Opinion

Educational Psychology: A Helping Hand for School Teachers

By Professor Imran Jalil

What are the qualities of a good teacher? It is generally thought that a good teacher is one who has command over his subject, explains well, and grades fairly. This definition is true but it does not show the complete picture. An essential quality without which no educator can be a good teacher is to be able to understand the students. This does not mean that he or she just has an idea of the intellectual level of the students. Rather, this also means that the teacher knows about the development of children’s personality, their emotional and psychological needs, their thinking patterns, their innate talents, and their strengths and weaknesses. The teacher should also know a range of methods and should be able to cater to the needs of a diverse student body. There can be two ways in which a teacher can try to know all of this. The first is to rely on one’s own thoughts, ideas and intuitions; the second is to study what has been discovered by the science dealing with this area: Educational Psychology.

Educational Psychology can be defined as the scientific study of human mind and behaviour within educational settings. In broad terms, Educational Psychology tries to find out how we learn best, what are the individual and environmental factors that promote or hinder learning, what are the characteristics of teachers and learners, and the ways in which learning can be assessed most effectively. In the following sections, some of the major areas of Educational Psychology are discussed.

Human Development

One of the core areas of Educational Psychology is the description and explanation of human development. The focus here is in four different domains of development, namely physical, cognitive (mental), social and emotional development of children of all ages. Development in each of these domains is linked with the development in other domains. For example, physical growth enables young children to walk and move around and handle objects. This allows them to get a greater experience of the world around them. This experience in turn paves the way for the growth of their mental capacities. Similarly, when children learn to speak, they can engage in a wide range of social interactions. This helps improve their social and emotional skills.

Educational Psychologists, in collaboration with developmental psychologists, describe the developmental changes that occur across the lifespan and try to explain the causes behind these changes. An important idea here is that of ‘maturation’. Do all these developmental changes come naturally with age, i.e. they naturally mature, or are there any environmental factors that play a role? Years of research in the field tells that even though many changes are because of maturation, environmental factors play a very crucial role. In any case, the fact that children, and adolescents and adults too, have different physical, social, emotional and cognitive capacities at different ages has implications for the school curriculum, the teaching methods, and the way teachers interact with and treat their students. A study of Educational Psychology helps in understanding both the development and its implications.

Intelligence and Individual Differences

What is intelligence? This has been one of the hot topics in the field of Psychology, and more so in Educational Psychology. There is no single definition of intelligence which is agreed upon by all psychologists. One of the basic definitions is that intelligence is the ability to learn from experience. An interesting debate in the study of intelligence is whether intelligence is a single capacity which moderates our performance in all domains of life, or is it a set of different capabilities. Some theorists have suggested that there is a general intelligence which governs our entire mental and intellectual capacities. Others believe that there are multiple intelligences for different types of tasks. For example, Howard Gardner believes that there are 8 different types of intelligences and a person can have each intelligence to a varying level. These intelligences include musical-rhythmic and harmonic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. According to Gardner, different people have different combinations of these intelligences developed to a higher level.

Understanding the nature of intelligence, measuring it in a valid an efficient way, and developing ways and to foster its growth is a major concern of Educational Psychologists. If teachers are aware of these aspects of intelligence, they can identify the students who are gifted and those who need some extra attention, and can indeed facilitate the nurturing of the intellectual lives of their students.

Learning and Memory

Learning is a very common word with which everyone is familiar. However, within Psychology it is defined as a change in behaviour or understanding which is relatively permanent. Psychologists have discovered different ways in which human beings learn and unlearn different behaviours. For example, one of the learning principles is called operant learning. This principle tells that different behaviours are learned through their consequences. Let’s say a student completes her homework on time and her teacher gives her an extra point for that. The operant learning principle will now say that since this behaviour – doing homework on time – was followed by positive consequences – extra point – the student will be more likely to do the homework on time again. Thus, through the reward, the students has learned a positive behaviour. The above case was an example of behavioral or associationist learning. A different kind of learning is conceptual learning which involves a change in understanding. An example of conceptual learning is when children come to understand that even though the whales live in water, they are not fish but are mammals. Regardless of the type, there are a number of factors that affect learning, and an understanding of these factors is crucial for all teachers. Armed with this understanding, they can help their students develop good behaviours and make learning easier for them.

A concept closely linked to learning is memory. Memory was traditionally thought to be like a mental cupboard in which we store information and retrieve it from there when we need. However, more and more research within different domains of Psychology came to suggest that memory is best conceived as a process of storing, rehearsing, and recalling information. A number of models have been proposed to explain memory. According to one model, there are three different types of memories: sensory register, short term memory and long term memory. The span and capacity of each of these memories is different, ranging from a few seconds to indefinable times. Memory research has informed Educational Psychologists that whether or not we remember something depends upon the way we encode it, or store in our brain, as well as the nature of the information that we are trying to store. Basing on this, numerous techniques were discovered and developed which assist students in remembering material. Knowledge of these techniques, and of memory in general, can be a handy tool for teachers in improving the academic performance of their students.

Motivation

What are the factors that motivate students? What happens when they are faced with difficulties? When do they enjoy learning? The study of motivation within Educational Psychology answers all these key questions. By definition, motivation is the force that makes us do anything. Without motivation, all human capabilities are like an engine without fuel. Thus, motivation holds an indispensable place in Educational Psychology. However, motivation is a complex phenomenon and there are many difficulties associated with. One of them is that there is no universal formula for motivation. All human beings are unique creatures, with different natures, temperaments and interests. What is motivating for one individual may not necessarily be motivating for other individuals. Moreover, the same individual might be motivated from one thing at one point in his life, but that thing can possibly lose all its motivating power and some other point in his life. Furthermore, sustaining motivation is not always easy and with changing circumstances, the level of motivation can change drastically.

Despite these difficulties, psychologists have been able to identify some motivational principles which are applicable to large number of people. Within the context of schools, one such principle, or perhaps technique, is praise.

Research tells that when students are praised for their efforts, which could be as small as answering a question in class discussion, they tend to get encouraged to work harder and do continuously better.

Goal formation is another motivational principle which can boost the performance of students. Thus, an awareness of the principles of motivation can help teachers in motivating their students to work harder and overcome barriers and difficulties in their education.

Conclusion

In the above few paragraphs, some basic areas of Educational Psychology were discussed. Each of these areas are so vast that it can be said to constitute a sub-field within Educational Psychology. Besides, there are other areas, such as classroom management, teaching methods, and assessment and evaluation, which could not be discussed in this brief introduction. On the whole, Educational Psychology has a great potential to revolutionize schooling and improve the quality of teaching and learning across all educational levels. The more educationally advanced countries which have delved into Educational Psychology and implemented that principles learned therein have reaped the benefits of their efforts; it’s time that we in Pakistan did that too. A hopeful beginning has been made, but there is still a long way to go. This would require not only state efforts, but also efforts at the individual level by teachers who can ultimately be the fountainhead of change in any society.

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