Inspire AS students with magical Miller

AS Psychology: Capacity of Short Term Memory

Miller’s Magic number 7 (plus or minus 2 of course) is one of the first research findings that many students come across in their study of AS Psychology (AQA Psychology A). Miller is described as a “pioneer of cognitive Psychology” by both the Los Angeles Times (published online August 5th 2012) and the New York Times (published online 1st August 2012) in articles dedicated to the well-known Psychologist.

Miller: revolutionary, pioneer, innovator

The articles mark the recent death of George Miller at the age of 92 (he died on 22 July 2012) and celebrate his achievements as a revolutionary Psychologist. Princeton University (he joined the faculty in 1979) pay their respects by describing him on their website as an “innovator”.

Although trained in Behaviourism, Miller boldly challenged it’s assumptions about the ability to investigate the human mind, a brave move considering that the idea that the brain was an information processor was unheard of and somewhat radical in the 1950’s.

The NY Times article provides an interesting glimpse into his other, lesser known, research interests including language. The LA Times article touches on Miller’s belief that his much quoted work was, presumably frustratingly, frequently misquoted.

In the Psychology classroom

Here are a few ideas for using these articles in the classroom.

Psychology as Science

The words frequently used in the articles to describe George Miller are words that reflect the progressive, innovative nature of knowledge gained through scientific enquiry (e.g. pioneer, innovator). You could use the article to ensure students are aware of the features of science and link these to Psychology as a scientific discipline at an early stage in their study.

Inspire students to dare to be brave and challenge the status quo

Miller, like many well-known scientists, was a pioneer because he dared to speak out and challenge the current way of thinking, even when it was unpopular because he had evidence to support his claims. Miller’s character could be used to model to students the importance of challenge in Science (and society) in order to make progress. Ask students if they think they would have the bravery and resilience to challenge dominant ideas if they were in Miller’s position or a similar situation.

Making sure students don’t miss the point

Students often underestimate the importance of Miller’s findings as they do not understand the context in which Miller was working at the time. Overreliance on one textbook (student and teacher) can mean that students miss the point in some areas of study. The idea we can only remember a small amount of information in STM seems obvious to AS students and I think they are often surprised that Miller’s ideas are heralded as any kind of breakthrough. The importance of the finding is the challenge it represented at the time and the idea that the human mind could be directly measured using experimental techniques which had not been recognised before. It wouldn’t have occurred to anyone prior to Miller to find out how many items we can remember, or think this was of interest, as such enquiries are within the remit of Cognitive Psychology. This background knowledge also helps to make AO2 commentary, regarding the pioneering nature of research, much more meaningful as it can be justified rather than thrown in as a token strength of the research into the capacity of STM.

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