Teacher of psychology, author, researcher.

Memory & Education Blog

A blog about education, psychology, and the links between the two.

Psychology in the Classroom - One Year Later


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Psychology in the Classroom: A Teacher's Guide to What Works came out around this time last year. Co-authored with Marc Smith and aimed at both new and experienced teachers, it’s a guide to how psychology research on areas such as memory, creativity and motivation can be applied to classroom practice.

Background to the book

In the run up to working on this book, I had become increasingly interested in applying cognitive psychology to education. Although I have a degree in Psychology and had been teaching the subject at school level since the early 2000s, I hadn’t initially applied it to my teaching practice. However, as time went on my reading had increasingly focused on areas of psychology that have a link to education, and found myself enjoying teaching these topics, too. Some of the areas that I developed a particular interest in include:

  • Memory

  • Intelligence

  • Stress

  • Metacognition

As time went on I focused particularly on long-term memory, and became very enthusiastic about the potential of techniques such as the spacing effect. I began to write blog posts and give talks about how teachers could be making use of memory-informed techniques to make learning more effective.

How the book got started

The book came about partly thanks to a third teacher, Mark Healy, who co-presented a keynote with me at the Association for the Teaching of Psychology in Scotland on the topic of applying research to teaching. He also presented with Marc Smith at ResearchEd Scotland in 2015. Realising that we had shared interests and compatible areas of expertise, we initially planned to write the book together, and all three of us are on the first draft of the publishing proposal. However, Mark Healy pulled out due to other commitments, and so Marc Smith and I progressed with the book ourselves. We submitted the proposal to Routledge alongside Marc’s proposal for ‘The Emotional Learner’, and both books were accepted (I’ll say more about the book proposal process another time!).

What the book is about

Although we are psychology teachers, this book is not aimed specifically at psychology teachers or students. Instead, its main purpose is to help any teacher apply psychology research to their classroom practice. As we put it in the introduction:

“Popular ideas about how people learn and behave – including some older scientific theories – can be scrutinised and compared to current research knowledge. Your own professional knowledge of learning and thinking can be developed and informed by this process.”

We feel very strongly that an understanding of how learners think, remember can help us to become more effective professionals. While good teaching can certainly happen without reading up on psychology, making good choices will be less of a haphazard process for those who engage with the evidence (perhaps helping to explain the common feeling of NQTs that they are floundering, unsure what they are supposed to do or why). Indeed, one important area of psychology research that we discuss in the book is that teacher and learner intuitions about ‘what works’ are often flawed.

However, this knowledge doesn’t override teacher professionalism. Again, to quote from our introduction to the book:

“This knowledge must be applied to a particular educational context by you, the teacher. A solid understanding of the mind is therefore a part of our professionalism, but only a part. Informing ourselves about psychological and educational research can be an empowering force, allowing us to make judgements confidently and in full knowledge of both the facts and the uncertainties highlighted by current psychological research.”

We were also determined from the outset that the book would be useful. There is far too much theory for the sake of it in education. Each chapter of the book includes the following:

  • Basic concepts about the topic

  • One or more theories

  • How to apply the concepts and theories to teaching

Practical applications of the psychological knowledge were therefore built into our structure from the outset. We explain how concepts such as the spacing effect and intrinsic motivation can inform teacher choices in specific situations such as planning, materials design, homework setting, and many more.

The writing process

How did we write the book? The chapter structure allowed us to simply divide the topics between us, with each of us being the lead writer for four out of the eight chapters. This actually worked out really well (I think), because my main interests and expertise focus on cognitive processes and Marc’s cover emotions, mindsets and so forth (although there is a lot of overlap in our interests, too). We thus divided up the chapters as follows:

  • Memory and understanding (JF)

  • Cognition (JF)

  • Self theories (MS)

  • Creativity (JF)

  • Emotions (MS)

  • Resilience, buoyancy and grit (MS)

  • Motivation (MS)

  • Independent learning (JF)

At the outset I would have expected the last chapter to be the toughest to write, but it was actually quite straightforward, drawing on research by the likes of Janet Metcalfe and Robert Bjork, and fitting well with my own experience of guiding older pupils who are working towards exams.

In fact it was the chapter on creativity that I found hardest. As I delved further into the research it became clear that this is an area where there is a lot of theoretical disagreement even on basic terminology, and where the practical strategies that many people find useful (e.g. brainstorming or incubation) don’t sit well with the evidence that creativity is highly domain specific. In short, there is something of a skills v’s knowledge dichotomy. I tried to strike a balance, noting the importance of domain-based knowledge if new ideas are to be creatively transferred from one context to another, but also recognising that creative skills and habits can be beneficial. The skills aspect could explain why you can have two learners with similar levels of knowledge, but one can be more creative (or more successfully creative) than the other.

Reception

I’ve been really delighted with the reception that the book has received. It was exciting to see it on the book stand at the ResearchEd national conference in London, and I’ve had a great many kind and supportive comments on Twitter. It’s been lovely to hear from readers around the world, from as far afield as Iran and Pakistan.

A review by the Chartered College of Teaching said of the book:

"It brings robust, relevant and recent research about psychology to life through the lens of experienced teachers and researchers of psychology by explaining clearly and showing how concepts can impact teaching in the classroom. I read this book to reinforce my understanding of how pupils learn, and to uncover further aspects of cognitive science that would assist my development as a teacher. This book delivered in both respects, and the clarity of the writing made it an enjoyable read. I can imagine teachers will be able to make use of the ideas contained readily." (Read more).

What next?

More writing and sharing ideas! Marc is working hard on a number of writing projects — you can see one of his recent articles for The Guardian here, and he has a regular column in the TES. His book The Emotional Learner has recently been translated into Spanish.

In the last year I have published a new revision guide for Scotland’s Higher Psychology, and also a short book for students (‘How to learn’) which draws on similar principles of memory and independent learning. I’ve also recently written another book for Routledge, ‘The Teacher's Guide to Research: Engaging with, Applying and Conducting Research in the Classroom’, out in June 2019, which explains how teachers can apply research in the classroom, and set up research projects of their own.

Both of us have also written A-Level Psychology content for the Seneca online revision platform.

Read more about the book on the Routledge website here.

Jonathan Firth