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!
Attachments in the New Specification
The new specification for AQA places more emphasis on the formation of attachments and has removed the need to explore the impact of day care. The topic of “Attachment” now starts by exploring the early interactions between infant and caregiver that are the building blocks for the development of this bond.
Although the introduction of the concepts of reciprocity and interactional synchrony are welcome additions, the newly published textbooks seem to offer a blurry and, sometimes interchangeable, definition of these concepts. This is particularly important to point out because even the AQA approved books seem to offer slightly different definitions to the historically popular books (e.g. the companion series). I queried this with AQA and was told that candidates need to be aware that the concepts overlap but that they should be able to define the terms separately. They were very helpful and the senior examiner recommends referring to Condon and Sander (1974) which is on page 16 of the Scheme of Work on the AQA website and is discussed further below.
The Over Lap
The concepts in this area are describing the metaphorical dance between infant and caregiver. It looks, feels and acts like a conversation between infant and caregiver. Though no words may be uttered (not on the baby’s part anyway) this two-way interaction has two active contributors. The interactions will be rhythmic and mutual; infant and caregiver are likely to appear to be in harmony as they take turns in this attachment promoting conversation which is likely to involve the infant and caregiver responding to each other with similar sounds, emotions and behaviours. Infant and caregiver are able to anticipate how each other will behave and can elicit a particular response from the other.
What does it look like? The caregiver who smiles at their baby in response to a smile-like facial movement from the infant or who opens their mouth in mock surprise when the infant scrunches up their face, is engaged in this two-way pattern of interaction and is laying the foundations for an attachment to form. The infant that cries and elicits a sad expression and look of upset on their caregivers face or the caregiver who laughs in response to their infants giggling sound and tickles them, is experiencing synchronised interaction.
Defining the Terms Separately
The word reciprocal means two-way, or something that is mutual. Infant and caregiver are both active contributors in the interaction and are responding to each other. This is referred to as reciprocity.
The word synchrony means a simultaneous action or occurrence. Interactional synchrony relates to the timing and pattern of the interaction. The interaction is rhythmic and can include infant and caregiver mirroring each other’s behaviour and emotion. The infant and caregiver’s behaviours and affect are synchronised because they are moving in the same, or a similar, pattern.
Condon and Sander (1974) have investigated interactions between infants and caregivers in particular in relation to responses to adult speech. In their paper they report “As early as the first day of life, the human neonate moves in precise and sustained segments of movement that are synchronous with the articulated structure of adult speech”.
According to research by Meltzoff and Moore (1983) infants as young as 3 days imitate the facial expression of adults. This implies that this ability to mirror is an innate behaviour.
Beyond the course
Learners may be interested in the applications of this knowledge in Psychology. Music therapists and other therapists who work with parents and infants/children who have experienced disruption in their attachment formation (e.g. when children are adopted and attachments with foster carers need to be transferred to adoptive parents) recognise the importance of reciprocity and interactional synchrony in their therapeutic work. For example, caregivers are encouraged to mirror and share their child’s emotion by imitating facial expressions and engaging in reciprocal behaviour in response to music or other stimuli.
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.
Rutter’s Challenge: Is Monotropy a Valuable Concept?
Most, if not all, A Level Psychology textbooks make reference to the challenge made by Michael Rutter regarding Bowlby’s concept of monotropy (the idea that infants need one bond that is stronger than all the rest) but they make this reference fairly superficially. I often find that students are aware that Rutter made a challenge but don’t really understand the grounds on which Rutter disagreed with part of what is arguably one of the most important and influential theories A Level Psychology students will come across.
Good Old Radio 4
BBC Radio 4’s science programmes are, in my opinion, exceptional. In June (3rd June 2014) an episode of The Life Scientific was aired which focused on the work of Michael Rutter. The interview with Rutter (still available to listen to at time of blogging) is a must listen for any A Level Psychology teacher, student or anyone interested in Developmental Psychology.
From the Horse’s Mouth
I love hearing about how researchers got into their field, what motivates them and what sort of people they are more generally. You don’t get this knowledge from the pages of a textbook and so taking the opportunity to hear learn first hand from the researcher, rather than simply reading a (possibly false) biography online, should not be missed. One of the things that particularly struck me was that Rutter is in his 80’s and is still working; he talks about how he still works with the individuals who were part of his study of Romanian orphans who were adopted. In a society where many people are driven by making as much money as possible then retiring as soon as possible, it is refreshing to hear someone value the meaningful nature of their work and for someone of his vast experience to hold great value too. This is something I would make explicit when discussing this interview with students as the potential benefit in the classroom goes much further than the content of the A Level specification.
In the Classroom
About 15 minutes in to the episode, Rutter refers to the differing approaches of the Tavistock Clinic in London (taking a Psychoanalytic approach), where Bowlby was working, and South London’s Institute of Psychiatry, where he was working. It could easily be assumed that Rutter and Bowlby were rivals or enemies but during the interview, Rutter speaks highly of Bowlby’s work. Rutter models the use of evaluative thinking, a vital part of being a Psychologist which can be used to help dispel the myth that this is an Assessment Objective that is purely the task of A Level students. This gives students the opportunity to see (or hear) that analytical thinking is a vital skill to master in order to be an effective learner, in or out of formal education, and is not something you do (or appear to be doing) at school then switch off when you think you are not assessed anymore.
I would either ask students to listen to the episode (or part), with some questions to focus them on particular aspects, for homework or play all or part of the episode in class. You might ask students to defend Rutter’s challenge using what they have learned and possibly counter criticise by thinking about how Bowlby might defend his position regarding monotropy. Rutter basically suggests that it doesn’t make sense to need one (usually maternal) bond more than any others because if that bond was broken the cost would be so high.
I’m not going to repeat the interview here; listen to the episode and hear Rutter make his case (he talks about the differing effects of deprivation and privation too). This audio resource puts the detail on a blurry textbook representation of what is arguably a key evaluative point of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. Rutter also talks about his study of Romanian orphans in a way makes criticising on knee jerk methodological grounds seem somewhat churlish. A great opportunity to stretch students thinking and avoid relying too heavily on weaknesses of research in evaluative writing.
Other scientific lives
Another useful episode of the Life Scientific for A Level Psychology is an interview with circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster.
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
When 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.
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.
A while ago I came across an article in the Guardian entitled “10 things academics say students get wrong in exams” (30/04/2013). Although the focus of the article is on undergraduate students seeming to fall into the trap of simply regurgitating what they have been told in lectures, I think the article is just as relevant to A Level students.
One of the things the article refers to in the list of general student errors is getting the right tone for academic writing. The article suggests that regular reading of academic articles, which exposes students to the appropriate tone, can help and also that practising a small bit of writing regularly will benefit students in their approach to writing.
This certainly seems like good advice but knowing what something looks like and being able to do it yourself are two different things, and I think students need to be able to explicitly identify the differences between writing styles suitable for different audiences in order to actually make long lasting improvements.
Audience and purpose
Students learn in English all about writing for different purposes but often do not transfer this learning to other situations. As teachers we can point out where skills transfer and give students ample opportunities to make this transfer possible.
The Guardian piece gave me an idea about how a focus on regular writing practice and being aware of the tone of writing might lend itself to being the focus for a plenary activity for A Level Psychology students.
Write it 3 ways: A writing plenary
There are a number of different ways in which knowledge about research in Psychology might be communicated to others. Some of these ways include:
- Reporting for publication in an academic journal or review for a science magazine/blog
- Newspaper reporting aimed at a more general audience
- Tweeting about new research developments (there is a rapidly growing community of Psychologists and Psychology related individuals and organisations that Tweet about new research developments).
The style, length and the sort of language appropriate for these different audiences and purposes varies, with an exam writing style being in line with the report for an academic audience.
I think it could be worth asking students, as a closing activity for a lesson, to write about the area of research that has been studied in each of these 3 ways and discuss how the tone differs and identify the differences in the way in which they have communicated the same information. For example, in a lesson on life changes as a source of stress (Unit 2, AQA A, AS) students could be given a prompt such as “How do our lives lead to stress?” and asked to write a short piece for each of the 3 audiences/purposes highlighted above. Alternatively in groups of 3 students could be allocated 1 purpose each and then they could compare and contrast the outcomes, focussing on identifying what is appropriate when the audience is an examiner and the purpose is to convey knowledge and understanding of research in Psychology. If you can find a piece of research that has been written about in each style/tone this could be useful for modelling.
These are just the 3 purposes/styles that popped into my head when I read the article so I’m sure this activity could be tweaked into something better!
Factors affecting EWT: Age of witness
AQA specification A requires students studying AS Psychology Unit 1 to learn about research into “factors affecting the accuracy of Eye Witness Testimony”, including the age of the witness. This week I came across some research suggesting that it is not just the fragility of a developing memory or the wording used by the interviewer that can have a detrimental impact on the recall of information when witnesses are children, but also the non-verbal gestures used by an interviewer.
Not what you say but how you say it
Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire have conducted a study where adult interviewers gestured in a misleading manner in a way that seemed to suggest that an item that was not present in a video, shown to the child participants, had been. The children were reported to have been “highly susceptible” to the gesture, recalling incorrectly that a lady in the video had been wearing glasses when she had not been when the question was accompanied by the interviewer gesturing as if they were putting on glasses.
Implications for training of interviewers
This is particularly worrying as when talking to children it can seem quite natural to gesture explicitly to bring what you are saying to life and to engage children preventing wandering attention. This research implies that when interviewing child witnesses this sort of gesturing needs to be avoided and awareness of this influence should become part of interviewer training should this finding be replicated and validated sufficiently.
In the classroom
As the focus of this research is directly relevant to the AQA A spec there are potentially a number of ways to use this in the classroom. Here are a few ideas:
- Give students an overview of the research and ask them what they would they would be expecting in terms of the method and controls in place in this study in order to take the findings seriously (this could be linked to peer review as a method of validation giving a small taste of A2).
- You could ask students to imagine that they are going to attend the BPS annual conference and prepare a list of questions for the researchers regarding this piece of research.
- You could ask students to design their own study to further investigate the impact of gestures on witnesses (this could go beyond children).
- Ask students to include this research in an exam style question along the lines of “Outline research into factors affecting accuracy of EWT including age of witness (4 marks)”