Pupils are getting a taste of further education as well as behavioural sciences in the new Higher psychology, writes Eleanor Caldwell.
Admitting to a life-long fear of Jenny Long Legs, one girl in the Higher psychology class at Cumbernauld College accepts that systematic desensitisation might cure her. She admits that by working through a "phobic hierarchy" she might even manage to enjoy her lunch with a Jenny Long Legs in a box on the table in front of her.
For the 25 students in lecturer Yvonne Gilkison's twice-weekly Higher psychology class, this is a good example of a subject which is more than living up to their expectations after only a few weeks. School visits by college staff and leaflets entitled "Don't get left behind. Master the Mind for the Millennium!" persuaded 42 pupils from six schools in North Lanarkshire -Kilsyth Academy, Chryston High, St Maurice's High, Abronhill High, Cumbernauld High and Greenfaulds High - to sign up for the new Higher and attend the course at Cumbernauld.
Assistant headteacher at Kilsyth Academy, Maureen McKenna says Higher psychology is really popular. The school has six pupils taking the course. They appreciated being spoken to as adults by the visiting lecturers, and were very keen on attending classes at the college. It is an excellent opportunity, she says, for pupils to broaden their horizons and take a step towards higher and further education, while gaining an additional qualification.
Until now psychology has had no place in the school curriculum and has been offered only as an integral part of some Scottish Vocational Qualification awards at examination level.
Back in the relaxed seminar atmosphere at Cumbernauld College, students assiduously take notes on "Applications of behaviourism". Using operant conditioning in offering drug addicts financial reward for non-use gives pause for thought as they debate its morality. Alluding to aversion therapy for alcohol abuse, Gilkison refers to previous work and elicits the term emetic from one student. A video clip showing drug addicts in Thailand being fed a powerful emetic of a herbal infusion and then vomiting spectacularly, prompts wry smiles and looks of concentration. The language of the video is challenging, to say the least: "Any attempts to dichotomise the intrinsic biochemical from the behavioural environmental . . ."
However, the students are unanimous that the language of psychology causes them fewer problems than Shakespearean English. "Because it relates to us," one girl says, "it's so much easier."
In a discussion on environmental factors influencing behaviour, Gilkison tactfully asks the six college students in the class how they feel when, on a night out, they stick to soft drinks while everyone else is drinking alcohol. "You feel intoxicated too," says one girl, moving the case for the strength of environmental influence.
The relaxed atmosphere is clearly appreciated by the pupils. Despite being invited to address their lecturer by her first name, they haven't "dared" to do it yet.
But Gilkison says the class settled very quickly into the course, enjoying the first lessons on defence mechanisms and repression. In examination of dream analysis, she says they were embarrassed at first, but subsequently satisfied when they could relate their own experiences to wider psychological concepts. Early study of Freud and concepts such as penis envy, helped break down a lot of barriers.
Their understanding of Freud is evident in a discussion on the limitations of behaviourist theory. Nodding knowingly, the pupils confirm that behaviourists are uninterested in Freud's theories of the unconscious mind.
The pupils from the six schools all recognise the importance and relevance of psychology to their own development. In their varied choice of careers, including music and speech therapy, nursing, social work and the police force, they regard psychology as the essential "people" subject. Future parenting skills, they believe, will also be enhanced by a knowledge of positive reinforcement.
The Higher psychology course has three units and a final examination. Areas covered are wide-ranging: cognitive, social, biological, developmental and the psychology of individual differences.
Yvonne Gilkison says: "We're in a win-win situation for schools: they gain from our specialism using a human resource they don't have, and we help to maintain their pupils in school."
The Cumbernauld college principal, Brian Lister agrees, adding that the college, in a special collaboration with Lanarkshire Development Agency, is developing Higher psychology materials to enable students to complete further work from school or from home.
Back in class, the students are reminded that the process of learning is more complex than stimulus-response. Neither operant conditioning nor aversion therapy is required as they sit happily taking notes on the Skinner v Chomsky debate.