Letters

A-level; e-professionalism; test copyright; horror; obituaries; and more

A-level – much to gain and lose

The recent investigation by the Daily Telegraph implying the lengths to which schools, teachers and exam boards are willing to go in order to obtain results, appears to further undermine the British educational system, including the ‘gold standard’ A-level. It is likely that these and other allegations will result in a major overhaul of the exam system, which will, of course, involve the teaching and examination of
A-level psychology.

With psychology being the fourth most popular subject at A-level, the discipline has much to gain (and lose) should the government decide to make major sweeping changes, especially as funding and places for trainee A-level psychology teachers has been so dramatically reduced (while all other science subjects have benefited significantly). Some in government (specifically the Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss) have gone further in suggesting that those A-level subjects not included in the Russell Group’s list of ‘facilitating’ A-levels should be cut completely – this would include A-level psychology. 

Fortunately, others have suggested more constructive ways forward for both education generally and psychology specifically. Dale Bassett of the think-tank Reform has called for a greater role in the way higher-education institutions collaborate in the design and implementation of pre-tertiary education (Bassett, 2011), while others (e.g. Newham, 2011; Smith, 2010) have called for a greater role to be played by the BPS with regard to A-level psychology. Indeed, psychology is perhaps better placed than many other A-levels in that the discipline already has a framework laid down by a professional body; nevertheless, the Society’s current advisory role within A-level psychology will do little to influence any further policy changes.

In my view, these current controversies create a major opportunity for the Society to make a greater and more significant contribution to A-level psychology during these turbulent times. Left in the hands of government and profit-driven exam boards (each with their own agendas) A-level psychology, and therefore psychology as a whole, will only suffer and possibly move psychology at A-level further away from its undergraduate cousin – if, indeed, it survives any impending cull. 

Marc Smith
Boroughbridge High School
North Yorkshire
 
References
Bassett, D. (2011). The exams system needs turning on its head. The Telegraph [online]. Retrieved 9 January 2012 from tinyurl.com/6urrduv
Newham, V. (2011). Skills for university, skills for life. Presented at the ATP Annual Conference, July 2011
Smith, M. (2010). A-level psychology: Is there a way forward? Psychology Teaching Review 16, 33–37.

 

Is A-level psychology out of touch with the origins of psychological intervention? As a current A-level student I have noticed a shift from an approach based on self-produced empirical data and genuine application of methods to interpret one’s own hypothesis, to one prioritising the descriptive and critical analysis of theories, with the addition of some application in exams.

This is typified by the omission of coursework from the syllabus. Coursework allowed the individual student to engage, to some extent, in their own research. It permitted us to grasp the initial concepts and theoretical perspectives, by applying them to our own hypotheses. Boards don’t seem to recognise the crucial point that empirical research is paramount to our comprehension of psychology. The fact that anyone who intends to pursue psychology at a higher level will inevitably indulge in independent research appears to be ignored.
Psychological research is the essence of psychology, remove or dilute this aspect and you block the student from acknowledging what psychology is truly about. I think we expect, even with little knowledge of the subject, to engage in the actual application of the subject. As Ivan Pavlov put it, ‘Don’t become a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin.’ Decisions which prevent us, the psychologists of tomorrow, from grasping the essence of the science at an early stage, may deter us from pursuing a career in psychology.

Prince K. Kouassi
A-level student at Ealing College  

 

E-professionalism in psychology                                                  According to a recent article in the New York Times (see tinyurl.com/75ghjpb), American schools have now introduced social media policies to regulate online contact between teachers and pupils. I welcome the decision as a timely response to the increased importance of social media for our private and professional lives.

For professionals, online self-representation is not only about the private person but may also affect their professional reputation. For example, a media uproar occurred in New Zealand after junior soldiers within the navy published photos of themselves in uniform posing with guns on a social network site (see tinyurl.com7avdhk2). Beyond the professional image of the individual, online self-representation may also affect personal safety – one may consider address details retrievable from a therapist’s profile in the hands of an infatuated or vengeful client.

The term e-professionalism has been coined as an idiom for professional online behaviour. Sarah Reid and I conducted an unpublished review across various institutions in New Zealand on the existence of e-professionalism guidelines and their content. Overall, all institutions, including universities or government departments, employed general guidelines about professional behaviour. However, specific regulations on internet self-representation seemed to be available only once a person entered professional employment as opposed to training positions. It was also noteworthy that in professional training that traditionally occurs in an academic environment, like law or clinical psychology, no such guidelines were available to the trainees.

This supports the finding by Chretien et al. (2009), who surveyed deans of US medical schools regarding students’ unprofessional online behaviour. Sixty per cent of respondents reported incidents of students posting inappropriate content; however, only about 40 per cent of school deans stated that they had any form of e-professionalism policies.

There is an argument that e-professionalism is especially relevant for students in professional training who (a) have to deal with a blurred border between a student and a professional identity in general, and (b) have had a longer lifetime exposure to the internet than the current professional body and will most likely have an online profile on at least one social media. This argument is even stronger for psychologists who are trained in a client-centred profession that requires special consideration of their own and their clients’ privacy and safety.

Students cannot be expected to learn about appropriate professional behaviour in the absence of institutional regulations, and consequently should not be penalised for online misconduct without being subject to specific rules on e-professionalism. I consider it timely for psychological institutions to provide guidelines on online social behaviour, ideally on a higher-order level such as the BPS.
I’d be very interested to hear readers’ opinions about this topic or experiences with e-professionalism.

Hannah Merdian
University of Lincoln

Reference
Chretien, K.C., Greysen, S.R., Chretien, J. & Kind, T. (2009). Online posting of unprofessional content by medical students. Journal of the American Medical Association, 302(12), 1309–1315. 

 

Gatekeeping by Divisions                                                                      I was puzzled by Carole Allen’s report on the PPB meeting In October, which I also attended (President’s column, December 2011) She says: ‘Gerry [Mulhern] asked the group to consider what was the role of Divisions now that they had no gatekeeping function – How should we set membership criteria?’

I am somewhat confused because Divisions do still set Chartership and specific training in a named discipline for full membership of Divisions. Most Divisions, to my knowledge, are happy to admit general members of the Society to their events and newsletters, etc., but full membership is restricted to those who have not only achieved the ‘gold standard’ of Chartership, but also are eligible for membership by a long training, usually above and beyond that required for HPC registration.

A similar confusion exists in the recently produced BPS pamphlet ‘Anyone can belong to the Society’. In this leaflet (as far as I am aware produced without prior consultation with the Divisions) there is a strong implication that full membership of the named Divisions is available to all-comers. In this post-HPC era there is a need to balance widening the membership with protecting the brand, which in our case is professionalism. Clarification required, please.

Dr Peter Martin
Chair, Division of Counselling Psychology
 

Response from Gerry Mulhern, BPS Vice President: Dr Martin’s comments are a timely and welcome reminder of the issues and challenges facing Society member networks following statutory regulation by the Health Professions Council, and I am pleased to respond to his letter.

My comments regarding the change to Divisions’ gatekeeping function were made in the context of fitness to practise. It is a matter of fact that, following regulation by the HPC, the Society as a whole ceased to have any gatekeeping function with respect to practitioners’ fitness to offer services as professional psychologists. Accordingly, Chartered membership ceased to be a badge of fitness to practise and instead became a grade of membership – certainly a ‘gold standard’ and a mark of prestige. As a logical consequence, Full Membership of a Division is now tied to Chartership  as a membership grade with no bearing on an individual’s standing in respect of fitness to practise. This is the context in which my comments to the PPB awayday were made.

It remains the fact that Divisions do still have an important role in setting standards of education and training. However, this gatekeeping role, if it is such, has no bearing on fitness to practise and, instead, sets criteria for Chartered Membership and Full Membership of the Division. In my comments to the PPB awayday, I sought to encourage Divisions to consider whether, in the post-HPC dispensation, gatekeeping with respect to Full Membership now added anything to the exclusivity already conferred by Chartered status. The issue goes to the heart of the role of Divisions going forward – in particular the question of, if retaining a gatekeeping role of the sort described by Dr Martin, what this exclusivity is intended to achieve. 

 

Faith in measurement                                                                            I recently attended an extremely illuminating lecture by Denny Borsboom of the University of Amsterdam. I would like to share the gist of it, in the hope of prompting discussion and debate. Borsboom showed that data conforming to one of our strongest psychometric models, the Rasch model, do not necessarily – as is commonly assumed – point to the existence of a single underlying process such as increasing levels of depression. They can in fact be produced by a network of mutually triggering processes or symptoms. Thus, having difficulty sleeping might lead to inability to concentrate, which might lead to dismissal from work, which might lead to worrying, which might exacerbate concentration problems, and so on. 

By extending this process of mapping the links between symptoms, Borsboom showed that DSM classification might not only be provided with some kind of theoretical basis, but also that the linkages between symptoms might be merged into clusters with more meaning than the collections of ‘diseases’ in the DSM framework. In this map, symptoms may appear in more than one cluster and the symptoms may have proximate or distal connections with symptoms in other clusters. Borsboom also demonstrated that treatment of a single symptom in a network of mutually triggering processes might, after all, make some kind of sense if blocking that process put paid to one component in a sequential network of triggering operations.

Borsboom claimed that this work illuminates findings from genetics.
If genes affect the strength of causal connections between symptoms, then the aggregate score may prove highly heritable in a twin study; however, the effect of the genes themselves becomes untraceable due to the many interactions in the network. This explains the current state
of affairs in behaviour genetics, where the inability to identify genes responsible for the high heritabilities reported in twin studies is known as the problem of ‘missing heritability’.

The most important implications of Borsboom’s work are for the very way we think about individual differences and the measurement of change. There are tens of thousands of peer-reviewed published studies of ‘What works’ in education and health care (including drugs and psychotherapy) reaching conclusions which the measurement tools that were used are incapable of supporting. The tests used offer only ‘arbitrary metrics’,  such that the difference between two points on the scale – say among more and less able people – just do not mean the ‘same thing’, in any sense in which that term might be used. What Borsboom and co. have shown is that, even when the measures conform to the most rigorous tests of non-arbitrariness we have available (which most do not), one cannot necessarily infer that they are, in reality, measuring differences on a single underlying trait or characteristic. ‘What works’ at one level may therefore not ‘work’ at another. The psychological nature of the changes induced, or not induced, may be quite different.

The practical implications which arise are of immense importance. The failure to mount sufficiently comprehensive evaluations of developmental and healthcare programmes – at both group and individual levels – is scientifically and ethically unjustifiable. People develop (and are damaged) in a whole variety of different ways and not just in terms of an increase or decrease in scores on a single ‘variable’ of concern to the sponsor or investigator. Meaningful evaluation instead requires us to map individual responses across a huge domain of idiosyncratically interlinked effects (for more detail, see Borsboom, 2008; Cramer et al., 2010). Study of these linkages enables us to group them into clusters while recognising that these clusters do not form the ‘dimensions’ of traditional psychometrics. 
If Borsboom and co. can crack the very basis of faith in ‘variables’ they will have done us a great service.

John Raven
Edinburgh
 
References

Borsboom, D. (2008). Psychometric perspectives on diagnostic systems. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 1089–1108.
Cramer, A.O.J., Waldorp, L.J., Van der Maas, H.L.J. & Borsboom, D. (2010). Comorbidity: A network approach. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 137–193.

 

Obituary

Alan Clarke (1922–2011)                                                                      Alan Clarke, who has died aged 89, revolutionised the field of learning disabilities. He was a mainstay of British academic and applied psychology, and a major contributor to national policy.

He was also my uncle, making this in part a personal memoir.
My earliest memories of Uncle Alan are of the bachelor lodger at our Herne Hill house. A lifelong family man, he unfailingly took a warm, kindly and pedagogic interest in his nephews. His refrain was ‘Learn something new every day’. This commitment to enabling learning found ample expression in his ‘open door’ policy as Professor at the University of Hull from 1962 to 1984.

Alan grew up in Surrey, his father a London solicitor, his mother the daughter of Alfred MacLeod, pioneering speech therapist. At Lancing College, he was more interested in geology and classical music than mainstream studies.

On demobilisation from the Army in 1946 he succumbed to the characteristically pressing suggestion of his brother-in-law, my late father Monte Shapiro, to read psychology. As a Reading undergraduate, he met his future wife Ann. They progressed to PhDs at the Maudsley in London, and only then became romantically linked. Their involvement in the 1970s ‘Burt Affair’ was seeded by Burt having tampered with published accounts of their doctoral projects in pursuit of controversy with Hans Eysenck.

In 1951 Alan and Ann took jobs at the Manor Hospital, Epsom, in the then unpromising field of learning disabilities, in whose subsequent transformation their joint work played a leading role, overturning the received wisdom that the ‘mentally deficient’ could not learn. Repeat IQ-testing frequently revealed improvement over time. Those with the worst social histories, characterised by cruelty and neglect, made the most improvement, indicating recovery from the effects of prior psychological damage. This work was informed by Alan’s progressive politics of human potential, gave new hope to patients and their families, and revolutionised service provision. Successive editions of the Clarkes’ monumental, research-based textbook Mental Deficiency: The Changing Outlook (1958–85) defined the field for three decades. Addressing cognitive development more broadly, they mounted a powerful, evidence-based challenge to the prevailing consensus that the impacts of adverse early experiences are immutable.

Alan’s commitment to helping others and making a difference was expressed in countless ways, from welcoming and supporting students, to building up the Hull department, to service with professional, scientific, charitable and policy-forming organisations, for which he was made CBE in 1974. He served the BPS extensively, including as editor of the British Journal of Psychology and as President. He was also President of the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual Disability.

He combined intellectual rigour, depth and balance with personal integrity and leadership grounded in a stunning clarity of vision and purpose. He contributed widely to psychology’s impacts on such key societal issues as transmitted deprivation, human resilience, and the effects of early experience.

Tributes received by the family testify that he was a generous and whole human being. We are all stronger for having known him. He is survived by Ann, their two sons and two grandchildren.

David A. Shapiro
Sheffield

 

‘Psychology to the rescue’                                                                    In response to your cover article and call in the January issue…We are roughly 10 minutes into my lesson when the phone call comes from my staff. Her voice is shaking. ‘It is wee Johnny (not the real name), he has gone berserk. He is refusing to come into the room and threatening to kill everybody. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘just close your door and try and carry on with your class, I am coming upstairs.’

Wee Johnny is a member of what we teachers refer to with desperate humour as ‘The 21 club’. That’s the one you automatically join if you are a boy, born to a single parent family, not achieving academically, etc.… if you tick all the right boxes, it is likely you will be dead by the time you reach 21.

Wee Johnny is already in minor trouble with the police, but he has been OK in French, mostly because he doesn’t attend school a lot. He is on top of the stairs, kicking the wall with seemingly uncontrollable rage. ‘ Hi, Johnny,’ I say. ‘ F… off, you c…,’ he replies. I have a brief second of panic. How am I going to deal with this? I know my own supervised class will be going ballistic downstairs, which is also stressing me out.

As luck would have it, however, last night, as part of my MSc in Forensic Psychology with the Open University, I was reading up on hostage negotiation. Suddenly, the headings flash in my head: ‘minimal encouragement, paraphrasing, emotion labelling, mirroring, open ended questions…’. It is like something takes over me. Slowly I start going through every step, and slowly wee Johnny start responding. I am not sure how long it takes, perhaps 30 minutes, but by the end of it, he has accepted to follow me into an empty room and has calmed down. I have promised him not to report him to the SMT so he doesn’t get expelled – he is on a last warning – and he has promised me to come back the next day on a detention and apologise to my staff for giving her abuse. He does.

Incidentally, I learn from fellow pupils a few days later what trigger had set wee Johnny off: disturbing behaviour – not towards him – from a very close member of his family no scriptwriter would dare commit to the script of a soap. It is a small community, fellow pupils had found out and teased him mercilessly.

Wee Johnny took an apprenticeship upon leaving school a few months later. That summer, I was really surprised to find an e-mail from Facebook in my inbox ‘Wee Johnny has added you to his list of friends’.

I have accepted. He has, as expected, never contacted me, but I do hope that I can still read his statuses well after he turns 21.
Name and address supplied

Secondary data analysis                                                                      Joanne Wilson’s thoughts on secondary data analysis (Letters, January 2012) highlight why such an approach can complement many research projects. Secondary sources can initially be difficult to locate, but my own experience would suggest that these are easier to access than one might expect. The Freedom of Information Act has probably done a lot to help improve request procedures.

Many large organisations now have dedicated members of staff who deal specifically with research data requests. For example, I have often been paired up with a senior researcher or statistician who can help in refining my research question and locating the exact data required. These informal exchanges also cover ethical and related data-protection issues. Cherry-picking is unlikely because a solid case has to be made for any data to be released. Handing over an entire government data set for example, would prove unmanageable and unethical.

Secondary data analysis can be particularly useful for extrapolating experimental findings beyond the laboratory. It can also give hints as to whether a particular idea is worth pursuing further. These two aspects alone mean that such resources represent a fantastic opportunity for psychologists working in a variety of specialities. My advice to those considering an enquiry is to simply ask. Having made several requests over the course of my PhD, I have yet to receive a flat-out ‘no’.

David A. Ellis
University of Glasgow

 

Obituary

Marianne Whittaker (1922–2011)
                                                       Marianne Whittaker was an educational psychologist and member of the BPS, DECP and AEP for a number of years during the 1970s and 80s. She trained relatively late in her life, having obtained her BA Hons Psychology at Durham in 1971 and her MSc at Newcastle University in 1973 when she was 51 years old. She was proud of achieving her ambition, especially as she had struggled against odds such as not having her Finnish qualifications as a social worker recognised in the UK. She had to start over by taking O- and A-levels part-time and then train as a teacher and educational psychologist whilst raising a family.

During her time as a local authority educational psychologist, Marianne worked for Durham Education Department, at Newcastle Child Development Centre, a short stint at Wolverhampton Metropolitan Borough and finally Cleveland County Psychological Service. Marianne was always interested in helping children develop their full potential and worked in a number of interesting and challenging settings, including Aycliffe Children’s Home. She showed boundless energy and commitment to her work, often working very late in the evenings on reports.

Up until her retirement at 65 and beyond, Marianne was a keen communicator of ideas and contributed to The Psychologist and other BPS publications on a number of occasions. She developed a keen interest in the development of reading, phonological awareness and dyslexia. In 1982 her article titled ‘Dyslexia and the flat earth’ was published in the Bulletin of the BPS, sparking an interesting debate (and in some cases quite a bit of anger and protest). In her article, Marianne argued against a medical conceptualisation of dyslexia and took to task a number of authors in this field for trying to define it in this way. Her view was that dyslexia is a learning disability and for that reason should be the responsibility of educational psychologists. Over the years she continued to be fired up by the ongoing preference for the medical label, saying she found it depressing.

Marianne will be remembered for her intellect, doggedness, courage and generosity of spirit by all who knew her. She gave a lot to the profession of educational psychology and was never happier than when using her professional title.

Birgitta Norton
Guildford, Surrey

Correction                                                                                              It has been pointed out to us that the ‘Ethics’ piece in the January issue (p.52) referred to the Suicide Act 1961, which made suicide no longer unlawful, as applying to the UK, whereas the Act applies only to England and Wales. For clarification: the Criminal Justice (N.I.) Act 1966 similarly decriminalised suicide in Northern Ireland; under Scottish law, suicide had never been a criminal offence. 

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