EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY: A DEFINITION AND KEY CONCEPTS
It seems too simple to say that educational psychology is the psychology of learning and teaching, and yet a majority of educational psychologists spend their time studying ways to describe and improve learning and teaching. After reviewing the historical literature in educational psychology, Glover and Ronning (1987, p. 14) suggested that educational psychology includes topics that span human development, individual differences, measurement, learning, and motivation and is both a data-driven and a theory-driven discipline. Thus, our definition of educational psychology is the application of psychology and psychological methods to the study of development, learning, motivation, instruction, assessment, and related issues that influence the interaction of teaching and learning. This definition is broad because the potential applications of educational psychology to the learning process are immense!
Today educational psychology is a vital discipline that is contributing to the education of teachers and learners. For example, Jerome Bruner, an enduring figure in educational psychology, recently noted the need to rethink our ideas of development, teaching, and learning and the interactions among them. Specifically, Bruner (1996) urged educators and psychologists to see children as thinkers, and stated:
No less than the adult, the child is thought of as holding more or less coherent "theories" not only about the world but about her own mind and how it works. These naive theories are brought into congruence with those of parents and teachers not through imitation, not through didactic instruction, but by discourse, collaboration, and negotiation . . . . This model of education is more concerned with interpretation and understanding than with the achievement of factual knowledge or skilled performance. (1996, p. 57)
These words reflect many of the goals of this book: Think of educational psychology as a vital tool that can be of immeasurable help in planning, delivering, and evaluating teaching. To illustrate how the science of educational psychology can help teachers, we'd like to identify some key concepts and their relationship to instruction and learning. Much more will be said about each of these concepts as you work your way through this book.
Understanding the Meaning of Teaching
The first key concept is the need to understand what it means to teach. We hope that as a result of reading this chapter and others, such as Chapter 10, you will have a better grasp of "life in the classroom." You must, however, have a basis from which to make decisions about teaching.
Knowledge of Students
The second core concept is the belief that to teach skillfully, you must have as much knowledge about students as possible: their needs, characteristics, and differences. Section 1 of this book introduces you to the developmental lives of children. Chapter 2 is devoted to tracing the cognitive and language development of children, while Chapter 3 focuses on their psychosocial and moral development. Reflecting the diversity in our classrooms, Chapter 4 examines the impact of culture, class, and gender on teaching and learning.
If you become a regular classroom teacher, you will come into contact with one or more students who are exceptional. There are many different types of exceptional students, including the gifted and talented, as well as students experiencing sensory handicaps, communication disorders, physical and health impairments, behavior disorders, learning disabilities, and mental retardation. Chapter 5 provides valuable information about the typical characteristics of students who are exceptional.
Understanding the Learning Process
A priority in educational psychology is understanding the learning process, that is; the procedures and strategies that students use to acquire new information. Chapter 6 focuses on behavioral explanations of learning and provides numerous examples of how this theoretical explanation of learning can be translated into classroom practice. Chapters 7 and 8 turn to more cognitive analyses of learning, mirroring current concerns with "teaching for understanding." These chapters have been written to help you turn students into better thinkers and problem solvers by presenting many techniques and "tips" that have proven helpful. Motivation, the subject of Chapter 9, is so essential that we can safely state that without it, learning will not occur.
Understanding Instructional Strategies
A fourth key concept is the function of instruction, beginning with the objectives that teachers wish to attain. Chapters 10 and 11 concentrate on those instructional strategies that research has shown to be effective. Learning, however, does not occur in a vacuum. You must understand the best circumstances in which learning can occur. Consequently, these chapters present in some detail successful strategies for managing a classroom, focusing on those techniques shown by both theory and research to be effective.
Understanding Assessment Strategies
Educational psychologists have been instrumental in providing techniques that teachers can use to determine how successful students have been in attaining new knowledge and skills. Today, perhaps more than ever, assessing students' knowledge and skills is a central issue in schools. From a teacher's perspective, two of the most relevant purposes of assessment are (a) to identify students who need educational or psychological assistance, and (b) to provide information to teachers that will help them develop instructional programs to facilitate all students' functioning. Assessment involves the use of many tools and a basic knowledge of measurement. These topics are examined in detail in Chapters 12 and 13.