psychology as a school subject - what are the benefits?
This week the annual Scottish Learning Festival took place in Glasgow, and together with five fellow educators I gave a presentation on the value of psychology to younger learners. Together, my co-presenters and I represented the University of Strathclyde, four local authorities, and Education Scotland.
I’ll share a summary of our talk in due course, but in the meantime, here are some basic reasons why I think that all schools can and should offer psychology to their pupils – at any age!
1) The study of Psychology is a basic part of understanding reality.
Why would we teach learners about the external world – history, geography, chemistry, and so forth – but never teach them about what is happening in their own minds, or those of others?
2) Psychology is interesting and motivating.
It’s not an easy option by any means, but tends to be very popular when available. Accordingly, pupils tend to be motivated and behaviour tends to be good in psychology classes (I say this anecdotally, I admit, but on the basis of my observations in many schools across Scotland).
3) The absence of psychology is largely a historical accident.
Why exactly is psychology missing from the core school curriculum in most countries? This may relate to the fact that schooling was set up before the subject had been fully established as a separate discipline at university level. If schooling was being designed from scratch today, it’s very likely that psychology – among the top 5 most studied subjects at HE level – would be included.
4) Psychological content is already taught throughout schools.
Are there any schools that don’t already teach learners about addiction, about relationships, about learning, about peer pressure…? Such content is psychological, but tends not to be branded as psychology. One consequence is that these matters are all too often taught without a solid evidence base and by teachers who don’t have a background in psychology or even an interest, increasing the chance of myths and misconceptions being shared as if they were facts. By analogy, imagine if maths were taught not by maths teachers but during form time by non-specialists! We can do better for our learners.
5) Psychology can help pupils to understand themselves and others.
Pupils go through a lot of changes as they age, both in terms of their own minds and emotions and their relationships with others. An understanding of psychology equips them to manage some of these difficult developmental transitions, and also highlights that the stress and uncertainty that they may experience are normal and transitory. By teaching them about their own minds and those of others, it develops psychological literacy.
6) Psychology helps to build scientific literacy.
Psychology also teaches the scientific method: how reliable evidence is gathered through the manipulation and measurement of variables while keeping other factors constant. Perhaps surprisingly, psychology textbooks contain more content related to scientific literacy than do textbooks in other science subjects (and psychology learners score better in tests of scientific literacy, too).
7) Psychology helps to build independent research skills.
While this factor is not unique to the subject, psychology is an excellent vehicle for building independent research skills. Learners on most psychology courses engage in the process of designing, carrying out and writing up an independent research project on human participants – for example, simple memory experiments or surveys of sleep habits. When speaking to former pupils who have gone on to study subjects such as medicine, many have told me how useful this experience was to them as preparation for university. In addition, due to the fact that most research throughout the discipline involves people or animals, psychology can also develop an understanding of research ethics.
8) Psychology COMBINES literacy, numeracy and health & wellbeing.
Psychology is almost unique in its ability to combine literacy, numeracy and health & wellbeing – three core areas of the curriculum here in Scotland, and surely central to curricula in many other countries, too. For example, in their research projects, learners will carry out statistics (numeracy) and write a report (literacy) based on an issue such as stress or prejudice (health & wellbeing).
9) Psychology lends itself to cross-curricular learning.
The subject is also excellent for cross-curricular learning. It really isn’t difficult to think of other subjects with which it combines well; psychology & business (the psychology of marketing or leadership), psychology & politics (behaviour, choice and attitudes), psychology & biology (hormones, neuroscience), psychology & religion…the list goes on! This makes it ideal for projects at any age.
10) Schools can benefit from having a psychology teacher on the staff.
Finally, a psychology teacher can be a valuable resource to the school as a whole. Few among the staff will be better placed to give advice on areas such as study skills, PSHE, or the psychological wellbeing of pupils. Some psychology teachers will have specialisms in areas such as autism and dyslexia from their undergraduate studies or subsequent work. They are also well equipped to engage with evidence-based approaches to teaching, and to advise on biases associated with classroom observations. I’m not suggesting that they in any way replace qualified experts such as school counsellors or educational psychologists, but a psychology teacher can provide a valuable and informed voice within the staff as a whole.
Next, I want to share a few common questions and concerns about the subject and its implementation at school (pre-tertiary) level, together with my own responses to these.
Question: isn’t psychology BEST suited to adults?
See point 4 above; psychological content is already taught throughout school and at all ages. Treating it as a curriculum subject would simply add coherence and raise the standard. Yes it is widely taught at university and college, but just like any subject it can be delivered in a way that is appropriate to the age group. Children from infancy onwards are ready to talk about their thoughts and feelings and to discuss the behaviour of others. It’s just about making the specifics of the delivery and content appropriate and accessible.
Question: isn’t psychology all common sense?
No! Psychology is a scientific subject. In psychology class pupils can argue different positions to a greater extent than in other sciences, but they have to be able to back up their ideas with evidence. In terms of methodology it leans heavily on experiments, and also makes extensive use of social science methods such as interviews. Overall, it is a very broad subject that ranges from cognitive neuroscience to health and developmental psychology. The idea that it is all about opinion or discussing subjective feelings is a myth!
Question: what if psychology university departments expect applicants to be beginners?
They shouldn’t, because such an expectation is highly unrealistic! For decades now, university intakes have included both beginners and those who have studied psychology at school. I have heard estimates that as many as 70% of a typical intake have studied the subject before in some form. Indeed, beginners may be at a significant disadvantage. Personally I think it is only a matter of time before psychology departments in universities start to expect their students to have covered the basics at school level – as is the case with all other mainstream subjects like Maths, Geography or Chemistry.
Question: what if studying psychology gives pupils misconceptions about mental health?
Lots of things could give pupils misconceptions about mental health, not least the unfiltered information that they are exposed to on the internet. Studying the scientific evidence base behind issues such as anxiety and depression is likely to improve their ability to spot flaws in such information; indeed, a key part of the subject involves developing the ability to evaluate and analyse evidence. Studying mental health issues in a psychology class with a trained teacher is likely to be a superior experience to hearing about it from someone who is not an expert, and will introduce them to accurate terminology while helping to tackle myths and stereotypes.
Question: as a school leader, how would I fill a psychology teacher’s timetable? I don’t have enough senior pupils.
As noted above, there is no absolute rule which says psychology can only be taught to senior pupils, and the subject can be delivered very successfully to younger age groups. Some schools in Scotland offer it right through from S1 (age approx 11-12) to S6. In addition, psychology teachers are very versatile, and the cross-curricular nature of the subject (see point 9 above) means that they often thrive if given the opportunity to explore links between psychology and other subjects with their pupils.
Question: wouldn’t psychology squeeze out other subjects if it got too popular?
This somewhat contradicts the concern in the previous question, but yet I hear both very commonly. While psychology is no doubt a popular subject, it combines well with many other disciplines, and can even enhance understanding and enjoyment of those other subjects. For example, psychology can lend a new perspective on human behaviour during the Second World War, or a useful practical context for a statistics course. And if pupils really want to study the subject and would benefit from doing so, should we deny it on the basis that it will affect numbers in other courses? By analogy, would we say that we shouldn’t teach science or English because too many people will take those subjects? If something is worth teaching, then it’s worth giving it a proper chance to grow to a healthy and sustainable level, rather than constraining it in some way. At some point, demand will level out.
Question: what is the best way to implement psychology in my school?
In my view, the best way to introduce psychology in a secondary school is by employing a trained psychology teacher, and offering it to pupils as a full stand-alone subject. This could perhaps initially focus on exam-based courses (e.g. GCSE/N5 and A-Level/Higher), with the subject later being extended to the earlier school years. An alternative would be to support an existing member of staff to add Psychology to their teaching qualification. However, this will come with limitations in terms of how many classes they will be able to teach alongside their other commitments. In a primary school, many teachers already have a psychology background, and the subject could be implemented into the mainstream curriculum (just like other areas of science or social science). Alternatively, it could be taught by specialist trained practitioners (as is often the case with subjects such as Music and Languages), perhaps using a model similar to the ‘Philosophy for Children’ approach.
I hope these points helped to clarify the value of Psychology as a school subject, and to dispel some misconceptions about it too! Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions for me. At some point in the future, I will write a post with a bit of guidance for people who are keen to get into psychology teaching.