Book title: Psychology in the Classroom: a teacher's guide to what works
Authors: Marc Smith & Jonathan Firth
Publication date: 2018
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
Psychology in the Classroom is an attractive book that surprised me with its broad scope. It brings robust, relevant and recent research about psychology to life through the lens of experienced teachers and researchers of psychology by explaining clearly and showing how concepts can impact teaching in the classroom.
Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, and Jonathan Firth is a Psychology teacher, author and teacher trainer. This experience helps to make this an accessible volume for teachers of all levels of experience. It does not have the veneer of an impenetrable, scientific volume, but one that does exactly what it says in the title: a guide for teachers of what works.
I read this book to reinforce my understanding of how pupils learn, and to uncover further aspects of cognitive science that would assist my development as a teacher. This book delivered in both respects, and the clarity of the writing made it an enjoyable read. I can imagine teachers will be able to make use of the ideas contained readily.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
Teachers of all levels, subjects and sectors would find this a pertinent and useful book. They will learn about the science of learning, the factors that facilitate effective learning and what research (or lack of) has informed these ideas. For example, teachers will learn that they might want to encourage mind-wandering to help pupils tackle challenging work, according to the insights revealed by recent research.
It also encourages teachers to broaden their thinking beyond knowledge and learning to embrace the importance of emotions and motivation by dedicating a whole chapter to these areas. Above all, the book cleverly brings all of these ideas together with the teacher in mind at all times. All ideas and research are summarised near the end of each chapter in a way that shows the impact in the classroom and ultimately on our pupils.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
Smith and Firth write like teachers who really understand their teacher audience: concepts are explained well and I was able to get a deeper understanding of cognitive (and non-cognitive) concepts, despite having no science background. Near the end of every chapter, the ideas under discussion are connected to the classroom, describing scenarios when the concept could be put to use by a teacher –this was a particularly welcome feature.
The structure of the book is organised in a helpful sequence too. There are eight chapters: memory and understanding; cognition; self-theories; creativity; emotions; resilience, buoyancy and grit; motivation; and independent learning. The authors say you can dip into chapters and reference other chapters regularly so you can easily follow up and do not need to read the book from cover to cover. I recommend you do read it in sequence, however. I enjoyed following the gradual build from the opening discussion of memory (helping to clarify the distinction between long-term memory and working memory, and rectifying some of the misunderstandings between these) to the final chapter on independent learning.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
There is a great deal of research mentioned throughout the book, much of which comes from the past few years. For example, in the chapter on emotions, the authors discuss some research by Nederkoorn and others from 2016. The study investigated boredom and revealed the extent of the psychological discomfort it can cause, which is important for teachers to consider as other studies have shown academic underachievement can be the result of boredom. The research mentioned in the book also includes new projects, for example, the authors mention the ‘invisibility cloak illusion’ (the concept of believing we observe more than we are observed) labelled by Boothby et al in 2017.
Another strength of this book is that it is very clear when popular ideas, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, are not underpinned by robust research. They are also quick to mention when research is not sufficiently robust to justify claims, such as when the sample size is too small.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
For a teacher relatively new to the science of learning, I took away a firmer understanding of memory, cognition, creativity and motivation. The research regarding ‘sleeping on a problem’ (‘Sleep on it, but only if it is difficult: Effects of sleep on problem solving’, 2012) was most provocative for my own practice. I will consider how I set certain activities in lessons, such as the four-part harmony exercises in A-level Music, to give students time to reflect (allowing some mind wandering) before completion.
The chapter on creativity was also inspiring: it reinforced the importance of knowledge in enabling creativity, and that curiosity and playfulness are essential for creativity to be nurtured in the classroom. I will reflect on my planning of creative tasks and consider how the starting points I provide stimulate curiosity and playfulness.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
'... it is clear that while creative thinking is a natural talent that young people have, it can easily be stifled by a badly structured task. Considerable attention should be paid to ensuring that the task inspires curiosity and playfulness. In order to achieve a ‘flow’ state, the learner must have expertise in the form of relevant prior knowledge and skills, and the task must be both challenging enough to keep them engaged while flexible and open enough to give them a sense of ownership in the process.' (p. 120).