Is psychology a science – a class debate

Mike Lamb
24th February 2016 at 15:47

Subject Genius, Mike Lamb, Is psychology a science - a class debate

I have always found debates useful for getting pupils engaged, talking and interacting with each other in psychology. As a way to formalise this I started to use a ‘Harkness Discussion ‘ ( with input from colleagues Brian and Rob (Thanks) who have used the approach successfully in history and geography.

Appropriate topics within the psychology AQA specification are many, considering ethics (pros and cons of animal research), nature vs nurture or in the example below ‘Is psychology a science?’ In this example I asked the pupils to do all of the research and notes outside of the classroom, leaving the lesson for the debate. I didn’t ask them to take one side of the debate but merely develop informed opinions. I set out the rules below and stayed out of the discussion until we brought it together at the end.

Here is the content of the guidance sheet I gave them.

Today we are going to discuss the following question.

Is psychology a science?

To do that we will need to…

  1. Consider what a science is.
  2. Consider if the goals of science are appropriate for psychology.
  3. Consider if psychology can and should claim to be a science.

The whole set will receive a single grade depending on your performance in this discussion. My role is to record the discussion and determine the grade.

A discussion for which everyone would receive an “A” would look like this:

  • Everyone participates, and more or less equally.
  • The pace allows for clarity and thoughtfulness, but not sleep!
  • There is a sense of balance and order: focus in on one speaker and one idea at a time.
  • There is an attempt to resolve questions and issues before moving on to new ones.
  • There is a clear sense of what the group has covered and how.
  • Comments are not lost.
  • The loud do not dominate; the shy are encouraged. Everyone is clearly understood.
  • The conversation is lively – but on topic.
  • When the process is not working, the group adjusts. Those unhappy with the process say so.
  • Students take risks and aim for originality.
  • Students back up what they say with examples, quotations, etc.
  • All students come well-prepared.
  • Research is referred to often.

The class will earn a “B” by doing most of the things on this list, a “C” by doing only half of what’s on the list and a “D” by doing less than half.


Mike Lamb teaches biology and psychology at Hurstpierpoint College, Sussex.