Educational psychology is a young subfield that has seen tremendous growth in the last few years. Before the late 1800s, psychology did not arise as a distinct discipline, while earlier interest in educational psychology was primarily fueled by educational philosophers.
Some consider philosopher Johann Herbart as the “father” of the philosophy of education. Herbart believed that the interest of a pupil in a subject had a significant impact on the learning outcome and agreed that teachers should weigh that curiosity along with advanced experience when determining which form of teaching is better suited.
Later William James, psychologist, and philosopher made important contributions to the field. His 1899 seminal text Talks to Teachers on Psychology is known as the first social psychology textbook. The French psychologist Alfred Binet developed his renowned IQ tests during this same time frame. Originally the assessments were intended to help the French government recognize children with developmental disabilities in developing special education programs.
John Dewey has had a strong impact on education in the United States. Dewey’s views were radical and he thought schools should rely more on students than subjects. He promoted constructive learning and believed that a large part of the learning process was hands-on training.
More recently, an important taxonomy was created by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom designed to categorize and define specific educational objectives. He defined the three top-level domains as cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning objectives.
Major perspectives in the field of educational psychology
As with other areas of psychology, educational psychology researchers tend to have different perspectives when considering a problem.
• The behavioral perspective suggests that through conditioning all behaviors are learned. Psychologists who take this view firmly rely on the principles of operating conditioning to explain how learning is going to happen. Teachers may, for example, give out tokens that can be exchanged for desirable items such as candy and toys to reward good behavior. While such methods may be useful in some cases, the behavioral approach has been criticized for failing to account for such things as attitudes, cognitions, and inner motivations for learning.
• The developmental viewpoint focuses on how children learn new knowledge and skills as they grow. The popular stages of cognitive development by Jean Piaget are one example of an important theory of development that looks at how children grow intellectually. Through understanding how children think at various stages of development, educational psychologists can help understand what children at each point of their growth are capable of. This will help educators develop teaching strategies and resources that are better geared to specific age groups.
• In recent decades the cognitive viewpoint has become much more common, mostly because it represents how issues like experiences, values, feelings, and motives relate to the learning process. Cognitive psychology focuses on understanding how knowledge is thought, absorbed, remembered, and processed. Educational psychologists who have a cognitive approach are interested in learning, among other things, how children are inspired to learn, how they remember the lessons they know, and how they solve problems.
• The constructivist theory is one of the new theories of learning that focuses on how children consciously construct their world awareness. Constructivism seeks to take better account of the social and cultural forces influencing how children learn. The work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who introduced theories such as the proximal growth zone and educational scaffolding, greatly influenced this viewpoint.
Although educational psychology can be a relatively young discipline, as people become more interested in understanding how people learn, it will continue to develop.