Psychologists in the Classroom
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

edited 4/20/14

I am told that psychologists are now studying schooling practice on site, coming "down from the Ivory Tower" as it were. (As the little girl in the movie Poltergeist might say, "They're heeeere!") I can hear two million teachers cheer, "hooray" -- in lower case letters.

Psychology has contributed much to schooling practice. Nonetheless, anyone with a functioning memory of more than a few years in education can remember would-be panaceas foisted off on teachers and students in the name of "psychological science." Who can help but be underwhelmed with the educational contributions of operant conditioning theory, teaching machines, token economies, behavioral objectives, or interaction analysis? Whatever usefulness these innovations had, came nowhere near the promise with which they were huckstered(1). Continuing calls for educational reform certainly belie the claims that these "contributions" have brought us anywhere nearer educational utopia.

Does the rumored desire of some psychologists to enter the real world of the school reflect interest in getting a better understanding of the situation? Or does it rather reflect a lack of governmental funds to maintain the comfort and distance of the ivory tower? (And the hope that school budgets are, basically, pork barrels?)

I asked a middle school teacher what she thought about having a psychologist in her classroom on a day-to-day basis. "I'd rather have a brass band come marching through!" she declared. I can understand her concern. A reason that comes immediately to mind for NOT having psychologists in the classroom is that a second adult muddles relationships between teacher and students with respect to authority, domain of concern and right of intervention.

Is this second adult to be a guest, an observer, a tutor, or an advisor? Certainly, it will take time and resources to define the relationship in order to diminish the anomaly in the eyes of the students. Will the results be worth the cost? Or will this be another case of a here-today-gone-tomorrow "innovation"?

In cases of conflict between teacher and psychologist in the classroom milieu, whose decision takes immediate precedence? If the teacher's, will he or she be persistently dogged by an intrusive "back-seat driver"? On the other hand, will time and resources be provided to work out a plan by which different classroom exigencies are prioritized and the responsibilities of teacher and psychologist designated in each case? And if so, will such a prioritization be forced on the teacher?

Another reason that comes easily to mind for NOT having psychologists in the classroom is that the psychologist's "philosophy" is likely to be that of the most powerful administrator involved. Psychology, as a discipline, tends toward sectarianism. At a local university I find behaviorists, cognitivists, humanists, "touchy-feely" gurus still living in the sixties, and School Psychologists (who have cornered the certification market). They are in different departments, even in different schools within the university. Would their arrival in the schoolhouse signal the coming of science, or of some secular religion? Is it unreasonable to expect that the world view of any one of these groups will be somewhat remote from the institutional realities of the school which condition the classroom experience?

Is the placement of psychologists in the classroom not just another strategm to undermine the professional status of the teacher; perhaps another attempt to teacher-proof the curriculum? Is this a way of conducting surreptitious teacher evaluation? Or of enforcing the Fantasyland aspirations of some superintendent?

Will the teacher have to put up with patronizing homilies from someone who has little experience in functioning in that sometimes chaotic ambiance of the classroom? Doesn't anyone remember the condescending interruptions by the "educational scientists" of a decade or two ago as they admonished teachers -- often in front of their students -- about maintaining the "theoretical" correctness of their methods?

In his book, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change, Seymour Sarason(2) argues that the culture of the school is quite different from that of the university. School events, educational "happenings" do not usually conform to university research and publishing schedules. Can they be reconciled? With what cost to the education of the schoolchildren? And with what cost to the quality of the research?

I have one more misgiving to express, then we will consider some possible positive results of Psychological Advent. Psychologists who deal with schools tend to have an individualistic orientation. For them, psychology is the study of individual behavior, or individual mental capacities, or individual traits, etc. This has two consequences. The first is that social psychology is seldom represented among school psychologists. Seldom found, also, is a sensitivity to the effects of cultural variation on human behavior -- that's for anthropologists. So it is that one encounters notorious errors in program placement where lack of English ability results in assessment of mental deficiency. Or where cultural difference is diagnosed as inadequate parenting behavior. In an increasingly pluralistic society, is it not dangerous to impose the turf-concerns of academic disciplines, Psychology vs. Anthropology vs. Sociology, etc. on the day-to-day practice of the school?

The second effect of the individualistic bias in psychological theory is a moral one. The therapeutic dialect(3) which many psychologists indulge in works to undermine one important function of the public school: clarifying the relationship between private goods and public responsibilities. Good citizenship may not merely be a matter of learning to maximize one's individual benefits, of becoming psychologically "healthier." A society of individuals striving toward self-actualization may yet be one that tolerates major social evils.

Let's now consider another side of the argument. Many of us have always tried to keep abreast of psychological research and find it a positive sign of professional development that a teacher is interested in such research. But the problem is this. The relationship of psychological theory to classroom happening is not obvious. It requires careful consideration to put theory into practice. On top of that are considerations most easily described as "political." The best research, the most pertinent theory can make no inroads if teachers are constrained in their practice by institutional ideologies, the personalities of community powerholders or the exigencies of budget.

One service psychologists already provide to the schools is to be buffers between the school and the penal system. Where such service is available, students in trouble are often remanded to counseling rather than to jail. This is a real service. Unfortunately, the disparity in wealth between our most affluent and our poorest communities turns this into a system by which we create -- for lack of such service --disproportionate numbers of young, "underclass" criminals.

We can also understand the influx of psychological practitioners as a response to the general -- and generally misinformed --public dismay with the schools. It is a reaction to the demand to "Do something !" But the fatal restriction is generally unvoiced, "...but be sure it doesn't cost anything more!"

Perhaps, ultimately, the dispute about bringing psychologists into the school is a red herring. The bottom line seems to be this: in our society we tend to treat childhood, particularly adolescence, as a malaise. Childhood is a symptom to be "treated" by schooling, psychology or even pharmacology. Inopportune exuberance demands Ridalin.

No adult would undergo a second time the impositions of childhood. Of course, we justify such impositions by citing the child's developmental immaturities. But much schooling practice, and the psychological intervention that abets it, is based less on supporting children's developmental needs than on maintaining adult conveniences.



(1) See for example, Wilbert J. McKeatchie, "The Decline and Fall of the Laws of Learning" in Educational Researcher, March 1974. These criticisms now seem forgotten as another generation of marketeers dig up the cadavers of failed theories for another go at the schools.

(2) Seymour B. Sarason, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971

(3) See Phillip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Uses of Faith After Freud. New York: Harper & Row, 1966