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Psychology for language teachers – CH 1 and 2

PSYCHOLOGY FOR LANGUAGE TEACHERS BY WILLIAMS AND BURDEN (the approach used or theoretical framework of
this photocopy is social constructivism: takes into account the social context of learning experiences and the ways in
which individuals make sense of those experiences in such contexts: SOCIAL INTERACTIONISM TOGETHER WITH

The process of education is important and complex because it involves an interplay between the teacher’s intentions
and actions, and student’s individual personalities, culture and background. The successful educator must be the one
who understands this complexity and can act in ways which empower learners both within and beyond the classroom.

Educational psychology: has been described by Kaplan as the application of psychology to education. However, what
this definition lacks is the difference between learning and education. Learning is part of the process of education
because education has a broader meaning. Learning is the process of acquiring content, while education involves
learning but it gives broader value and meaning to the learner’s life. (EDUCATE THE WHOLE PERSON)

Approaches to educational psychology: by the end of the 19th century, psychology was itself a science, and this meant a
conflict between those who believed its area of study was the human mind, and those who believed it was the human

The positivist school and its main offshoot: behaviourism

The positivists wanted to find the principles of human learning by investigating the behaviour of animals under certain
conditions. This approach claims that knowledge and facts that exist in the real world can be discovered by setting up
experiments in which conditions are carefully controlled.

Behaviourism is an approach to psychology that has its roots within positivism, and which has a profound influence on
language teaching. They attempted to explain all learning in terms of some form of stimulus-response conditioning.

The founder of modern behaviourism is thought to be Skinner. For him, learning was the result of environmental rather
than genetic factors. He emphasised the importance of reinforcement, and explained learning as operant conditioning:
under certain conditions, people will react in some expected way. If the behaviour is reinforced, the likelihood of that
behaviour will increase or decrease.

When this theory is applied to language learning, language is seen as a behaviour to be thought. Foreign language is
presented as stimulus; students respond by repetition or substitution, and this is followed by reinforcement. The role of
the teacher is to develop right language habits. (AUDIOLINGUALISM)

Behaviourism denies the cognitive or mental processes that learners bring to the task of learning.

Cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology is concerned with the way in which the human mind thinks and learns, that is, the mental
processes involved in learning. However, cognitive psychologists are divided. On the one hand, there are those who
created the analogy of the brain as a complex computer. On the other extreme, there is the constructivist movement,
who were concerned with ways in which individuals make their own sense of the world.

Information processing (Group 1)

Psychology for language teachers – CH 1 and 2

They are concerned with the way in which people take information, process it and act upon it. Particularly attention is
paid to attention, perception and memory. They construct models to account for the way in which the human mind
works. In doing so, they can predict which mental processes will be needed for learning and correct mistakes.

Model of memory by Atkinson and Shiffrin

This model describes the memory process in terms of a sensory register that registers stimuli and pass it to short-term
memory. In working memory we find whatever one has in mind, and it lasts for 30 seconds. Because of this, information
is breaking down into chunks to pass to the long term memory.

Intelligence and Intelligence Testing

The main emphasis of this approach is the conception of intelligence. First, intelligence was described as some form of
inborn, general ability that was fixed and therefore unlikely to change. However, Howard Gardner argued some years
after that there are different kinds of intelligences, not just one. This help teachers to see that people can become more
intelligent and that schools can and should take part in that.

Constructivism (Group 2)

Is a kind of cognitive approach that pt emphasis on the way in which individuals seek to bring a sense of personal
meaning to their worlds.


The main assumption of constructivism is that individuals are involved from birth in constructing personal meaning, that
is their own personal understanding, from their experiences. Piaget’s theory is based on learners passing through a
series of stages. In addition, he saw cognitive development as a process of maturation. The mind is constantly seeking
equilibration. This is accomplished by the complementary processes of accommodation and assimilation. This two
concepts working together are known as adaptation.

Piaget’s theory is adapted to second language acquisition under the interlanguage theory, which establishes that a
learner’s knowledge of the world is gradually re-shaped as it more closely approximates to the target language.

Jerome Bruner: The discovery approach to learning.

To Bruner (greatly influenced by Piaget’s writings), the development of conceptual understandings and of cognitive skills
and strategies (learn how to learn) is a central aim of education, rather than the acquisition of factual information. He
took a broad view of education of the whole person by objecting that any act of learning should serve us in the future.

Because Bruner (unlike Piaget) was an educationist, he related his ideas of cognitive psychology to what happens within
classrooms. One of his most famous concepts was spiral curriculum: teachers should first introduce the basic ideas of
any topic, and then revisit and build upon them repeatedly.

In Bruner’s terms, teachers need to find a balance between teaching aspects of the target language and developing,
learner’s ability to analyse the language, make guesses, take risks and learn from their errors.

George Kelly: Personal-construct theory

Psychology for language teachers – CH 1 and 2

Kelly began with the premise that people are constantly seeking to make sense of their worlds. As a result, to him,
learning involves learners making their own sense of information or events, and this understanding will be different for
different people since it depends on people’s previous experiences.

Further schools of thought (more approaches to educational psychology)

Humanistic approaches

Humanistic approaches emphasise the importance of the inner world of the learner and place individual’s thoughts,
feelings and emotions at the centre of human learning.

Erik Erikson (influenced by Freud)

The basis of his ideas is that human psychological development depends on the way in which individuals go through
maturational stages and the challenge set by society at each stage. If this challenge is handled well with the help of
significant people, then individuals move into the following stage. However, if challenges are inadequately dealt with,
they will continue to reappear throughout a person’s life.

Early infancy To learn to trust others.
Age 2-3 Establishing autonomy.
Early school Develop basic educational skills
Adolescence Search for identity
Young adult Attaining intimacy
Middle aged people Generavity: capable of still generate new insights.
Old age Integrity and despair.

This enables us to see that learning involves challenges which often require someone else’s help.

Abraham Maslow

For Maslow, human behaviour can be explained in terms of meeting some basic needs, so he suggested a hierarchy of
needs and two categories of needs: deficiency needs (directly related to a person’s psychological or biological balance)
and being needs (related to the fulfilment of individual potential). What Maslow showed to teachers was that children
could be having difficulties with learning because their basic needs are not met at home or in the classroom.

Carl Rogers

Beginning with the premise that human beings have a natural potential for learning, he suggested that significant
learning will only take place when the subject matter is perceived to be of personal relevance to the learner and when it
involves active participation by the learner.

Humanistic approaches in language teaching: The silent way, suggestopaedia, community language learning.

Implications of Humanism in language teaching:

 Create a sense of belonging

 Make the subject relevant to the learner. (significant learning)
Psychology for language teachers – CH 1 and 2

 Involve the whole person, encourage knowledge of self

 Involve feelings and emotions
 Develop knowledge of the process of learning, encourage self evaluation

Social interactionist approach: humanism together with constructivism

For social interactionists, children are born into a social world, and learning occurs through interaction with other
people. Through these interactions we make sense of the world. Social interactionism is the root of a communicative
approach to language teaching since they believe that we learn a language through using the language to interact
meaningfully with other people.

The most well-known psychologists of this school of thought are Vygotsky and Feuerstein. Both took from Piaget the
idea that from birth children learn independently by exploring the environment and from Behaviourism the idea that
adults are responsible for shaping children’s learning. And Mediation is a central concept of both theories.

Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky most known concept is the zone of proximal development, which refers to the layer of skill of knowledge which
is just beyond the one learners are capable of coping.

Reuven Feuerstein

In contrast to Vygotsky’s, Feuerstein’s work arose directly from a practical need. He was responsible for the education of
immigrant Jewish children, who had suffered a lot. The result was that a large proportion of these children seemed to be
mentally retarded and incapable of learning at school. Because of this, a central belief in his theory is that anyone can
become a fully effective learner. Furthermore, he believed that people can continue to develop their cognitive capacity
throughout their lives.

A social constructivist model: social interactionism (humanistic approach) and constructivism.

For this people, learning is constructed by individuals rather than transmitted from one person to another, but which
recognises also that such constructions occur within specific contexts, and mainly as a result of social interactions. This is
not a linear sequence of events but as a dynamic process whereby those with more knowledge, known as mediators,
influence and are influenced by those with less knowledge. This is often achieved by setting various tasks.

There are four key sets of factors which influence the learning process: TEACHERS – LEARNERS – TASK – CONTEXTS

Teachers select tasks that reflect their beliefs about teaching and learning. Learners interpret tasks in ways that
meaningful and personal. Tasks are the connection between teachers and learners, who at the same time interact with
each other. In addition to this, the context is particular to any situation.