educational psychologist

William James, A Far-Sighted Founding Father and Educational Psychologist, on Instincts and Stream of Consciousness

Inventing Psychology

Called the “father of American psychology”, William James was one of the most influential thinkers of the last century. His influence spanned generations through many of his students at Harvard University, where he spent the majority of his academic career.

Feminist Gertrude Stein, author W.E.B Du Bois, philosopher George Santayana and President Theodore Roosevelt were among some of his students who later became equally influential. Educated abroad and fluent in German and French, he was also the godson of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He taught a variety of subjects including physiology, anatomy, and psychology. Perhaps the first pragmatist, and a founder of functional psychology, he developed the philosophical perspective of radical empiricism. His pragmatism was exemplified by his assertion that true beliefs are those that are most useful to those that believe them.

James’ form of empiricism was based on the reality that entirely objective analysis is not possible because life never stops. Rather, life perpetually provides more data to be incorporated, thereby constantly transforming our belief systems, making learning a never-ending process.

Principles of An Educational Psychologist

His writing, captured in the book “Writings 1902-1910” continue to inform those studying human behavior today. Chapter 24 of his classic book The Principles of Psychology is devoted to his theory of instincts.

“Every instinct is an impulse … sensation-impulses, perception-impulses, and idea-impulses… It is obvious that every act, in an animal with memory, must cease to be ‘blind’ after being once repeated , and must be accompanied with foresight of its ‘end’ just so far as that end may have fallen under the animal’s cognizance.”

For James, human emotion is tempered by prior experience and reason. He also classified emotions such as love and jealousy as instincts. Further, he believed that the following two principles could be applied to all human instincts.

  1. The principle of “the inhibition of instincts by habits”. He gives the following example of this principle at work:

    “when objects of a certain class elicit from an animal a certain sort of reaction, it often happens that the animal becomes partial to the first specimen of the class on which it has reacted, and will not afterward react on any other specimen”.

  2. The principle of “transitoriness” in which they are

    “implanted for the sake of giving rise to habits, and that, this purpose once accomplished, the instincts themselves, as such, have no raison d’être in the psychical economy, and consequently fade away”.

Influences and Opinions

Influenced by Charles Darwin’s theories, the educational psychologist believed that societies mutated over generations through acts of genius that successfully adapted to societal realities or that genius accidentally obtained positions of authority that enabled them to set examples or set behavioral social precedents. These acts might include the destruction of others who would potentially have set different precedents that would lead society in a different direction.

More respectful of genius than brute force, he joined the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898 to oppose U.S. foreign policy in the Philippines. His emphasis on the importance of diversity over duality strongly influenced American culture, and global art and literature as well. Author James Joyce became famous for incorporating “stream of consciousness” into his writing.

James and child development

James’ opinions as a educational psychologist, regarding child development remain relevant today in that James had a great deal of respect for the intellect of children.

“School children can enjoy abstractions, provided they be of the proper order; and it is a poor compliment to their rational appetite to think that anecdotes about little Tommies and little Jennies are the only kind of things their minds can digest.”

He believed that

“the native interests of children lie altogether in the sphere of sensation”

and recommended that children be taught kinesthetically, through objects and movement. According to him, the link between instincts, or emotions, and actions provided the best foundation for instruction.

Many of his theories were ahead of their time, in that many experts and educational psychologists today are in agreement with his opinion that optimum learning consists of doing rather than merely absorbing a rigid pre-determined collection of facts. His views on instincts were important here as well. He believed that teaching should entail helping children develop the power to control their “stream of consciousness”, and learn to sort, classify, observe and make meaningful associations while prioritizing conflicting emotions and information.

Perhaps as a result of rigid gender roles assigned by the division of labor, he believed that women had stronger parental emotions.

“Parental Love is an instinct stronger in woman than in man, at least in the early childhood of its object”.

However, rather than devaluing the role of motherhood, he spoke of a mother’s love as the height of nobility.

“…. the passionate devotion of a mother — in herself, perhaps — to a sick or dying child is perhaps the most simply beautiful moral spectacle that human life affords. Contemning every danger, triumphing over every difficulty, outlasting all fatigue, woman’s love is here invincibly superior to anything that man can show”.

In 1915 or 2015, learning to transform emotions into constructive habits remains one of the most important skills parents can model for their children.

educational psychologist

July 29,2015  |

women in leadership

Between the Bench and the Bottle: Women in Leadership Experiment with Motherhood and Careers in Science

Chien Shiung-Wu, also called First Lady of Physics, said once,

“I sincerely doubt that any open-minded person really believes in the faulty notion that women have no intellectual capacity for science and technology. Nor do I believe that social and economic factors are the actual obstacles that prevent women’s participation in the scientific and technical field. The main stumbling blocking the way of any progress is and always has been unimpeachable tradition.”

For those of us who want to become women in leadership and have careers that are long and impacting on the fields we inhabit, we certainly have a lot to overcome. Even if we conquer the possible harassment, unequal pay, and discrimination that have been well documented in the working world, when we decide to become mothers, we then have to conquer our own biology to remain active in our careers.

This is especially true in the fields of science and mathematics where vigorous schooling and workloads make it incredibly hard to become an attentive parent (or vice versa). Though we carry the responsibility of being beautiful vessels of life, many people, policies, and careers fail to give that responsibility the respect it deserves.

This often leaves women with a huge choice: spend life progressing their scientific careers or choose to experiment in being a parent. But why can’t we do both?

It is well documented that women are a minority in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Many programs and campaigns have been implemented in the past decade to recruit more women into these fields, but to little effect. According to the National Science Foundation, women comprise only 25% of the STEM workforce. Even if the campaigns work to recruit women into STEM degrees in university, many will not complete the STEM degree or will, later in their career, drop out of the field. But why? The reasons behind this differ, and there is research pointing to the fact that many women are simply not that interested in STEM careers, but recent investigation suggests that many women are making the choice to leave the laboratory so they can be mothers.

The Prevalence of Mothers in STEM Studies and Scientific Careers

A thorough study published in American Scientist suggests that women in leadership positions have careers equivalent to men in the same position until they plan to have children. Just the idea of becoming a parent exerts a stronger force on a woman’s career than on a man’s and for valid reasons. The path to a successful career in science requires many years of schooling, starting with a bachelors degree and ending with a PhD. This is followed by a few post-doc positions to gain research experience after the PhD, then finally, a full-fledged career in industry or academia.

Women’s fertility cycles clash with this timeline. A woman is most fertile at the start of and during her stressful, high-risk PhD years, with fertility exponentially declining in the years when her career becomes more stable. The question for women in leadership positions then becomes, risk a career to become a mother or risk infertility?

Making the Choice: The Gender Gap and Motherhood

In the end, women should not feel they have to make a choice. If a woman wants to have a career in science and be a mother, then she should be able to do so. By virtue of biology, however, a woman will be distanced from her career when she has a child. Therefore, the factors contributing to women dropping out of their careers not only include discrimination or lack of interest, but also gender inequality related to outdated policies that work for men and not for women. In other words, tradition contributes to the “motherhood or career” dilemma women face. Implementing policy changes that account for a woman’s biology when she decides to become a parent (and not only a man’s) would help STEM fields retain women in leadership.

Women in Leadership Speak Out About Mixing Motherhood with the Laboratory

Though it will undoubtedly take many years to create the policy changes needed to increase the number of women in STEM fields with long-standing careers, many women in leadership every day still make the decision to be both mothers and scientists, and do it successfully.

A book documenting the unique difficulties mothers face in the competitive field of science was recently published, giving hope and inspiration to women who wish to successfully combine their family goals with their career goals. The book is called Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientist speak out. The book has also been turned into a project that hopes to bring awareness to the need for change in the STEM fields. You can find the website linked to the project here.

In the end, women are tough, smart, and mothers. Though we face traditions that work to thwart our goals in life, we work against them to create the lives we want. A career in science and in motherhood, though not easy, helps to create the change many of us wish to see in the world by concurrently allowing us to have a family, raise insightful children with strong role models, and partake in life-changing research. We can be women in leadership in both career and family, and if we continue to ask for change, it will get easier.

“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” – William James

Here are some great resources for further reading:

women in leadership

May 25,2015  |