Every move you make...;Subject of the week;Social sciences

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Many students take up psychology with enthusiasm, only to be disappointed by a lack of practical work drawing on real-life situations. But things are changing, writes Christine Brain

Put it down to television's Cracker or the enduring appeal of confessional shows such as Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer. Whatever the reason, psychology is a popular subject at GCSE and A-level. At least, that is, among girls, who represent something like three-quarters of psychology students. But the tide is beginning to change in the gender gap, now that links with computers and artificial intelligence have been given a higher profile.

The demand has meant an increase in the number of psychology teachers who are non-specialists. Schools that want to offer the subject are more likely to pressurise their staff to take it on for five or six hours a week rather than get someone in from outside.

That being so, it's important that psychology teachers know how to enliven a syllabus that may or may not match their students' reasons for taking the subject in the first place. The most dominant of the syllabuses, the AEB, had more than 16,000 students following it last year as well as 8,000 modular entries.

The AEB has a standard, traditional approach to psychology, more theoretical and less practical. It is supported by textbooks all featuring the same material with little new research. For example, there is usually a chapter on social influence, dominated by research carried out in the 1960s and 1970s. Because of costs, most schools and colleges tend to choose one textbook to follow, even though teachers are aware that students learning from one chapter of one book are likely to be limited in their achievement - and will inevitably write essays that look pretty much like everyone else's. To use another textbook containing the same material isn't going to help, either.

But the year 2000 will bring several major syllabus changes in other boards offering psychology. Non-AEB syllabuses - Edexcel, NEAB and OCR - are offering more attractive, practical options. They will include the standard approaches focused on by the AEB (learning through statistics, methodologies, biologicalneuro-psychology, ethical issues), but will also offer health, educational and criminal psychology, allowing more scope for discussion and different teaching styles. That's the good news.

But while some chapters for these subjects can be found in existing books, by and large these syllabuses are served with few resources. That's the bad news.

So, while a more flexible, updated non-AEB syllabus might look just the thing to motivate and energise students, the non-specialist teacher may be better advised to choose the AEB because it is so much better resourced. But there's a downside to that, too, because its limited teaching styles are prescriptive and difficult to master.

What's a teacher to do? Opt for the flexible, practical, popular but under-resourced approach or follow the tried and tested, traditional road and risk being less exciting?

There is a strong argument for taking a more practical, non-traditional route, whatever syllabus you choose for GCSE and A-level work. It will demand more legwork to find the resources you need. For instance, if you choose to work on sports psychology, you'll have to search for appropriate materials at, for instance, your nearest higher education college. Or you could try the Internet which, with its American bias, may or may not be appropriate. Increasingly, universities are taking specific issues, rather than dividing psychology up into tight academic sub-sections, and then applying psychology to them.

If you choose a current news issue, the media can be a powerful vehicle for illustrating this type of practical work. Take the Monica Lewinsky affair. What more powerful example for studying body language could there be than analysing photographs or videos of the beret-wearing Monica kissing Clinton in a crowd of admirers? Students can watch for how much direct eye contact and indirect gestures are made between the two, how their bodies are positioned in relation to each other, what their hands are doing and even in what direction their feet are pointed. (When there is a physical attraction between two people, even if the body is turned away from the other person one foot is often pointed at them.) It appears that students choose psychology for the same reasons that they watch fly-on-the-wall documentaries or EastEnders, which is to be exposed to problems and experiences from everyday life. If this is so, a practical approach, drawing on events or situations they know to be real, has to be more successful and engaging than going through chapter after chapter of a rigid syllabus, learning theories and studies with their evaluations, and then repeating it all in an exam essay.

Christine Brain is programme manager for school sciences and A-level co-ordinator at Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology. She also edits the Association for the Teaching of Psychology's newsletter Nososmith Technology has changed our lives dramatically. Watching Dirty Harry (1971) on television recently, I noticed how poor Clint Eastwood had to run from phone box to phone box to receive instructions from the kidnapper; nowadays he could have used a mobile. And in The Ipcress File (1965) Michael Caine's office is full of dusty filing cabinets, typewriters, and an ageing, smoking secretary.

So, given the technological transformation of the workplace, why have schools remained much the same as in the 1960s? And, more importantly, why have modes of teaching and learning in our information-rich society remained much as they were in the information-poor earlier years of the century?

Social scientists understand that society needs to change, and they have welcomed the Internet because it means that changes can be captured and discussed. Although there is no established sociology of the Internet, world-wide electronic communication is an aspect of the post-modern world which cannot be ignored.

Within three to five years' time, one machine will house television, video and computer. So education will change too, won't it? Will ways of teaching and classrooms be transformed so that the role of the teacher as information provider will go? Will the school of the future be an information centre for all ages, operating 24 hours a day, where parent and child can learn together, where better-paid teachers will be skilled facilitators, diagnosing and problem-solving and setting up group activities to "play" with ideas and expand perception?

The reality is special rooms with too few and too slow computers, booked in advance and liable to crash as soon as someone inexperienced approaches them. And a world where teachers fear pornography lurking around every corner on the Internet.

How can the gap be bridged? As social scientists we cannot ignore the Internet, but skilled teachers are needed to manage the resources. While Web sites may look authoritative, the Internet is awash with pseudo-research and propagandist material. It can be helpful to share information about useful sites with others in the same boat. The site of Hewett School (http:www.hewett.norfolk.sch.-ukcurricsocscience.htm) for instance, lets trainee teachers contact kindred spirits.

The best solution is to create an Intranet, a school-based network which takes materials from diverse sources and connects them with learning advice, recall tests and skills training. Helen Richard, a PGCE student who graduated from Keele University in 1998, devised an excellent Intranet on the underclass for her Year 12 A-level sociology group. This meant that, although all the teaching came from her, she did not have to stand in front of a class all the time. She could give more individual attention to students and set up more interesting group discussions.

The average teacher would need skilled support to turn the teaching plan into a technical reality, but it ought to be possible for the teacher to provide the blueprint for a technician to actualise.

The first stage in creating an Intranet is to find good sites to download. Tony Lawson, lecturer in education at Leicester University and a recently-retired chief examiner for AEB sociology, runs a site for the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences. It gives other useful site addresses as well as teaching materials.

IT should liberate teachers and students from the 19th-century style of copying from textbooks. And it will need creative social science teachers to exploit and channel the information highway into everyone's home in a usable and friendly form.

Hotspot sites:l http:www.le.ac.ukeducationcentresATSSatss.html. Other sites accessed via the ATSS site are:l http:www.pscw.uva.nl.socio-siteindex.htmlStudents may need supervision.l http:sosig.ac.ukThe Social Science Information Gateway gives an overview of available resources.Other sites:l http:www.homebeats.co.ukExcellent anti-racist material.l http:www.upmystreet.comPut in a postcode and it produces interesting locality information.l http:www.illusionworks.comFor psychologists teaching optical illusions.l http:www.topss.htm. This is an excellent American site run by the American Psychological Society. l http:www.spsp.clarion.eduAs part of the topss site Mark Mitchell's home page gives the text of the third edition of an excellent psychology book.l http:www.bps.org.ukBritish Psychological Society.l http:www.timeplan.comExcellent politics resources.

Pat Smith is social science tutor for the PGCE at Keele University, and reviews editor for the ATSS Nosotony The social sciences have had their detractors over the years. Following Margaret Thatcher's often quoted assertion that "there is no such thing as society", the national curriculum ignored them and advertisers and journalists mocked them as the "ologies we all love to hate".

The tide, though, is finally changing. Social scientists are emerging in a range of senior positions in universities, think-tanks and corporate life; social exclusion is dominating the political agenda, and issues on "education for citizenship" and "preparation for adult life" are playing a central role in the national curriculum review. Meanwhile, the social sciences remain popular at A and degree level and make a critical input to general national vocational qualification programmes in areas such as health and social care, and leisure and tourism.

However, in schools, and to a lesser degree colleges, social scientists are still often isolated figures working in small, sometimes one-person departments, excluded by virute of their aca-demic expertise from the classic career progression paths. Moreover, teacher training remains dominated by a commitment to the traditional subjects of the grammar school curriculum (in the recent report on Education for Citizenship, Professor Bernard Crick commented on how the shortage of specialists in the social sciences threatens the delivery of the kind of high-quality citizenship education that his Department for Education and Employment-supported paper advocates).

How, then, might the lone social scientist, whether trained in the specialism or not, seek to challenge this isolation and ensure their professional development? Here, the specialist subject associations, like the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences (ATSS), the Politics Association and the Association for the Teaching of Psychology, can play a vital role on a number of levels.

First, by providing access to teachers in a similar position through meetings, conferences and student activities, these associations counter the isolation problem. Second, through these events, the resources they publish and the networks they open up, they provide a vital source of in-service training. Therefore, particularly for the non-specialist, they provide a means by which subject knowledge can be developed. Third, as voluntary associations maintained by the efforts of working teachers, their executive bodies and local groups provide opportunities for participation that serve to enhance teaching practice and organisational and managerial skills. Finally, through the publication of their own journals and newsletters, teachers can keep abreast of new developments and events, as well as contribute to the publications.

Public examining at GCSE or A-level provides an opportunity to work with senior examiners and understand the examining process, while making contact with a local education authority's advisory service may open up further INSET opportunities. Few authorities support the social sciences as a discrete area of knowledge, but humanities advisers and PSE specialists will assist teachers who wish to develop their own provision.

Indeed, with a new national curriculum about to emerge - one focusing on citizenship and the clear admission that there is such a thing as society - schools, colleges and LEAs are likely to find that social scientists, for so long disguised as GNVQ managers, careers teachers, community service organisers and work experience co-ordinators, are valuable in their own right and for their specialist knowledge. Sociology and the social sciences have come of age.

Tony Breslin is chair of the ATSSand general adviser (14-19) in the London borough of Enfield.ATSS, PO Box 61, Watford WD2 2NH.Politics Association, Old Hall Lane, Manchester M13 0XT.Association for the Teaching of Psychology, co Chris Brain, Brunswick Campus, Gloscat, Brunswick Road, Gloucester GL1 1HL.

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