific antecedents (discriminative stimuli), environments can be designed to enhance learning and promote positive outcomes.
The work of Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf, Todd Risley, and Vance Hall in the 1970s and 1980s established applied behavior analysis as the preeminent form of behaviorism. At this time, the focus of behaviorism ceased to be on basic research, and the established principles of behaviorism were applied to “real world” problems of social importance (many involving educational settings). During this period, many of those techniques that today are established educational practice were developed and validated (i.e., systematic attention, time-out, token economies, response cost). In addition, behaviors from toilet training to spelling and math proficiency or on-task behavior were targeted for behavior modification. The target of such intervention was usually the specific behaviors of a given individual. Therefore, single subject research designs for applied research were developed. The impact of behaviorism in education has been most directly felt in the areas of special education and classroom management. Leadership and administration have also been impacted by behavioral psychology via Frederick Taylor’s scientific management.
Developmental psychology focuses the normal cognitive, affective, and physical processes and how they change as an individual grows. Those developmental psychology theories most pertinent to the profession of education focus on social development and learning. Such theories are either stage theories (emphasizing movement from one level of functioning to another, more advanced level) or sequence theories (generally age independent and emphasizing a sequential progression through observable behaviors, ways of thinking, or world views).
Stage theories include Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and Robert Havighurst’s theory of developmental tasks. All three of these theories have had a significant effect on education and continue to affect the field through applications to curricular and instructional issues. Erikson’s theory, emphasizing the successful resolution of problems at a given developmental stage as a predictor of future success, has had a significant effect on K-12 education. Erikson suggests that the stages of his theory are interconnected and possess both important events to be addressed and a developmental crisis to be resolved. In essence, mastering the tasks that make up the significant event and resolution of the developmental crisis at any stage has a long-lasting impact on a person’s self-image and view of society. Schools have been influenced by Erikson’s theory in curricular, instructional, and social contexts. In addition, compensatory and special education services both have a basis in Erikson’s theory. Academic support programs in elementary and middle schools and extracurricular secondary programs (both social and preprofessional) are the direct result of the application of Erikson’s theory to educational settings.
Piaget’s theory has long held the primary position among those developmental theories employed by educators. The concept of “developmentally appropriate practice” as a catalyst for enhancing student learning and as a precursor for movement to the next stage of development has long been a basic tenet of elementary education. Piaget’s principles of activity-based learning and individual construction of knowledge still underpin best practice in elementary education and form the foundation of constructivism.
Havighurst formulated a theory of socially constructed developmental tasks embedded within the schools. He hypothesized that each grade level of the schools is infused with tasks to be mastered that are socially and culturally agreed upon as being important. Havighurst further felt that mastery (or the lack thereof) of these school-related developmental tasks was directly related to future school and life success. He further hypothesized that the impact of the majority culture on the school curriculum and the associated developmental tasks placed minority students at risk for academic failure. Havighurst’s theory formed the foundation for compensatory education and multicultural studies.
While stage theories tend to be more prominent in education, sequence theories have also had significant influence. Sequence theories include Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Claire Graves’s theory of sociobiological development. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, along with behaviorism, has had a primary influence on thought and practice in the field of education. Graves’s theory of sociobiological development has long been employed in rehabilitation counseling and business settings but is gaining credence and acceptance in educational leadership.
Graves was a psychologist who developed a sociobiological theory of human development that emphasized an individual’s need to solve specific problems or answer specific questions at a given developmental level. Maslow suggested that all behavior is driven by innate needs that range from lower-level needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging) to upper-level needs (self-esteem, self-actualization). The lower-level needs are termed “deficiency needs” or needs that necessarily must be met for a person to function at a minimum level. The upper-level needs he labeled “being needs” or those needs that can never be completely met and lead to growth toward mature psychological functioning. Maslow arranged the needs in a hierarchical pattern and theorized that the needs at a specific level must be adequately addressed before a person could be motivated by higher-level needs.
While self-actualization was seen by Maslow as the ultimate goal of human development, self-actualized individuals are, in a sense, unmotivated. The behavior of self-actualized persons is not directed toward obtaining specific items, objects, or states to satisfy a deficit. They are focused on achieving their potential and knowing and understanding themselves and their world.
Maslow’s theory is a theory that bridges the gap between developmental and humanistic psychology. It holds direct application for schools and schooling in programs for gifted and talented children, individual counseling, free and reduced meals, and constructivist learning applications. It further set the stage for the humanistic psychology movement.
Humanistic psychology is rooted in Maslow’s work and emphasizes self-determination, self-evaluation, personal perceptions, and individual choice of goals and activities. Humanistic psychology is based on the premise that understanding is individual and personal in nature and that individuals can find the solutions to their own problems via free choice and a supportive environment. Carl Rogers and Art Combs were those humanistic psychologists who have had the most profound influence on education.
Humanistic psychology is a forerunner of post-modernism due to its emphasis on the deconstruction of events and one’s individual construction of reality. Both Rogers’s client-centered approach and Combs’s phenomenology emphasize personal perceptions, attitudes, and feelings.
Rogers’s nondirective therapy was built on Maslow’s concept of self-actualization, which Rogers termed the actualizing tendency present in all individuals. Rogers also developed the concept of organismic valuing. This concept states that all persons have the answers to their problems and/or questions within themselves. Rogers’s most important contribution to humanistic psychology is likely the concept of unconditional positive regard. This is a positive and accepting feeling toward others and their perceptions or positions. Rogers stated that growth toward more positive psychological states was dependent on the presence of unconditional positive regard.
Arthur Combs was a humanistic psychologist who developed the theory of phenomenology. Phenomenology was a precursor to postmodernism (as was the entire field of humanistic psychology) due to its emphasis on each individual’s unique construction of reality. Combs identified “frames of reference” and the associated “phenomenal field” as the means by which individuals interpreted events in the world and selected appropriate courses of action. For Combs, all human behavior was purposeful yet not based on the “facts” as others see them but on the “facts” as that individual sees them. Combs identified the phenomenal field as each person’s complete and unique field of awareness at any given moment, and all behavior, without exception, was determined by and pertinent to this field. While each of us sees errors or illusions in the phenomenal field of another, we seldom see the same features in our own perceptual field.
Combs’s basic tenet was that we must take individuals as they are and work forward from that point. The reason that students or employees in an educational setting often present problem behaviors is due to the nature of their personal phenomenal field and interpretation of reality. Before behavior can change, the phenomenal field must change.
Combs’s work has had a significant impact on both conflict resolution and administrator/teacher perceptions (particularly in relation to the postevaluative conference). His research also forms the foundation for the current “dispositions movement” in teacher education.
Descriptive psychology (DP) is a set of systematically related conceptual distinctions designed to provide formal access to all facts and possible facts about persons, their behavior, and the real world in which persons operate. It grew out of Peter Ossorio’s profound dissatisfaction with contemporary psychological theory and practice, which he saw as unnecessarily deterministic and reductionistic in ways that were detrimental both to understanding persons’ behavior and to working constructively with persons in educational and therapeutic practices. The relevance of DP to educational theory and leadership can be seen in three examples. How does a person have the ability to create or socially construct his or her own world? Why is the task of providing leadership for schools and school district so challenging? And what principles and concepts are relevant to effective therapy?
Ossorio thought that a person had status in the world as an actor, as an observer, and as a critic. From the actor’s perspective, to act is to select among options and to shape one’s world by the way one treats those options. In this sense, then, people’s behavior is creative rather than merely reflective of their circumstances. Their behavior gives value or meaning to their movements. The observer’s role is one of noting what has happened, and the critic’s role is that of appraising the success or failure of one’s actions and making appropriate corrections if necessary. The actor-observer-critic schema provides the formal distinctions necessary to represent human self-regulation—something that we expect adult humans to be able to do.
In DP, freedom and creativity are built into the notion of a person’s behavior. What requires explanation are (a) constraints on a person’s freedom and (b) the development of one’s ability to create a world. The major constraints lie in (a) human limitations vis-à-vis the physical world, (b) one’s embodiment (its age, health, damage due to accidents or illness, and strength of one’s physical body), and (c) one’s eligibilities due to membership in various communities. With respect to (a), I will not be able to wave my arms and then take off flying like Peter Pan. With respect to (b), diseases may strike that lead to long-term limitations in what I can do for myself. With respect to (c), each community that I am a member of provides me with some positions, but not others, from which to play the game of life. One’s ability to create one’s own world gets enhanced by empirical discoveries or inventions that alter how we can treat the physical world. With the variety of aircraft that we have invented, persons can fly—although not just like Peter Pan. The state of one’s body can be altered through exercise, diet, and physical therapy. One’s position in one’s communities can be changed by education, training, and other preparation for new roles. Relationships can be changed via changes in one’s own behavior. Treating another as someone to be trusted invites reciprocation; whether the other reciprocates or not is informative about the relationship. DP provides a framework within which both the freedom to construct one’s world and the constraints on successful constructions can be understood.
In DP, significance is a formal parameter of behavior, and the classic assessment question is, What is the person doing by doing that? Following one’s answers to the question that are consistent with the facts of the case will typically permit the development of a coherent explanation of behavior. Actions are things that one can choose to engage in or not, whereas happenings are beyond one’s control. The critic’s function is for the benefit of the actor. When functioning in the critic’s position, one has tremendous power to define what is acceptable versus not and to hand down judgments. For many clients, opportunities to learn forgiveness and compassion are central to being in a new behavioral world. Rather than Rogers’s single status of “unconditional acceptance,” DP identifies nine statuses that offer a positive place but not a total positive regard that is naïve and unrealistic. Among these are “one who makes sense,” “one whose interests come first,” and “one who is an agent.”
Many DP advances in organizational psychology have been directed toward the conflicts within organizations between different functions and toward systematic procedure to enhance productivity. Two crucial features of organizations have been identified. The first is that an organization is a community with a distinctive mission and that this feature of organizations provides a rationale both for a manager and for his or her moral authority in the stewardship of resources. Resources and activities not directed toward the accomplishment of the organizational mission are, at the least, wasteful and, in the extreme, criminal. The DP approach allows for a form of systems theory that distinguishes the multiple perspectives from which any single organization may be viewed. The crucial feature of this analysis is the notion that every organization, to be well managed, requires the manager to view it from multiple perspectives. Typically, these perspectives will take the form of financial, people and production perspectives, and any organizational policy or principle that does not allow success from all three perspectives will ultimately produce problems and organizational failure. Of particular interest to descriptive psychologists are the “on-behalf-of” organizations as opposed to the classic command-and-control or market-driven organizations. Such organizations (i.e., schools) provide services to a group of people (students and parents) who may have little say about the nature of services provided and that are paid for by yet another group (taxpayers). When a school system attempts to introduce a new instructional curriculum for the benefit of students, parents may not see the curriculum as the best method of teaching the subject, because it differs from the way they were taught, and school board members may wonder whether the proposal constitutes the best use of funds provided by the taxpayers. Differences can arise in this type of situation because each group has a different customer in mind and thus a different perspective on what constitutes a success.
What is required to work out such differences is leadership—not merely management. Leadership, from a DP perspective (in contrast to management), is a behavioral notion, whereas management implies that one has a certain formal position, for example, chairman of the board or principal of a school. Leaders work through any of a number of practices such as motivational, helping to develop relevant perspectives that are missing, providing training in skills required to solve organizational dilemmas, or providing the coordination required for successful action. In the special case of “on-behalf-f” organizations, the leader has the special task of helping members to recognize their different perspectives and to create an atmosphere in which these perspectives and values can each be honored. Because each group’s best solution in the educational example above will often not be a best solution for the others, the task is to keep members looking at the issues from all viewpoints to look for good, rather than “perfect,” solutions for each. When and if everyone can see a good solution, then the dilemma has been resolved. Such a process serves to keep each group committed to the final product and willing to work for it.
Social psychology emphasizes human social behavior and how that behavior influences us. Social psychologists apply scientific methodology to human behavior in an attempt to understand that it is influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other persons. Kurt Lewin’s field theory and Albert Bandura’s social learning theory are among the most influential social psychology theories in the field of education.
Lewin is considered to be the founder of the field of social psychology. He developed field theory on the perspective that both internal and external factors influenced behavior. He felt that internal, goal-directed forces came into conflict with external, restraining forces to influence individual behavior. Individuals’ “cognitive field” allowed them to interpret environmental events and determine courses of action. Lewin’s research has influenced the educational areas of management, organizational behavior, and group dynamics.
Bandura’s social learning theory incorporates the principles of behaviorism with those of social psychology. Bandura felt that while behavior was indeed influenced by antecedents and consequences, it also was influenced (primarily) by observing the relationship between behavior and consequences in others. He stated that the relationship between reinforcement and antecedents was mediated by internal structures and that most reinforcement was naturalistic (naturally existing in the environment) and vicarious in nature. Special education practices such as attending to a student producing desirable behaviors (e.g., in seat, on task) while ignoring those producing less desirable behaviors are rooted in Bandura’s research. The importance of positive role models, mentoring, field-based practica, and shadowing programs in schools and schooling also find support in Bandura’s work.
Cognitive psychology is an area of psychology that emphasizes internal cognitive processes such as language, problem solving, and memory. It first emerged in the 1950s and became formalized during the 1970s. Cognitive psychology includes the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience, which focuses on the molecular and chemical basis of cognition and consciousness and metacognitive approaches to problem solving.
While cognitive psychology developed from and was influenced by a wide variety of theoretical perspectives, the individual primarily responsible for the initial influences of cognitive psychology on education was Donald Hebb. Hebb developed the notion of synaptic firing as the basis for learning and memory. In essence, repeated firing of a synapse during a learning activity strengthened the neurons and caused metabolic changes at the synapse, which increased its future efficiency. When groups of these neurons became associated or consolidated into a cell assembly during learning, memory was strengthened. Many groups of neurons can become so interconnected that once a behavior begins, it persists long after the original stimulus has disappeared. This “consolidation theory” is currently the most widely accepted explanation of neural learning. Hebb also suggested that the connections of neurons into phase cycles or phase sequences in complex ways was the basis for thinking and reasoning. This theory influenced and continues to influence the field of education in the drill, repetition, and guided practice methodologies in classroom instruction. The additional practice provided by homework also has support in Hebb’s theory.
The work of cognitive psychologist David Ausubel has also had a significant impact on the field of education. Ausubel felt that the most important factor that influenced individuals’ learning was what they already knew. In essence, he felt that individuals built links between old knowledge and new knowledge to construct meaningful knowledge. The concept that individuals perceive patterns in objects, information, and events based on previous experience is the foundation of Ausubel’s position. For Ausubel, learning was an interactive process in which prior knowledge, personal experience, previous instruction, sensory awareness, and direct observation play a critical role. A major problem in learning and instruction, according to Ausubel, was the presence of misconceptions on the part of the student that resulted in “buggy algorithms” or flawed procedures in relation to thinking and application. Ausubel’s work (along with that of Piaget) forms the foundation of constructivist philosophy and practice in our schools.
A final area of cognitive psychology that has been important to the field of education is that of metacognitive research. The leading individuals in this area are Ann Brown, Judith Flavel, Gordon Alley, and Don Deshler. These individuals have focused their work on how we organize information, know when, what, and how to remember, and monitor our cognitive activity. In essence, their research has involved understanding the deliberate conscious control of our individual cognitive actions. Flavel and Brown conducted much of the initial basic research in metacognition, seeking to build a theoretical and philosophical basis for the phenomenon. Alley and Deshler built on the work of Brown and Flavel to develop the learning strategies approach to instruction and provide teachers with the instructional means to help students understand and apply content flexibly in a variety of situations. This area of cognitive psychology is currently impacting the education of students with learning disabilities and students at risk for academic failure in significant ways.
Psychometry and psychological testing are those areas of psychology, aptitude, ability, and the probability that a given individual can benefit from a specific curriculum, program, or placement. The measurement of intelligence, academic achievement, specific abilities, and attitudes is of prime importance. Given this fact, psychometry and psychological testing have a direct impact on both social and educational policy. Important individuals in the field of psychometry and psychological testing include Alfred Binet, Louis Terman, Louis Thurstone, Robert Thorndike, David Wechsler, Jerome Sattler, Raymond Cattell, Charles Spearman, and Alfred Jensen.
Psychological testing and psychometry involve the development, refinement, and validation of instruments to measure human attributes, achievement, and abilities. In its purest sense, this area of psychology is focused on determining the soundness of assessment instruments. At the heart of psychometry and psychological testing is the notion that all measurement is imperfect. That is, all test scores contain some degree of error, whether systematic, nonsystematic, or both. This error compromises the integrity of scores and reduces the precision with which absolute or relative judgments concerning the scores can be rendered. In essence, the primary goal of psychologists operating in this field is to minimize error so that more accurate judgments can be made. Improving the internal consistency of instruments (reliability) and the soundness of the instruments’ procedures/items (validity) allows for greater relevance, predictive accuracy, precision of measurement, and degree of response element interface.
Accurate measurement of academic progress has become the holy grail of public education. Both state and federal government agencies have focused a significant amount of attention and resources on student progress and the accurate measurement thereof. In addition, the use of such measurement has been extended beyond the realm of student progress into the efficacy of teaching, administration/leadership, and school district culture.
While academic achievement has been a major feature of psychological testing and psychometry, the most controversial feature has been the measurement of intelligence. This is due to the social implications of intelligence and intelligence testing to policy, cultural, and racial issues. Concepts such as general intelligence, fluid and crystalline intelligence, and multiple intelligences have all been proposed to explain and delineate the variation in human intellectual abilities. Furthermore, the ongoing nature/nurture debate among psychologists and its relationship to the genetic (and racial) basis of intelligence has impacted psychometry and psychological testing in relation to schools and schooling.
The various areas and disciplines of psychology have provided a plethora of philosophies, policies, procedures, and practices to those involved in educational settings.
Virtually all aspects of the field of education have been affected by psychology and psychological research. The study of the physical, affective, and cognitive aspects of our behavior will continue to have direct application to continued work in the schools.