Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, views his life as a lesson in the importance of teaching.

Born in a South Bronx ghetto, Zimbardo climbed to research prominence in psychology at Yale and Stanford universities and the post of APA president in 2002. In his opening keynote address at the 2003 Education Leadership Conference (ELC), Sept. 5-8, in Washington, D.C. (see the following pages for more ELC coverage), Zimbardo said he credits much of that success to the psychology teaching and mentoring he received along the way.

As a result, he said, he's devoted much of his career to bolstering others' psychology teaching--through, for example, his well-known "Psychology and Life" textbooks and "Discovering Psychology" video series. Zimbardo paid homage to psychology educators in his speech, and invited them to help him promote quality teaching through improved teacher and student assessment and heightened education advocacy--all major ELC themes.

"I want us to resolve to put more psychology in our lives and more life in our psychology," Zimbardo urged.

What every teacher needs

To bring such life to their instruction, teachers, Zimbardo said, should ensure that they have:

  • Charisma. Beyond just imparting knowledge, teachers have to add sparkle so students absorb and retain information, said Zimbardo. Any teacher can cultivate charisma, Zimbardo added, arguing that, "It's a perfectable skill. It's not something people are born with. It just takes a lot of work, commitment, time and passion."

  • Accountability. Teachers need feedback because it makes them feel more responsible for their performance, said Zimbardo. But beyond student ratings, often skewed by such factors as gender, personality and teaching experience, teachers need regular--perhaps weekly--course feedback from students, input and advice from peers, and self-review, he said. In addition, he suggested that teachers instruct students to set, and attempt to meet, their own learning goals.

  • Resources. Teachers require government, societal and administrative support, including money, to do their jobs well, and that support "has been drying up at the local, state and national levels," said Zimbardo. Rather than high-stakes testing of students, which Zimbardo believes encourages teaching to the test, teachers ought to have stimulating continuing education, more funds for teaching activities, higher salaries and encouragement to be creative. He advised ELC participants to advocate locally and nationally for change on these fronts.

Ways to teach effectively

Funding aside, classroom creativity can blossom, Zimbardo said, through several simple social psychology-derived interventions:

  • Cooperative learning. Urge students to share knowledge and support one another to spread education's benefits. Research shows, for example, that the same kind of "study gangs" that help Asian-American students to excel in math also help African-American and Caucasian students to enhance their performance. Working with peers, the research suggests, promotes appreciation of teamwork and personal responsibility to others; it also reveals when a math problem is difficult for everyone or only for one student. Similarly, the "jigsaw classroom," organized into ethnically diverse groups that divvy up study tasks and take tests together, has been found by psychologist Elliot Aronson, PhD, to decrease racial prejudice and performance disparities. Also, "partner testing"--in which two students collaborate on answers--dramatically boosts student test performance, according to Zimbardo's research.

  • Demonstrations. Illustrate class material in ways that, from students' perspectives, add magic and memorability. Zimbardo, for example, had a rat named "Hercules" show off his classical conditioning skill by pressing a bar that triggers a pellet; over trials, the rat had to exert ever more effort until he was bar-pressing more than his own body weight.

  • Special topics. Renew your interest in course material, and pass that on to students, by injecting new topics and angles. "You can't teach the same lecture over and over again and stay interested--you want something to challenge you," Zimbardo explained. He, for instance, recently read Primo Levi's book, "Survival in Auschwitz" (Touchstone Books, 1995), spurring him to add a unit on the psychology of survival to an introductory course.

  • Special guests. In a similar vein, add interest to courses by inviting unusual or thought-provoking speakers. Some of those who've visited Zimbardo's courses include San Franciscan street kids, survivors from the People's Temple cult in Jonestown (see page 36) and South American torture victims, as well as celebrities like Malcolm X and football coach Bill Walsh.

These teaching strategies, Zimbardo said, enable him to meet his goal of transforming students. By using such strategies and understanding the values associated with them, other teachers, he said, can do the same.