Do Whorf, Piaget and Vygotsky agree….?

Image of formal dinner

Consent, congruent… Do I know what they meant?

Conclusion, Distribution… All is confusion

Conservation, correlation… I need a vacation

Short-term, long-term… When is half-term?

Perhaps I’ll never be a rap artist! I’ve used eight words which you will find in most glossaries to accompany A Level or GCSE Psychology courses. Over recent years I’ve spent more time with individual students and have been reminded of the vital importance of language in gaining a mastery of these courses and, I imagine, most others. I expect the three learned gentlemen in the title would endorse that!

I’ve been struck by the lack of confidence that students have in using key bits of vocabulary. I’ve even encouraged them to keep an alphabetical ‘vocabulary list’. It probably goes without saying that confident understanding of key terms helps in understanding the teacher, the text book and exam questions. In the previous post I offered some thoughts on the ‘command words’. Clearly students also need to respond appropriately to the ‘Psychology words’, too!

Students have asked me, ‘Why are some answers better than others’? One of my responses is, ‘the answer that gains more credit uses well-chosen vocabulary more effectively’. I hope it doesn’t labour the point to quote the daughter of a friend who, on starting an A Level course, said ‘It’s all a matter of learning the key terms’. I don’t suppose any of us have counted up the number of specific terms, unfamiliar to the student, that crop up in even one Psychology topic. If we did this for ‘Remembering and Forgetting’ we’d have a lot, from ‘capacity’ and ‘coding’ to ‘working memory model’. I found at least 20 in the glossary in a GCSE Psychology textbook, and I could have added more, including the mysterious sounding ‘encoding specificity principle’. Do we teachers need to mentally revisit those moments when someone talks to us, perhaps about car parts or features of a computer system, and we have little idea of what is said because we don’t understand the vocabulary? Is that how a student feels when they start a new course? How can we help?

I’ve been giving advice about these key terms based on my simple analysis of what ‘confident mastery’ might mean in practice. I’ll illustrate my four-part view of this with ‘conformity’ as an example and questions for self-examination by the student:

  1. Can you write/say a short sentence to explain the meaning? For example, ‘conformity is a change in a person’s behaviour or attitudes to fit in with those of a group’
  2. Can you give an example to illustrate the meaning? For example, ‘a young girl decides to let her hair grow long because everyone else in her class has long hair. That is an example of conformity’
  3. Can you recognise situations to which this term applies, e.g. in exam questions? For example, a question might contain a scenario like this, ‘At short notice, Hattie, aged 16, goes to a posh dinner with her Dad. There are several knives, forks and spoons in her place setting. She is not sure which to use for each course. So, she looks around at the other diners and copies which ones they use.’ (Something like this happened to the blogger years ago in a small town in the West Riding of Yorkshire!). A confident student will recognise this situation as one in which Hattie shows conformity through informational social influence.
  4. Can you use the terms appropriately in answering questions? For example, a student might explain what happens in the situation outlined above using ideas such as these, ‘Hattie shows conformity as she behaves in a way which fits in with the other diners. She responds to informational social influence where she does not know what to do so copies what others do, who are more knowledgeable than she is. This would involve both public and private acceptance of which knives, forks and spoons to use, which could produce a permanent change in her behaviour. This would be an example of internalisation.’

I realise I’ve chosen an ‘easy’ example, but the same principle can apply widely. Clearly, to do this type of activity with every new term would take ages and distort the fascinating and multi-faceted process of learning. However, students could be occasionally asked to do something like this, perhaps as a ‘starter’ to a lesson or part of an assignment. It would certainly be a helpful part of revision for any student as exams approach, especially with the terms they understand least well.

Is this a helpful idea? I hope so!

Our anonymous writer, P, has many years experience of teaching and assessing GCSE and A Level Psychology in a large comprehensive school.