As teachers in the K schools we are more than usually concerned with human nature and human consciousness, the very stuff of academic psychology. As a subject, therefore, Psychology lends itself beautifully to the study of man and provides an easy entry into a more serious discussion of our interactions with each other.
There are two pitfalls, however, against which we need to be constantly on our guard. The first is that, as with other examination subjects, in our eagerness to get our pupils through the exam, we will start to neglect them as individuals, to slacken in our observation of what is actually taking place in the classroom. The second is that, under the assault of routine and even with the best of intentions, we will start to lose the vision of the larger picture, that freshness and vitality which our first enthusiasm and idealism for the noble work of education and the very special intentions of our schools inspired in us. Psychology is, notably, one of the broad fields of study mentioned in the original intentions for a school at Brockwood. Although it could reasonably be argued that almost everything we do is ‘psychology’, the luxury of having an examination subject devoted to the core of our personal and public interests is almost too good to be true. Nearly one half of Brockwood’s students now take Psychology as an Advanced Supplementary (AS) or Advanced Level (A-Level) subject. The latter examination is based on two specialist options, while the former requires familiarity with about twenty different case studies from various branches of psychology.
Learning about Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD)
For the AS students, the study that appears to elicit most interest, at least superficially, is Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). For some reason (and part of the attraction is doubtless due to the availability of a compelling video on the subject) the students identify easily and sympathetically with the heroine and with the idea that we may, if sufficiently traumatized as children, be able to switch personalities, either involuntarily or almost at will.
Soon after becoming convinced of MPD’s existence, however, the students are quite suddenly confronted by the possibility that, in spite of appearances, the disorder may not actually exist. Trickery, suggestibility, medical fashion, attention-seeking, therapist bias, diagnostic attitudes, legal or cultural predilections, journalistic or Hollywoodian popularization: all of these may be involved or cited as possible causes for the relative prevalence of the ‘disorder’ in America and the relative absence of such a diagnosis in Europe or elsewhere. Some, but of course not all students, swallow this cautionary approach in turn, and start to reject MPD as a diagnosis with as much enthusiasm as they at first embraced it.
The more discerning among them, however, begin to see the complexity, both of the conditions which may give rise to the disorder, however it be named, and of the problems of diagnosis, wherever it be given. Most useful, in this regard, has been the image of a spectrum, of the idea that, alas, for better or for worse, we all have within us the seeds and symptoms of every kind of psychological disorder; only that, in the one or the other, in you or in me, this or that trait is more or less exaggerated.
Learning in the Second Year: Psychology and Education
The more advanced students in their second year, having already fought their way through the undergrowth of the AS examination, now need choose only two options to study in greater depth for their final year. One of the options we have chosen this year is ‘Psychology and Education’, and it is proving to be a thoroughly worthwhile topic. Only now, perhaps, do the older students begin, together with their teacher but no longer very dependent on his input, to discover connections between this or that case study, between this or that film and this or that personal experience or recent incident. In being able to make such connections, they unwittingly prove again and again a recurring theme in Psychology and education: the existence of broad bands of ability within which increasingly difficult tasks become progressively easier and self-evident when the time is right or when the preparation has been done.
Through this area of study they are able to question the very education system, in terms of exams, that they themselves are temporarily locked into, to argue eloquently for the abolition of those nefarious exams they themselves are shortly to be sitting for —as enthusiastically, in fact, as, a week or two later, they may ironically call for yet more multifarious, convoluted and precise forms of testing, in order to identify and select those worthy of advancement or those who need more help and attention!
Some of them frequently offer well-meaning radical strategies for reforming the whole of the United Kingdom or even the global education system: ‘They should...’, ‘Why don’t they...?’ and the like. Perhaps, one day, one of them will become Minister for Education and look back with astonishment at the naivety of our classroom discussions and our desire for an educational magic wand.
As a result of thrashing things out in class the more discerning among them have already begun to perceive that something is not quite right, that the idealism of radical reform needs to be tempered by the image of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The students begin to recognize that they need funding, they need parental approval, they need student support, they need enthusiastic colleagues who think pretty much like they do, they need government sanction, they need statistical evidence to support their claims, they need forward planning, they need, in short, everything that was already in place and there around them, and yet, somehow, they need it to be different.
The Challenge of Teaching
Such is the nature of enthusiasm and the meandering curve of learning it takes the students through. Enthusiasm, as we know it, is a double-edged sword and must be wielded with great skill and insight if we truly want to transform the consciousness of our students. How we teachers love and worship enthusiasm! How K warned against it! How we think we need it! How right he was!
Human nature, as we see in every newspaper, is all but depressingly predictable. In its fundamental unwillingness to change, to move away from self-centered action, and, equally astonishingly, all but perversely unpredictable in its potential for struggling on and perhaps surprising those who would despair of their fellow man.
Again and again the spider attempts to bridge the gap in order to place its web correctly, again and again the baker puts his loaves into the oven hoping his bread will succeed again today, again and again the teacher confronts his familiar class of sometimes eager, sometimes attentive, sometimes distracted, unruly, sleepy charges. He searches the faces for those brighter eyes, for any telltale sign of alertness, of potential, of, yes, enthusiasm, so that today’s lesson, again, may not be taught in vain. He may not find it, but then again, today’s lesson may not be in vain either. Heedless of the disapproving or disinterested world, teachers attempt, within the confines of their own natures, to encourage and challenge those closest to us, or to be challenged and encouraged, by those in front and those who follow close behind.