Why Study Educational Psychology?

Citation: Huitt, W. (2011). Why study educational psychology? Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/intro/whyedpsy.html


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There is much discussion about what young people should do in their childhood and youth to prepare them for success in adulthood.  Once the desired end results or the prerequisites for success have determined , it is necessary to determine the means or the conditions by which those can be brought about.  Education and schooling are two terms that are often associated with these conditions.

While education and schooling are sometimes thought to be interchangeable, there are some important distinctions as is evident in these basic definitions:

Education The process of:

(1) developing the capacities and potential of the individual so as to prepare that individual to be successful in a specific society or culture. From this perspective, education is serving primarily an individual development function.

(2) the process by which society transmits to new members the values, beliefs, knowledge, and symbolic expressions to make communication possible within society. In this sense, education is serving a social and cultural function.

Schooling Teaching and learning that takes place in formal environments.

Three categories of education are generally recognized: non-formal, informal, and formal (LaBelle, 1982).  Non-formal education begins at birth and continues throughout life.  It is provide by parents, siblings, friends, and so forth; it is constant and ongoing.  Informal education involves somewhat structured guidance of learning, but is done without a lot of formal structure.  Attending Sunday school or Boy or Girl Scout meetings would involve this category of education.

Formal education, or schooling, generally begins somewhere between 4 and 6 when children are gathered together for the purposes of specific guidance related to skills and competencies that society deems important.  In the USA, it generally continues through grade 12 for at least 75% of adolescents and then sporadically throughout adulthood.  In the past, once the formal primary or secondary schooling was completed, a person's activity in a formal teaching/learning process was over (Wagner, 2008).  However, in today's digital, information, or conceptual age, adults are quite often learning in formal settings throughout their working lives and even into retirement.

The definitions of schooling and education immediately raise some important issues: What is the nature of a human being and what is the nature of the society or culture in which the child is expected to be successful?  These larger questions are addressed to some extent in educational psychology courses, but are more readily addressed in developmental psychology and foundations of education courses.  That is why these courses are often prerequisites to courses in educational psychology.

Educational Psychology is a combination or overlapping of two separate fields of study.  The first is psychology, which can be defined as the scientific study of the mind and behavior (or behavior and mental processes), especially as it relates to individual human beings.  Note that it is the scientific study of mind or mental processes (covert or internal) as well as behavior (overt or external).  People who study psychological phenomena are not necessarily limited to the study of human beings (a large body of research relating to animals has been developed) nor are they limited to only studying individuals.  However, when studying groups of individuals, the focus is generally on how individuals perform within the group rather than the study of the group as a whole.  Scientists who study animals and people in terms of group- and institutional-behavior generally align themselves with sociology while individuals who focus on human culture and belief systems generally align themselves with anthropology.

The second field of study with which educational psychology aligns itself is education or more specifically schooling, as defined above.  That is, the primary focus of this subdiscipline of psychology is the scientific study of mind and behavior (or mental processes and behavior) in the context of formally socializing and developing the potential of individual human beings.

Educational psychology is therefore a distinct scientific discipline within psychology that includes both methods of study and a resulting knowledge base.  It is concerned primarily with understanding the processes of teaching and learning that take place within formal environments and developing ways of improving the affiliated operations and procedures.  Educational psychologists are interested in a wide variety of topics such as learning theories; teaching methods; motivation; cognitive, emotional, and moral development; and parent/child relationships.

Learning can be defined as the relatively permanent change in an individual's behavior or behavior potential (or capability) as a result of experience or practice (i.e., an internal change inferred from overt behavior).  This can be compared with the other primary process producing relatively permanent change--maturation--that results from biological growth and development.  Therefore, when a relatively permanent change in ourselves or others, the primary cause was either maturation (biology) or learning (experience), or, as is often the case, some combination of both.  As educators, there is nothing we can do to alter an individual's biology; the only influence open to use is to provide an opportunity for students to engage in experiences that will lead to relatively permanent change.  Teaching, then, can be thought of as the purposeful direction and management of the learning process.  Note that teaching is not giving knowledge or skills to students; teaching is the process of providing guided opportunities for students to produce relatively permanent change through the engagement in experiences provided by the teacher.

In summary, the primary purpose of schooling, which is only one of the institutional influences in a person's education, is to assist the individual to better develop his or her full potential as well as to develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to interact with the environment in a successful manner.  The family, religious organizations, and community also share primary responsibility in the educational process (see Huitt, 1999 for additional detail).

In my opinion, parents and educators should be concerned at least with helping students to develop individual capacities, acquire personal virtues, and provide service to others.  Developing capacities involves first identifying possible domains of performance and then providing students opportunities to successfully develop their capacities (i.e., to develop competence.) The acquisition of virtues is generally concerned with moral character, dealing with issues of the direction and quality of life and doing the right thing (verses competence which is concerned with doing the thing right).  Providing service to others acknowledges that individuals grow and develop within a social context and need to be concerned with positively interacting with that context.  All of these concern the development of a vision of who the person is as a human being, the individual's expectations about what is possible, and more specifically, the individual dreams, goals, and desires that one has for his or her life.  In an ideal society, the institutions of family, schools, religious organizations, and communities would provide a coherent set of opportunities for children and youth to engage in experiences that would result in high levels of expertise in these three areas and an attitude of striving for excellence in both individual and social development. However, the other major influences on the child or youth may not be providing appropriate opportunities.  Therefore, educators (or school personnel) must be very efficient when developing the specific goals and objectives that will be addressed in schools.

Educational psychology provides important background knowledge that preservice and inservice educators can use as the foundation for professional practice.  In combination with information on human growth and development and specific content knowledge, information on theories of learning and pedagogy provide the foundation for classroom and school methods and procedures.  What you will study in educational psychology is applicable to a wide variety of content- and age-specific teaching activities.

My viewpoint is that human beings are goal-seeking, teleological organisms.  That is, at their best, human beings do things for a reason or goal and strive to make meanings of their lives.  However, the process of learning in a particular domain or content area is complex.  Individuals develop a knowledge base through conditioning by the environment; they also actively construct a knowledge base through their seeking information and thinking about the subject based on their maturation and prior knowledge.  When knowledge (which may be either cognitively- or affectively-based) is purposely put into practice through an exercise of volition, conation, or will it leads to behavioral competence and, through reflection, to wisdom.

From my perspective, there is no single explanation of why people do what they do.  It is a combination of many factors, including the particular context or situation.  You will study these alternative influences so that you can make better decisions as you guide young people to develop vision, character, and competence, and provide service to others.  At the undergraduate level, the focus of educational psychology is on effective classroom practice, primarily as defined by research.  Theories of learning and other topics are covered in a supplemental manner.  The focus of the graduate-level courses is to provide an overview of the major theories of learning and development and how they can be applied in classroom settings.  At this level, a model of human behavior is presented and a discussion of the movement to the digital/conceptual age precedes an in-depth analysis of current theory and research.

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