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Choosing Texts for a Psychology Class

Authored By: 
Daniel Shabasson, Psychology teacher

So you’re going to teach psychology to high school students. The first step in planning your course is to select the text or texts to be used. There are two ways you can go.

The first is to use a good textbook as the primary reading material. You will need to decide what sections of book to cover. Psychology is a vast topic and you cannot cover everything in depth. You can decide for the students what you will cover, or you can leave it up to the students. You find out what interests the students and let that guide you. I find the latter to be preferable. Unless you are teaching an AP class and there are specific topics you must cover, an introductory class should be aligned to student interests. Otherwise, the students will not relate to the material. Some students will be more interested in topics that address the concerns they have about their own psychological well-being and allow them to gain insight into their personal struggles. Others may be interested in psychological disorders. Some may be fascinated with understanding how the brain works. Still others may be curious about moral psychology—how human beings think about right and wrong, and how people make decisions on what kind of person to be. So the class should not begin immediately with assigning readings, but instead spending a couple of days getting to know who your students are and what motivated them to take a Psychology class in the first place. You then pick out a variety of topics that cover some of the interests of everyone in the class if you do not reach a consensus. 

The second option is not to use a textbook but to read a variety of books and essays that cover psychological issues as interpreted from the perspective of their various authors. This has a distinct advantage over using a textbook. Each author will have different writing style and a distinct interpretation of human psychology. This contrasts starkly with a textbook which will often be written by one person who will maintain one single style of writing and deliver the material with one single voice.  By reading a variety of authors, you can ensure a variety of voices and perspectives. This makes Psychology much more like reading literature than learning physics. As with reading literature, where each novel will create its own unique world of narrative, using a variety of texts will convey to the students that writing about psychology can be a creative endeavor, where the author can inject his or her unique experience and humanity into their work and make it a work of art and not merely a science book.  This might have the advantage of communicating to the students that they themselves might one day write a book on psychology relating to their own personal experiences, even if they do not have a higher degree in psychology. For example, in Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes his own experience struggling to survive in Auschwitz in the first half of the book, and then discusses what he learned about human nature and human happiness from his experiences in the camp in the second half of the book. Students can see this as an inspirational model for their own future writing endeavors about their own lives. Another great book is Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. The topic is how people often misunderstand the motives and intentions of other people they do not know well. Gladwell illustrates his psychological lessons using real-life historical events in which people have radically misunderstood strangers, often with dire consequences. So the book conveys profound psychological themes in the context of real-life historical events that gives it poignancy that could not be duplicated by any textbook. Also of great interest for the study of moral psychology are Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which explores the connection between political orientation and moral psychology, and Dave Edmonds’  Would You Kill the Fat Man?, which explores the differences between utilitarian and deontological moral intuitions.

Unless you are teaching an AP Psychology course and you must teach to the AP exam, I recommend the latter option—not using a textbook. From my experience, I think that you will inspire your students more to read psychology on their own and instill in them a fascination with psychology and the myriad ways it can be approached in interesting, creative, and unique ways.