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.
Analysing research in written form
It is always useful to have examples of what effective AO2 might look like for Unit 3 (Topics in Psychology). I find it useful to get students thinking critically and consciously about their writing. Many students will often be able to analyse verbally to a high level but struggle to do their ideas justice when they come to write about them. Using a set structure can help but students should also have the flexibility to feel their own written style is valuable if it meets the exam criteria.
I usually get students to start by simply stating what the problem or strength is (identify) then explain what they mean and why it’s a problem (justify), finally they should take it a bit further and develop the point where possible without being repetitive (elaborate). This structure is one that has been suggested by a number of people and works quite well.
Using approaches, issues and debates in AO2
A2 Level students need to use appropriate broad Psychology-wide arguments in their analysis. This can all to often result in student essays resembling a list of issue/debate terms, as if they are playing a round of key words bingo with the examiner rather than writing well crafted essay.
Getting copies of your students exam papers from previous exam sessions is an excellent way to show students what good AO2 looks like or you can construct your own examples to model effective AO2 using approaches, issues and debates meaningfully.
Here are 2 examples that I might use as a tool to discuss with students how they might go about writing analytically.
Unit 3 AO2 examples
Essay title: Discuss genetic factors in aggressive behaviour. (Aggression)
A weakness of attempting to explain aggressive behaviour in terms of genetic factors is that these explanations are highly deterministic. If an individual inherits a particular gene that predisposes them to act aggressively the assumption is that they will inevitably be more likely to be more aggressive or violent as a result, ignoring the role of free will. Even explanations that consider the role of environmental triggers where there is a genetic predisposition are limited in this way. In the case of genetic low MAOA combined with childhood mistreatment for example, the assumption is that aggression is inevitable when both the genetic and environmental conditions are set in place for aggression. As both the genetic and environmental factors have exerted their influence well before adulthood, there appears to be little an individual can do to avoid being aggressive where they have been dealt this hand.
The determinism also seems to suggest that violence is a behaviour that cannot be helped and perhaps in some way excuses or even “medicalises” aggressive behaviour that is the result genetic factors. For example, lawyers have used the presence of low MAOA and childhood mistreatment as a defence for murder in a few cases. As the validity and reliability of the evidence to support this idea is flawed this is a potentially dangerous practice.
This would lead nicely into an evaluative paragraph focussing on issues the quality of the research studies in this area.
Essay title: Describe and evaluate Kohlberg’s theory of moral understanding. (Cognition and Development).
A weakness of Kohlberg’s theory is that it is derived from research that is androcentric. The gender bias limits the generalisability of the theory beyond the young male sample used to female populations. Kohlberg interviewed only American males in order to identify the stages we go through in our development of moral reasoning and as such it is possible that females do not develop in the same way. Kohlberg later suggested that females do not reach as high levels of moral understanding as males. Not only is this a socially sensitive suggestion, as it seems to suggest females are less capable of making high level moral decisions, it may not actually be a valid suggestion due to the gender bias of the original research studies. Other researchers, e.g. Gilligan, have suggested that females and males may reason about moral issues in completely different ways, an idea overlooked by Kohlberg.
AQA A, A2 Psychology: Cognition and Development
Mirror Neurons are hailed by some as the breakthrough in discovering what stands us apart from other animals and makes us human. They are thought to be the key to explaining our ability to empathise and as such understand the actions and mental states of others. This is not a view shared by all, however, and there continues to be much debate about the role they might play and their existence in humans at all. A Level Psychology textbooks have dated quickly in their coverage of this area of research as the importance of mirror neurons continues to be debated in the scientific community and research continues to be carried out (see earlier post on the “Mirror Neuron Extravaganza”).
To get a real sense of the arguments on each side, regarding the possible role of these neurons in social cognition, I think students are better off going beyond the textbook and reading about the arguments for and against being written by science writers and researchers now (as opposed to when the textbooks were being rushed to be published in line with the, now old and possibly on the way out, “new” specs).
Science blogs – Brain Myths
In a post on Psychology Today, Christian Jarrett (BPS Research Digest blogger) highlights some of the arguments warning against assumptions that mirror neurons are the key to understanding empathy. In a post entitled “Mirror Neurons: The most hyped concept in neuroscience” he refers to the current lack of knowledge about these neurons in humans and the issues that mean caution is needed heralding these neurons as the key to empathy, as claimed by some in this field. Most textbooks make a fleeting reference to their being critics of this concept but go into little detail of the justification for the criticism.
Writing skills: Science blogs model effective critical writing
Blog posts such as this one by Christian Jarrett not only have the potential to help students to take a critical view of the concepts they are learning about, but also have the power to model effective critical writing styles. Science writers (well good ones) construct an argument which reflects their informed (mostly) opinion. Compelling bloggers rarely sit on the fence but manage to create a persuasive argument, or at least one that encourages comment, without the post turning into a “rant” that is overly negative. This is undeniably a useful skill for students to develop in A2 writing.
The Psychology of Lego
Everyone loves Lego! Whether you are old or young, student or professor, this simple building tool/toy seems to have a universal appeal. This is the sentiment behind Jon Sutton’s article entitled “When psychologists become builders” (published in the August 2012 edition of the BPS publication The Psychologist and available online).
In the article Sutton discusses his and others obsession with Lego, the ability of this simple toy to stimulate development and how it has become widely used within Psychology. Sutton describes the use of Lego to stimulate thinking in business (see Serious Play), the use of Lego as a therapeutic tool for children on the autistic spectrum and the use of Lego robotics as a learning and teaching aid. The article finishes with a summary of a number of pieces of Psychological research where Lego is being used as a research tool or is the subject of the research itself.
Using Lego in the Psychology classroom
This article made me think about whether I could find an excuse to take my Lego to school . Here are 3 ways to justify letting your students play with Lego.
Lego role play: Treatments
Ask students to role play, using Lego, a therapy session for the treatments based on Psychological approaches such as CBT or Psychoanalysis to demonstrate understanding (AS or A2 Psychopathology). They will need to build a basic therapy room and position the furniture in an appropriate way before they start. Students could even video their re-enactment (in a stop motion animation style) to share with each other for revision. This sort of activity helps uncover where students have only a superficial understanding or have errors in their knowledge. The use of Lego to model also helps to make a role play a bit more light hearted and is likely to be preferred by those who are more self conscious.
Ask students to design apparatus, using Lego, to test various cognitive and/or social developments in children and discuss the validity of the tests they devise. Piaget style tests of egocentrism and conservation, Vygotsky social or scaffolding tasks or tests of Theory of Mind (and other types of Perspective Taking) would be appropriate here if you are teaching Cognition and Development for A2 Unit 3. Students could do this after they have learned about the limitations of the methods used in the research, taking these issues into account when devising their own tests.
Research Methods: Carry out a Lego pilot study
When designing a lab study ask students to model their laboratory using Lego in order to ensure that they have fully thought through the sequence of the procedure and materials needed. Ask them to present their model and use the figures to walk through the procedures inviting comment on their design decisions. This should reveal the need to visualise and mentally model. Students could comment on each others designs, physically moving or re-enacting elements, using the activity to conduct a “Lego pilot study”.
Now where did I put all that Lego…?
If like me you have a massive bag of Lego sitting in the cupboard, or gathering dust in your parent’s loft, dig it out and take it to school/college. You could even ask your students to bring in their childhood Lego for a lesson if yours was cruelly donated to a younger family member or Charity Shop by a misguided parent hell bent on de-cluttering when you moved and/or grew up.
I bet your students will be itching to get building once they see the colourful blocks in their many sizes. Right I’m off to play with my Lego and think of some more way to use it in the classroom…
All in the Mind: Developmental Psychology
In Radio 4’s All in the Mind, broadcast 12/06/2012, Claudia Hammond talks to Professor Vasu Reddy from the University of Portsmouth. Prof Reddy presents a compelling challenge to the current assumptions about the limits on the mental abilities of babies within Developmental Psychology.
Reddy (Professor of Developmental and Cultural Psychology) claims that research in this field has led Developmental Psychology to underestimate the abilities of babies to understand themselves and others.
Sense of Self and Theory of Mind: Social Cognition
The assumption currently within Development Psychology is that before the age of 2 a child does not have a sense of self or Theory of Mind. The latter development in particular, is viewed as a complex ability that requires the more sophisticated mental tools of a 3 or 4 year old. Reddy’s research, however, suggests that babies are able to joke with and tease other people and show a kind of coy self-consciousness which should not be possible at such a young age.
AQA Spec A A2: Cognition and Development
The A2 spec (AQA A) requires students to study the development of a sense of self and understanding of others including Theory of Mind if Cognition and Development is a selected area for Unit 3 (Topics in Psychology).
AO2: analysis and evaluation
In the interview (approximately 12 minutes duration) with Claudia Hammond, Reddy claims that her videoed studies of young babies reveal that very young children are able to tease and joke with their parents and other adults (including experimenters). Teasing behaviour requires according to Reddy an ability to know the expectations of the person you are teasing.
Reddy describes in the programme seeing a baby being videoed as part of her research offering an item to an adult (her husband). He reached out and just as he moved towards her she grinned and pulled the item being offered back out of his reach. She continued to repeat this pattern. Laughing as she did so. Reddy argues that this kind of teasing implies that the child has an understanding that the other person has an expectation about what is going to happen.
Before I was a parent myself I think I would have argued, as Claudia Hammond offers in challenge, that this is just simple mechanical learning and not necessarily evidence of an understanding of self and others. Like Reddy, however, my experience tells me that my daughter does know what I am thinking and that she can predict my behaviour to an extent, enjoying joking with and teasing me.
In the classroom
This section of the programme starts at about 11 minutes and ends around 23 minutes into the 28 minute programme. As a classroom resource it offers an interesting challenge to the content of the A2 textbooks in this area and would provoke a thoughtful discussion in the classroom, and give students plenty of scope to generate meaningful and relevant AO2 for their written work.
There is a useful short (2:18 mins) video on the BBC website entitled “Is that me in the mirror?” (published online 20th October 2009) where Vasu Reddy explains and demonstrates the mirror test used to assess self recognition. This video formed part of a Horizon documentary called “The Secret You” (broadcast 9pm on 20/10/2009). The full documentary is available on You Tube.