Psychological Problems with Reference to Classroom Teaching*


In his recent book on Sex in Childhood and Youth, Dr. Alfred Schmieding of Concordia Teachers College, River Forest, Illinois, makes this observation, “There has for some time been a closer drawing together of teaching and psychology. And if I see the signs aright, there is at present an approach between teaching and psychiatry. Teaching and psychiatry need each other.”1 We all recognize that the study of child growth and development, and the study of the learning process as it lakes place in the modern classroom have disclosed valuable data pertaining to teaching and school organization. Education in the sense of theory and practice of learning and teaching in the school has become an independent field of study and research, a science in the broad sense of that word. Psychology, and more recently psychiatry, as auxiliary or contributing sciences with relation to education, are important to the student of education because they constitute sources of indispensable data to him.

It is my assignment to place before you certain problems in the field where psychology and education meet, and that is educational psychology. In order to do this I propose to discuss three topics. First I should like to consider some principles basic to interpretation in this area. Then we shall consider some important concepts. And finally we shall refer to some psychological problems in classroom teaching.



Scriptural Doctrine of the Nature of Man

The principles to which I refer may be subsumed under the broad concept of the nature of man according to Scripture in distinction from non-theistic to anti-theistic concepts in vogue today. For our purpose I am thinking particularly of four aspects of the doctrine of man as contained in the Scripture: (1) man is a religious being; (2) man is an organic unity; (3) attributes or qualities that characterize him as person; (4) the religious being in his personality.

First of all, man is a religious being. God created man a living being in his image. Man is a self-conscious, self-determining being, a person who can communicate with God, fellowship with him, and with whom God communes and has fellowship. This fellowship, communion with God is man’s very life. It is his basic motivation. Man can be understood rightly only in this motivation. Even in his sinful state, dead in trespasses and sin, outside of God’s communion and broken from within, man is motivated religiously. Religious aspiration is not a phase of human development that we acquire environmentally to consummate an urge among other urges of organic structure. Man’s every longing, his every expression, and his every purpose has its root in his religious nature.

In the second place, man is an organic unity. He functions as a whole in every relationship of life. The soul life, or mental life, if you will, is interrelated with physiological structure and function by the spirit or person, the life principle of man’s organic unity. It is I who think feel, will, see, push, choose, follow. etc. And the principle of integration is not found in the interaction of an organism with the environment, as modern psychology has it, but in the self-determining person as he extends himself into his environment.

Thirdly, the attributes of the person as a religious being may be stated as rational, moral, social, esthetic, free, and responsible. Man is rational, that is he can know truth, and the truth. He is moral, that is he can value and choose the good, or evil. He is social, that is he can communicate and fellowship. He is esthetic. that is he can appreciate beauty, the harmonious. He is free, that is he can choose voluntarily. He is responsible, that is he is accountable. These are not traits man develops in the course or man’s becoming mature. as psychologies of non-theistic and anti-theistic brands would have us believe, but they arc attributes of a person as religious being.

A fourth principle very important to the Christian educator who seeks to interpret psychological data correctly is the principle of personality. It is a much abused word today. Man is not only a unity in his person, but he also experiences a unity as he extends himself. As infant he experiences this unity in the family life. As he develops it reaches beyond the family, His very well-being depends upon his ability to extend himself into his broadening community in a feeling of unity. We say a person is well-poised when he carries himself well in his body and controls himself in a situation. We call him keen when he penetrates an external situation intellectually with good balance and composure. In these and similar situations the person extends himself physiologically, socially—emotionally and intellectually or, better said, in his knowing life. One or more or these dimensions of a personality may be predominant, but they are all involved in one another. We think physiologically, socially, and emotionally as well as in reasoning. though reasoning predominates. We enjoy a party socially and emotionally, but we like “the cats” too and make some clever observations in conversation. The unity of the personality is not in the summation of traits, as some non-theistic psychologies would have us believe, but in the extension of himself with a feeling of wholeness based on the person as a religious being.

Now, it seems to me, these principles, rightly understood, separate us miles from modern psychological thinking. This does not mean that psychological studies in education as those of Strang, and Thurstone, and Symonds, and Jersild, just to mention a few names, who do not share with us these principles, do not make a significant contribution to our scripturally oriented thinking. Quite on the contrary, we look upon these contributions as the work of God in sinful men. Neither does it mean that our observations and conclusions in our psychological studies will be true because we are in possession of true principles. We can make, and do make mistakes in spite of true principles.

Some Important Concepts

In line with what we have said “bout the nature of man, we should make some basic distinctions in the use of terms. The four terms that, I think, should be clear are: growth, development, learning, and teaching.

In the bio-social psychology, so generally accepted in educational circles today, growth and development are nearly used interchangeably. The followers of the Dewey line of thought in contemporary educational theory have made growth the basic concept in education. Says the former Dr. R. Schorling, for years a well-known figure at the University of Michigan, “—today we say that education is growth.”2

On the basis of what we have said about the nature of man. we as Christians must demur. We shall be called upon to construct a terminology that reflects our basic concepts of education.

What is growth? A plant grows. That is, the biological potential inherent in the seed comes to expression in an environment favorable to it. Given the proper nurture of soil, atmosphere, etc., a bulb becomes a gorgeous tulip. It is a process of maturation biologically, and adaptation and adjustment environment tally. A child too grows as he matures physiologicalIy in structure. We speak of a growth spurt in early childhood became we observe a rapid maturation and increase in length and weight of the body. The word growth is physiologically oriented, and only psychologists who reduce soul life to physiological structure and function can use the term to apply to all human life as the person progresses to maturity.

The word development is psychically oriented, as well as physiologically. As the line of demarcation between physiological function and the psyche or soul life is not always clear (it is hard to determine where the one leaves off and the other begins) , so the distinction between these two terms cannot always be drawn clearly. However, development applies especially to the social-emotional and the knowing functions of the person. The infant develops language skills. A child develops insight in number relations. As he matures in physiological structure and function, he develops control over his smaller muscles so that he can hold a pencil and guide it across the paper. Growth and development are involved in one another. Growth physiologically is a basis for development in the soul life of a child. But it should be clear that use of the terms interchangeably is based on the prescientific commitment that man is a product of nature.

Now is the word learning. It can he used in a broad sense, we use it when we say a child learns to walk. In this sense Pavlov’s dog learned to secrete saliva at the ringing, of a bell. Thorndike’s cat learned to turn the latch. Kohler’s ape learned to fasten two sticks together to get a banana. Used in this sense, learning is no more than growth and development. Animals can make adaptations and adjustments in their physiological function and limited psychic function that have the appearances of learning. And in infants the difference is hardly observable, though Kellogg found that the difference between learning of an ape and a child soon becomes evident in the greater transfer in the experience of a child. To make human learning continuous with organismic changes is based upon a prescientific commitment, not on demonstrated fact. And, let me add, this view of learning has done and is doing untold harm in modern education in America’s schools.

Learning is the self,conscious activity of a subject. The subject, person in his knowing function penetrates a situation for understanding, that it lays hold upon, apprehends relationships, accepts truth disclosed therein, and orders the dimensions of his personality accordingIy. Not creative expression, but expression of self-surrender to truth is the culmination of learning. Even a pragmatist as, V.H. Kilpatrick states that no one has learned anything until he has accepted it in his heart. This statement of a spokesman for the growth concept of education reminds one of the statement of the high priest when he said it was profitable that one man die for the people. He made a pronouncement the significance of which he himself did not fathom. But Kilpatrick would rise in horror to hear his statement quoted out of context and given scriptural orientation. Yet, what he said defines learning on the basis of scriptural principles.

When Paul enjoins the Ephesians to “put on the complete armor of God,” he is not merely saying that they are to cover themselves externally. The context makes it amply clear that the putting on is an act of personal acceptance and discipline. In learning, the subject puts on truth in the sense that the Scripture speaks of it in the passage referred to, namely Ephesians 6. Truth is not of our making. It is of God only. Truth is disclosed to us in the learning process, and it is in the acceptance of it in the heart that we fulfill our God-given purpose as religious beings. We see, therefore, how far wrong modern educational theory and practice is when it speaks of learning as growth and development. Such identification is based on the denial of man as religious being and of truth as God-given.

Because we define learning as putting on truth, the concept teaching also has a distinctive meaning in Christian education.

Teaching cannot mean putting truth on the learner. Only the learner can put on truth. Therefore, when we speak of teaching as imparting knowledge or disciplining the mind, we are using non-scientific expressions. And we cannot build a science on non-scientific expressions. Let me illustrate. We all speak of the sun setting and rising. But he cannot build astronomy on such non· scientific concepts, for the sun does not actually set, but the earth rotates. Astronomically therefore we speak of rotation and revolution of the earth. This is scientifically correct. Likewise it is not wrong to speak of imparting knowledge in a naive, unscientific sense. In life we experience a setting sun, and the imparting of knowledge. But if we are going to he scientifically accurate in our terminology. which we must be in order to construct a systematic body of knowledge called a science, we shall be required to use words descriptive of scientific fact and principle.

Let it also be clear that we cannot make a children. We can coerce a child into performance, but we cannot coerce him into putting on truth. Learning is a voluntary, self-conscious act of acceptance. A subject is never a passive. docile Object molded and formed at will by a teacher. Only God can take hold of a person and mold him and make him after his will. But this act of God is as mysterious as the very origin of the person in conception. You and I are not born of the pairing of genes and chromosomes, though these chemical constituents enter into the making of our organic unity. A favorite professor in my days of graduate study, Dr. H.H. Horne. was fond of saying, “In part we are born; in part we are made: and in part we make ourselves.” As philosophical idealist he could say no more. But it is scriptural when we say we make ourselves. A child makes himself in learning.

Yet it may be said that a teacher is engaged in man-making, a term borrowed from the former Harvard professor, W.E. Hocking. In what sense do we think of teaching as doing something to the learner?

On the one hand we can set up an external situation which a learner on his level of maturity can penetrate with our help, apprehend its relationships, come to grips with truth disclosed therein, and accept it. To do this we must activate the learner in the motivation of his entire person to focus his attention upon the subject of knowledge. We can also communicate with a learner in personal fellowship. Love provides the basis for fellowship of trust and commitment. In this person to person relationship the knowing function of the learner is cleared of barriers that inhibit penetration and apprehension of meaning.

We recognize that good, effective teaching does both. It organizes the external situation for meaningful apprehension and activates the learner in it. But it also establishes a personal communication of teacher and pupil in which the teacher speaks with authority in love. In teaching we form and structure the learner in the sense that norms and objectives are authoritatively established for the learner, and that we seek control of the learner through activating, motivating him to accept these norms and objectives. But this involves the learning process of a subject, not a passive submission of an object. We may, therefore, define teaching as guiding or directing learning. But this definition must he interpreted against the background of what we have said about growth. development, and learning. We cannot, may not be satisfied with the pragmatist’s and naturalist’s conception of teaching as guidance. Modern school counseling and guidance often fall prey to this error.

In our conception of teaching, too, we are miles removed from modern educational theory and practice. An impassable gulf separates us all along the line. Ours is an interpretation that springs from a fire or faith, as dwelling in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. The modern man outside of Christ views also these things in the blindness of his vaunted autonomy. We are called authoritarian and regimentationists. But the educational wastelands of the man of modernity mistakes the slavery of self-exaltation for freedom.

Psychological Problems in Classroom Teaching

Against the background o[ this general discussion of principles and concepts, we should turn to the study of psychological problems peculiar to the classroom, and appraise psychological studies that can contribute to effective classroom teaching.

I should like to refer, and I can do no more in this discussion, to five major classes of problems falling within the scope of educational psychology. They are motivation, learning, aptitudes, appraisal, and the personality of the teacher.

First of all the meaning and nature of motivation.

I take it that motivation in learning and leaching no longer means to us what it meant in pre-psychology days, namely how to make adult subject matter as tasteful as possible to a child or how to fit a child into adult experiences.

We recognize that motivation has two sources. One is the needs (not to be interpreted as momentary, flee ting interests) of a dlild on his level of development and learning. and the other is the goals he can be brought to feel in his total person. What will set a subject going in his whole person to achieve a desirable end? Two things. One, there must be a real need in his life for the end sought. Two, the end must be envisioned by the subject as the consummation of the need. The teacher is to arouse a real need into a felt need to activate a learner to self-conscious activity, and to bring the consummating end into view as a goal to be achieved.

Psychological studies of child life under school conditions as well as studies of child life in general will give us the data we need for right understanding of child needs and goals in child development and learning. Psychological studies do not establish goals for child life. They interpret goals normatively established as directional progress goals in the development and learning of children. For example, we seek the holiness and perfection of God’s children. In educational language we may speak of this goal as the mature personality exercising self-discipline in the service of God. This goal is prescribed normatively for Christian education. A child attains to this goal through felt needs motivated by envisioned goals that can enter his life for self-discipline at his stage of development and learning.

But observed data in psychological studies are interpreted according to our view of child nature. For example, the bio-social psychologist interprets needs as basically physiological. These needs give rise to functional tensions that arc resolved by establishing an equilibrium through environmental influences. Goals in child life are environmental influences for resolving functional tensions in a biological organism. Teaching of reading in school has this psychological significance. But if we view a child as a religious being created to image God in his total personality, the needs and tensions we observe in child life will be viewed quite differently. They are the expression of a person who in every dimension of his personality finds the consummation of his longings in the love and fellowship which only God affords. Every motivation is a religious motivation consummated religiously. Teaching of reading has a psychological significance which goes far deeper than resolving tensions environmentally. It is a source for disclosing truth to the heart of the learner for acceptance and self-discipline. According to the non-theist the need for expression is related to goals which exalt the ego or self and self-assurance. The Christian viewing a child’s need for expression in the disharmony of sin relates it to goals of obedience and penitence. But needs and envisioning goals, and the process of attaining envisioned goals cdl for psychological study.

A second set of problems pertains to learning.

Already I have stated how we view learning as activity of a subject.

How does learning as the self-conscious activity of a subject in penetrating, apprehending and accepting the object of knowledge in its true relations take place? To ask the question as I do already indicates how little we can do with current theories of learning. When the biosocial psychologist makes thinking and creative expression the pride and glory of man, we reply by saying that thinking and expression are phases of the learning process, not goals and norms. We seek wisdom and understanding, and these are of the heart. The pride and glory of man is heart acceptance of truth and the expression of truth in his life. Then he images God, who is the truth.

A child in his development to maturity is it teacher. His entire life style and his total personality is involved. As person he learns, but he is a child, not an adult. He learns as child. When Herbert turned to adults to understand learning, he concluded that a child in the learning process proceeds from the simple to the complex, from the known to the unknown. Hence, reading was taught by putting together the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, and arithmetic was taught by counting and memorizing combinations. He did not understand child life because he inferred from adult knowledge the learning of children. But Thorndike made as great an error when he constructed three laws of learning based on what he observed in the bungling of rats and cats as they strove for food. He thought a child is only a step or two removed from the ways of a cat.

We learn how a child learns from observing a child learn when we rightly view child nature. Then we study the various forms learning takes and avoid raising anyone of them to the generalized learning process. There are skills, both physical and mental, to be mastered. There is informational content to be remembered. There are habits of conduct to be routinized and mechanized. There are appreciations to be cultivated. There are insights and values to be attained. All of these need separate study as forms or kinds of learning, but all of these are meaningfully integrated in a life of understanding and wisdom by the subject self-consciously motivated by right goals.

The social-emotional climate of the classroom constitutes an important area of study with reference to the learning process. One psychologist has called man a security hunter. Emotional security plays a large part in child growth and developments we know that a child needs a feeling of security for learning and teaching to take hold. it is in the social-emotional relationships that a child finds his security in school. When we understand this rightly, we shall be able to give learning the social-emotional orientation needed for acceptance of and commitment to truth. Heart acceptance takes place in a feeling of security. The key to a social-emotional climate conducive to effective learning is love. Love is the law of life. To the extent that one truly loves does one live. To the extent that hostility dominates, effective learning is barred. Now to establish a social-emotional climate the fruit of love is more than a psychological problem. It is first of all a problem of one’s relationship to God. But restoration of this relationship does not automatically restore harmony of functions in the person broken by sin. It is a problem that has psychological aspects, especially in a classroom situation.

“Transfer of training,” unfortunate terminology in human learning. has been an area of psychological study in the past. I refer to it only in passing, and then with the suggestion that in learning as we view it this problem takes on another meaning. Nevertheless, carryover from one learning situation to another needs further study, also in this view of learning and teaching.

A third set of problems has to do with aptitudes.

Aptitudes too must be viewed as distinctly personal, aptitudes of a person. Intelligence is not an entity of mind, or an isolated capacity. Nor is it function of brain cells or of a neuro-muscular system. It is the general capacity of the knowing function of a person. A person acts intelligently or unintelligently. Animals may appear to act intelligently because intelligence is first defined in terms of adjustments observed in animal life. But the knowing function is unique in man as religious being. And the capacity for knowing is likewise unique. So when we seek to measure this capacity we are well aware of it being the expression of the whole person. Never will we permit our inferences from our attempted measurement of the knowing function in general to lead us to conclusions beyond the restricted area under investigation. The same applies to special aptitudes. The Lord endows a person with gifts, general and specific. But they are not isolated qualities or entities in the person. They are aptitudes of a total person to be understood in his total life style. Our view of the providence of God in the life of every person will keep us from any form of determination in ascertaining a child’s future development and learning.

The Christian teacher will use attitude tests as a source of information among many other sources. As much, if not more value will be attached to remedial measures. And perhaps most of all an anecdotal record or behavior journal of day-by-day indications of a child’s developing way of life will constitute source data for the teacher. God endows his people with varied aptitudes. We are to discover them and bring them to expression in God-like ways.

Appraisal of learning outcomes constitutes a related area of problems. What constitute significant learning outcomes in school? How can we measure them? How can we appraise a learner’s progress as the result of forming done in teaching? This study wholly belongs in the field of educational psychology, since the data are derived from a classroom situation. When we consider that Christian education has a distinctive objective, a distinctive view of the learner of learning, and of teaching, it follows that the measurement of learning outcomes will involve a distinctive approach. Standardized achievement testing as carried on in secular education is of doubtful significance in Christian education.

Grading and marking on the basis of factual knowledge gained from books or dictated notes too are misleading. to say the least. If we mean business with learning outcomes distinctly Christian, our appraisal too must point in that direction. Here a large field of research opens up to us.

Finally, the teacher as a factor in the learning process points us to a group of psychological problems. Books have been written on the psychology or the teacher. The analyst in psychiatry tells us that one must himself be analyzed, that is have gained insight into his own dynamics, before he can help others adequately. I am not capable of appraising this statement. But a parallel statement can be made truthfully about teachers and teaching. Only to the degree that a teacher has achieved self-knowledge, self-surrender, and self-control, and to the degree that he knows himself in his three-fold office as a religious being, prophet, priest, and king. can he help pupils achieve these qualities in themselves. A teacher, for example, who lacks reasonable insight in his emotional tire, is seriously handicapped in constructive effectiveness with his pupils. A teacher needs much insight in his own personality. Many problems of control in the classroom may stem from his own emotional insecurity. There is a psychology of the teacher. Only a teacher who daily walks with the Lord in the light of His truth can lead a child into the truth. A teacher cannot form others in that which lacks form in his own life.

I have tried to indicate briefly the broad areas of problems pertaining to psychology in the classroom. We can profit greatly from the secular psychologist and educationist as he defines problems and observes data. But we shall have to be very alert to interpretations that reduce the learner and learning to something less than a religious being created to image God. It is not merely the absence of spiritual values in the value system of modern education that sends the modern educator into wrong channels. But it is his faulty conception of a child. We need studies in educational psychology that view a child for what he really is, a son of God.

*Address to the Conference on Christianity, Psychology and Psychiatry. Wednesday, April 7, 1954. Held at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.

(1) p. 128

(2) Schorling, R. Student Teaching, p. 29.