What’s the issue? Embedding issues and debates throughout the course

Where to start?

I’m someone who likes to keep mixing things up to see if new combinations of ingredients result in surprising and delicious outcomes, like Heston Blumenthal’s egg and bacon ice cream. Enjoying the freedom of being able to teach topics in any order, I can’t resist tweaking the Scheme of Work to see what new magic could emerge.

When I started my new Head of Department job 18 months ago, I set my department the goal of increasing the proportion of high grades (A/A*) and we decided that a key strategy would be developing students’ understanding of how to use Issues and Debates for higher level evaluation. With this in mind, we launched into Issues and Debates at the beginning of Year 2, and at the same time we started with Approaches in Year 1, in order to start building the vocabulary and overview necessary for students to engage with the nature-nurture debate, determinism and reductionism.

Those knotty philosophical issues

Some of our Psychology students also study Philosophy, and are often a step ahead of the class (and sometimes of me!) in understanding abstract ideas such as free will and determinism. Most 16-year-olds, however, find these abstract concepts quite challenging and it helps to be able to apply them as we go, linking to topics learnt in Year 1. This makes the Issues and Debates topic less knotty and more of a theoretical framework for knowledge they have already acquired in an applied form.

For example, we can look at Bowlby’s theory as a ‘nature’ theory of attachment, with the ability to form attachments selected through evolution and inherited genetically, so this behaviour is biologically determined. We can also consider Bowlby’s view of innate differences between male and female parents, which is an example of gender bias, and then refer to evidence showing that males are also excellent caregivers, showing that the bias is not valid and has had detrimental effects on government and workplace policy as well as fathers’ and mothers’ career/caring choices. In contrast, the learning theory of attachment takes a ‘nurture’ stance, and is also environmentally deterministic, regarding attachment as learnt through association and reinforcement. Using this topic as an example has the benefit of making several issues and debates more concrete, as well as being an opportunity to revise Attachment after the long summer break.

Spaced repetition and an upwards spiral of confidence

When students first start Psychology, they are jumping in at the deep end. We are asking them to take on board huge amounts of new vocabulary and factual information; in addition they are explicitly learning soft skills including how to study, discuss, write extended answers, evaluate theory, do research, use evidence and evaluate it, as well as our implicit expectations for their independence, motivation, classroom behaviour and the social norms in their peer group which may support or conflict with our requirements. This is a lot to handle! And it’s not surprising that some of the psychological concepts and terminology sink to the bottom of this mass of new memories.

Spaced repetition will certainly help to ensure that the key concepts are retained and improve their availability for retrieval by creating cognitive links to as many other concepts as possible. So I have started with Approaches at the beginning of Year 1, giving students a framework that can then be referred back to and built on. We start to mention words such as ‘deterministic’, ‘reductionist’ or ‘nature-nurture’, ‘gender/ culture biased’ as they seem appropriate for evaluating approaches, without spending too much time defining them. This gives a degree of familiarity that can be developed formally the following year. See also https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jan/23/spaced-repetition-a-hack-to-make-your-brain-store-information, which explains the research evidence for spaced repetition, and how to use it.

A spiral curriculum is used extensively in Science and Maths teaching, where students keep revisiting the same topics but building on their understanding each time. I wonder how many times they learn about bar charts from age 5 onwards! We try to do the same through the two years of the A-level course. This year I decided to cover all six approaches at the beginning of Year 1 (just because we could) but leave ‘Comparing Approaches’ for next year, after they’ve covered ‘Issues and Debates’, as a summary exercise.

Going deeper – the second year

I am really enjoying taking the second cohort of students through the second year of the new A-level. They are doing so much better with Issues and Debates as they have met it all several times in bite-sized chunks. Having written specific essays on each Issue/ Debate, they have some very useful sentences or paragraphs that can be incorporated into a discussion in the new option topics. Of course, they need to be taught how to avoid generic slot-in evaluation (which doesn’t get much credit) but develop their points in relation to the particular topic, linking clearly to examples and research. We are fortunate to be able to give each student the ‘Complete Companions Revision and Exam Companion books for Year 1 and Year 2, and these have some useful sample essays. We use them to spot well-developed discussion points, or to improve them by adding a sentence that explicitly explains the link between the issue and the topic.

For example, I particularly like the last paragraph of the application essay about gender identity disorder on page 121 of the Year 2 Revision and Exam Companion (I wrote this paragraph and I am very proud of it!):

‘The whole issue of GID is socially sensitive, as Cal could become very distressed if he thinks his feelings are not being taken seriously, or he could be encouraged to think that hormone treatments or surgery are necessary, which are painful and irreversible, when actually society needs to be more accepting. He will need wise and careful guidance through this uncertain period, especially as it is not clear whether biological or social causes are the explanation of his feelings; it is probably an interaction of different factors’.

This clearly links the issue of ethical implications of research and treatments (socially sensitive research) to the stem of this question, a scenario about Cal who is unhappy as a boy. It summarises possible explanations of GID and the effect on an individual, and ends with a brief conclusion referring to interaction, often an excellent place to end a discussion.

Stretch and challenge – the elusive A*

I have also been making a collection of student essays that scored 14 or 16/16 marks in the actual A-level exams, first getting permission from students to ask for copies of scripts and to use them anonymously for other students’ benefit, then putting them on our intranet. Although Issues and Debates are not essential for evaluation in all topics in the new A-level spec, as they were in the old spec, they are very useful ways of developing higher level evaluation points in 16-mark essays or shorter AO3 questions, particularly when well-linked and developed using contrasting theories or research.

For example, in Schizophrenia the dopamine hypothesis is biologically deterministic, and drug treatments are based on a reductionist view of the disorder. On the other hand, a family dysfunction theory takes a nurture position. The interactionist approach, a diathesis-stress model, which is a more holistic approach, enables a detailed examination of relative risk factors and more effective treatment pathways to be developed. The relative effectiveness of treatments can also be considered in respect to patient compliance and stigma – are families prepared to go through therapy? What are the ethical implications of identifying genetic causes of schizophrenia? Gender and culture bias in diagnosis can be linked to evidence, and may lead to people not being given the best treatments. Similar arguments can be brought in to higher level discussion of OCD, phobias and depression in the Psychopathology topic.

I recommend students to include Issues and Debates in their discussion every time, if at all possible, if they are aiming for A/A*. In some essays it makes sense to start with this, and just about any essay in the Gender topic can be set within the framework of nature-nurture. I also recommend an evaluation paragraph relating to an alternative explanation or treatment, and this gives a further opportunity for showing off knowledge of the relevant issue/debate.

For example, in an essay on cognitive explanations of offending, this paragraph briefly summarises an alternative explanation, links briefly to some evidence, and contextualises this within the reductionism/holism debate:

A weakness of cognitive explanations for offending is that there is supporting evidence for biological causes. 60% of prisoners in the USA have suffered a brain injury compared with 8% in the general population. There is also evidence for a faulty MAOA gene and levels of aggressive offences. This shows that there are biological reasons for people offending and cognitive should not be the only explanation. On the other hand, just looking at biological causes of offending would be reductionist. A more holistic view would consider both biological and cognitive levels of explanation, along with social factors involved with crime.

Looking back – synoptic revision

I remember the joy of A-level sciences suddenly clicking during the revision period, as I understood the links between topics and could take a synoptic view, like looking down from an aeroplane to see the whole landscape set out below me. Revision can be very boring, but I encourage students to expect these moments of joy and self-efficacy as their hard work pays off in a deeper understanding and pleasure in knowing that you know something well.

We can facilitate these moments by providing synoptic activities, and two I enjoy very much are a classroom activity based on applying approaches to little Johnnie, and revision clocks.

I use little Johnnie right at the beginning of the course, to elicit some pop-psychology or general knowledge explanations, and again at the end of the Approaches topic to show them how much useful Psychology they have learnt already. I casually throw in some words like ‘heredity’, ‘environment’, ‘levels of explanation’, ‘holistic’ as we discuss the recommendations of each group.

Revision clocks are brilliant for keeping a high level of active focus through a revision lesson, and students can simply be asked to retrieve as many key terms as possible to fill each segment of the clock, 5 mins per section. This process can be made competitive (with prizes for the most or best key terms, subjectively awarded by me) or cooperative (rotating the clocks round the room so more can be added). But I also find them very useful as a recap of Issues and Debates throughout the curriculum. First, I give students 5 mins to recall key terms relating to Issues, then Debates, then they use one topic per segment to think which Issues or Debates could be linked in to the topic. We stop after each segment to discuss how to develop these points using evidence, contrasting theories or other ‘howevers’, and assemble a spreadsheet of the best ideas, which I then circulate. Here is last year’s summary, and I’ll do the same this year straight after the Easter break. This process takes three revision lessons.

Keeping it up

We’ve designed a new poster based on the useful information from the first sections in the Revision and Exam Companions, which students probably skip over but definitely shouldn’t. The poster presents information about the assessment objectives, exams (so I don’t have to keep explaining what’s in which paper but can simply point to the wall), a marking grid for essay questions, a summary of reliability and validity to help with evaluating research, and a table of Issues and Debates as an easy-access reminder. You can get your own copy by filling in this form. I can’t wait to get one up on the wall in each of our teaching rooms, and I hope you and your students find it useful too – maybe not as exciting as a new ice cream flavour, but a tasty muesli of healthy ingredients to nourish them through revision and exams.


Rachel Moody

Head of Psychology, King Edward VI School, Southampton