Rewritten from an article published in "Rethinking the Place of Reason in Education." The Yearbook of the Forty-Third Annual Meeting of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society.

Is the study of psychology appropriate to teacher preparation?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

edited 10/2/17
For Google (and other) web-rankings
of this article go to

The Source of Discontent

The concerns I express in this paper arose for me from a long-simmering disquietude to a quite palpable dismay when I was asked a year ago to teach courses in Instructional Psychology and in Classroom Management. I found the commonly used and popular texts at my institution to be severely lacking, not so much as regards the "content" of their supporting discipline, as in the intellectual confusion their authors tolerated. Opinion and speculation were routinely mixed in with research reports. Special pleading and invalid argument were not uncommon. How could the authors of such books violate so many, many of the principles of critical thinking we, as academics, give such vehement lip service to? Was it just bad writing? Or pedagogical ineptitude?1 Why then were these books in their third and later editions? Is intellectual muddle desired in such courses?

Perhaps the books I found were an unrepresentative sample. I looked at others. There was a pattern. Expensive texts, generally written for beginners, tended to be uncritical, even though occasional gestures mimicking critical appraisal appeared in them. They promoted an orthodox line about psychology being "the science of the mind" that suffered from no particular internal conflicts. More specific texts tended to mention controversy and offer more coherent criticism of opposing views, often arguing that certain models of human behavior were antiquated and counterindicated by evidence.

Particularly bizarre, I thought, was the constant appearance, in beginning texts in these 1990's, of descriptions of Pavlov's dog experiments as psychological experimentation, even though Pavlov considered himself to be doing physiology. (A genuflection, perhaps, to extant Thorndikian aspirations?) Was this intended as history? Do teachers, even rarely, work with fistulated students and unmediated physiological drives? Wasn't this like including Phlogiston Theory in a chemistry text?

Educators today are caught between two opposing pressures. On the one hand there is that vast edifice of federal and state legal directives that presumes, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that a science of behavioral engineering is already well-established: for example, IEP's, individualized educational programs, are developed at great cost and despite substantial skepticism on the part of practitioners that they can deliver what they promise.

On the other hand, a countervailing pressure on educators can be found in the broad public2 (and even professional3) skepticism that the decisions of educators resting on psychological theory amount to little more than a secular religious faith, no more reliable, and certainly less preferable than traditional faiths. Ought we as teachers of teachers continue to assume that psychology contributes anything of substance to a prospective teacher's training?

Criteria for Program Inclusion

Suppose it were proposed that all teachers be required to have several credits in an area of study, let us call it mentastudium. Both the ugliness of the name and a certain xenophobia against its Latinate form might militate against easy acceptance of such a proposal, thus focussing attention on criteria more pertinent to its consideration.

What questions would we raise to examine the advantages of this proposal? Here are some that suggest themselves to any experienced program evaluator

1. Is there a consensus among specialists in the field as to what knowledge mentastudium offers?

2. Do the students already have the knowledge mentastudium comprises?

3. If they already know mentastudium, in some sense, is it in a form they can use?

4. Will mentastudium enhance their skills as teachers?

5. If not necessarily, then, will mentastudium enhance their performance in those many activities that support the educational enterprise, i.e. does it render their decisions more authoritative or insightful?

6. If not necessarily, then, will mentastudium create attitudes and dispositions that enhance the skills mentioned above?

Behind these questions lie concerns which themselves anticipate the rhetorical emphases4 to be found in texts for beginners to psychology. These concerns are (respectively) authority (question 1), novelty (question 2), applicability (question 3), relevance and enhancement (questions 4-6)5. We can expect to find in introductory texts a certain belaboring of these issues.

What questions would we raise to examine the disadvantages of the mentastudium proposal? Here are some:

7. Will the time and effort spent in learning mentastudium detract from other things prospective educators should study?

8. Is mentastudium to be learned in a form not apparently applicable?

9. Does mentastudium unnecessarily complicate or muddle the decision-making processes in the educational environment?

10. Does mentastudium inculcate attitudes and dispositions that undermine the skills mentioned above?

Suppose, now, that we were assessing the efficiency of a teacher education program already containing mentastudium. We wonder if we should retain or excise the x credits in mentastudium now required. What questions would we raise here? Consider these:

1. Can the questions 1- 10 above be satisfactorily answered, would there be a good reason to introduce mentastudium, if we did not have it?

2. Is the reason for mentastudium's being in the curriculum the fact that it is already there?

3. Is public perception of the practitioner as skilled or knowledgeable enhanced by the inclusion of mentastudium in the curriculum?

4. Does the normal exposure to mentastudium generate confusion and error in practice?

5. Does the normal exposure to mentastudium inculcate attitudes and dispositions that undermine the skills mentioned above?

6. Would the political relations among university or college departments be upset by excising mentastudium from the curriculum?

7. Would the perception of our program by outsiders be lessened by the removing of mentastudium?

I submit that if we replace the term mentastudium with psychology in the preceding questions we will find that reasonable answers militate against the discipline's retaining a place in teacher education, except for considerations of academic politics.

Lack of time prohibits a thorough review of all the questions posed above. I will concentrate on a few of the most fundamental, reflecting on the sources likely to be encountered by prospective teachers.

Does Psychology Offer Scientific Knowledge?

Is there a consensus among specialists in the field as to the nature of what psychology offers? Different sources yield different conclusions. The big, costly beginners' texts tend to be of one mind. For example, Bernstein, in Psychology, Third Edition write that "Psychology is the science of behavior and mental processes."(p.3). Similarly, Myers.7, in his own Psychology, 3rd Edition identifies psychology as the science of behavior and mental processes. Wineberg &Gould's8 practice-focussed Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology agrees to some extent: psychology is "the scientific study of people and their behavior...."

Haber and Runyon9 in Fundamentals of Psychology, Fourth Edition even venture to offer the new student of psychology an opinion as to why psychology is "the science it is today." Psychology, they insinuate, became a science like the physical sciences by throwing off the "shackles of philosophical speculation." This information is intended, no doubt, to help undergraduates with their choice of electives.

However, a different voice is heard coming from B.R. Hergenhahn. In his (her) well-written and informative An Introduction to the History of Psychology'' 10, he (she) writes, "Psychology should not be judged too harshly because some of its aspects are not scientific or even antiscientific." Jeanne Ellis Ormrod in her Human Learning, Second Edition,11 lists nine assumptions of behaviorism (pp. 1-17), then goes on to provide the reader with evidence that they have all been disconfirmed, but draws no attention to this fact. Yet, later she remarks that the "behaviorist movement alive and well."12 (My students wondered how this could be, if behaviorist psychologists claim to be scientists.13) Margaret W. Matlin14 in her more advanced text, Cognition, openly discusses controversy and competition between cognitive and behavioral approaches, citing a "disenchantment" with behaviorism as contributing to interest in cognitive approaches..

Lack of consensus within the discipline, and there is obviously that, raises important questions for the teacher educator. It requires that decisions about the place of psychology in the teacher education curriculum not be left up solely, or even primarily, to psychologists.15

The Unity of Psychology

"Beneath this diversity ... lies a unity stemming from psychologists' common commitment to science and their tradition of linked interests."


Initially, there seems to be unanimity of opinion about the unity of psychology. Differences among psychologists are characterized as differences in perspective17, or as co-existing paradigms.18 But this position is vulnerable to easy criticism. Apparent to almost all students is that these "co-existing" paradigms are competing paradigms: they focus on the same topics of interest. How can two different theories not compete when they are used to explain and control "the same thing." Here we stumble close to deep questions: e.g. what makes something the "same" thing? Such questions occur easily in reaction to these texts. Provoking them, the texts ignore them.

I teach my students a principle that enables them to evaluate these competing paradigms as to their usefulness:

Principle of embeddedness: Any psychological theory of n variables can embedded in a theory of n+1 variables, where variable n+1 is known or assumed to be controlled for or held constant.

This general principle is an idea that is not novel to anyone who has studied research design. The existence of an unattended to, uncontrolled for variable cannot be empirically ruled out, but requires theoretical argumentation or presumption for its dismissal. (See, for example, Liebert and Liebert, 19 p. 130) The principle of embeddedness allows students to rank psychological theories in terms of their complexity and to ask "What assumptions must we make about the situation under consideration that allows us to restrict our attention to only the variables dealt with in the theory we wish to use?" This question is seldom, if ever, broached in even advanced texts.

(Introducing beginning students to the language of variables, constructions, operationalization, correlation and the like, I have found, disciplines them in to a discursive rigor unfortunately lacking in many of the texts they are exposed to. Not only that, but important philosophical points can be made vis-a-vis the relationship of education and psychology for those familiar with such terms. But more on this below.)

Psychology texts do not help students choose among theories, but tend to present competing theories as live options; almost as matters of taste. This is highly problematic for the practitioner. (I suspect this non-committal approach has more to do with market worries for the textbooks and consultancies than practical considerations.)

Were I a psychologist, I would hesitate to push the unity doctrine too hard. My personal interests are experimental and theoretical; "scientific" in some traditional sense.20 I would not want to be associated with much of the pop psychology that the public mistakes as psychology in its totality. It is this narrow perception of psychology as the "experts" on popular TV talk shows, the butt of so many movie and sitcom parodies, I suspect, that misinforms the criticisms of even educated laypersons and undermines what authority decisions made by educators may have.

Old Wine. Good Wine

Old wine is the knowledge students already have about human behavior from living and interacting with others of their own species for many years. Students are already quite adept at predicting and controlling, or at least influencing those around them. They can tell what other people are likely thinking; they can often already understand influences not perceptible by those susceptible to them. What can psychology teach them? Our earlier question, "Do the students already have the knowledge psychology comprises?" focuses on this concern. Writers of some texts seem to be quite sensitive to this question and see psychology as helping refine and transform common sense.21

I teach my students that theories are parasitical on our Old Wine to the extent they are not novel. A theory is novel to the extent that it directs us to discount factors we would intuitively think important to producing an effect, and then helps us in achieving the effect, with, as we used to say in physics lab, no "fudging." Most learning theory, for example, is parasitical, especially to the extent that it contains the language of Behaviorism in it. Indeed, teachers' few recollections of their instructional psychology courses tends to be the mantra: a reinforcer is a stimulus which when presented after a response increases the probability of that a response of the same type will occur. The drone of this chanting not only serves as the background to many an official proposal for educational change22, it mesmerizes educators out of critical analysis of their teaching approaches.23

The treatment for this disability begins by asking the mantrist, "Please define stimulus, response, after, increase the probability, and of the same type. Next is to direct them not to say the mantra until after and only if they have met two conditions: 1) they have defined the terms in a nonparasitical way; and 2) they can operationalize them for the circumstances they believe they are applicable to. These rules should keep even learning theorists quiet for decades.

"But it works!" I hear even my colleagues cry. What is "it," I respond. "The parasitical, patchwork quilt of informal theories dressed up in obsolete behavioristic formulations which many of us manage to stumble through our daily practice with?" The old, deep criticisms24 of operant theory still stand, they have not been answered, only ignored. Operant theory is promulgated among students whose ignorance alone makes the it seem tenable.25

There are good texts in psychology. They inform the educational judgment. The open new perspectives. They refine common sense. They recognize their limitations. But it takes a critical judgment that goes beyond organizational, disciplinary and commercial concerns to sort out the wheat from the chaff.26

Issues in Critical Thinking

Many writers have the annoying habit of dropping their opinions in among the research reports.27 This does not promote critical thinking unless the instructor deliberately has the class focus on what is opinion and what is supported assertion in the text. Indeed, the best use of some of the texts is for critical analysis. I doubt, however, this is the way they are used.

Even the better texts feel compelled to allude to human freedom and push a kind of Determinism at the student, apparently on the grounds that being Scientific demands it.28 Of course, given space constraints, the discussion cannot be serious. But perhaps its triviality is only intended to help the student avoid "the shackles of philosophical speculation."

I mention here a stratagem I use in my classes to preserve a critical philosophical domain. I mentioned above that I accustom my students to talking about construct, operationalization, variable, function, correlation, cause, etc. We attempt to write equations for every theory studied; we try to say what kind of data we might find to support or disconfirm a hypothesis. This can be done with even undergraduate classes.

Here is the decisive move: point out to them that not every concept in the English language, especially those of educational interest, can be reformulated as a variable. No variables, no functions; no functions, no correlations; no correlations, no causes; etc. Examples abound. Particularly problematic are those concepts dealing with human action.29 The question is open. The burden of proof lies upon those who would insinuate a determinism. This insinuation encountered commonly in many psychology texts is gratuitous. Pursuing psychological research, even avidly, need not commit one to the notion that all human behavior is, in some sense, automatic.

To Come to Closure

We have to bring this to a close far from a thorough analysis of whether psychology fails to meet the criteria implicit in the program evaluation questions given above. We have barely scratched the surface of questions of authority, usefulness and pedagogical effect. We have found that some of what is called psychology, i.e. what is presented in some beginning textbooks, lacks authority, is of questionable use and is counterproductive to critical thinking.

However, educators at all levels of the schooling enterprise need authoritative sources (procedures) to counter persistent claims that educational decisions based on psychology amount to little more than secular religion -- or gratuitous speculation -- with little basis in hard fact.

Thus psychology, especially as studied by teachers in preparation, cannot provide authoritative sources to offset the claim that they are at best speculative and poor substitutes for traditional, especially religious, perspectives. Textbook writers in these fields more often than not promote disciplinary harmony -- for market reasons, no doubt -- to the detriment of rigorous thinking, or even, critical empirical research. However, these subjects can be approached from a variety of philosophical stances that permit their critical evaluation, even if such evaluation is generally not practiced within those disciplines.

I suspect that the organizational and commercial concerns of psychologists undermine their science and the usefulness of their discipline to educators. Texts most likely encountered by future educators are very much ideological tracts and sacrifice critical, "scientific", thinking to indoctrination.

Conclusion: the use of psychology in teacher preparation must be mediated by critical methods that empower students to evaluate theoretical coherence and practical applicability and brings them to question the authority begged by putative scientific approaches to teaching. This method should not assume that psychology is above reproach from older religious and philosophical traditions of critique, decision-making and evaluation.



1 Jeanne Ellis Ormrod, Human Learning. 2nd Edition.(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995), stretching to find examples, often gives ones which admit of multiple interpretation or which fail to identify factors critical for the application of the theory. See her example of "the look" being explained by Classical Conditioning Theory, p. 33-34

2 See, for example, Jay P. Greene, "Rescuing Education Research" in Education Week, September 29, 1998, p.S2.

3 See, for example, Deborah J. Gallagher, "The Scientific Knowledge Base of Special Education: Do We Know What We Think We Know?" Exceptional Children. Vol. 64, No. 4, pp. 493-502.

4 For a description of an adaptive rhetorical mechanism by which a discipline adjusts to variations in concern, see Edward G. Rozycki, "Policy and Social Contradiction," Educational Theory, Fall 1987.

5 Why these concems and not others? They reflect what educational program planners perceive to provide a rational base for their decisions. Cf. "Making Decisions in the School" pp. 576-584 in Gary K. Clabaugh and Edward G. Rozycki, Understanding Schools, (New York: Harper & Row, 1990)

6 Douglas A. Bernstein, Alison Clarke-Stewart, Edward J. Roy, Thomas K. Srull, and Christopher D. Wickens. Psychology. 3rd ed.(Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1994)

7 David G. Myers, Psychology. 3rd ed. (New York: Worth, 1992.) p.6

8 Robert S. Weinberg and Daniel Gould. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 19953 p. 8.

9 Audrey Haber & Richard P. Runyon, Fundamentals of Psychology. 4th Edition (New York: Random House, 1986) p. 5.

10 B. R. Hergenhahn, An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Second Edition. (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1992) p. 14. (my italics)

11 Ormrod, op.cit

12 Ormrod, op.cit. (p.24)

13 Cf. Bernstein, op.cit. "If research does not support a theory, it is revised or, sometimes, abandoned." p. 21. Can one "revise" nine false assumptions?

14 Margaret W. Matlin.Cognition. 3rd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace,1994) p. 8.

15 We begin to understand the point of the rhetoric about unity in so many introductory psychology texts.

16 Douglas A. Bernstein, Alison Clarke-Stewart, Edward J. Roy, Thomas K. Srull, and Christopher D. Wickens. Psychology. 3rd ed.(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994) p. 10

17 Cf. Myers, op.cit. p.7 or Bernstein, et. al, op.cit. p. 10.

18 Hergenhahn, op.cit. "a multi-paradigmatic science" p. 11.

19 Robert M. Liebert and Lynn Langenbach Liebert. Science and Behavior. An introduction to Methods of Psychological Research. 4th Ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,1995) p. 130

20 Eg. "Good theories are theories whose assumptions and propositions are explicitly stated and also hang together in a logical, consistent fashion." E. Jerry Phares, Introduction to Personality 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) p.38.

For a particularly deep criticism and explanations as to how psychologists' interpretations of statistical concepts bias theory and application see Gerd Gigerenzer, Adaptive Thinking. Rationality in the Real World. (New York: Oxford, 2000) pp. 5 - 22.

21 Cf. Myers, op.cit. 19-22. Or Anita E. Woolfolk, Educational Psychology. 7th Edition. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998) pp.ll-13.

22 For examples, obtain PDE Guidelines for Effective Behavior Support, Pennsylvania Department of Education, Bureau of Special Education, 333 Market Street, Harrisburg, PA 171260333, Telephone: 717-783-013. Ask for literature pertaining to "Functional Assessment."

23 It contributes, no doubt to the persistent confusion between the concepts of reward and reinforcer that teachers make.

24 For a review and development of some of these criticisms, see Edward G. Rozycki, "The Functional Analysis of Behavior," Educational Theory, Summer 1975, 278-302. Also, Edward G. Rozycki, "Behaviorism," in J.J. Chambliss, (ed.) Philosophy of Education: an encyclopedia. (New York: Garland, 1996) pp. 52-55.

25 Wilbert J. McKeachie suggested years ago that the only likely outcome of the so-called Laws of Learning was a delusional enthusiasm on the part of teachers. See "The Decline and Fall of the Laws of Learning" Educational Researcher, March 1974, pp. 710. Even the delusion has faded

26 Woolfolk, op. cit. is not a bad example, despite her perfunctory obeisance to "behavioral" approaches. Why, however, is social and, especially, industrial psychology ignored by writers of educational psychology texts? See, in this regard Paul M. Muchinsky. Psychology Applied to Work. 4th ed. (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole,1993.)

27 Ormrod, op.cit. identifies what she characterizes as "bogus" complaints about operant conditioning (p.101), but uses those same complaints to make a case against punishment. (p.110)

28 Hergenhahn, op.cit. pp. in his (her) early chapters is an exception to this criticism. But this book is not the run-of-the-mill first psychology book.

29 See Rozycki, "Behaviorism", op.cit.