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Copyright © The British Psychological Society

Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society




British Journal of Educational Psychology (2008), 78, 507–526


q 2008 The British Psychological Society


Psychological theory and pedagogical

effectiveness: The learning promotion potential


Peter Tomlinson*

School of Education, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

Background. After a century of educational psychology, eminent commentators are still lamenting problems besetting the appropriate relating of psychological insights to teaching design, a situation not helped by the persistence of crude assumptions concerning the nature of pedagogical effectiveness.

Aims. To propose an analytical or meta-theoretical framework based on the concept of learning promotion potential (LPP) as a basis for understanding the basic relationship between psychological insights and teaching strategies, and to draw out implications for psychology-based pedagogical design, development and research.

Method. This is a theoretical and meta-theoretical paper relying mainly on conceptual analysis, though also calling on psychological theory and research.

Content. Since teaching consists essentially in activity designed to promote learning, it follows that a teaching strategy has the potential in principle to achieve particular kinds of learning gains (LPP) to the extent that it embodies or stimulates the relevant learning processes on the part of learners and enables the teacher’s functions of on-line monitoring and assistance for such learning processes. Whether a teaching strategy actually does realize its LPP by way of achieving its intended learning goals depends also on the quality of its implementation, in conjunction with o

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After more than a century of endeavour, the relationships and contributions of modern psychology to practical pedagogy are still the subject of dissatisfaction and critique from * Correspondence should be addressed to Professor Peter Tomlinson, School of Education, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK (e-mail: P.D.Tomlinson@education.leeds.ac.uk).

DOI:10.1348/000709908X318672 Copyright © The British Psychological Society Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society 508 Peter Tomlinson eminent commentators. A prime exemplar can be found in the first edition of the

Handbook of Educational Psychology, where Shuell (1996, p. 726) contended that:

: : : most of our knowledge about teaching and learning is fragmented, narrowly focused, and limited in the psychological understanding it can shed on the important problems of education.

Teaching and learning have typically been studied as separate entities [ : : : ] and complexities of the teaching-learning exchange have usually been ignored.

Virtually since the advent of modern empirical psychology, educational psychology has on the one hand been seen, in the tradition of its founding father Edward Thorndike (1903), as promising a firm scientific base, if not the only proper base (Mayer, 1996), for the design of effective teaching. From an equally early juncture, nevertheless, problems even with the conceptualization of such a possibility have been pointed out. From William James (1899) denying the possibility of psychological science directly generating schoolroom methods, to the pointing up of contrasts in status between descriptive theories of learning and prescriptive theories of instruction (cf. Bruner, 1964; Gage, 1964), and beyond (cf. Barrow, 1984; Norwich, 2000), such problems continue to be cited, with Weinert and De Corte (1996, p. 43) opining that ‘the question of how science can actually contribute to the solution of real educational problems continues to be controversial’.

As Lowyck and Elen (1996) point out, the above viewpoints tended to be expressed in the context of ‘meta-theoretical debates’ in educational psychology, whereas it should also be recognized that in the post-second World War period a much more systematic, ‘scientific’ approach to theory-informed practice emerged as a more or less coherent movement under the label of Instructional Design (cf. Reigeluth, 1996).

Originally associated strongly with behaviourist psychology, Richey (1986) defines this ‘uniquely American science’ as that of ‘creating detailed specifications for the development, evaluation, and maintenance of situations which facilitate the learning of both large and small units of subject matter’. Although Reigeluth (1996) contends that instructional design proponents have moved on to utilize the latest non-behaviourist theories, such as individual constructivism, Lowyck and Elen (1996) charge that the instructional design approach still does not solve the description–prescription problem and that its behaviourist legacy blurs the distinction between learning and instruction. In similar vein, whilst welcoming the precision and inclusiveness of the instructional design approach, in particular the fact that Reigeluth does distinguish between a theory of instructional design and a theory of learning, Oser and Baeriswyl (2001, p. 1035) nevertheless point out that an adequate pedagogy has also to show how these are linked.

The last decade or so has indeed seen increased worldwide attention to pedagogy in the senses both of teaching activity (Mortimore, 1999) and of understanding teaching (Leach & Moon, 1999) as a basis for optimizing practice. Nations have focused on the accountability of their education systems for achieving increasingly specified knowledge and capability outcomes, moving, as is well instanced in the UK, from an emphasis on assessment of outcome achievement to pursuing effectiveness of teaching strategy/process (cf. Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Leach & Moon, 1999;

Mortimore, 1999). However, these concerns have too often tended to be framed in terms of crude searches for ‘silver bullets’, whether by way of teaching strategies that ‘work’, constituting ‘good practice’, or by way of psychological paradigms that fully suffice (cf. Tomlinson, 2005). New debates on the nature and possibilities of evidence-based practice (cf. Thomas & Pring, 2004) nevertheless remind us that useful Copyright © The British Psychological Society Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society

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pedagogical insights need to be accompanied by some reflexive idea or meta-conception of the nature and power of their effective application.

Overview In this context, developing ideas originally mooted in Tomlinson (1995), the remainder of the present paper attempts a meta-theoretical contribution combining attention to two linked sets of issues whose separate treatment has arguably been part of the problem, namely: (a) the nature of pedagogical design effectiveness and (b) the relationship of psychological theory to pedagogical understanding and design.

Starting with (a), I first define the concept of the learning promotion potential (LPP) of a teaching strategy, based on an analysis of the core nature of teaching and on basics of the psychology of purposeful action. This LPP concept is then developed to take account of the complex, situated nature of teaching interactions. Next, I use the LPP notion as a basis for dealing with issue (b), specifying the nature of the contribution of psychology to pedagogical understanding and design within what will becomes a broader LPP framework, that includes an eclectic stance towards potential psychological resources. This LPP framework is then operationalized into a set of specific issues requiring consideration in the utilization of psychological theory for pedagogical design and evaluation. Given the inevitably ‘obvious’ nature of analytical insights, I subsequently offer brief discussion of implications of the LPP/critical eclecticism approach, including contrasting issues for those approaching pedagogy from psychology and those starting from teaching who might utilize psychology.

The concept of learning promotion potential The central basis for understanding pedagogical effectiveness must arguably lie in a valid analysis of the nature of teaching. We start, therefore, from the classic view (cf. Fenstermacher, 1986; Hirst, 1971) of teaching as deliberately attempting to promote learning.

Simple and obvious though this formulation may seem, its further examination reveals a degree of complexity and subtlety within the concept of teaching, whose ignoral has spawned spurious polarizations and correspondingly sterile debates in education circles.

Most importantly, this conception recognizes that teaching involves an interaction at least between teacher and learner(s), in the sense that neither can be removed from consideration, but need treating jointly. Closer scrutiny (cf. Tomlinson, 1985) reveals that the basic teaching interplay necessarily involves still further, irreducible, interacting elements including intended learning outcomes, context and resources, as well as learners, teacher and teaching/learning activity/process – the teacher and learner roles being typically fulfilled by different individuals. This fuller notion of teaching as a purposeful, situated interaction will be returned to below, but in order to introduce the LPP concept, it is useful to focus first on the centrality of learning within the concept of teaching.

Definitional aspect (1): In-principle embodiment of learning functions At its heart, teaching is a matter of a teacher engaging with one or more learners in activity intended to result in the learners gaining knowledge, capabilities, or qualities they did not have at the outset of the activity; that is to bring about their learning. Whilst the teacher makes an important contribution, as we will consider in more detail below, Copyright © The British Psychological Society Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society

510 Peter Tomlinson

it is the person in the learner role that does the learning. The teacher is by definition there to assist, but cannot do the learner’s learning for them. In this respect, it would be healthy to amend our everyday language tendency to treat teaching and teaching strategies/methods as ‘what teachers do’, and think conversely of teaching strategies as activities learners engage in with the teacher. Better still, the idea of teaching as interaction helps us remember that it involves two complimentary sides, either of which can be focused upon. Thus the same overt teaching activity might be referred to as ‘the teacher explaining something to the pupils’ or equally as ‘the pupils listening to the teacher’s explanation’. The current tendency to talk about ‘teaching/learning’ activities, as opposed just to ‘teaching’, perhaps indicates a growing if implicit recognition of this two-sidedness. Nevertheless, as I suggested in the previous paragraph, it is clearly possible to consider ‘teaching’ independently of learning, as all too many teachers appear to do (Calderhead, 1996; Oser & Baeriswyl, 2001).

Thus, placing learning and the learner centre stage, we can say that if the joint activity or inter-action constituting a teaching strategy is to be successful, it must have a learning function for the learner. That is, the learner’s engagement in the activity (in the above example: listening to the teacher explanation) must somehow embody or stimulate relevant learning processes within that learner. It may be useful to express this in terms of the well-known Chomskyan distinction: teaching activities are the surface structure of teaching, learners’ learning processes should be their deep structure, what’s going on within them.

By way of an example involving long-established ideas: we might accept the levels of processing theory of memory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972) or Ausubel’s comparable ideas on meaningful verbal learning (Ausubel, Novak, & Hanesian, 1978) as relevant to the robust acquisition of declarative knowledge. Insofar as we might then be interested in the teaching of declarative knowledge regarding, say, a particular scientific theory, then other things equal, ‘deep’/‘meaningful’ cognitive processing constitutes the requisite learning function for the acquisition of declarative understanding, and we would want to ask how far any potential teaching strategies/activities we might consider would be likely to embody or bring about such processing. In this respect, for example, the teaching/learning strategy of giving learners a brief verbal input explaining its meaning from various angles would appear to have some potential for stimulating such processing. Getting them to engage in an exercise considering its pros and cons against relevant evidence would probably have still greater potential to engage meaningful learning processes. On the other hand, just having them rehearse a particular verbal formulation of the theory, with no explanations, would on its own appear to have little potential to do this.

More generally, we can start to think of the LPP of a teaching strategy or classroom activity as the extent to which it is in principle likely to bring requisite learning functions into play and cater adequately for factors that influence them, thereby resulting in the intended learning gains. We may note briefly at this point that ‘the likelihood of bringing requisite learning functions into play’, as I have just put it, relates not only to the extent to which the learner activity would be likely to bring about the required cognitive learning processes, as discussed, but also to how far the envisaged learning activity has motivational properties affecting the likelihood that learners actually engage in it.

This and other aspects will be returned to below in relation to other facets of the teaching interaction. Before that, however, it needs to be pointed out that the LPP of teaching strategies relates not only to the embodiment of learners’ learning processes, but also requires consideration of the pedagogical functions involved in the teacher’s role.

Copyright © The British Psychological Society Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society

The learning promotion potential framework 511

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