Sometimes the Teacher is the Lesson

A lot of what I’ve learned in psychology has come from the research, study, and teaching of psychologists, but I’ve also learned a lot from watching how psychologists behave.

My first undergraduate college class in psychology was all about how rats are conditioned. That’s what learning was about, according to the psychology of that time. I had taken psychology to learn something about human nature, but the teacher droned on and on in the large lecture class about the methods and technical language conditioning rats. The teacher was very disappointed with how poorly the class performed on the first exam, and chastised us for not being better students. When I commented that perhaps the class performance on the exam had something to do with they way the subject was being taught, the teacher refused to consider it. The possibility that her selection of content and method of presenting it had any influence on what or how the class learned wasn’t part of her theory of learning. [more…]

If we think about the first four levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–which are, briefly and from the bottom up, survival, security, love, and identity–and if we take as objective a look as we can at our own behavior and that of others, we’ll see that human behavior is often shaped by deprivations and satisfactions of those needs. Had the teacher applied the principles of conditioning on a framework of human motivation, she would have had a lot more to say about learning, and certainly would have had my attention.Now, although this psychology instructor was supposedly an expert on learning, she really knew very little about it. Furthermore, she wasn’t able to apply what she did know about rats to people. There is, in fact, a lot about how rats learn that can help us understand how people behave, when you make allowances for more complex human motivation and different reinforcers.

The truth was that the psychology teacher herself had been conditioned to believe that what she had been taught was what there was to know about the psychology of learning. Although claiming to teach scientific knowledge, she was really teaching what she believed. She had been conditioned by the giving and withholding of attention, grades, approval, promotion, social status, recruitment, professional identity, economic compensation, within a closed world of authority that defined the boundaries of the mental rat box in which she lived her professional life. The most important psychology lesson in her class was the teacher herself. She was a living lesson on the power, and limitation, of conditioning.