Papers by Nicky Hayes

Teaching and learning psychology

The Psychological Foundations of "Foundations of Psychology"

This article was originally published in the journal Social Science Teacher. It is reproduced here by permission of the editor - for which my thanks.

Further information about Social Science Teacher can be obtained from: The Editor, Social Science Teacher, P.O.Box 461, Sheffield, S2 2RH, U.K.

The article is rather lengthy, so I have divided it up according to the subheadings, as follows:

  • The importance of psychology
  • The value of a level psychology
  • A level textbooks
  • Can authors be objective?
  • Psychological theories in context
  • Phases of explanatory theory
  • The need for historical contexts
  • Critical evaluation
  • GCSE Psychology
  • Guidance for teachers
  • Conclusions

    This is the way back to the start of this page.

    What exactly are we trying to do when we are teaching A level psychology? I guess every A level teacher answers this one in their own way, and some of us may have very different goals than others. So I can't speak for everyone. But I do know - or I think I know - what it is that I personally am trying to do, both when I'm teaching the subject (although to be honest, I am more likely to be teaching teachers of the subject nowadays), and when I'm writing textbooks

    The importance of psychology The first thing, and the core of why I do what I do in the first place, is that I do believe that psychology has a great deal to offer people. We have ideas and concepts in psychology which are nothing like common sense - indeed, which directly challenge everyday myths and beliefs. The idea that memory is a constructive process, and not simply a factual recording of events, for example, or the fact that infant attachments don't simply depend on the amount of time or physical care which they experience are both psychological insights which run counter to "common-sense" mythology.

    Moreover, they are insights which can be directly useful to people in living out their everyday lives. By understanding just why stress can make us more irritable, or just how extreme obedience to authority can become, or the point at which we can reasonably expect a child to be able to understand that other people have their own thoughts and emotions our own every day lives become empowered. We are more able to interact with other people positively, we can predict how we are likely to respond under certain pressures and try to make sure that we don't over-react; and we can make appropriate demands and expectations on our children, rather than either assuming that they are too young to understand or attributing that they have all of the qualities of adult understanding.

    The value of a level psychology I personally, don't see the prime function of A level psychology as being to prepare students to study psychology at university. I see its prime function as being to enable those who have an interest in working with people to gain a reasonably thorough awareness of the discipline, in such a way that they can use that awareness to inform their future lives. That includes future psychology students, of course, but it also includes a large number of people who go on to other types of career, and who may choose to study other subjects at University.

    It is because I firmly believe that psychology has something powerful to offer everyday life that I have always worked to encourage its development. Those same reasons, I believe, underpin the massive growth of psychology as an A level subject during the fifteen years. And that, too, is why I write the books that I write (yes, of course the money will be nice if the book takes off, but it's taken eight years in the preparation, during which time I have been almost perpetually skint. Remaining in my comfortable full-time lecturing post would have left me much better off).

    A level textbooks So how does the book reflect that aim? Well, one way is that I try to present the ideas as clearly and coherently as I can. I have always felt that it ought, ideally, to be as easy to read a textbook as it is to read a novel. While that may be an overly idealistic goal, I have always tried to make sure that my books are easy to read. That doesn't mean that I compromise on content. I believe that the content is as sound as in any other book. But I do try to introduce both jargon and jargon-ridden concepts in a friendly kind of way, and to bear in mind all the time that my typical reader is likely to be a sixteen-year-old who may not read all that much.

    So each chapter of the book needs to tell a reasonably coherent story, and to make some sense of the material. To that end, I give a lot of thought to how I organise the material: for example, I don't teach about neuronal transmission on its own, I teach about it as a part of understanding how drugs affect us. I also try to locate psychological knowledge into the wider concerns of society. It's all very well discussing the results of a particular study, but we also need to know why that particular study was undertaken in the first place, and what its implications are.

    Can authors be objective? I also don't believe that there is such a thing as an entirely objective textbook, at least not in the human sciences. A book will always reflect the views and ideas of its author. Even if an author tries to keep their own opinions out of the way, they still have to select the material which is to be included, and to organise it in a particular way, and that inevitably reflects a socio-political orientation. Many psychology textbooks, for example, avoid any consideration of social context when they talk about psychological theory, and that is a socio-political orientation in itself.

    Given that, I prefer to be upfront about where I stand. To attempt to do otherwise, given that I do have fairly strong ideas and opinions, would be more of a compromise than I could make, and probably dishonest. But I don't expect everyone to share my views, and I have always tried to share my experiences of writing books with other people who may be interested in writing texts of their own. I believe in pluralism, not censorship or a single authoritative text.

    Psychological theories in context What else do I believe? Well, for one thing, I believe very strongly that psychological theory needs to be understood in its social context, and I do not believe that all psychological theories are of equal value. I have no time, for instance, for the racist theories of "human nature" which were so common between the wars, and so strongly perpetuated during the 1950s and 1960s, and I see no reason why I should treat them as if they were socially acceptable. (To be fair, though, that has been made much easier by the extremely shoddy methodology used by the perpetrators of those theories: a well-researched theory of that kind would give me a harder time. But in twenty-plus years of psychology, it isn't a situation which I have encountered.)

    I do have an affinity for theories which are about exploring the potential of human beings (Vygotsky, for instance), and for theories which can help us to integrate different levels of explanation. I'm dubious, for instance, as to the value of psychological theories which deny inequalities in society, assume that everyone has equal access to resources, or even shares the same culture. I prefer theories which can help us to understand both cultural diversity, and what it is to be human. But this is, at least partly, because I think it is these theories which are of most help to people in understanding their day to day lives. I count myself as lucky to be working in psychology at a time when there are more and more of these theories coming forward. Psychology now is a very different discipline than it was twenty years ago, and a much more positive one.

    Which brings me on to another point about what we are trying to do when we are teaching A level psychology, which I hope is reflected in "Foundations". I was working in a teacher training college when I first heard the saying "every teacher is a teacher of history". The speaker was talking about secondary school teachers, particularly, and this came at a time when, within the British Psychological Society, we were wrestling with the distinction between A level and degree-level psychology. It seemed to me, and still does, that this is exactly what the A level psychology syllabus is all about.

    Phases of explanatory theory During its history, psychology has been through many different phases: introspectionism, the behaviourist era, the psychometric phase, the cognitive revolution, and so on. While each of them has had their shortcomings - some perhaps more extremely than others - many have also left us with enduring insights. While few psychologists nowadays would accept operant conditioning as the be-all and end-all of human existence, most of us would be prepared to concede that there are times when it can be a useful way of understanding some aspects of human behaviour. It's the difference between reductionism and interactionism: operant conditioning isn't the only possible level of explanation, but it can be seen as one factor among many others.

    Teaching only state-of-the-art psychology loses many of these historical insights. Research moves on; people get grants for different type of work, or an area can be "mined out" in terms of the new insights that it can provide. There is very little cognitive research into active perception nowadays, for example, but it was thoroughly explored in the 1950s, and many of those insights are still valid today. Moreover, they can help us understand a number of everyday experiences. So it is entirely appropriate that an A level psychology syllabus should cover that material.

    In fact, it is not only legitimate, but useful, to think of the A level syllabus as a conceptual history of the discipline. Whether one could think of all A level syllabuses in that way is another matter, though I can see a case for it, particularly in the sciences and social sciences. But I can only speak for psychology, of course. Within psychology, I have been increasingly concerned about the number of introductory texts - mainly American - which deal only with the psychology of the past twenty years, with no attempt to teach what has gone before. I believe that this not only impoverishes the discipline, but also distorts it. If you only know about working memory and levels of processing, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that memory is an accurate recording of events, and the only matters of interest are how we go about storing it.

    The need for historical contexts Throughout "Foundations", therefore, I have tried to make sure that psychological knowledge and insights are set in their historical context, so that students can see how one idea led to another, or was what it was founded on, or why it came up at that particular time. Psychology is a continuously-evolving discipline, with both its methodology and its subject matter varying with time. A historical perspective of this kind also helps students to evaluate psychological research: awareness of weaknesses in certain kinds of psychological methodology emerged at different times, ethical concerns at other times, and the time-perspective can help students to make sense of these issues.

    Critical evaluation Which brings me on to the question of critical evaluation. Some have said that psychologists spend too much time on criticising one another's methodology, to the extent that nothing can every be proven. But I think it's no bad thing to encourage students to distinguish very clearly between evidence and proof. Concepts like triangulation can help: when several different types of studies all hint at the same kind of effect, we may consider the evidence convincing even though no one single study is proof.

    It's a cultural difference too, of course. The single biggest difference between the American and the British introductory psychology text is in the critical evaluation of psychological evidence, and it is for this reason that we need to have a good range of British psychological textbooks available for our courses. In this country, we like to train our students into an attitude of healthy scepticism, and I personally am all for it. When I was teaching A level regularly, the most special point in the whole year was a few weeks into the course, when the students would say "Did you see so-and-so on TV last night? That study didn't show what they were describing at all, did it?". To me, that was the time when I knew that I really was getting through.

    GCSE Psychology But that leads to another issue, which is the difference in levels between A level and GCSE psychology. Of course, there is simply more information at A level, but there is a difference, too, in the type of evaluation which we expect. At GCSE level, we encourage students mainly to evaluate their work in terms of whether a study is adequate evidence or not, although we do introduce them to theoretical evaluation, at least in terms of nature / nurture. At A level we expect them to be able to do that, but we also expect a higher level of evaluation. Students need to be able to perceive theoretical orientations, and to evaluate psychological knowledge on that basis as well. So "Foundations" takes a far more "top-down" approach than my GCSE texts, locating psychological research in its theoretical context wherever possible.

    Sometimes, too, there are evaluative issues which, although pertinent to the main text, may nonetheless be distinct from it. I have generally used the "boxes" in the chapters for this purposes. Although occasionally the material in the boxes is simply extraneous factual material which would have made the text too unwieldy, for the most part the boxes are used to express evaluative issues: biological fallacies of the nature-nurture debate; social representations and ideology; whether it will ever be possible to understand another species, etc. While they won't be to everyone's taste, they should, at the very least, give students some food for thought.

    Guidance for teachers That, then, is some of the thinking underlying "Foundations of Psychology". With the Instructor's manual, we have tried to do a little more. The manual contains some of the other information which we thought might be helpful for teachers. Possibly the most useful thing of all is hidden at the back, in the form of a guide for marking essays. Since both of us began our teaching careers with very little idea about this, despite having undergone teaching qualifications, we thought it might be useful to try to distil out some of our experience. In particular, we wanted to distinguish between marks allocated for essay structure, marks allocated for knowledge of content, and marks allocated for evaluation. The marks are out of 25, so for a percentage marking it simply needs to be quadrupled. Be warned, though: using criterion-based assessment of this kind does make it much more likely that you will use the full range of marks, so if you are of the persuasion that only marks between 45% and 68% are "proper" ones, this is not for you.

    The set of objective questions can be used in several ways. They can be used as an interim test, as an end-of-year exam, or as revision questions. But their main purpose is to demonstrate something of the value of having explicit learning objectives. Each of the questions in the set has been generated from a specific learning objective, so the ideal would be to provide the students with the learning objectives (rather than the questions) to guide their revision, and then to use the questions for their test.

    Eventually, we hope that we will be able to generate a computer-based assessment system of this kind, which can use the learning objectives to generate a full set of exam or test questions. But in order to do that we need a few more sets of questions, so if anyone's interested in contributing to this project by writing a set of questions, contact Steve Berry, at Nelson ( We'd be very pleased to hear from you!

    The rest of the instructor's manual is very much as one might expect: a summary of the main issues in the chapter, some short-answer revision questions for each chapter, some essay questions, and of course a guide to further reading. There is also a set of OHPs to go along with it, and again eventually we hope to be able to produce an extended set. That, though, will have to cost something, whereas at present the instructors manual and OHP set comes free to anyone who adopts "Foundations" for teaching.

    Conclusions All this has felt a bit like an extended advert; but it's been a good opportunity for me to express the thinking which underlies the book. "Foundations" didn't come out of nowhere: it's been eight years since the contract was signed, and many more years in preparation if one includes mental preparation and learning. "Foundations of Psychology" is a distillation of many of my ideas about A level psychology, both in terms of teaching and syllabus content. In many areas, also, it goes beyond the syllabus, encompassing the newer areas or developments in psychology. It is my hope that this also reflects the syllabus-which-is-yet-to-come; and I have been able to do that largely because of the co-operation of many academic and professional psychologists, who have helped me to learn.

    Writing a book of this kind may involve years of being skint (it's very, very difficult to write and teach at the same time), but it has its compensations, not least of which is the way that it has allowed me to continue to learn about psychology. I have always been fascinated by the subject, and so to have the opportunity to be a perpetual student without feeling that this is taking time away from what I "ought" to be doing is a great treat. I'm already working on the second edition...

    Yes, I know it was pretty lengthy. But it was good to be able to put down some of the philosophy underlying what I do, so perhaps I can be excused for being a bit self-indulgent... Anyway, nobody said you had to read it all!

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