Demystifying the Language of Bowlby (and other theories)

Vexing vocab = struggling students

Many theories in Psychology appear riddled with new and complex terminology for often very abstract concepts. This can be hard for many students to cope with, particularly if they have struggled to decode language throughout their education.

A prime example: Bowlby’s Theory

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (AQA) is a good example of a theory with what seems like many brand new complex terms. Teaching students about Bowlby’s ideas without considering the origins of his terminology can leave students feeling that they are learning copious amounts of brand new language. They will struggle to apply this learning if they acquire it without full understanding.

I don’t think that there is much chance of A Level students retaining knowledge of Bowlby’s Theory, or theories like this, and using the terms in the appropriate context if they don’t consider why he chose the words he did to describe his concepts. Students can easily be under the impression that theorists simply make up words and terms to sound clever and make other people feel inadequate. A term that has no semantic associations in our memory is likely to be quickly forgotten.

Laying the foundations

foundationsWhen teaching Bowlby’s theory I start with an activity where I display a list of words associated with Bowlby’s proposals about how attachments develop. For example, the list includes: evolve, adaptive, innate, continuity, hypothesis, internal, model, mono, critical, sensitive and period. I ask students in small groups to identify words they are familiar with and those they are not. I also ask them to use the words in a sentence and to identify words with several meanings or uses. As a class we then unpick the words, considering what they mean and the ways they are used; this is to ensure students are all familiar with what will make up most of the key terms for the lesson.  I generally find that many are quite confident about doing this; however, there are always a significant number of students who are not at all confident with the use of many of these quite common words.

Reducing new learning, lightening the load and maximising memory

Understanding the meaning of the list of terms above makes Bowlby’s theory quite predictable and so much easier to understand and remember. I think that unpicking the origins of these words reduces the amount of genuinely brand new learning that students are exposed to. I have found retention of Bowlby’s theory to be much better since using this approach, in no small part because they had somewhere old to put their new learning (or however, you want to describe it or analogise) and the new learning didn’t actually feel so new.

Narrowing a gap

Students who were familiar with the terminology already are able to see why Bowlby chose to combine words and use terms such as continuity hypothesis, internal working model and critical period. The consequence of this is that they also understand it better now. Using literacy skills, such as being reminded that the prefix mono refers to one thing suddenly makes terms like monotropy make much more sense and in turn increases the chance it will be remembered.

The students who are learning theses terms for the first time in this lesson are also benefiting from this approach. These students have learnt these concepts twice, which in itself is a benefit, but they have also had the opportunity to fill in the blanks in their vocabulary and to have experienced the process of decoding language when it is not familiar. This is a vital skill for good literacy and making this skill explicit has a place in every lesson in every subject.

Beyond Bowlby

I think this type of starter is appropriate for many theories in Psychology and would work well to introduce the main approaches in Psychology too.

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