IMPORTANT TOPICS IN EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY TODAY
One of the ways educational psychology has maintained its strength and vitality is by addressing problems that have broad national implications for teachers, schools, and education in general. At this point there are several topics involving schools and teaching that we'd like you to think about. These topics include constructivism, student diversity, and out-of-school influences on students' learning. These three topics may demand your input, not only as a classroom teacher concerned with local matters, but also as a professional educator or budding researcher concerned with the quality of teaching in our schools. Consequently, these topics are examined in several chapters in this book.
A quiet, yet dynamic change in both instructional theory and practice has been emerging in many classrooms of America, a change called constructivism. Simply put, constructivism means that students construct their own understanding of the world. We're not talking about some simple change in a teaching technique but, rather, the way we think about knowledge acquisition and the assessment of that knowledge (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). Think about it for a moment. If students construct their own understanding, what does this imply for the teacher's role? One immediate conclusion is that anyone who thinks "teaching is telling" is sadly mistaken. Shuell (1996, p. 743) has neatly summarized the meaning of constructivism:
The two key words here are active and meaning. Learners don't just sit there and copy what's put on the board or told to them. They take their own knowledge-that enormous reservoir of personal experiences they have accumulated in their lives-and interpret this new material according to what's in their reservoir.
Have you ever wondered why, when you're in a class with many others like you, and you're all subjected to the same lesson, lecture, or reading material, your answers to the same questions can differ greatly? Let's admit at the start that differences in attitude, motivation, and attention are all at work, but a major reason for the differences lies in the way that you, with your special knowledge, interpreted the material. You took in the material through your personal filter of experiences and constructed your understanding of it in light of your exclusive network of knowledge. You stamped your own meaning on the material.
As you can imagine, different interpretations of constructivism have arisen. The basic distinction to keep in mind is between those who believe that the individual alone-each student-constructs meaning (often referred to as individual or psychological constructivism). Others argue that individuals in a social situation-each student in the class, influenced by peers, home, and so on-construct meaning (often referred to as social constructivism). These distinctions are spelled out in detail in Chapter 2 when we analyze the works of two of the greatest psychologists of the twentieth century, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky (Cobb & Yackel, 1996).
To enhance your understanding of constructivism, let's examine two classes who are studying the opening of the American West. One teacher has the class read the chapter that includes the Battle of Big Horn. The teacher then summarizes the chapter and indicates the important points to be remembered. He then gives them time to write an essay about the battle, telling them to "get their facts straight." Finally, he tells his students that they will be tested tomorrow.
The second teacher has also prepared carefully and decided that this era in our history is too exciting to be restricted to text reading. She comes to class and poses a problem for her students. "I want you to assume that Custer, although critically wounded, survives the battle. He then has to stand trial for his leadership and the decisions he made leading up to and during the battle." The students are told to use all the sources they want, and to discuss the feeling of the country and the political climate of the times.
We trust you can see how the teacher who understands that students construct their own meanings will adopt different techniques in the classroom. Teachers who follow a constructivist pathway often do the following:
More about constructivistic approaches to instruction and learning will be discussed later, but let's now turn to the issue of student diversity.
Student Diversity in the Classroom
Another topic that more and more educational psychologists are addressing in their research and practice is the diversity of students in schools today. Psychologists, for more than a century, have been interested in individual differences, but today more attention is being given to how schools can accommodate differences in ability, race, ethnicity, regional origin, family makeup, gender, and sexual orientation so that all students have opportunities to learn.
Developmental contextualism, popularized by Richard Lerner (1991), provides a rationale for recognizing and capitalizing on the richness and diversity of students' backgrounds. It also incorporates recent research relating to cultural constructivism, which means that students use the particular environment around them to construct their own worldview. Developmental contextualism attempts to analyze and understand development in the light of the multiple levels of interactions between individuals and their environments. That is, all students' characteristics, psychological as well as biological, interact with the environment (the context in this theory). Context is an inclusive term that attempts to portray the complexity of students' backgrounds by identifying four major forces of development:
These forces are illustrated in Figure 1.2.
Consequently, the crucial element in learning and development is the changing relationship between the complexity students bring to the classroom and a multilayered context (school, home, peers, etc.). If you think about this deceptively simple statement, you can appreciate the need to study teaching, learning, and development from many different perspectives. For example, consider what's going on with students. The genes provide a blueprint that is passed on to the cells, tissues, and organs of the body, influencing the growth of such widely divergent growth features as brain development and temperament, to name only two. On the other hand, the intricate and involved layers of the context, ranging from family to peers to schools and to the wider social sphere, simultaneously weave their networks of influence. Simple explanations? Hardly. What is needed is a perspective equally as intricate as the behavior it attempts to clarify. As Lerner (1991, p. 31) noted:
The revised understanding of what constitutes the basic process of human development brings to the fore the cutting-edge importance of continued empirical focus on individual differences, on contextual variations, and on changing person-context relations. Nothing short of these emphases can be regarded as involving scientifically adequate developmental analysis of human life.
A natural outgrowth of developmental contextualism is the concern that educational psychologists have expressed about out-of-school influences that act decisively on students' learning. Educational psychologists have traditionally focused on those forces that are directly related to the classroom and school (instructional techniques, time-on-task, etc.), but now the time has come to adopt a broader perspective. Understanding the wellsprings of students' achievement demands that we know more about their lives beyond the classroom. What do we know about their families, their peers, their socioeconomic circumstances, and their cultural setting? It's becoming increasingly clear that all of these influences can play a significant role in motivating students to study and achieve in school.
In a recent survey of nine high schools involving about 20,000 students, Steinberg (1996) concluded that school is only one influence that affects what students learn and how well they do on tests of that learning. For example, the existence of differences in ethnic groups was the most important finding: Asian students outperform whites, blacks, and Latinos. Initially thinking that Asian students might believe that academic success correlated closely with out-of-school success, that is, there is a "payoff" for academic success, Steinberg was surprised this wasn't the case. All students believed that doing well in school would have a payoff. The students actually differed, however, in their belief that failing in school would have negative consequences. The Asian students clearly felt that poor academic performance would definitely and negatively affect their future. Non-Asian students didn't share this belief, with black and Latino students not really believing that doing poorly in school would hurt their chances for future success.
Another of the findings related to the students' home: Parents exert a profound and lasting effect on their children's achievement in school by three things they do:
Quite obviously, not all students will be fortunate enough to have cooperative parents, and you'll work with students from different types of families. Families change, and as they do, they exercise different effects on a child's development-some significant, others not so (Scarr, 1992). For example, children who remain in an intact family, or who experience the death of a parent, or who go through a parental divorce-even though the experiences are quite different-all undergo changes that must affect development. You can see the need to carefully consider the out-of-school influences of students to better understand their classroom behavior.