The Challenge of Teaching History of Psychology: a New Curriculum,
a New Program and the Students' Previous Ideas
Germán Álvarez-Díaz de León,
National Autonomous University of Mexico*
In 2008 an important curricular modification was approved for the professional training of
psychologists at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). For almost 40
years the history of psychology, as a course, had been absent in undergraduate students’
A group of teachers convinced of the relevance of teaching psychology as a science
based upon the comprehension of its history (and philosophy) struggled to include these
subjects in the new curriculum. The new subject's contents are important. Nevertheless, we
thought it was also necessary to take into account the student’s learning process, especially their factual knowledge as well as their previous ideas.
Studies on implicit theories or previous ideas have been conducted for many years
mainly in natural sciences. These have also been carried out to understand the sudents'
representations in social sciences and history. We conducted an investigation of 252
students of history of psychology to support the implementation of this course. Our results
on the three topics investigated show that: 1) students expect the course to be very difficult;
2) they show poor factual knowledge on general themes or authors and 3) a common
previous idea on history or historiography is that it studies past events, not necessarily
linked and mostly under an accumulative perspective. Results from this research will allow
us to improve the contents of the program as well as our teaching strategies.
* Z. Monroy-Nasr (email@example.com), G. Álvarez-Díaz de León (firstname.lastname@example.org)
and R. León-Sánchez (email@example.com) are professors at the National Autonomous
University of Mexico (UNAM). We are thankful to Kirareset Barrera for her aid in data processing. 1 This work has been supported by the research project Scientific historical instruments, cognition and science teaching [DGAPA-PAPIIT IN401809/UNAM].
A new curriculum
The last curricular modification for the professional training of psychologists in the
Psychology Department (Facultad de Psicología) at the National Autonomous University of
Mexico (UNAM) was a challenge for those who advocate for the incorporation of history
and philosophy of psychology in the new curriculum. We agree with what Gira Bhatt and
2 Randal G. Tonks pointed out in their research in Canada about those who are interested in
Nonetheless, contrary to what these authors experienced, in our case nobody "had assured psychology's history, the nature of the discipline and the philosophy of science. Our
3us of a promising future for the history [or the philosophy, I may add] of psychology".colleagues "made snide remarks about us, and called us 'those theoretical types' ".
As a matter of fact, the environment in our Department has been quite different from
the Canadian situation. The psychology departements in Canadian universities for decades
4offered courses on the history of psychology or even made it a "requirement" for a major.
In 2002, Bhatt and Tonks mentioned that in the Canadian context:
Amidst these trends and continual growth of the discipline, the courses on
the history of psychology have retained their place within psychology
curricula across the continent, and in many parts of the world. APA
accreditation, for example, requires that psychology students should get
exposed to the historical roots of the discipline (see Table 2).5
In our case, since 1971, history of psychology, as a formal course, had been absent
6in the curriculum of undergraduate students in our department. And this meant it had been
absent in 14 departments of colleges and universities incorporated to our university (which
7is the largest in our country and in Latin America, with 290,000 students).
2 G. Bhatt and R. G. Tonks, 2002. 3 Ibid. 4 Bhatt and Tonks conducted a survey in Canada that supports this. Their data coincide with what
Fuchs & Viney reported on the teaching of the history of psychology in colleges and universities
in the United States before 2000 (quoted by Bhatt and Tonks, 2002). 5 G. Bhatt and R. G. Tonks, 2002, p. 3. 6 The Psychology Department, at the UNAM, has 503 academics and around 3,800 students. 7 This includes undergraduate and graduate students, as well as the high school system that
belongs to our university.
The proposal to include history of psychology (in the first semester) and philosophy
of psychology (in the fourth semester) as new courses in the new curriculum was not
immediately welcomed and had to be fought for and largely justified. Some (and not few)
faculty memebers insisted that these subjects are not psychological and their theoretical
nature is seen as a defect. For decades, the training of psychologists in our department has
been dominated by a biased conception where empiricism, observable behavior and
"science", understood merely as "experiment", took the lead. Bringing a different
understanding is part of our challenge. Some usual reasons to study history of psychology
can be summarized as follows:
i) it helps avoid the past errors and repetitions, ii) it provides a fertile
source of new ideas, iii) it may offer resolutions of current problems, iv) it
provides a healthy dose of humility and tolerance, v) it improves the general 8
education of the psychologists, and vi) "simply because…"- everyone enjoys
a good story; it is inherently interesting. Fuchs and Viney have encouraging reasons (with which we fully coincide) for
viewing a course in history of psychology as an integrative force in the curriculum. For
these authors, the course on psychology’s history induces critical thinking, and can free
students "from the pervasive influence of fads in the field" (2002, p. 5). It may broaden the
understanding of students against the "narrowness in their spatial, cultural, and temporal
worlds" (ibid.), and taking up R. Watsons words, history of psychology in the curriculum
may be an antidote against student’s "narrow provincial, class, and regional prejudices"
(Watson, 1977, pp. 34-35).
We can argue in favor of all of the above, but in our context, we would rather add
another reason and motivation: we think the history of psychology has a pedagogical role in
teaching psychology as a science. We are convinced that psychology's history can 1)
promote an awareness of the scientific nature of psychology, distanced from the narrow
approaches that confine it to be a natural and positivistic discipline and 2) contribute to
understanding the diverse traditions of thought that coexist within and not always peacefully.
8 Cf. G. Bhatt and R. G. Tonks, 2002, p. 4, based on Wertheimer 1980.
A new program
We have mentioned that for almost 40 years history of psychology, as a course, had been
absent in the curriculum of undergraduate students. Desguised under the name of other
subjects some of the history and/or philosophy of psychology was included in the initial part
of those programs. This meant that teaching history or philosophy of science and
psychology depended mostly of the good will and interest of the teacher.
In the new curriculum, the course of history of psychology is taught in the first
semester of the core curriculum (Area of General Education). This core curriculum is
9studied in four semesters and the courses are mainly organized under the notion of
"traditions of psychological thought". We adopted and adapted the term "tradition" from In the new course we do not start by intending to define the study object of
Larry Laudan’s definition.psychology. As students soon find out, each tradition has defined its study object and
developed the appropiate methodology to approach it. Psychology does not have a single
object or a single methodology to explain its processes and phenomena. Therefore, a
historical and philosophical approach can draw students closer to the comprehension of the
diverse and plural nature of our discipline.
The new program does not start with the Greek either. We maintain a discontinous perspective based in the idea that psychology's history is the history of a science, product of a rupture with previous knowledge and born in the 19th century indebted with the
thmodern science that emerged during the 17 century.
One important challenge in this course is to provide the elements that will allow our
students to understand how and why, before and during the 19th century, there was a
consensus against the idea of using methods practiced by natural sciences to study
psychological phenomena; and the major shift that occurred when Wilhelm Wundt launched
his research laboratory in Leipzig, in 1879. This new experimental psychology readily
changed the status of the former philosophical discipline.
So, while getting to know the history of the different traditions of psychological
thought, students face the controversies of the scientific status of psychology which have
9 Laudan understands a research tradition as "a set of general assumptions about the entities and processes in domain of study, and about the appropiate methods to be used for investigating the problems and constructing the theories in that domain" (1977, p. 81).
been centered upon the empiricist nature of the new psychology. Two main questions
derive from this perspective: the "necessary observability" of its study object and the
legitimate adoption of testing methods.
Being so, the general objective of our course is the acquisition of the fundamental
knowledge about the emergence of the main contemporary traditions of psychological
thought, considering the historical development of their basic concepts, principles and
methods in their theoretical frame. This means the recognition of some interrelations and
several controversies. We are commited to encourage respect for this theoretical diversity,
We mentioned before the resistance of our faculty colleagues to include a course on
the history of psychology. This may respond to what Robert I. Watson, in 1960, esteemed Almost all psychologists simply have not been interested in it enough to to be a characteristic of psychologists:be curious about it, let alone to work and to publish in this area (...) The
contemporary general lack of interest concerning the past and the age
of specialism is shared by psychologists with other scientists. It is my
impression that this neglect is even greater in psychology than in
10neighboring fields such as biology, medicine, and sociology.
This applies well to our situation. Consequently, generations of students of
psychology have found this circumstance in their curriculum as well as in the attitude of
many of their teachers. Moreover, when history of psychology is taught, it is generally
presented under an "add-on" approach that supposes lots of historical information, names
and dates that are to be memorized and most likely doomed to be forgotten. This is not an
exclusive problem of said subject; it has been one of the main approaches to the teaching
of the history of science.11 We are also working in our program to avoid the add-on
approach and to use psychopedagogical teaching and evaluative strategies to make a
Students’ previous ideas on history of psychology
10 Watson  1977, pp. 26-27. 11 Cf. Matthews 1994, pp. 70-71.
The contents of the program of history of psychology are as important as the teaching
strategies. Nonetheless, both need to take into account the student’s learning process,
especially their factual knowledge and their previous ideas. The study of the latter has
transformed the research on science teaching. It allows the recognition and better
12 These understanding of the students’ difficulties to learn basic scientific notions, despite their
kinds of ideas are not simple errors that can be corrected by means of explanation or a reiteration in school programs.
proper reading. They are preconceived ideas acquired before and even during the "Previous ideas" have many denominations in the specialized literature.
schooling processes that "help" the student interpret certain phenomena, despite the
misconceptions that they carry.13 Previous ideas do not favor the learning process. On the
contrary, they are an obstacle or a constraint to understanding scientific notions. Because
they are robust and persistent, previous ideas are quite difficult to abandon and teaching
does not modify them without an intentional strategy (Flores, 2002, Pozo et al. 2006,
Barrera et al., 2007, Calderón et al., 2007, López Manjón, 2007).
Research on science education has mainly dealt with previous ideas in the domain
of natural sciences. Some studies on this matter have been conducted in social sciences,
including history (pioneered by Pozo, Asencio & Carretero, 1989). Very few have been
dedicated to inquire about the previous ideas of students learning history of psychology. So,
we decided to start inquiring on this matter on our own.
Participants: The study was carried with 252 undergraduate students of the first semestre of psychology (208 women and 44 men). The age of the participants went from 16 to 37
years old (M = 18.06 y SD = 2.396).
12 Abimbola counted, ten years ago, up to 28. Just to mention a few: ""implicit theories", "alternative
conceptions", "conceptual errors", "spontaneous ideas", "preconceptions". It must be emphasized
that these are not synonims. Each term carries the suppositions of their conceptual frame. 13 Some authors characterize previous ideas as personal constructions, product of the individual
experience with the surrounding world. Supposedly, they are not acquired through formal
education (Pozo, Asencio & Carretero, 1989, quoted by Muñoz, 2005). Nonetheless, other
specialists think that some previous ideas are constructed within the educational system and
teachers, text books and other formal educational means may be their source (Muñoz, 2005, p.
All the participants answered a questionnaire with 18 questions. It examined three main
aspects: experiences in history courses, expectations on learning history of psychology and
categorization of this knowledge, and factual knowledge about psychology. Questions were
structured as open-ended and, in some cases, a justification was demanded.
The questionnaire was applied at the beginning of the semester, in the classroom, with
authorization from the teacher. The objectives of the research were explained before
students proceeded to answer. The participants were informed they could clarify their
doubts at any moment. The application of the questionnaire lasted about 20 minutes.
According to the results obtained, less than half of the sample, 46.4%, thinks that their
experiences learning history have been "good", while 38.9% varies between "bad" and
"regular" (see Table 1). Table 1: Experiences with history courses
No answer Bad Regular Good Very good N=252
f F f f F % % % % %
13 5.2 60 23.8 38 15.1 117 46.4 24 9.5
Nevertheless, 196 of the participants (77.8%) view history of psychology as a course
with a “high” level of difficulty, while only 15.1% thinks the course has a “medium” level and
7.1% a “low” one. In other words, according to the chi square test there is a statistically
significant way of conceiving the level of difficulty of the course (χ2 (2, N = 252)) = 226.381,
p = .000). So, for the students of the first semester, the level of difficulty of the course of
history of psychology is "high".
Fortunately, 93.7% of the participants say their interest on the course is “high”, and
only 3.6% and 2.8% answered their interest is “medium” or “low”, respectively. A chi square
test shows a statistically signifficant difference in the in the election of categories (x2 (2, N =
252)) = 412.595, p = .000).
Also, on the question about the usefulness of studying history of psychology as part
of their education as psychologists, 98.8% of the participants answered positively.
KNOWLEDGE W/O SPECIF OR KNOWLEDGE OF ORIGIN NO ANSWER AND OTHER "CHARACTERS" DEVELOPMENT RESPONSES
Figure 1: History of psychology is basic for the education of the psychologist
As can be seen in Figure 1, 60.7% says it is "useful" to know the origin and
development of the discipline. Nonetheless, 21.8% only says that it is "useful" to know
without any specification, or to know the “characters”.
When asked if history of psychology should be taught in the first semester or later on,
99.2% of our students agreed to the first option. Also, 66.3% of the sample said that this
situation would allow them to know better the background and foundations to understand
psychology. The rest of the participants gave tautological answers (19.4%) or did not
answer at all (14.3%). This result can be compared to the answer to: “What do you expect
from the course of history of psychology?”. To this question almost half of the participants tended to respond that this course would provide knowledge of the background as well as
on the main psychological concepts and theories, as can be observed in Table 2.
Table 2: "What do you expect from the course of history of psychology?
Knowledge of background, No answer Dinamic class "characters" theories and N=252 concepts f % F % F % F %
64 25.4 45 17.9 19 7.5 124 49.2
Even so, it is necessary to emphasize that 25.4% of the participants did not answer.
The answers to the question on the meaning of the term "history" (see Figure 2) are
significant since in most of the cases it is related to facts and past events by 62.7%, while
only 27.4% relate "history" with the term “science”.
NO ANSWER AND OTHER FACTS AND PAST EVENTS SCIENCE THAT STUDIES PAST EVENTS THROUGH TIME RESPONSES Figure 2: What meanings do you know of the term "history"?
Anyway, when asked if they think historical knowledge is scientific knowledge 69.8%
answer afirmatively. It must be emphasized that 20.6% say it is not a scientific knowledge.
When asked to argue why historical knowledge is scientific, it is significant that 56.0% of
the participants did not answer. When students argue in favor, they mainly state that it is
Table 3: Why is historical knowledge scientific? because of the use of experimental methods, as shown on Table 3. Uses May be No answer Verifiable experimental reproduced methods
f % f % f % f %
141 56.0 27 10.7 7 2.8 77 30.6
In this case, 30.6% of the sample says that historical knowledge is scientific because
of the application of experimental methods and procedures. This may be part of the reason
that makes some of them respond that this knowledge is verifiable and may be
reproduced. In other words, students use criteria from natural sciences to qualify historical
Regarding the factual knowledge that first semester students have about their
discipline, there was a huge dispersion Our data shows that about 25% of the participants
say that psychology was born in Leipzing (Germany) in the XIXth century and that the
founder was W. Wundt. Nonetheless, 14.28% of the students mention Freud as the founder.
Discussion on some previous ideas on history of psychology
Previous ideas challenge the learning and teaching processes. Our results on the topics
investigated show that:
1) Despite almost half of the students reported having good experiences learning history,
most of the students expect the course to be very difficult. One of the common reasons to
think history is difficult is that it has lots of names and facts to be memorized. Quite
probably, they have endured add-on approaches while learning history. This may be one of