Drivers for change in 'life wide' learning

Madeleine Pownall reports from the inaugural European Society for Psychology Learning and Teaching (ESPLAT) biennial conference.

01 October 2019

On a bright Wednesday afternoon in the heart of Utrecht, a glorious city just outside of Amsterdam, the inaugural European Society for Psychology Learning and Teaching (ESPLAT) biennial conference begins. Over the course of three days, scholars, educators, and students gather in Utrecht’s Paushuize to discuss, synthesise, and inspire international perspectives on teaching and learning in psychology.

Rather unconventionally, the conference kicks off with a look to the future. In the opening keynote, Professor Susan te Pas (Utrecht University) prompts us to consider what the future of teaching and learning is likely to look like. The future and sustainability of our discipline depends on how well we are able to respond effectively to unique and global ‘drivers of change’, she explains. These change agents are ubiquitous and are rapidly shaping the way the world operates. Aligned with these drivers of change are even more influential ‘mega trends’: globalisation, digitalisation, and ageing (as indexed by the OECD). These trends not only shape the content that we teach in both pre-tertiary and higher education, but also have a significant impact on the world in which our students, and indeed we, live. Mega trends are also highly significant when it comes to understanding the labour market, te Pas explains. This therefore has a direct impact on the climate in which our graduates must be adequately prepared to work. Due to this, the way that we teach and learn about psychological principles and theory should reflect this wider context by responding to global challenges and trends.

The second keynote, Dr Julie Hulme (Keele University and Chair of BPS DART-P), extends this discussion of economic considerations in psychology teaching and learning. In her keynote, Hulme calls for us to think critically about how student’s economic contributions should not be used in isolation as an indicator of impactful education. There is more to psychological education than preparing students for the labour market, she explains. Hulme’s keynote is rooted in the principle of psychological literacy and she implores us to consider how psychology can be used to ‘serve humanity’ (i.e. creating decent human beings as well as economically successful graduate earners). This is reflected in pedagogic research which suggests that psychology students care about ‘making a difference’ and enhancing their learning, rather than focusing exclusively on graduate salaries.

Hulme’s approach to psychological literacy also transcends the classroom. Psychological literacy is more than lifelong learning, it is also about life wide learning; acknowledging the multiple varied sites in which learning happens. This includes the way that we learn about the world through our hobbies, relationships, music, and culture, as well as what is delivered in the confines of a classroom. Learning about psychology, and indeed learning through psychology, should be reflected in our core academic values. However, of course, there are practical challenges to this approach to nurturing life-wide psychological literacy and ‘global citizenship’. It requires collegiate approaches to learning, a well-principled set of design values, and a psychologically literate team. 

More conceptually, the successful implementation of psychological literacy in higher education also requires us to navigate tricky tensions between what we know to be ‘science’ – the rigorous, objective, distanced – and our subjective ‘humanness’, which is essentially everything that’s left over. We should acknowledge that both have unique values. This should be inspired both in and through our teaching. Hulme ends with a rallying call for action: ‘we need to breathe life into psychology!’ she concludes. I feel the room stir with appreciation and energy.

Over the many parallel sessions throughout the conference, we explore meaty topics within psychological teaching and learning together. Importantly, and rather uniquely, each perspective is different due to the breadth of diversity of experience captured. For example, Dr Sari Lindbloom delivers a rousing keynote that considers how the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) operates in the context of psychology education in Helsinki, where places on psychology bachelor’s degrees are limited and competition is fierce. This is contrasted with a delegate’s question pondering how these concepts may be explored in her South African institution, where undergraduates arrive by the thousands. Similarly, I attend a roundtable discussion on pre-tertiary psychology education (what we would know to be A-level) and sit with colleagues who collectively consider how best to apply these ideas to their country, where psychology is not taught at this level. We enjoy understanding and navigating our subtle differences and figuring out where our ‘brand’ of psychology teaching fits within the wider contexts and ‘mega trends’, as te Pas highlighted in her keynote.

However, despite the richness and diversity of experience captured in the conference delegate list, we are able to locate common threads within our approaches to psychology teaching. For example, a symposium on teaching Open Science and replicability in undergraduate psychology education, facilitated by Dr Loek Brinkman and Dr Mario De Jonge (Utrecht University), proves popular. Despite differences in context, institution, and structure of psychology teaching delivery, we all seem to share a fundamental appreciation of what psychology should be and the global challenges that our discipline is currently facing. Although we differ considerably from one another in our native tongue, in the symposium we speak about pre-registration, the Open Science Framework, and registered reports in a mutually shared language.

I leave feeling optimistic about the future of psychological science, knowing that the challenges I feel in my shared PhD office in Leeds are also felt by researchers and teachers in every country represented at the conference. New ideas and a widened vocabulary includes Problem-Based Learning, perspective-based approaches, and global citizenship. More significantly, I also take away a deeper understanding of how the nuances of psychology teaching, research and learning can be translated within a world bigger than I could have ever imagined. 

- Madeleine Pownall is at the University of Leeds.