Let’s stop doing the timewarp again

Emma Liebeskind writes about the A-level psychology curriculum.

Psychology has taken huge strides forward over the years, so why are we still focusing A-level psychology on studies from half a century ago?

In her recent opinion piece ‘Respected and Ridiculed’ (March 2019), Ciara Wild raised well-founded concerns that the A-level psychology curriculum remains caught in a time warp. As an A-level psychology teacher of more than 20 years, I want to echo and amplify Ciara’s concern.

Although the form of the examination has undeniably altered since I started teaching psychology in 1998, with coursework being axed from the specification just over a decade ago (2008), the content of the curriculum remains largely unchanged, and includes research recognised by all English-speaking students of psychology over the past 20 years, such as Bowlby’s attachment theory and Milgram’s shock machine research.

I still teach these foundational studies with conviction as they represent the ground-breaking, shared scientific knowledge on which our discipline is based, and have been subsequently revisited and commented upon by other more contemporary critics, entertainers and researchers, which makes for interesting asides and class discussions if nothing else.

Perhaps the time warp effect Ciara describes is simply the result of looking back from the vantage point of having studied psychology beyond A-level, but I believe the stagnation in A-level psychology education she cites is real, and is the by-product of a highly standardised examination system, which is not unique to psychology, but true of subjects across the post-16 examination curriculum in the UK.

As I enter my third decade of teaching, I am forced to reflect that the uniform culture of A-level studies is increasingly an exercise in conformity, and does not encourage risk-taking or original thinking in psychology, or any other discipline for that matter! It saddens me that young minds are deprived of insights which might come from a more concrete exploration of their interests and the freedom to question the assumptions of this human science.

Being the political football that it is, the whole school curriculum is reliably booted into reform once every 5 years or so. This last happened in 2015 when the changes first initiated by Michael Gove as Education Minister in David Cameron’s Coalition government brought about some important changes.

In the short-term these spelled the welcome end of a resit culture which had gripped schools and contributed significantly to student anxiety levels and teacher workload. It also enabled students to once again enter university with three rather than four A-levels.

On the other hand, the failure to re-introduce a practical research element to the rebranded 2015 version of psychology A-level represents a missed opportunity in post-16 education. Indeed, in light of our discipline’s replication crisis, this is a rather ironic state of affairs. Coursework in psychology would enable students to think outside the narrow confines of the examination specification and give them the chance to try to reproduce some of the classic research they encounter in their A-level studies.

Since 2015, the mental health and well-being of school students has become a national priority and schools are being viewed as places where early prevention and intervention might ease the burden on an overwhelmed Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Yet, the psychology A-level specification still omits to incorporate the well-established insights of counselling psychology, positive psychology, mindfulness, and health psychology in any substantial way.

Culturally-diverse the content of psychology A-level is not. Taking a global perspective, many key studies in the specification are based on research in which sample groups are drawn mostly from US groups that are overwhelmingly WEIRD in their demographic make-up – Western, Educated college student groups drawn from post-Industrial, materially Rich, Democratic nation states.

Although A-level students are encouraged to criticise the validity of data and assess the culture-bias inherent in the research they encounter, this exercise changes nothing fundamental about the specification, and gives them little insight into the behaviour of other participant populations around the world.

It is high time to substantially revise the content and structure of the received psychology A-level canon of literature if we want to avoid the accusation of being backward looking, insular and irrelevant as a science, and to prepare the young minds we educate to best face an unknown future in which psychology has something of worth to contribute to a world marked by a changing climate.  

Emma Liebeskind
Woodford County High School for Girls

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