The enduring difficulties that face both the academic and the professional sectors of educational psychology are due to three factors. First, educational psychology mirrors all the propensities and peculiarities of psychology. Second, and perhaps as a consequence, no distinctive approach or unified understanding of the field has evolved. Third, despite the professed concern with educational problems in general, the primary focus has in fact been schooling, as if all educational concerns are localized in schools. Psychology in general has placed an enormous emphasis on quantification. Within educational psychology this trend has given rise to a huge testing industry, making tests, selling tests, giving tests, scoring tests, interpreting scores, categorizing and labelling people on the basis of scores, coaching test taking, doing research on and with tests, and so on. These activities have become so widespread, particularly in schools, as to make them a hallmark of the whole field, and educational psychologists have become effectively technicians of tests, measurements and evaluation, especially in the cognitive domain dealing with intelligence, aptitude and achievement (USA) or attainment (UK). The technical bias is so pervasive as to blind many practitioners to the damage that may be done to the test subjects (Hanson 1993). This preoccupation with the tools of research has, of course, affected the substance. Persons qua persons tend to be diminished even as they are counted, aggregated, classified, labelled and treated. Not surprisingly, many significant questions have been ignored – for instance, how to handle young children’s napping and sleeping patterns, and their disruptions; what they dream, and how that affects their life awake; how one’s temperament contributes to the formation of a world-view; how to help a person develop courage and a sense of honour; or what nurtures maturity, integrity and wisdom.
Substantively, educational psychology remains a hodgepodge. Indeed, a cursory survey of graduate programmes reveals large portions of courses devoted to research design and analysis, measurements and evaluation, and computer applications. Side by side with these are courses on learning, development (mostly focused on child–adolescent phases), personality formation and pathology. The last category is heavily dependent upon the psychiatric tradition of diagnosis and classification. Among the relevant areas of enquiry that are normally absent from such courses are group dynamics, the process of teaching or the nature of curriculum. It is still rarer for such a course to pay attention to other disciplines. On the level of theory, what is typically found is a doctrinaire adherence to a single fashionable approach. In the 1950s the Skinnerian school was dominant, to be replaced, in turn, by the approaches of Piaget, Chomsky, Vygotsky and others. There is little sense of the history of the field, and perhaps in consequence it is hardly surprising that the same mistakes tend to be repeated both in theory and in practice. One error has been to view the school experience in a linear, causal fashion, within its narrowest and most immediate context, without interpreting it in interactional, systemic terms against the broader backdrop of human meaning. As important as schooling has become, particularly to the young, an educational psychology that centres its attention exclusively upon this process is unlikely to achieve that rounded understanding of the person in the world that is required if we are to provide appropriate support, assistance and guidance (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Ianni 1989).