The study of how people, especially children, learn and which teaching methods and materials are most effective.
Educational psychologists create achievement tests, develop learning aids and curricula, study cognitive development, and investigate psychological issues in the classroom, including adjustment problems and teacher-pupil interaction. Research in educational psychology encompasses such diverse topics as gender differences in mathematical ability; ways to help dyslexies read and learn better; the effects of anxiety on education; identifying and working with gifted children; the effects of television on school work; and creativity in children of a certain age or grade level.
Since educational psychology began to develop as a distinct field, its practitioners have tended to focus either on school and curriculum reform or measurement and learning theory. Early pioneers of the first approach were William James (1842-1910) and John Dewey (1859-1952) in the 1890s. James, whose functionalist philosophy focused on how consciousness helps human beings adapt to their environment, thought that educational problems should be studied in their natural environment—the classroom—rather than the laboratory. He was one of the first authorities in the field to regard classroom observation as a legitimate source of scientific data. The ideas of John Dewey have had a major influence on education in the United States. An advocate of active learning, Dewey stressed the importance of learning by doing as opposed to the rote memorization and authoritarian teaching methods that had long been the norm in most schools. He experimented with educational curricula
The first important figure of the more theoretical branch of educational psychology was Edward L. Thorndike, often called "the father of educational psychology." Where James and Dewey were concerned with the practical application of psychology in the classroom, Thorndike, who had a background in animal research, did pioneering theoretical work in areas including conditioning and scientific measurement. He applied the principles he had discovered in his research to such topics as language development, reading instruction, and mental testing. His accomplishments included a book (Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements) that provided statistical data about test results. In spite of his theoretical orientation, Thorndike directly influenced the nation's educational policies, notably the abandonment of the traditional classical Latin and Greek high school curriculum, which occurred after Thorndike's research established the fact that the major assumption behind classical education—that progress in one subject automatically leads to progress in others—was false. In addition to Thorndike, important early innovators in the area of measurement and testing include G. Stanley Hall and his students Arnold Gesell (1880-1961), whose Developmental Schedules are still used today and who was widely regarded as the nation's foremost authority on child rearing and development in the 1940s and 1950s, and Lewis Terman (1877-1956), who introduced Alfred Binet's intelligence test to the United States in 1916 together with the concept of the intelligence quotient (IQ).
In addition to representing two different areas of research, the traditions of Dewey and Thorndike are also related to contrasting teaching paradigms, which have periodically been the focus of clashes within the educational establishment. The first paradigm, sometimes referred to as constructivism, is related to the emphasis that Dewey and other innovators early in the century placed on meaningful learning that relies on active engagement in such tasks as planning, problem-solving, communicating, and creating rather than on rote memorization and repetitive drills. The basic philosophy underlying this view is that knowledge must be presented in a meaningful context in order to be effectively assimilated. The second, contrasting paradigm has been called the transmission model because it emphasizes the act of transmitting information from the teacher to the student, a process in which the student plays an essentially passive role and is the object of stimulus-response strategies, such as being rewarded for correct answers. This model is based on associationism and behaviorism—schools of psychology associated with Thorndike and B. F. Skinner.
Examples of these contrasting approaches are found in current controversies surrounding the teaching of reading. The whole-language approach introduced in schools around the country over roughly the past 15 years has come under attack by parents and educators who claim that it doesn't work, and that students need traditional phonics instruction to really learn how to read. Whole language is thoroughly constructivist: meaning is emphasized by instruction through stories and poems, and students take an active role in learning by producing their own texts (sometimes even their own spellings). By comparison, phonics corresponds closely to the transmission model: it relies on learning the sounds of letters and letter combinations (which, by themselves, have no meaning) by rote and memorizing them through repeated drills, a process that allows for little creativity. While some participants in the controversy have advocated teaching reading primarily through phonics, others in the field recommend combining the two approaches, a strategy already applied in some form by many teachers.
One researcher whose work has become influential in the classroom in recent years is Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, whose theory of multiple intelligences (MI) is at the forefront of current research on the nature of intelligence. In his 1983 book Frames of Mind, Gardner posited the existence of seven different types of intelligence: 1) linguistic; 2) logical-mathematical; 3) spatial; 4) interpersonal (ability to deal with other people); 5) intrapersonal (insight into oneself); 6) musical; and 7) bodily-kinesthetic (athletic ability). Each type of intelligence includes a separate set of problem-solving skills, and every person has all the types, although some may be developed far more fully than others. Gardner has critiqued traditional education for emphasizing the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences almost exclusively, and he believes that IQ tests predict school performance only because they correspond to school curricula in their emphasis on these skills to the exclusion of other aspects of human intelligence. In recent years, a number of schools throughout the country have instituted curricula, teaching methods, and methods of assessment based on Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. According to the theory, every subject and concept can (and should) be covered in ways that involve all the different types of intelligence, reflecting the fact that children have a variety of different learning styles. Mi-based programs are especially effective with diverse student populations and in classrooms that include special-needs students. Another characteristic of these programs is that they are student-rather than teacher-driven in their emphasis on hands-on experience and active inquiry by students.
The education of those with special needs is a growing area of concern for educational psychologists. Current psychological theory and practice favor mainstreaming disabled or emotionally troubled children and teenagers—that is, including them in classrooms with their nondisabled peers—to give them a fuller educational experience and help reduce barriers between the general population and those with special needs. The application of educational psychology to special-needs education encompasses a variety of areas, including guidelines for classifying children and teenagers as retarded or deviant; teaching methods for special education instructors; and, where necessary, creation of intervention programs and individualized educational plans.
Division 15 of the American Psychological Association is devoted to educational psychology. Most of its members teach at universities, although some work in school settings. Professional journals in the field include Journal of Educational Psychology, Educational Psychologist, Educational Researcher, Review of Educational Research, and American Educational Research Journal.
Brown, Ann L. Psychological Theory and the Study of Learning. Urbana, IL: Bolt Beranek and Newman, 1985.
Bruner, Jerome. On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1979.
Carter, Maggie. Training Teachers: A Harvest of Theory and Practice. Redleaf Press, 1994.
Cattell, Raymond B. Personality and Learning Theory. Springer Publishing, 1979.
Gardner, Howard. The Unschooled Mind: How Children Learn and How Schools Should Teach. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
——. Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books, 1993.