Using pictures to prompt recall and check understanding
I was recently teaching a longer than usual session (2 hours) to a large group of students (36) out of normal school hours. The brief was to teach Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories of Cognitive Development (Paper 3 Issues and Options, AQA). As I was unfamiliar with the group, the layout for the room and the level of receptiveness of the audience, I decided to keep it simple and opted for an engaging and thought provoking talk with lots of questions posed for pondering. I also used lots of pictures (and a few props) to keep their attention.
It occurred to me that these pictures, originally intended to brighten up my Power Point and illustrate some concepts, have use way beyond this initial teaching session. I love any resources that get to be used more than once with the same learners, and so a set of carefully selected images (or the real thing) could just be gift that just keeps on giving!
Pictures and Props for Learning and Assessment
Pictures have an obvious benefit for first teaching of a topic. However clichéd the saying “a picture paints a thousand words” may be, it is true. I think the benefit goes beyond simply illustrating a concept though. Priming learners with relevant images can be an effective way to create a level of understanding of a concept or theory before it has been explained and avoid misconceptions. Activating familiar knowledge, prompted by the picture, may mean that connections are made to assist the storage of new knowledge and improve retention.
For example, a google image search for a baby looking confused provided the basis for introducing Piaget’s concept of equilibration. I asked students to consider the mental state of the baby and find a connection between and another image of some weighing scales. This led us nicely to exploring equilibrium and disequilibrium and the process of adaptation when new knowledge cannot be assimilated into old schemas. I also talked about Piaget’s proposal that teachers should create opportunities for disequilibrium in the classroom to promote cognitive development.
How can pictures be used for assessment?
Displaying the pictures, without words, and asking students to annotate or verbally explain the proposals of the theory is a simple way to check understanding. The traditional request for students to recall definitions of terms and concepts in notes in a predictable sequence might be an adequate test of memory but it is not a valid test of understanding and doesn’t promote elaboration.
The picture provides the initial retrieval cue but by asking students to explain the link between the concept and the picture the students must understand as well as recall, demonstrating the depth of their comprehension by elaborating. There is no reason why this type of assessment couldn’t replace a more traditional paper based test at the end of a topic as well as providing a useful starter of plenary. I think this sort of activity also provides more opportunity for creativity, which is likely to help to develop a student’s knowledge rather than simply rehearse it.
I used a Victorian painting of an apprentice learning his carpentry trade from an “expert”. This has the potential to prompt students to recall that this is more consistent with Vygotksy’s theory than Piaget’s and explain that it is a metaphor for Vygotsky’s view that the child is the little apprentice (as opposed to Piaget’s view that children are little scientists) learning the tools of thinking through social interaction.
Pictures and Props for Revision
Revisiting the pictures for revision closer to exam time makes a simple and effective way to review a topic without creating new resources or re-teaching a topic. You could even ask students to put together their own set of images tor represent the theories and concepts they have learned about in A Level Psychology. Some of the images are pure prompts such as a picture of a teddy to cue students to recall and explain why the naughty teddy studies posed a problem for Piaget while others have the potential to be more cryptic where they are representing an abstract concept or process so there is plenty of room for creativity and differentiation.
Most of the pictures came from Google image searches and I referenced the sites in my presentation. The pictures here were I set up and taken by me. Feel free to use them and have fun creating your own.
Levels of explanation
Reductionism can feel like a really hard concept to teach well. Initially students seem to grasp the idea that some approaches are limited by the focus of the explanation of human behaviour. The term reductionism then becomes a popular stick with which to beat the numerous theories and explanations in A Level Psychology. It is, however, important not to mistake their eagerness to use the term critically, for an accurate understanding of levels of explanation.
In the most recent formulation the AQA specification (see 4.3.1. Issues and Options) requires students to learn about…
“Holism and reductionism: levels of explanation in Psychology. Biological reductionism and environmental (stimulus-response) reductionism.”
Examiner feedback from the previous specification often highlighted that students were using the term reductionism incorrectly in their evaluative writing. At best students were rote learning a “reductionism point” that they were attempting to shoehorn into their responses to gain analysis marks with little or no real comprehension. Rote learning is usually a response to confusion and can act as a form of damage limitation. I think the confusion for learners seems to centre around mistaking a reductionist approach for one that offer theories and explanations that “lack detail” or are “very simple” or “don’t take into account all the other approaches”, rather than focussing on the level of the explanation and whether that level is appropriate.
Using appropriate language
So do we just accept the confusion or try to address it? I think we should do the latter by focussing on the words that are used around this concept.
The language we hear when we first learn about an idea will shape our understanding. Furthermore, the language we choose to add as we try to elaborate on what we have learned will continue to mould that mental representation. It makes sense then that if we, as teachers, allow our learners to use language which is incorrect, or if we ourselves use language without clarifying the precise meaning of the term we are using, it is very likely to lead to the concept becoming distorted in the mind of the learner.
So here’s where I think the problem might lie. Reductionism definitions often refer to the basic or simplest components of human behaviour. Psychology teachers and textbooks use the word basic very differently to students. The word basic to a student more often means simple/easy and has a value judgement attached to it of being not good enough. Mark schemes and other assessment criteria often use the term basic to describe work at a low level. When a student hears the word basic they associate this with lacking detail and being too simple (why wouldn’t they?). In this context, however, the learners prior understanding is misleading. As an adjective, one online dictionary defines basic as: “forming an essential foundation or starting point; fundamental”, offering synonyms such as rudimentary, primary, elementary and root. With this understanding of basic the misconception about a lack of detail seems much less likely to occur. This might also decrease the chance that students continue to automatically criticise a theory for being reductionist because they think it is missing something and appears too simple regardless of the approach it is based on (and, therefore, the level of explanation).
In the classroom
Talk about it
I think it’s worth having a conversation with learners in small groups about what reductionism means, taking the opportunity to pay attention to the language your learners use and giving them examples and/or carefully selected analogies to feed their understanding. Throughout the conversation keep listening and be ready to bring them back to the precise language of the concept (and ultimately the mark scheme). Try swapping words like simple with fundamental and detailed with low/high level and talk about what the word basic means in this context from the start. This will help students to grasp the following:
- that a genetic explanation, for example, is reductionist because it focusses on our basic, fundamental biological makeup, reducing human behaviour to it’s constituent parts;
- that it doesn’t mean that biological explanations offer simple explanations that lack detail;
- that offering a higher level of explanation by taking into account the socio-cultural influences on behaviour might be more appropriate for the given behaviour;
- that not all theories/explanations that ignore the influence of another approach are reductionist.
Analogies and visual stimuli can really help understanding. In the image below I have represented the idea of differing levels of explanation with 3 shelves (a low shelf, middle shelf and a high shelf). The biological components (the fundamental components) are on the lowest shelf and the socio-cultural influences (e.g. the family) are on the highest shelf. Students might like to consider what might go on the middle shelf and what else might be missing.
Another way to consider the concept is to imagine an alien sitting on a faraway planet with a massive inter-galactic telescope wondering why humans do the things they do. The highest level of explanation, using this analogy, is the first they will see. Taking into account the whole view, the alien sees people in social and cultural groups and notes how this is influencing human behaviour. If the alien then sharpens their focus and drills down a bit further into humanity they might focus on the individual and start to wonder about the psychological basis of human behaviour. If the alien drills down to a lower level still, they are now looking at humans under a microscope of sorts and examining their basic (fundamental) make up and the influence biology has on behaviour. Reducing behaviour to the simplest constituents parts often makes for a very testable explanation, but this may be at the expense of consideration of the socio-cultural influences on behaviour, so zooming out to a higher level might be more appropriate. This analogy would make for a much better image than the shelves! [I’m sure someone else has already suggested this sort of analogy before me so I’m not claiming I thought of this!].
Obviously any analogy can start to unravel the more you try to make it fit, but if it helps the student think about the concept more deeply then it has been a worthwhile exercise. If the analogy starts to unravel and the student has understood why it no longer works and can explain this to you, then the exercise has been a resounding success!
About 10 years ago, Chef and TV personality Jamie Oliver led a successful campaign to improve the quality and nutritional value of school dinners. The TV series aired in 2005 (“Jamie’s School Dinners”) played a significant part in changes being made to the policies surrounding the content of school lunches across the country. This campaign coincided in a timely manner with my early teaching of the concept of minority influence and social change (as featured in the now historical AS AQA spec A Social Influence topic) and I used Jamie for many years as a hook on which to hang the concepts of consistency, commitment and other factors that can lead to a change in the majority view point and behaviour. Over the years, however, students became less aware that school dinners had been anything but “healthy” and less familiar with Jamie Oliver, so the relevance of this real life example of minority influence declined. Imagine my delight then when Jamie jumped right back up on his high horse, this time about the amount of sugar we are eating, in his Channel 4 documentary “Jamie’s Sugar Rush” (airing at time of posting) which makes a perfect hook for the new specification (AQA).
The new specification
AQA’s new specification for AS and A Level Psychology includes the following in topic 4.1.1 Social Influence:
- Minority influence including reference to consistency, commitment and flexibility.
- The role of social influence processes in social change.
Some textbooks break social change into the influence of minorities and majorities separately. Jamie’s campaign at the moment fits the bill for the teaching of minority influence and as an example of social change through minority influence.
Jamie’s new campaign
The majority view point is that sugar is great, in fact a necessity, and we are eating the sweet stuff by the sticky bucket load every day, often without even realising it. Jamie’s aim is to fight obesity by helping us make better choices about our food and drink intake. The minority – Jamie and non-celebrity nutritional experts who have probably been saying this for years – would like us to see sugar for the baddy it is and reduce our intake dramatically. As this campaign is in its infancy it provides a perfect opportunity for students to imagine they are part of the campaign team and work out how to ensure they are as influential as possible. This could be done by providing students with historical examples such as the Suffragettes and Jamie’s first campaign (other examples are on the AQA scheme of work) and analyse how they were able to be influential. Students could then plan a campaign using these strategies and present to the class teacher – who might like to pretend to be Jamie Oliver if you like a bit of role play (I’m seeing sugar-free snacks playing a part in this lesson too!).
In – and outside – the classroom: flip it!
As part of the planning process students could analyse these campaigns and consider how successful they have really been. Attitudes towards women have changed dramatically as a result of many things including the Suffragettes but although school policies might have changed as a result of Jamie’s first campaign, it is not clear whether people’s attitudes to food have really shifted (follow this link to read an article published in the Guardian which suggests Jamie’s first campaign may not have been that successful after all).
This is the sort of activity that often traditionally might take the following – not very productive – pattern:
- Lesson on the research including Moscovici.
- Get students into groups and set homework to plan strategies for making Jamie’s new campaign successful. Work in groups for homework (1 person will probably do all the work!).
- Lesson for presentations.
- Another lesson for the presentations there wasn’t time for (or for those who were absent) and a plenary…
An alternative and more time productive approach would be to introduce a few concepts at the end of the previous lesson to introduce minority influence and social change and clarify any new terms, then set the reading about Moscovici’s research and social change for homework with clear guidance to bring notes to the lesson (you could provide headings to help students avoid copying and provide structure). In the next lesson on this topic (with an appropriate time allowance for the homework) ask students to work in their groups on how they can use what they have learned to help Jamie. Instead of spending a whole lesson on presentations ask each group to record a simple video or audio presentation (this can be done by adding narration to a Power Point presentation for example) of their campaign suggestions which can be handed in and watched/listened to by the teacher outside of the lesson. Choose a small selection of the videos/audios to analyse as a class and ask the groups questions about their strategies and ask them to justify their ideas, commenting on each other’s work. This turns a 4 lesson sequence of learning into a more productive 2 lesson sequence with lots of active reflection rather than passive presentation and will allow you as the teacher to ensure of the concepts students will have acquired from their reading have been revisited and their understanding of them assessed.
Now I’m off the have a cup of tea and a biscuit – sorry Jamie!
A new angle on Milgram
Although there is no shortage of resources available for the teaching of many of the so-called “classics” in Social Psychology, such as Milgram’s obedience studies, I thought it was still worth blogging about an article In August 2015’s The Psychologist magazine entitled “Rhetoric and Resistance”.
Stephen Gibson (Department of Psychology and Sport, York St John University) writes about the importance of qualitative data and qualitative analysis to really understand what Milgram’s research tells us about human behaviour. The article, published in the British Psychology Society’s member’s publication, has the potential to offer a familiar context for students to learn about qualitative research methods for A Level Psychology.
Experiments and qualitative research methods
It can be easy for students to get the impression that qualitative research methods are used by researchers who don’t like experimental methods and that researchers might somehow fall into two camps distinguished by those who favour “scientific” experiments and those who prefer the richness and flexibility of qualitative methods. Many experiments in Psychology aim to tell us what humans might do under particular conditions but qualitative methods are also often employed and are vital for telling us why participants might have behaved in a particular way. Both Asch and Milgram gathered extensive data from post-experimental interviews in order to try to find out why they did or did not conform or obey and the content of these interviews has given insight that numbers alone cannot provide.
Is it really obedience or something else…?
The author of the BPS article focusses on an often overlooked source of qualitative data collected by Milgram which has the potential to challenge assumptions made about what Milgram’s study revealed about human nature. In his classic obedience studies, where a participant is given an order to give electric shocks to confederate for making errors in a memory test, Milgram revealed high levels of “obedience” measured by a willingness to deliver a shock to the “learner” (the confederate) up to 450 volts. Stephen Gibson, however, suggests that the audio transcripts of the interactions between the participant and the experimenter issuing the order reveal a social process that may not actually be obedience at all. Gibson suggests that contrary to popular belief the audio reveals that the experimenter did not stick to the standardised “script” and appeared able to improvise in their interactions much more than reports of the study seem to suggest was the case. This might suggest that participants showed more resistance to the request to carry on and deliver the shock than the quantitative data might imply. The validity of Milgram’s research, therefore, may be in doubt if this source of data is taken into account.
The BPS article includes a section of the transcript of the audio from the experiment where a participant is asking for reassurance from the learner that they are ok and willing to continue. Although we might assume that the experimenter would have simply repeated that the participant must continue, the audio reveals a much more drawn out discussion involving some negotiation rather than standardised orders.
The author points out that it is the recording of this qualitative data that makes this scrutiny possible and makes the case that it is important to gather qualitative data and recordings of the interactions between participants and investigators in experiments, rather than focus solely on the outcome of the experiment.
In the A Level Psychology classroom
The article caught my eye because it offers an angle that could be useful for exploring concepts related to qualitative data analysis and the validity of the experiments such as Milgram’s (AQA AS Psychology – Social Influence 3.1.1: How well does Milgram’s research actually enable us to explain obedience?; 188.8.131.52 Data handling and analysis: the difference between quantitative and qualitative data; AQA A Level – 4.1.1 Social influence; 184.108.40.206 Data handling and analysis: content analysis, coding, thematic analysis).
The article ends with the following line: “If we attempt to analyse what happens in experiments without exploring the use of language, we risk missing the social processes that should be at the heart of the study of social Psychology”. I love quotes to stimulate discussion in lessons and I think this closing line from Stephen Gibson would make a great starter or plenary for a lesson on Milgram’s research which has the potential to either simply introduce the importance of qualitative research methods or as an extension for those who you are encouraging to take opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills.
The article includes extracts of the transcripts of the audio of the interaction between the participant and the confederate acting as the experimenter. If you are not eligible for membership with the BPS you can become an e-subscriber for a small annual fee and access the full article and much much more…
There are a few new (at time of posting) additions to the Psychopathology topic in the AS and A Level course for AQA but I thought I would blog about the return of the “statistical infrequency” definition of abnormality in the revised specification. This definition has a history of being in and out of the AQA spec and it is back, some might say rightly so, for September 2015.
Put simply the definition states that abnormal behaviour is statistically rare behaviour. Any behaviour that does not occur very often is regarded as abnormal and may indicate the presence of a mental disorder. So the focus is on the numbers of people showing the behaviour rather than the acceptability (Deviation from Social Norms) or the impact the behaviour has on day to day life (Failure to Function Adequately).
The AQA scheme of work suggests bringing in the normal distribution (from research methods) at this point, which makes sense. Most textbooks will include a normal distribution graph showing the symmetry of the distribution of IQ scores across the population. Obviously few people will have a very low IQ and few have a very high IQ and most of us are somewhere near the middle. This would suggest that having a very low IQ (or high for that matter) would be considered abnormal.
Showing understanding by using precise language
In my experience students often make the mistake of referring to frequency of behaviour when they are actually describing the deviation from social norms definition (DSN). For example, I have repeatedly encountered reference to a behaviour being abnormal because “most people don’t do it” in student answers, mixed in with reference to the acceptability of the behaviour. Although an unacceptable behaviour is also likely to be uncommon, this merging of concepts is dangerous territory for students as it can imply they don’t really understand the definition.
A useful activity to reduce the lack of clarity and emphasise the need for precise language involves displaying a set of behaviours and asking students to explain why each one in turn might be considered abnormal (or not) using each of the definitions. This could work as a sort of reverse Taboo game. For example, usually in the game taboo you would ban words that are relevant to the definition in order to ensure students can explain the concept rather than just rote learn some key terms. In this “reverse” version you could provide the name of the definition and a list of words related to the other definitions which must be avoided in order to be successful.
Students might find it useful to see sentences (e.g. those below) using precise language to ensure they understand the different angle each definition takes. Learners could then be asked to put these sentences in the context of the given behaviour.
|Statistical Infrequency||The behaviour could be considered abnormal because few people show this behaviour. As the behaviour is rare it may indicate the presence of a mental disorder.|
|Deviation from Social Norms||The behaviour could be considered abnormal because other people would find it unacceptable. As the behaviour goes against the implicit and explicit rules of society is may indicate the presence of a mental disorder.|
|Failure to Function Adequately||The behaviour could be considered abnormal because it impacts on the individual’s ability to carry out their day to day activities. This disruption to their daily functioning may be a change in their behaviour and may indicate the presence of a mental disorder.|
You could think of one for deviation from ideal mental health.
Evaluating statistical infrequency as a definition of abnormality
The specification no longer refers specifically to the “limitations” of the definitions so strengths and weaknesses should be considered in order to prepare for an “evaluate” or “discuss” question.
|The definition can provide an objective way, based on data, to define abnormality if an agreed cut-off point can be identified.||Some rare behaviours are desirable and don’t seem to indicate the presence of a mental disorder. Having a very high IQ, having a STM digit span of 20 or having exceptional musical ability are all rare but actually highly desirable rather than “disordered”.|
|The definition (unlike DSN) does not make judgements about the acceptability of behaviour. The behaviour is rare rather than wrong.||It can be difficult to know where the draw the line between behaviour that is frequent enough to be normal and rare enough to be abnormal. This makes the definition highly subjective. The definition also does not take into account the severity of the behaviour only whether it is common on not.|
|The definition is limited because some behaviours are rare in some cultures but not others. This suggests that caution needs to be taken when judging the behaviour of individuals from a different culture.|
Using real statistics
Ask students to consider some real statistics related to the rates of diagnosis of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety disorders. Statistics are often reported in the media which show an increase in mental health issues and reference to the claim that “many” of us will experience mental health problems at some point over our lives is often made in campaigns which aim to reduce the stigma of mental illness (“Fact: 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year”, reported on www.time-to-change.org.uk). Asking students to interpret real data will not only develop their data analysis skills but will also give them the opportunity to identify a criticism of the statistical infrequency definition of abnormality given that some mental health problems may not actually be that rare. Students could discuss these statistics and comment on the implications for the definition. This could also include a discussion about the increases in self-harming behaviour in teenagers and whether this definition would imply this is becoming a “normal” behaviour for this age group. I would recommend seeking advice about how to manage this sort of discussion sensitively and appropriately (always assume you are teaching individuals who have self-harmed or who are self-harming to be on the safe side).
An article on the the role of culture on mental health reported that “the prevalence rates for major depression varied from 2 to 19 percent across countries” (Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity: A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General). Students could also discuss this finding in relation to the limitation of the definition regarding culture.
I’m sure there are lots of other useful stats out there! Share if you find some.
Misconceptions and learning
Regular readers of this blog will already know that I think that infinite amounts of learning can come out of explicitly addressing the misconceptions held by learners about the mind and our behaviour in the classroom and that this can often be a perfect starting point for teaching new concepts in A Level Psychology. It’s no wonder then that a short video I recently came across, discussing the idea that teaching concepts in Science without including misconceptions might result in poor quality learning, caught my eye.
The 8 minute You Tube video (Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos) makes reference to research (apparently part of the video presenters PHD thesis) that showed that learners who watched a Physics video that addressed misconceptions about the subject content being explained performed better (in a series of assessment questions presented after the video) than those who did not see/hear the misconceptions. What is particularly interesting is that those who saw/heard the video where the misconceptions were addressed reported feeling “confused” and less confident in their understanding, whereas those that simply saw a video explaining the new concept were more favourable in their descriptions of the video (describing it as “clear” and concise”) and more confident in their knowledge but they did not perform as well or recall accurately what they had seen and heard.
Although this video and the research the observations are based on relate to the content of teaching materials taking a video form, the issues raised could apply to any form of instruction or teaching of new concepts and could certainly apply to A Level Psychology.
A Level Psychology
The video presenter, although using Physics as an example, is talking about effective learning in Science and raising concerns about the use of numerous online videos and teaching materials that are clear and concise but perhaps do not engage with the existing “knowledge” of learners. Psychology is certainly a science that everyone thinks they know a bit about already but often this knowledge is based on outdated ideas, unsubstantiated “pop psychology” and media distortions of research; all of which make for a shaky foundation.
I don’t have any further knowledge about the validity and reliability of the research the presenter refers to but the importance of revealing misconceptions and not assuming students are blank slates, even in a “new” subject, is one close to my heart which is why this video and the ideas it raises caught my eye.
Conflict in learning
It is important to emphasise again that although the students referred to in the video were “confused” their learning actually seemed to be better than when they thought the learning materials were “clear and concise”. This might be because they were being forced to re-evaluate and reflect on their knowledge and understanding (it doesn’t feel very nice to find out you were wrong) rather than passively accept new knowledge, paying only a surface level of attention to the materials because it feels familiar and accessible. It is always worth remembering that what students like is not always what is most effective for learning.
Joining the BPS
Previously I have blogged about BPS resources, postings and publications and the benefit of joining the society for A Level students, especially those considering further study of Psychology. Recently, however, I discovered what I assume is a recent change to the membership eligibility criteria. A Level students cannot join as “Student Members”, as I have stated in previous posts, as this level of membership is only for those studying an appropriate undergraduate level course.
A Level students = subscribers
I checked this with the BPS and was advised that A Level students can join as “subscribers” or “e-subscribers“, as they have an interest in Psychology but lack the relevant qualifications needed for any higher level of membership. E-subscribers (only £10 per year) get an electronic version of The Psychologist magazine which can be a source of enrichment and enlightenment for those students keen to glimpse into the world of Psychology beyond the confines of A Level.
This level of membership has the added benefit of being open to teachers of Psychology that would not be eligible for Graduate Membership (or a higher level of membership) but are keen to represent Psychology in a way that is consistent with the aims of the society.
“BPS News” in the classroom
Whilst I’m blogging about the BPS I might as well mention a useful post on the website summarising research suggesting that some children may “grow out of autism” a claim that has unsupisingly received a lot of media attention. The post (“Can some children ‘grow out of’ autism?” posted 18/01/2013) is an accessibe summary, including commentary (useful for demonstrating “discussion of research” without needing exam materials) from Psychologists. Whether this is part of your exam spec or not, I think it’s worth using this as the basis for a brain stretching starter or plenary. Ask students what controls and design features they would hope were in place in this study in order to draw any firm conclusions about any possible temporary element to autism.
It doesn’t matter whether you can access any more information about the research than is provided in the BPS summary. The intended outcome of this sort of activity is for students to have an opportunity to draw on their knowledge of research methods and the reliability and validity of research studies (analysis and application) and apply it to a novel context and as such the specific details of this research may be interesting but are not necessary.