Favorite Theories -- Interview

Unfortunately, there are a variety of critical need fields in education (e.g., math, science, and special education).  These critical need fields also see high teacher turnover.  Can educational psychology assist with the retention of K-12 educators?  If so, how?

Ormrod:  Good question. I think the retention issue is something that must be systematically addressed at state and district-wide levels.  One obvious problem is that, especially for people in STEM fields, teacher salaries can’t compete with salaries in other career paths.  There’s also the teacher burnout issue:  Full-time teaching is hard work, and it’s even more difficult and energy-consuming when children (a) face significant physical or cognitive challenges and/or (b) come to school convinced that they either can’t or don’t want to tackle important instructional goals. There are many possible solutions to these problems, but in one way or another they all involve money.  As citizens, we need to convince our fellow taxpayers that raising intelligent, well-informed future generations is important for everyone’s well-being and requires significant financial support.
As for what we can do in our individual teacher education classes, it’s important that we try to entice our students into these high-need fields.  One simple way is to show them the data:  “If you want to find a good teaching position after you graduate, you’ll have the greatest success in math, science, technology, and special education.”  Also, we should describe the strengths of students with special needs—they often have many—and provide concrete, research-based strategies for working effectively with them.
Reese-Weber:  Educational psychology can assist with retention by providing theoretical and applicable guides for keeping students motivated and interested in content.  Teacher turnover may be a function of students’ lack of interest in the subject areas (e.g., math and science).  Learning how to engage students in content that is not typically viewed as engaging or interesting may increase teacher retention.
McInerney:  Being a teacher is a multifaceted career and it is simplistic to consider that educational psychology can assist with the retention of K-12 educators in any specific way.  Teachers leave the profession for a multitude of reasons, some of which are positive (e.g., to enhance their lives by taking on new professional challenges), some might be pragmatic (e.g., to earn a better salary) and some might be negative (e.g., lack of teacher efficacy or dissatisfaction).  Nevertheless, educational psychology does provide useful insights into some important aspects of successful and engaged teaching such as the developmental nature of teacher efficacy and the importance of teacher efficacy (both personal teaching efficacy and general teaching efficacy) for effective and rewarding teaching. Educational psychology also provides many insights into effective teaching and learning from the students’ perspective; indeed the major purpose of educational psychology textbooks and associated texts is to catalogue this wealth of knowledge for informing teaching practice.  It is well documented that teachers who have good pedagogical and content knowledge are less likely to leave the profession.  But, as I said before, there are so many reasons for teachers leaving the profession that it would be simplistic to argue that a good foundation in educational psychology would stem the flow of teachers from the profession.  However, conversely, those teachers who have low teacher efficacy, and poor pedagogical and content knowledge are certainly more at risk.
Eggen:  This is an important issue, and it’s one that doesn’t have easy solutions.  If easy solutions existed, we wouldn’t have the problem.
To the extent that educational psychology can make a contribution to this issue, it is with a focus on professional knowledge. Educational psychology can help teachers in all areas acquire the professional knowledge—particularly the pedagogical content knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge, and knowledge of learners and learning—needed to become expert teachers.  As teachers’ expertise increases, their ability to promote their students’ learning and make their teaching more efficient will also increase, and their teaching will become more rewarding for them.  If their teaching becomes more rewarding, they will be less likely to leave the profession. 
This is admittedly a complex, long-term, and demanding process, but the acquisition of professional knowledge is the essential route to expert instruction, and expertise is essential for retention in the profession.  Educational psychology can help teachers acquire this professional knowledge.

At the post-secondary level, retention of incoming freshmen has become a prominent issue along with progressing them in a timely manner toward graduation.  How can we, as educational psychologists, impact the retention and progression of these students beyond our classrooms?

Ormrod:  An infuriating fact is that many of our colleagues in other academic departments don’t think they have anything to learn about how best to teach or assess knowledge of their subject matter.  Accordingly, when I served as assistant to the Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Northern Colorado, I organized an all-day faculty in-service event in which faculty members had no classes and instead attended various sessions related to effective teaching practices.  As it turned out, I couldn’t attend the in-service myself because I was in the hospital delivering my son Jeff that day, so I wasn’t able to observe how many faculty actually showed up or how well things went.  Rumors led me to believe that the faculty members who most needed the in-service were those least likely to attend.
Perhaps a more effective strategy might be to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines to write articles about effective teaching and assessment practices, as I once did with geographer friend David Cole in the teaching-oriented Journal of Geography.  In general, we educational psychologists tend to talk among ourselves using our discipline-specific lingo (often with a fair amount of know-it-all arrogance) and then wonder why no one else listens to us or reads our work.
Reese-Weber:  Our university provides freshmen who are at-risk with faculty and student mentors to help provide support and modeling of successful skills.
McInerney:  The retention and progression of students is an important issue as student dropping-out reflects a potentially great wastage of talent.  Educational psychologists can help by researching the reasons for the ‘drop-out’, and if these reasons are related to motivational reasons, sense of self reasons, and/or identity reasons then the educational psychologists may be able advise and counsel appropriately. If the reasons are related to a change of interest, enhanced job opportunities, and so on, then these factors may lie outside the influence of educational psychologists.  If the question more specifically relates to our own classes, educational psychologists can inspire students about the worth of the teaching profession, and help arm them with a battery of skills and attitudes to withstand any hard-times they may fall upon that might challenge their resolve to become teachers. However, it is important to note that a certain level of wastage is healthy in a system because students who decide they are not well suited to the teaching profession should dropout, rather than becoming unhappy and unfulfilled teachers.
Eggen:  The solution here is similar to the solution to the problem presented in previous item.  The way we use educational psychology to improve the retention and progression of students is through the quality of our educational psychology courses.  If students leave our educational psychology classes believing that they have learned little that is useful in the real world of teaching, they will be less likely to stay in teacher preparation programs.  On the other hand, if they leave our courses believing that they have acquired essential professional knowledge and skills—the knowledge and skills needed to help them become expert teachers, they will be less likely to drop out of teacher preparation programs.

From my experience, students have a difficult time applying the theories and concepts of educational psychology into their classroom practice.  For the instructors who teach pre-service and in-service teachers, how can we make those theories and concepts more practical and useful for the students?
 Ormrod:  For a long time I’ve been trying to convince my colleagues across the nation that organizing an educational psychology course around specific theories (a unit on behaviorism, a unit on constructivism, etc.) isn’t the best approach to take. Think about it: When teachers face difficult problems in their classrooms, how many of them are likely to ask themselves, “Hmm, how might I apply sociocultural theory in this situation?” Very few, I suspect.
Instead, as I increasingly gained experience teaching educational psychology, I gradually moved from a theories-based approach to a big-ideas organization structure that focuses on basic principles (which often transcend particular theories) and their applications. I describe this approach in a chapter in the upcoming book Challenges and Innovations in Educational Psychology Teaching and Learning (M. C. Smith & N. DeFrates-Densch, Eds.), to be released sometime in mid-to-late 2015. A big-ideas approach has been slow to catch on, however, as manifested in the fact that many more instructors use my Educational Psychology: Developing Learners book (which is organized partly around theories) than my shorter Essentials of Educational Psychology book (which takes a big-ideas approach).
In addition, not only must we conduct regular activities in which students must apply general principles and concepts to actual or realistic classroom scenarios and problems—that’s a no-brainer—but we must also assess students’ ability to apply what they’re learning. For example, when I taught undergraduate educational psychology courses (which I did fairly often up through 2008), one key assignment was for students to develop a lesson plan in which they not only spelled out what they would do in teaching a certain topic or skill but also why they would teach it that way, with their reasons being based on principles and theories of learning, cognition, child development, and/or motivation. It’s the latter component—thinking about the whys—that is too often missing in lesson planning.
A focus on application is possible even in multiple-choice tests. For instance, a test item might ask something such as “Which one of the following is the best example of teacher scaffolding?” and then present four choices depicting concrete teacher behaviors. Alternatively, an item might present a one-paragraph classroom scenario followed by four possible theoretical explanations of why events unfolded as they did.
Reese-Weber:  There are several ways that theories and concepts can be taught in practical and applicable ways. First, instructors should use multiple examples of concepts within the educational setting. Second, students should be asked to create multiple examples of concepts. Third, students should be asked to read case studies, view videos of classroom interactions, or observe in classrooms and connect theory and concepts to those experiences. For example, in my course, students are asked to read a case study and then apply multiple theoretical frameworks to that same case.
McInerney:  I am not convinced that students have a difficult time applying the theories and concepts of educational psychology into their classroom practice. It seems to me that this opinion reflects a stereotype about the lack of perceived usefulness of principles and practices drawn from educational psychology and psychology more generally. In educational psychology courses with which I am familiar, classroom-based examples are emphasized, and workshops designed to allow students to practice the relevant skills drawn from theory and research. On any visit to contemporary classrooms one would see a vast array of pedagogical techniques being employed that have their roots in learning and motivation theory. At the most elementary level, information on the importance of feedback, the usefulness of active involvement of students in learning, the effectiveness of various motivational strategies, the importance of well structured learning episodes, and, in general, information on how to develop powerful learning environments are all clearly drawn from educational psychology, and easily implemented in classrooms. I do not think students should have a difficult time applying these and other theories, principles and practices unless absolutely incompetent instructors have taught them.
Eggen:  I believe this is the single most important issue that exists in the teaching of educational psychology. Students often leave their educational psychology classes with essentially “inert” knowledge. They can describe each of the components of the classic model of human memory, for example, but they have little idea of how it can be applied in the real world of P-12 classrooms. This helps us understand why many faculty members in departments such as curriculum and instruction believe educational psychology is essentially irrelevant and has little to offer with respect to teacher preparation. This is a huge paradox because educational psychology arguably should be the most important class pre-service teachers take in their teacher-preparation programs.
                The solution is simple (but admittedly not necessarily easy). Pre-service and in-service teachers must have direct and concrete experiences with applying the theories in their educational psychology courses. As I said in my response to item 2, if they don’t have these experiences, their understanding of the theories won’t transfer. This means that educational psychology instructors must help pre-service and in-service teachers understand the concepts and theories of educational psychology, but they must also directly focus on applications in their own teaching. Pre- and in-service teachers must see concrete examples of the theories being applied to topics they will teach in the P-12 world. Simply “describing” and “talking about” applications isn’t enough. Doing so isn’t significantly different from the emphasis on teacher-centered instruction and rote memorization that is a problem in today’s P-12 classrooms.
                Again, and I’m saying this for the sake of emphasis, the idea that students should learn theory in their educational psychology classes and applications in their methods course is misguided. Students’ understanding won’t transfer. (Part of the problem is the fact that most methods instructors don’t understand the content of educational psychology well enough to help students apply it in their teaching.)
                If we, as educational psychology instructors, want our students to be able to apply the concepts and theories of educational psychology with their students, we must teach the applications ourselves. Again, teach, not simply discuss, these applications. 

As an educational psychologist, I tend to favor a few theories.  What theories would you refer to as your “favorites”?  Why?
Ormrod:  As I write my books, I try very hard not to play favorites, partly because I tend to think eclectically rather than exclusively within one theoretical framework.  My undergraduate training in psychology in the late 1960s was almost entirely within a behaviorist framework, with just a smidgeon of Piaget’s theory thrown into my developmental psychology class.  When I focused on educational psychology in graduate school in the early 1970s, the field was very quickly moving toward a more cognitive orientation.  After Ulric Neisser came to campus to give a lecture on this relatively new approach, his groundbreaking book Cognitive Psychology (1967) became required reading and opened up a whole new world and way of thinking for me.  As the field has more recently moved in contextualist directions (e.g., by building on Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory), I’ve gradually moved with it, although in this case through my own independent readings rather than through explicit training.  In general, I’m a staunch advocate of “mix-and-match”:  Different theories are useful in different situations and can help us look at educational problems from different angles.
Still, I must confess that my heart lies in a blend of information processing and constructivist theories, in large part because of my graduate school years.  In fact, Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology effectively integrated information processing and constructivist ideas, to the point that debates between information processing theorists and constructivists have never made much sense to me.  Another early game changer—for others as well as for myself—was Bransford and Franks’ 1971 article in the journal Cognitive Psychology.
Reese-Weber:  Social learning theory is one of my favorites.  I strongly believe that the demonstration or modeling of social skills, emotions, academic skills (reading, writing, completing math problems), time management skills, and many other important aspects in educational settings is key to facilitating learning.  For example, as stated above, instructors should provide numerous examples of concepts and then ask students to do the same.
McInerney:  As an educational psychology teacher and textbook writer, I am eclectic.  I believe that all contemporary theories of learning and teaching, and associated theories such as motivation theories, have something to offer.  There is no one approach suitable to all situations, and teachers should be armed with many different skills to enhance effective learning. However, as an academic educational psychologist and researcher, I focus on motivation theory, and, in particular Personal Investment Theory (see Maehr, M. L. & McInerney, D. M. (2004). Motivation as personal investment. In D. M. McInerney & S. Van Etten (Eds.), Research on multiculteducation and international perspectives Series: Vol.4. Big Theories Revisited (pp.61-90). Greenwich, CT: Information Age, and King, R. B., McInerney, D. M. (2014). Culture’s consequences on student motivation: Capturing universality and variability through personal investment theory. Educational Psychologist, 49, 175-198.)
PI theory focuses on how persons choose to invest their energy, talent, and time in particular tasks and is particularly helpful in studying motivation in diverse settings.  It does not assume that people from a given culture or social group will choose to invest their effort in the same set of activities.  Neither does it assume that they invest their effort for the same reasons.  PI theory rests on the assumption that whether persons will invest themselves in particular activities or domains (e.g., academics, sports, work) depends on the interaction among three components: sense of self (who am I?), perceived goals (what do I want to achieve?), and facilitating conditions (what is the environment like?).  The reason I focus on this theory is that it provides a much broader schema for examining motivation in school settings than the more restricted schemas provided by achievement goal theory, attribution theory, self-regulation theory, self-determination theory and a range of other theories of motivation popular in educational psychology today.
Eggen:  I have a number of “favorites.” The general pattern that exists in all my favorites is their application in the real world, both the real world of teaching and the real world as we live it in our daily lives.
So, to begin, I am a big fan of both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development.  Piaget’s concepts of equilibrium and centration explain a great deal of behavior in both classrooms and in the real world. For example, even though centration is considered to be characteristic of the thinking of young children, we see it frequently illustrated in adult behavior.  Also, both theories help us understand why experience is so important for learning and development, and the emphasis on experience even relates to neuroscience research focusing on our brains’ neuroplasticity.  This research suggests that with the right kinds of experiences we can literally become “smarter.”  This is one of the most exciting research findings in many years.  As we continue to acquire experiences, our development advances throughout our lives. These are theories that apply to all of us—children and adults alike—and they apply to us every day.  Vygotsky’s emphasis on the use of language is also powerful. This emphasis suggests that we should have our students use as much language as possible to support their developing understanding.  The use of language may be even more important in math and science, where it is often under-used.
Information processing is another of my favorites.  Although criticized in some respects, it arguably has more implications for classroom practice than any other theory. For instance, it helps us understand that to promote learning we must first have our students’ attention; then we must ensure to the extent possible that our students accurately perceive our examples and other representations.  Perhaps most important, it helps us understand that working memory, because of its limitations, can easily be overloaded, and teachers often do overload students’ working memories with lengthy lectures and explanations.  It helps us understand a common teachers’ lament, “I explained it so carefully, and it was as if they didn’t hear a word I said.” It has many more applications, such as suggestions for promoting meaningful encoding and the power of metacognition.
Constructivism is likely a favorite of all educational psychology instructors, and it is certainly one of mine.  The reason it’s a favorite is that it is so “real.”  For instance, we know that, fundamentally, we all want our experiences to make sense.  So, to meet this goal we construct knowledge that makes sense to us.  This helps us understand why students sometimes have and retain misconceptions.  Individuals construct the misconceptions because the misconceptions make sense to the individuals (and help them achieve and maintain equilibrium).  This also helps us understand why simply explaining often does little to eliminate misconceptions. Until a misconception no longer makes sense to individuals, they are likely to retain it.  Regarding misconceptions, I believe that some exist with respect to constructivism.  For instance, it is a theory—or principle—of learning, but it is sometimes misconstrued as a theory of instruction, as in “constructivist instruction.”  Constructivist instruction doesn’t exist; it is a principle of learning, not instruction.  Constructivism has important and powerful implications for teaching, which is another reason it’s one of my favorites.  For instance, it helps us understand why providing high-quality experiences for our students is so important (they are what students use to construct their knowledge and meet standards), why interacting with students is essential, and why assessment is one of the most important aspects of the teaching-learning process.
Self-determination theory is another of my favorites.  For instance, it helps us understand why we see so many people attempting to demonstrate how competent or “smart” they are, why autonomy and self-direction are so important for people, and why we need to feel connected to others.  The needs described by self-determination theory are real for all of us, and they have powerful implications for the way we teach and the way we live.
Goal theory is also one of my favorites, and I have applied in my own life in areas such as exercise and weight control.  If, and this is a big if, we could get students to commit to goals, this goal commitment is one of the most powerful motivators that exist.  However, getting students to commit to moderately challenging but attainable and measurable goals is very difficult, so goal theory is often difficult to apply in classrooms.
Finally, I am a fan of expectancy x value theory.  For instance, it helps us understand why practical application is motivating; it helps us understand how to promote intrinsic interest in students, and it also helps us understand why success on trivial tasks is not motivating.  I could offer other examples of “favorites,” but I have already been somewhat lengthy, so I’ll stop here.

Biographies of the Featured Authors

Paul Eggen has worked in higher education for nearly 40 years.  He is a consultant for public schools and colleges in his university service area and has provided support to teachers in 12 states.  Paul has also worked with teachers in international schools in 23 countries in Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, Central America, South America, and Europe.  He has published several articles in national journals, is the co-author or co-editor of seven books, and presents regularly at national and international conferences.  Paul is strongly committed to public education. His wife is a middle school teacher in a public school, and his two children are graduates of public schools and state universities.

Marla Reese-Weber is a Professor in the Psychology Department at Illinois State University.  She received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at Illinois State University.  Marla went to The Ohio State University and received her doctorate degree in Human Development and Family Science.  Her research interests continue to be on how the family context influences adolescents and emerging adults (i.e., 18-27 year olds), specifically their romantic relationships.  Marla has taught several undergraduate and graduate courses in her department, but the two she has most often taught are Educational Psychology and Adolescent Development.  Dr. Reese-Weber is the co-author of an educational psychology textbook, EdPsych Modules, that provides a modular approach and includes multiple case studies.

Professor Dennis M.   McInerney began his career as a primary and secondary teacher in Sydney, Australia. He joined a teachers college in 1975 as a lecturer and progressed from there to a variety of academic, administrative, and research posts at the University of Western Sydney, The National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and The Hong Kong Institute of Education.  Professor McInerney began his research career with his B.Ed and M.Ed (Hons) theses examining the development of multiculturalism within Australian schools.  This work was followed by his doctoral research examining the motivational determinants of school achievement for non-traditional Aboriginal students in New South Wales.  From these early research roots, Professor McInerney developed an extensive research agenda examining motivation, learning, and self-processes among a diverse range of cultural groups, including urban Indigenous Aboriginal and remote Indigenous Aboriginal groups in the Northern Territory of Australia, Navajo and Yavapai Indians in the United States, Chinese in Hong Kong, Malays, Chinese and South Asians in Singapore, and Lebanese and other immigrant groups in Australia.  The major focus of these studies has been the psychological determinants of school engagement of underachieving minority groups.  A range of competitive grants has supported these studies.  Professor McInerney has published over 300 research articles, edits two international research series, Research on Sociocultural Influences on Motivation and Learning (Vols 1-10) and International Advances in Self Research (Vols 1-4).  He has written major textbooks, including Educational Psychology: Constructing Learning (Pearson 6th Edition, 2013), Helping Kids Achieve Their Best: Understanding and Using Motivation in the Classroom (Allen & Unwin, 2000 and republished by Information Age Publishing, 2005), and Publishing Your Psychology Research (Sage and Allen & Unwin, 2001).  

Jeanne Ellis Ormrod is currently Professor Emerita of Psychological Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado.  The “Emerita” means that she officially retired from her position there, but she isn’t really retired at all.  After returning to her native New England in 1998, she taught several courses at the University of New Hampshire as an adjunct professor, and she continues to give occasional guest lectures elsewhere.  But. she now devotes most of her time to updating and (she hopes) improving her textbooks, including Human Learning, Essentials of Educational Psychology, Educational Psychology: Developing Learners, and Practical Research.

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