Feature: The Reality Behind Educational Psychology

By Harvinder Kaur Dharam Singh ((harvinder@oum.edu.my)

Educational psychology concerns itself with psychological theories which may be used to inform effective educational practices. Educational psychologists are interested in learning about how humans learn. Various psychological theories abound in educational psychology, among which are behaviourism and cognitivism.

Behaviourism focuses on how behaviour is learned and conditioned. For example, classical conditioning owes a large debt to Ivan Pavlov’s classic experiment with dogs, suggesting that humans learn through conditioning or changes in behaviour. Behaviourist theories, however, could not explain how certain behaviours are reinforced.

This is where cognitivism comes in. Cognitivism investigates the mind and the processes of thinking. It is a theory of learning that explains how organisms come to know or learn something. Cognitivism proposes that in every domain of human learning, thinking plays an integral part in the processing of information. For example, Piaget proposed four sequential stages of cognitive development which children have to go through:

  1. sensorimotor period,
  2. preoperational period,
  3. concrete operational stage and
  4. formal operational stage.

Their level of thinking becomes more and more sophisticated as they pass through each successive stage.

Educational psychology is useful insofar as it enables educationists to build sound educational models. One example of the application of educational psychology is in the field of instructional design. In order to design user-friendly learning materials, instructional designers rely on learning models like Bloom’s taxonomy, among others. Bloom’s taxonomy includes six successive levels of cognition arranged in a hierarchy:

  1. knowledge,
  2. comprehension,
  3. application,
  4. analysis,
  5. synthesis and
  6. evaluation.

The learning material is stratified according to ever increasing levels of difficulty. This way, learners will be gradually exposed to learning tasks in order of difficulty, thus building their confidence and motivation to learn.

Educational psychology certainly has a lot to offer to learners and educators alike. However, educationists are not always cognizant of the fact that individuals learn differently. What if certain individuals fail to demonstrate cognitive competence according to certain psychological models that have been developed? Do we then assume that there is something wrong with that learner? Or is it possible that the models available to us are inadequate to measure the myriad diversity of human potential?

Thinking is a complex activity and no one method of teaching will be sufficient to cater for all types of people. While educational psychology provides but one way of understanding what it means to think, it is by no means the only way. Our models represent the way we look at reality rather than the reality itself. Educational models appear very orderly and structured, but life is rarely that neat and tidy. Artists, for instance, may have no need for theoretical models to represent their vision of reality. Out of the chaos of existence, they bring form and order through the use of words, images, colours, shapes and sounds. The act of artistic creation also requires thinking, but perhaps a kind of thinking which is wilder than the clinical models suggested by educational psychologists. While educational psychology certainly has its merits, it is perhaps unwise to presume that all thinking can be described and contained by its theoretical constructs.

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Encouraging them to think independently by giving them short essay tests
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