Thinking About Psychological Literacy

How psychologically literate are you?

Posted Sep 21, 2009

My wife and I belong to a book club. We gather with a small group of friends every month or so for a bit of cabernet and culture. We recently discussed The Hound of the Baskervilles. Between bites of bone-shaped cookies called Scooby Snacks (members try to pick hors d'oeuvres that fit the oeuvre of whatever we're reading), one friend wondered how Arthur Conan Doyle became such a master of deductive reasoning; he clearly had to be creative in order to channel all that insight into Sherlock Holmes. But there may be no mystery here because another friend offered that according to his biographers, Doyle was apparently a truly keen and gifted observer of behavior and human nature.

Our discussion made me thing about an emerging concept in psychology education: psychological literacy. Psychological literacy includes possessing a well-defined and expansive disciplinary vocabulary, just as it entails basic knowledge of the critical subject matter found in contemporary psychology. But it's more than that: A psychological literate person is a critical thinker, someone who welcomes intellectual exchanges dealing with questions or problems linked with behavior. Like Holmes (and on a good day, Dr. Watson), the psychologically literate person is an amiable skeptic, but nonetheless insightful and reflective about her own and others' actions. There is much more to psychological literacy than these laudable qualities (space is precious in a blog and, in any case, a sense of mystery and curiosity here may compel you to read on).

Why does psychological literacy matter? Where did the term come from, anyway? The term was a topic of discussion of educators who gathered at the National Conference on Undergraduate Education at the University of Puget Sound in June 2008. Nine teams of teachers from high schools and two and four year colleges and universities spent five days discussing and debating key issues in teaching and learning psychology (I'll touch on one or two others in the coming weeks). One result of the conference is a book, edited by Diane F. Halpern, former President of the American Psychological Association and Professor of Psychology at Claremont-McKenna College examining and forecasting the future of undergraduate education in psychology . The chapter on psychological literacy was written by Thomas V. McGovern (Arizona State University West) and nine colleagues who concluded that psychological knowledge is for something-taking action, helping others, improving the lives we lead-and not just about something (i.e., disciplinary facts). Further, they urge teachers to become interested in learning to develop psychological literacy by using scientifically sound and reflective pedagogies. As McGovern and colleagues put it: "Undergraduate psychology-whether one course, several, or a full major-offers the very best potential of liberal learning. It is at the juncture of the humanities and the sciences where students gain the human-focused values and the scientific tools necessary to see and to care about the human condition and to improve it (p. 25)." Thus, psychologically literate people can use what they know about psychology to solve home-based, local, civic, and even national matters by looking to data instead of personal opinion. They also write and speak well, possess research, information literacy, and technology skills, and collaborate quite well with others.

The Blueprint book aims to help educators in psychology, as well as those interested in psychology education, to create psychologically literate citizens who are liberally educated, globally minded, and concerned with carrying out ethical and social responsibilities using the disciplines tools-that is, knowledge, strategies, and insights about human behavior. I remembered this at the conclusion of a meeting with one of my research methods students last week. I asked him what he planned to do after graduation. He smiled broadly and told me he hoped to work in a residential treatment program for children and adolescents. He told me he has been lucky and wants to share his education with others: "Hey, I want to give back," he said. For once I had the good sense not to go into my usual monologue about going to graduate school. Perhaps I've become more psychologically literate, too.

Sherlock Holmes (or at least his creator, Conan Doyle) was clearly a psychologically literate person. With luck, many of tomorrow's students will become psychologically literate as well. Now, what about you? How would you rate your psychological literacy?