According to the most recent data available, approximately 30% of American high school students take a course in Psychology. In addition, approximately 1.2-1.6 million American students take an Introductory Psychology course in college every year.
To the extent we have control over our curriculum, we who teach Psychology courses have a unique opportunity and responsibility during the fall of 2020: we can help educate a significant slice of American youth about some of the behavioral and psychological aspects of the great challenges defining this time. We can encourage greater insight and inspire prosocial change.
Below are three topics we can integrate into our fall courses that are particularly timely and important, with some suggestions for how to do so.
1. The psychology of group behavior.
COVID-19 spreads through droplets, yes, but those droplets spread from person to person through specific behaviors. Racial inequality is systemic, yes, but systems stem from, and are maintained, by specific behaviors. Climate change is a widely considered a “threat multiplier,” a meta-problem that increases the likelihood of pandemics and many other social problems; it also is caused by specific behaviors.
We teachers of Psychology can focus on individual differences in behavior and why individuals do what they do, and each of the above problems can be fruitfully explored from this level of analysis. However, if there ever was a time to explore the psychology of group behavior, this is it, as each of the above current problems also demonstrates how behavior is powerfully determined by the norms of individuals’ groups.
Given this, Social Psychology may be worth emphasizing to a greater degree in our courses this fall. Class discussions could explore, for instance, the social psychological aspects of COVID-19 spread, such as why some individuals practice social distancing and wear masks, but others resist, and how these differences may reflect the groups to which individuals belong, whether they realize this group’s impact on their behavior or not. Discussions about normative influence and informational influence as causes of such behavior could be very enlightening for many students, in particular. The role of cognitive dissonance in the pandemic also would be useful to explore.
Related to this, the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests and cultural focus makes this fall an especially opportune time to discuss the psychology of racism. This topic also might be addressed by examining group behavior. Topics that could be highlighted include stereotyping, prejudice, mass violence, and the distinction between explicit and implicit racism.
2. The psychology of happiness.
Surveys of American adults since the beginning of the pandemic have revealed a more than threefold increase in levels of psychological distress this year, as opposed to last year, and the highest level of unhappiness in almost 50 years. Many students are likely to feel this, allowing for class discussions that connect life experience with psychological concepts and research.
There are several excellent podcasts devoted to this topic, including “The Science of Happiness” and “The Happiness Lab,” from which specific episodes could be selected for a class to listen. Specific research-supported happiness practices could also be discussed and assigned as a part of this unit, or individuals could be allowed to implement a practice of their choice for an application assignment. Discussions of stress and what to do with stress may be particularly relevant in this time, as would discussions of individuals’ long-term resilience to stressful events.
3. The importance of critical and scientific thinking.
Underlying many of the differences in how people approach the major social problems of this time are vast differences in how people determine what is true. At its core, Psychology is less about facts and more about the application of the scientific method to understand mental processes and behavior. As a result, Psychology teachers can help students learn how to think critically about testable claims in a fresh way this fall. In doing this, teachers can help students try on what it means to “think like a psychologist” or “think like a scientist.”
Through a course in Psychology, students can appreciate the limitations of relying on personal experience, intuition, and “common sense” when it comes to evaluating claims about the world. Students can learn how to determine which authorities are trustworthy and which aren’t, based on what “ways of knowing” authorities rely on. Students can learn how to determine what can be concluded and what can’t be concluded in any given scientific study or program of research. Claims and research on COVID-19 supply perfect examples that students might easily comprehend as we hopefully guide them to higher levels of epistemological development.
When I think about updating my Psychology courses in these ways, I get excited! Not only would these topics inject fresh energy into my courses this fall, they are timely and important and students could be meaningfully impacted in ways that matter to me as I think about what I can do to help with the state of the world today. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela: education is the most powerful tool we can use to change the world.
This post also is published at http://www.psychologytoday.com