Psychological Foundations of Education

About 150 years ago, the medical community was seeped in non-scientific traditions. Doctors of the day were offended by the suggestion that they should wash between patients. How could anyone suggest that they were not clean; they were gentlemen and professionals. Even though Semmelweis had collected clear evidence that washing their hands between patients reduced the deaths of new mothers from around 10% to 2 – 3% in maternity hospitals, the medical community refused to accept anything that interfered with their established view of the world. Only after a great deal of work and effort on the part of reformers was medicine established on the basis of biological sciences. Even today, there are those who insist on carrying out medical procedures based on non-scientific traditions (e.g. homeopathy).

Hippocrates: a conventionalized image in a Rom...

In 1934, William Bagley said “If I were seriously ill and in desperate need of a physician, and if by some miracle I could secure either Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or a young doctor fresh from John Hopkins School of Medicine, with his equipment comprising the latest developments in the technologies and techniques of medicine, I should, of course, take the young doctor. On the other hand, if I were commissioned to find a teacher for a group of adolescent boys, and if by some miracle, I could secure Socrates or the latest Ph.D. from Teachers College, with his latest technologies and techniques of teaching,… I am fairly certain that I would jump at the chance to get Socrates.” I am afraid that I agree with Bagley, even with nearly 80 years of development in education since he said this. I believe that this is because education is not founded on scientific principles, but on traditions dating back centuries.

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

As I read the literature published by educational psychologists, I see great insights and solid ideas, however, I see them as things a teacher should consider within the practice that are already immersed in. I was speaking to a recognised educationalist recently, and when I brought up the work of an educational psychologist, she replied that this was a good idea if you bought into the philosophy of educational psychology. What philosophy might that be? One with a scientific basis?

From my observations, the present basis of education seems to be the training of clerics (or accountants) established centuries ago. Clerics were trained in a lockstep fashion in an tradition where mistakes could not be tolerated. This training has been expanded to include a number of topics, but the primary methodology has remained essentially the same. If Francis Bacon were brought into a university classroom today (or even a High School classroom), he might be astounded by the cool technology, but he certainly wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with the methods or philosophy behind the instruction.

I think it is time to completely rethink education. We need to consider everything that is done in education, and ask the critical questions about the practises. Why do we do _______? Where is the evidence that ________ works in learning? What does the psychological literature say about the optimal way to foster learning of ________? How can we restructure what we do to incorporate the most recent scientific knowledge about how we might learn ______?

All of these questions need to be asked about every aspect of education, and about every related aspect of psychology. Educationalists and psychologists have lived in their bunkers long enough – with the timid recommendations for consideration squeaking forth from the Ed Psych community. An entire rethinking of educational philosophy and practise needs to begin based on solid psychological foundations and built on solid scientific principles. The world has changed. It is time to stop tinkering around the edges and begin to look for real solutions.


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