Speaking of Education

One of psychology's many successes has been its efforts to improve literacy. Through the study of language acquisition and reading, the design of evidence-based instructional strategies, the development of remedial programs and other work, we have helped to boost the nation's reading skills and helped the public understand that literacy is a national social, economic and health issue. But how well does the public understand that psychological literacy may be as important?

Over 20 years ago, soon after the publication of E.J. Hirsch's book, "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" (Vintage, 1987), Dr. C. Alan Boneau conducted a study to identify core components of psychological knowledge that would constitute what he called psychological literacy. He delineated the terms and concepts that every psychology major should be able to discuss (American Psychologist, Vol. 45, No. 7). Over a decade later, participants in APA's inaugural Education Leadership Conference reinvigorated our focus on the importance of knowledge in psychology for our nation's future citizens. They called for psychology to be included in elementary, middle and high school, as well as adult learning curricula, to promote knowledge, skills and critical thinking in everyday life. Topics noted included critical thinking about thoughts, feeling and behavior; health and behavior; individual, family and intergroup relations; self-management and management of conflict; resilience and coping; communication and persuasion; attitudes, values and moral development; discrimination and prejudice; and environmental psychology. Participants supported efforts to develop relevant educational modules at the precollege level, as well as to articulate undergraduate student learning outcomes that would later become APA policy (APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Major in Psychology, 2007).

Most recently, a working group at the historic Puget Sound Conference (see "Charting the future of undergraduate psychology") examined why we should rethink how we educate undergraduate students. Led by Dr. Tom McGovern, participants reviewed the work that has been undertaken since the last national conference in 1991 and related it to broader themes in higher education regarding how to best prepare an informed and socially responsible citizenry for a global 21st century. They identified characteristics of a psychologically literate citizen and asserted that such literacy was an important goal of all undergraduate education in psychology from the first course on.

It is not just for psychology majors. Although the psychology major remains very popular (88,000 bachelor's degrees in 2006)—and an increasing percentage of our citizens attend college—most students will not major in our discipline. However, psychology is second only to basic English composition as the most frequently taken course by college graduates, and our potential to affect our future citizenry is enormous. Yet I sometimes wonder how much of what we teach is based on what we want to teach about our discipline (our favored theories and concepts to those we hope to recruit to our field—a most worthy endeavor) and how much is based on what the average person needs to know to be a psychologically literate citizen.

To garner support for higher education's public good, the American Council on Education has launched the multimillion-dollar public education campaign "Solutions for Our Future." Its core message is: "America's colleges and universities: We teach the people who solve the problems and change the world." (See http://tsp.convio.net/site/PageServer?). Since so many of the world's problems are related to human behavior, perhaps we should add a tag such as: "Understanding psychological science is critical to these efforts" or "Psychological literacy is essential to change."

If our goal is to broaden the audience and its understanding of psychology, we must engage our nation's entire education community, across levels and institutional settings. Many APA members are actively engaged in such endeavors. But a concerted effort will take considerably more resources and effort. What role could you play in that endeavor?

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