Education Leadership Conference

If there was one idea that everyone seemed to embrace at the Education Leadership Conference, it was that psychology needs to rethink its approach to America's schools. The field's wealth of knowledge in learning, teaching and behavior is not getting through to K­12 education as it should. And psychology can make that transfer happen, participants said, if it is willing.

First, they argued, psychologists need to think of education as a complex social system, from broad national associations down to informal social groups--cliques and gangs--in the schools. "We need to be aware of the complexity of that system," said Bill Hill, PhD, of Kennesaw State University. "We need to be sensitive to social and political relations within that system."

In doing so, psychologists must collaborate more with teachers and administrators in the schools, attendees said. "We cannot go in there in a heavy-handed way and say, 'We got the answers for you, we got the curriculum for you,'" said Hill. "In working with associations, teachers and administrators, we need to go in and listen to them first, and then have them listen to us."

Participants also agreed that psychology needs to work harder at exporting its knowledge to education--not just to grade school but to higher education and lifelong, distance and corporate education. If it doesn't, said Hill, the field loses out on the chance to boost learning and prevent violence, teen-age pregnancy and teacher burnout, to name just a few areas where psychologists interventions have proven effective.

Echoing that point in his closing statements was Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, who noted that "psychology should occupy a more central position in education because so many of the nation's problems are psychological in cause, consequence and correlate."

Installing psychology in schools

How can the field attain that more substantial position? Participants came up with numerous action steps for themselves: Get better informed about educational research grants and funding, mentor students, involve state psychological associations in the schools, and develop a "resiliency" curriculum to keep students drug-free and academically engaged.

The notion of a resiliency curriculum fit with participants' broader goal of expanding psychology's focus from fixing problems to also enhancing education--contributing more to behavior modification, instructional design and testing, in addition to addressing disabilities.

If the field doesn't get more involved in this way, said conference attendees, schools lose, and so does psychology. Without taking on a greater role, psychology risks, for example, marginalization as a discipline, fewer opportunities in the marketplace and a loss of psychology majors.

Another important thrust, said Zimbardo and others, is introducing psychology earlier in the grade school curriculum, at the middle or elementary school level. In fact, psychology's place in the K-12 curriculum was the focus of two conference working groups, which considered the following questions:

  • Assuming that psychology was part of the curriculum in public education, what knowledge should students have obtained by the end of elementary school, middle school and high school? Group members thought it impossible to answer such a sweeping question in detail. But they did suggest some level-appropriate reformulation of the National Standards for the Teaching of High School Psychology, currently being revised by an APA task force. They also recommended that APA's Education Directorate develop teaching modules in line with those standards and other disciplines' standards. Such modules could then be used at various educational levels, possibly even in interdisciplinary teaching, said group chair Nancy Dess, PhD, of Occidental College. "Of course," she said, "that would require cooperation between APA and other relevant organizations."

  • What should every preschool, elementary and secondary teacher know and be able to apply from psychological science that is relevant to classroom teaching and learning? Group members argued that before answering this question, psychologists must first ask how they can communicate better with teachers and overcome "cultural" differences between schools and academic psychology departments. For example, teachers are practice-oriented, while psychologist researchers are more theory-oriented.

To bridge this disconnect, educational and cognitive psychologists need to step up translation of their research into practice--and, said group members, that may require academic departments to reward researchers better for applying their work in schools. As another step toward fixing the disconnect, the group suggested building stronger networks within psychology and across to teacher education, possibly through an APA working group.

Meeting teachers' needs

It will take much more than a working group, however, to build stronger connections between psychology and schools. To realize the conference's vision of applying the best of psychology to education, conference participants said psychology needs to:

  • Increase collaboration between departments of psychology and departments of education.

  • Increase the number of future psychologists capable of applying their teaching, research and practice to education.

  • Develop collaborative models for academic psychologists and graduate students to work with educational systems.

  • Forge relationships with such groups as national education associations.

  • Build stronger ties between psychology's educational researchers and media groups.

  • Bolster translation of research to practice by, for example, conducting school-based research and identifying best practices.

  • Promote educational policies backed by solid research at community, state and federal levels.

Conference participants also recommended ways for psychology to boost its contribution to teacher preparation. Among their recommendations:

  • Develop psychology-related teaching modules for all levels of education.

  • Identify more clearly which parts of the education knowledge base come from psychological theory and research.

  • Raise consciousness of psychology's educational relevance within the field by, for example, holding more Education Leadership Conferences and emphasizing the field's educational applications in high school and college psychology courses.

  • Train teachers and future teachers in such psychology-based skills as promoting tolerance, resolving conflicts, recognizing emotional and behavioral problems, matching learning material with students' developmental stages and preventing burnout.

It is now up to psychologists, said Zimbardo, to take up this challenge: "We must work to support good teaching and to promote the concept that good teaching is a perfectable skill," he said. "Teachers are not born. They are made."