Future directions for psychology teaching
Jon Sutton reports on an event organised by the Society and the Higher Education Academy.
IN the grass roots of the discipline, the growth is huge. Massive
changes are up for discussion, including aspects as basic as whether
psychology is a science. More than half of students applying to study
psychology at university now have an A-level in the subject, and yet
what do most admissions tutors do? Ignore it. Perhaps the time has come
to wake up to psychology at pre-degree level.
Everyone who heard the speakers at this conference will be in no doubt about the importance and the complexity of the issues. It was probably the best conference I have been to: plenty of straight talking and food for thought. Kicking off events was Mark Orrow-Whiting from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority,
a former psychology teacher who is on what appeared to be a fairly personal mission to ‘have it recognised that psychology is part of the scientific community’. Proposals are on the table for psychology to come into the fold of GCSE Science from later this year, and for post-16 science a current White Paper demands a review of the
A-level criteria in time for 2008. As for the very shoots of psychology, psychology for children in Key Stage 3 (up to 14) is also on the cards. Orrow-Whiting wanted to hear what is essential to psychology and how it should be assessed.
Surprisingly (to my ears at least), some teachers in the audience appeared fairly resistant to the idea of psychology as a science. Questions were asked on whether psychology is too young as a science to know what the important questions are,
and the idea of increasing the maths element worried some.
But does any of it matter, if many A-level students go their own way and those starting university do so with a clean slate? Two surveys of the Association of Heads of Psychology Departments by Peter Bannister (Manchester Metropolitan University) found that, in general, previous qualifications were not required or were not influential in the admissions process. There was no advantage after the first year for those with a previous psychology qualification, with some research even suggesting that they do worse. There was a feeling that such students may think they ‘know it all’, but some departments at least tried to avoid overlap through the choice of topics, or use of examples from professional and research contexts. Some departments even form tutor groups combining students who had taken A-level psychology and those with no prior knowledge, for a kind of peer teaching. Bannister called for more common ground across the exam boards to make it easier to assume a common knowledge for those with a previous qualification, academic support from HE for A-level teachers,
and less reliance on basic A-level texts.
Echoing that call was Simon Green (Birkbeck). He started the afternoon session with insights from his role as AQA Chief Examiner. Generally, A-level students have impressive knowledge but underdeveloped and rote-learnt evaluative and analytical skills. Encouraged to critically analyse, students tend to do this by routinely trashing a study on ethical and validity grounds, with little emphasis on how research progresses through empirical findings. Green called for clearer aims – is the qualification for employers, HE, both? – and a better reflection of contemporary psychology to link with HE. He pointed out that psychology as a science is not an easy option, and there could be an inverse relationship between popular choice and scientific rigour. The harder it is, the less students will want to do it, and there are powerful commercial interests involved (notably boards and publishing companies). He concluded that A-level
will not become a prerequisite for HE in the foreseeable future because there is no core content, only rapidly evolving core areas. However, he said that ideally we should be able to assume that students with A–C have a core knowledge of approaches and methodologies. Looming large in the list of requirements to get to this stage is teaching by competent subject specialists, and Green warned that under current proposals initial provision would not match demand.
Ending on a positive note, Martin Conway (University of Leeds) pointed to
a raft of skills that psychology graduates have. He argued that by association HE institutions could be looking for these in its applicants and encouraging them in the pre-degree syllabus: skills in communication, thinking and problem solving, numeracy and IT, and experience of working both independently and as part of a team. Conway reported that 45 per cent of psychology graduates go into permanent employment, 28 per cent to research or teaching, and 18 per cent to short-term employment. Particularly given the imminent demands, Conway said he would like to see more graduates going into teaching. Historically, psychology graduates have struggled to get on to teacher training, and Conway laid the blame for this on Margaret Thatcher’s hairdresser (answers on a postcard, please).
The day ended with some confusion over the current position regarding psychologists and teacher training, which summed up the day for me: loads of knowledge and views but a real need for joined-up thinking and communication. With more and more students travelling along the production line, the process needs an overhaul and alarm bells should be ringing. Psychologists in HE and practice need to wake up: the next generation of the discipline are coming, and how they are educated is vital.
Contribute to the debate over the curriculum:
Higher Education Academy Psychology Network:
A new resource for psychology teachers:
Helping people go green
LOCAL, community-based initiatives are most likely to succeed in
breaking people out of deeply entrenched behaviours that are bad for
the environment. That’s according to a two-year ESRC-funded study by
Professor Tim Jackson at the University of Surrey entitled ‘Towards a
“Social Psychology” of Sustainable Consumption’. Professor Jackson
conducted a vast, wide-ranging review of research conducted across many
disciplines from social anthropology to environmental psychology.
From findings contained in the hundreds of articles, papers and books that Jackson uncovered, he said it was clear that any initiatives intended to change people’s consuming behaviour needed to respect the symbolic role that goods play in our lives, and to recognise that many people are ‘locked in’ to their current behaviours by force of habit and circumstance.
‘Public transport is increasingly expensive and security is an increasing threat, so more and more people drive their kids to school – and the more people do it, the greater the incentive for others to because the price of public transport goes up, its image goes down, and the roads are that much more dangerous to have kids walking down because of the volume of traffic,’ Jackson told us. ‘Think through SUVs [sports utility vehicles] in the same way… SUVs cause more damage in accidents than other cars, but are much safer for the occupants. But if you want your kids safe on the way to school which one are you going to choose?’
Professor Jackson said goods play a symbolic role in our lives beyond being a badge of success. Consider a child’s teddy bear, a cherished wedding dress or a football fan’s team colours. ‘In some recent work carried out for the Sustainable Consumption Round Table on which I sit, it was striking how many aspirations for the future are expressed via material goods,’ Jackson told us.
The most effective way to break people’s habits and reshape their ideals is with social support provided by community-based initiatives that help cultivate new social norms. Jackson said one of the best examples of such an initiative is Global Action Plan (www.globalactionplan.org.uk), which is based on local groups meeting regularly to identify opportunities for improving energy efficiency, reducing material and water impacts, and changing behaviours. Another example is Surrey County Council’s ChangeLab (www.changelabproject.org), which is gathering data on a variety of similar community-based initiatives for changing lifestyles, attitudes and behaviours.
‘Many people care about the environment but they are stuck in unsustainable patterns of behaviour because they just don't have access to reliable, affordable alternatives. It is wrong to assume that they
have free choice in the matter,’ Professor Jackson said. ‘Consumers need practical incentives to buy “green” goods and services and a very clear signal that the government is putting its own house in order.’ CJ
o A report on the findings is available free here: www.sd-research.org.uk/documents/
Treating problem drinking
FORMER Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy is far from being
alone in having had a drink problem. Citing the National Alcohol Needs
Assessment in England (see tinyurl.com/bvwmj) Chartered Psychologist
John Castleton told us that 26 per cent of adults in England drink too
much alcohol, with 3.6 per cent of adults being alcohol-dependent.
Indeed, the media tend to refer loosely to such a thing as a ‘drink
problem’, but Castleton explained that ‘problem alcohol use covers a
range of activities, from binge drinking – drinking more than eight
units of alcohol for men, and more than six units for women, on at
least one day of the week – to psychological and/or physical
Castleton said that recommended psychological treatments include motivational interviewing, which aims to catalyse the client’s motivation to change their behaviour; relapse prevention, which seeks to help the client cope with potential triggers such as stress and craving; and community reinforcement, which aims to help the client change their social environment, and develop rewarding relationships.
Dr Derek Lee, a consultant clinical psychologist with the Bedfordshire and Luton Mental Health and Social Care Partnership NHS Trust, said that a psychological approach to problem drinking would involve ‘trying to understand the functional aspects of alcohol use (i.e. what purpose or purposes is it fulfilling – or, more accurately, what functions does the client believe are being fulfilled?); identifying the historical factors that led to vulnerability (is there a family history of alcohol problems, childhood trauma, coexisting psychological disorders such as generalised anxiety, social phobia, clinical depression, etc?); and identifying maintaining factors, motivational aspects, problem solving, and so forth’. He added that it was about helping the client ‘move towards change, implement the change and, probably the most difficult of all, to maintain that change through work on relapse prevention’. CJ
National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy: tinyurl.com/casag
DoH guidance on developing a local alcohol misuse intervention programme: tinyurl.com/bnogb
Models of Care for Alcohol Misusers (MoCAM) programme: tinyurl.com/atlnx
Simon Bignell and Jon Sutton report from this annual BPS event, held
at Kensington Town Hall in December.
TOPICS as diverse as
psychological profiling, face perception, intelligence testing, health
behaviour and psychosis were introduced to an audience of young minds
at the Society’s annual London Lectures. Five psychologists were tasked
with the single goal of inspiring the next generation with new and
First up, Julian Boon (University of Leicester) tested the audience’s early morning constitutions with some stomach-churning examples from the life of a profiler. The psychological resources available to the police have improved considerably since Lombrosso’s 19th-century list of criminal characteristics (on which Boon said he only fell down on ‘craving for orgies’). Boon clearly and entertainingly demonstrated how overstretched police forces eagerly accept the offer of an in-depth knowledge of personality theory. Boon’s big thing is the importance of existential needs in understanding criminal behaviour: in particular, the ‘nectar of negativity’. This was graphically illustrated by Robert Buckland, who chose ‘death’ for his GCSE art project before plunging a knife into the skull of Alison Kennedy on a London train.
Vicki Bruce (University of Edinburgh) did much to encourage the student audience to plough their own furrows when she recounted how she was warned that ‘faces are interesting but you can’t do a whole PhD on it’. Bruce showed how computer graphics and brain-imaging techniques, coupled with interest from animation, cosmetics, security and communications industries, were making faces a key topic of modern psychological research. She pointed out how the Photofit system was very good for the photographer who sold it but had perhaps outlived its usefulness. Research was now leading to new techniques, such as showing the full face and three-quarters view together to give better recognition, or using the Evofit system to ‘evolve’ a better likeness from recall. This method was used in a sexual assault in Northamptonshire – the result troubled the victim and prompted several leads.
One face the audience may have recognised appeared next in the form of Colin Cooper (Queen’s University Belfast), who designed the intelligence tests on the BBC’s Test the Nation. His message was that ‘g’ doesn’t arise because tasks share certain cognitive processes – in fact it can correlate with tasks that have no conscious thought at all. He gave the example of the significant relationship between full-scale IQ and the time it takes to withdraw your finger from an electric shock. Cooper argued that the more synapses involved, the larger the correlation. He is conducting new work on relationships with blink latency.
Moving to health psychology and the psychological impact of medical and surgical interventions, Ronan O’Carroll (University of Stirling) explained that a shortage of suitable donors currently means that one person a month dies whilst waiting for a suitable liver to transplant. And those on the waiting list might have subtle but potentially dangerous cognitive impairment that often goes unrecognised by doctors. O’Carroll looked at attitudes towards donation: although 90 per cent of people agree that liver donation is a good idea, only half of families agree to donate when asked. The answer may be ‘living liver donation’, set to start in Scotland this April. It remains to be seen how many people will be prepared to give up two thirds of their healthy liver, with a one in 150 chance of death and a long recovery period. How the person got liver disease may be a factor: the general public are apparently less forgiving of past contributory behaviours than gastroenterologists are when it comes to assessing priorities for transplant.
Making an impact with the young audience, clinical psychologist Philippa Garety (Institute of Psychiatry) described ways in which she has explored delusional thoughts and beliefs. She explained that up to a third of students might have experienced paranoid thoughts, largely based on the tendency to make rapid appraisals of situations. Investigating this experimentally is tricky: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. Garety tackled this with a novel set of experiments, using a virtual world inhabited by computer-generated characters. The paranoid thoughts and delusions commonplace in the everyday lives of many students were also shown in the virtual worlds, suggesting these are not the result of actual negative feelings or behaviour of others. In fact, feelings of paranoia are common and exist in many people’s everyday lives without causing a problem. This work has fed into new cognitive-behavioural treatments that test existing beliefs and encourage information gathering to generate alternative explanations in people’s everyday reasoning and appraisals of situations.
The day was a great success, with 750 students attending for some genuinely enthusiastic and interesting talks. This event continues to improve.
IN January 2004 the Home Office reclassified cannabis to a Class C
drug, joining tranquillisers and painkillers. The Home Secretary
Charles Clarke has now received the results of a review he ordered into
the reclassification decision. Commenting on the advice, Charles Clarke
said that he was very worried about the recent medical evidence.
Indeed, a spate of new studies highlight the drug’s dangers.
The official line on cannabis (see www.drugs.gov.uk) is that it can cause short-lived problems that resemble psychosis. But a longitudinal study by Danish researchers has followed the outcome of people diagnosed with ‘cannabis-induced psychosis’ and in the majority of cases, found their problems to be far from short-lived. Using information contained on the Danish Psychiatric Central Register, Mikkel Arendt and colleagues found that of 535 patients diagnosed between 1994 and 1999 with ‘cannabis-induced psychosis’ (without any prior history of psychotic symptoms), 44.5 per cent went on to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia-spectrum disorder before the study’s endpoint in July 2002. The most commonly diagnosed condition among the sample was paranoid schizophrenia (167 cases). For nearly half the sample, their subsequent diagnosis came more than a year after they had originally sought treatment for cannabis-induced psychosis.
The researchers said: ‘It has never before been shown that cannabis-induced psychoses are followed by development of long-term psychotic conditions in people with no history of psychosis, and this is the first study to show that such symptoms, in most cases, can be regarded as the first manifestations of long-term psychotic illness.’ Their findings appear in the December issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Meanwhile, data presented to the Radiological Society of North America has revealed that unlike healthy controls, both cannabis smokers and people with schizophrenia show abnormalities in a bundle of fibres that connects the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain. Lead researcher Manzar Ashtari, at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said: ‘Because this language/auditory pathway continues to develop during adolescence, it is most susceptible to the neurotoxins introduced into the body through marijuana use.’
New research also points to the practical dangers of smoking cannabis. A study published in the 10 December issue of BMJ by Bernard Laumon and colleagues used blood and urine samples obtained from over 10,000 car crash victims (it was French policy between October 2001 and September 2003 to collect samples from all victims) to investigate the relationship between cannabis use and responsibility for the crash. Controlling for blood alcohol levels and other factors, they found that the 681 drivers with cannabis in their blood were twice as likely to be responsible for the crash they were in than to be an innocent victim. Higher levels of cannabis were associated with even greater risk of being responsible for the crash, while drivers with cannabis and alcohol in their blood were 16 times more likely to have caused the crash than to have been a faultless victim. CJ
RESEARCH FUNDING NEWS
The EPSRC has announced a call for proposals under its Fighting
Crime, Increasing Security scheme. £6 million has been set aside to
support this major initiative. For projects to be eligible their
central focus has to be within engineering or the psychical sciences,
including their mathematical and computational foundations. However,
the criteria state that applicants are encouraged to discuss their
ideas with academics outside their usual field of reference, such as
criminologists, psychologists and forensic scientists, and that
multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary proposals are particularly
welcome. This therefore gives a good opportunity for collaborative
work. All proposals also have to involve a user organisation, e.g.
police forces, local authorities, relevant business interests. The
deadline for outline proposals is 2 March 2006 and invited proposals 28
o Further information can be found at www.epsrc.ac.uk/CallsForProposals (then click on ‘fighting crime increasing security’).
Through its Understanding Fathering: Masculinity, Diversity and
Change programme the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is seeking to further
its knowledge of fathering in ‘ordinary families’. In particular how
men in different contexts and with different backgrounds understand
their role as a father, and what informs or influences these
perceptions. £165,000 of funding is available either for a single
research project or two or three smaller proposals. The closing date
for applications is 6 March 2006.
o For further details see www.jrf.org.uk.
The British Medical Association has two grants schemes that are of
interest to psychologists: the Margaret Temple Grant to assist research
into schizophrenia and the Gunton and Tomkinson Grant to assist
research into public health relating to cancer. Both schemes are open
to non-medical scientists and have a closing date of 10 March 2006.
o For further details contact Emily Hoy at [email protected].
The British Academy has a variety of funds available to support
international activity. With the growing importance of developing
international research links these provide a variety of opportunities:
Country-specific agreements and special programmes – with over 40
countries; Special Joint Project programmes – with countries including
Australia, China, France and Japan; European Union – Framework 6
‘pump-priming’ grants; International collaborative programmes; Overseas
Conference Grants; Visiting Fellowships. Many of the schemes have
closing dates throughout the year. o For further information see www.britac.ac.uk/funding/guide/intl/intact.html.
For a list of current funding opportunities go to www.bps.org.uk/tiny/on5mx7.
Funding bodies should e-mail news to Elizabeth Beech on [email protected] for possible inclusion.
‘The child is the father of the man’
Christian Jarrett reports from a conference held at the Institute of Psychiatry on 28–29 November.
CONTRARY to David Cameron’s leadership campaign mantra ‘It’s not
where you’ve come from, it’s where you’re heading that matters’, this
conference showed that when it comes to understanding mental illness,
a person’s developmental experiences matter a great deal. Two adults might appear to present with the same psychopathology, but by taking a historical perspective, their afflictions can be seen to have very different causes, with fundamental implications for treatment. In fact, most adult mental health problems will have been preceded by a childhood psychopathology, usually conduct disorder.
Charles Nemeroff, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, described a study that subjected three groups of women to a stressful task that involved performing arithmetic under pressure. Relative to controls and to depressed women who had not been abused as children, the study showed that depressed women who had suffered child abuse exhibited increased levels of the hormone ACTH during the task, a sign of heightened sensitivity to stress. Other research found that depressed people who had suffered childhood trauma, compared with those who hadn’t, particularly benefited from psychotherapy relative to antidepressants. Nemeroff said studies such as these suggest that depression with and depression without early life trauma should perhaps be treated as two separate entities.
The lifespan theme was continued by Peter Jones, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, who discussed findings from a longitudinal study of 5362 babies born in Britain in March 1946. Six per cent of the sample were found to have an ‘emotional disorder’ at the age of 13 or 15, but less than 1 per cent had a persistent disturbance present at both time points. When the sample was followed up in adulthood, those individuals who’d shown persistent problems as a child were far more likely to have problems as adults than were those people who’d only had episodic problems as a child.
A similar story was told by Terrie Moffitt, Professor of Social Behaviour and Development at the Institute of Psychiatry. She explained how there are really two distinct populations of boys who exhibit antisocial behaviour – those whose conduct deteriorates at puberty but then improves in adulthood, and those whose bad behaviour pre-dates puberty and continues into adulthood. Longitudinal research has shown that boys who have the ‘life-course persistent’ variety of conduct problems have more mental and physical health problems as adults, and have more trouble with work and relationships. Also, whereas there is a ratio of one girl to every 1.5 boys with the adolescent-limited problems, there is a ratio of only one girl to every 10 boys who show the persistent problems – again suggesting there are really two distinct types of conduct problem here.
Mark Dadds, Professor of Psychology at the University of New South Wales, said that a longitudinal approach allows researchers to probe the processes that may lead to later problems, thus highlighting possible targets for interventions. He gave the example of childhood conduct disorder, which can sometimes be accompanied by a callous, unemotional temperament. Might these children, like adult psychopaths, show a deficit in recognising fearful facial expressions? Yes – his research has found that children with conduct disorder plus callous traits struggle to recognise fear, and struggle to recognise neutral facial expressions, which they interpret as being angry. Dadds then wondered whether the deficit these children have might be related to a failure to attend to people’s eyes (a fearful expression can only be recognised by the eyes, not by looking at the mouth, as with other expressions such as happiness). Indeed, when the children were again shown various facial expressions, but were cued to look at the eyes, their deficit was markedly reduced. Professor Dadds said the findings suggested that a child’s early failure to attend to eyes could be the trigger leading to a downward spiral in their emotional development.
A similar approach was highlighted by Professor Peter Jones in his discussion of a New Zealand study that looked for risk factors for schizophrenia in 4700 infants. This showed that the age a baby learned to stand on its own was associated with likelihood of developing schizophrenia later in life. Moreover, cases of schizophrenia occurring after the age of 30 were only found among people who had been late standers. In a minority of infants, lateness standing could be an indicator of a slowly maturing basal ganglia (a set of subcortical brain structures) that continue to function deficiently later in life. The link with schizophrenia arises because the basal ganglia acquire more cognitive as opposed to motor functions in adulthood. Jones, like Dadds, said research like this showed how a longitudinal approach can offer clues to the processes underlying mental illnesses.
Of course, despite their name, developmental disorders don’t simply disappear once a person reaches adulthood. Eric Taylor, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, presented new findings from a longitudinal study of thousands of children diagnosed with ADHD, who are now aged 27. Most no longer describe themselves as hyperactive, but their friends and relatives still do. And compared with controls they also have many social problems: muddled thinking, poor budgeting, time-management problems, financial incompetence and unstable mood. Taylor said the sample clearly hadn’t grown out of their problems and that ADHD should be seen as a chronic disorder, with consideration given to providing medication and advice to adults with the condition. Meanwhile, Herman Van Engeland, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Utrecht University Hospital, summarised findings from 16 studies looking at the long-term outcome for children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). These showed that 20 to 30 per cent of childhood cases of ASD had new problems in adulthood, including psychosis and depression. CJ
Time heals all wounds?
‘TIME heals what reason cannot’ according to the Roman philosopher
Seneca, but Richard Lucas at Michigan State University disagrees. He
studied life-satisfaction data collected over 18 years from 30,000
German couples interviewed annually as part of the German
Socio-Economic Panel Study and found that people who went through a
divorce failed to return to their baseline levels of happiness.
Lucas’s analysis focused on the 817 married couples in the sample who went on to divorce. Baseline life satisfaction was averaged from all the years of marriage that were at least three years prior to the divorce. Lucas then compared that baseline with the divorcees’ average satisfaction from at least two years after their divorce onwards, until the end of the study, and found a significant 0.22 to 0.34 point difference on the 11-point scale. ‘Effects that may seem small are actually substantial when considered in relation to the amount of variability that exists in the sample,’ he explained. ‘Researchers, clinicians, and friends and family members of persons who have experienced such events should not assume that time naturally heals all wounds. Instead, some people may never adapt to some life events, at least not without intervention.’ The findings appear in the December issue of Psychological Science.
On a somewhat related note, researchers at Ohio State University have reported that marital strife can cause physical wounds to heal more slowly. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and colleagues invited 42 healthy married couples to a short stay at a hospital research unit where they promptly gave each of them a patch of blisters on their arm, using a medical suction device. Afterwards the couples were videoed whil
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