Plous’s “Action Teaching” Model Gaining Traction Worldwide

Lauren RubensteinAugust 30, 20127min
Scott Plous, professor of psychology.
Scott Plous, professor of psychology.

Professor of Psychology Scott Plous is working to spread the word about a model of teaching that enhances learning while directly contributing to a more just, compassionate, and peaceful world.

Back in 2000, Plous coined the term “action teaching” to describe this model. He was inspired by the work of psychologist Kurt Lewin, who in the wake of World War II, developed the concept of “action research,” or research aimed at solving social problems. Lewin’s action research primarily focused on addressing prejudice due to race or religion.

The first action teaching lesson Plous developed, which he published in the journal Teaching of Psychology in 2000, asked students to role play different scenarios in which one person makes a prejudiced comment, and another responds. For example, in one scenario, a student playing a middle-aged uncle at a family dinner makes an antigay remark. A student playing another family member at the table must then respond in a way that psychological research suggests will reduce the uncle’s prejudice. Two additional students act as coaches who observe the interaction and provide candid feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the response. Over the next hour, students then rotate roles and try responding to other prejudiced comments. Following the role-playing exercise, members of the class reconvene to discuss their experiences and identify the most effective strategies for countering prejudice.

Plous wrote about the result: “Not only does this exercise provide an engaging opportunity for students to apply psychological research findings to an important social problem, but the end result is that many students report feeling better prepared to deal constructively with everyday instances of prejudice.”

Over the past dozen years, action teaching has gained traction around the world. In 2005, Social Psychology Network, an organization Plous directs, created an annual award to recognize outstanding examples of action teaching. The number of award applicants has grown steadily since then, reaching 43 entries from 10 countries in 2012. Winners receive a $1,000 award and must agree to let the Network archive their work online for other instructors to use and adapt (as long as the original instructor is properly credited). This archive has now received over 170,000 page views, Plous reports.

Details about the award program and previous winners are available at Applications are now being accepted for the 2013 award.

Although the program began with psychology education, Plous is quick to point out that instructors from other disciplines are welcome to apply for the award. Likewise, the program is open not just to professors but to teachers at all education levels, from kindergarten through adult education. Entries may focus on the individual, group, or societal level, and may address any major social issue, including social injustice, conflict, crime, poverty, hunger, public health, the environment, animal cruelty, or domestic violence, among others.

Examples of previous awardees illustrate the positive societal impact that action teaching can have.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a professor at Harvey Mudd College gave her introductory psychology students an opportunity to learn about persuasion techniques while generating disaster relief funds. Students fanned out across campus and recorded the relative effectiveness of four techniques—”foot in the door,” “door in the face,” reciprocity, and direct order—to convince people to donate relief aid. An hour later, students returned to the classroom not only with data to analyze and discuss, but with $600 raised for the American Red Cross.

Shortly before the 2008 presidential election, Plous himself developed a persuasion assignment that used action teaching to increase civic participation. He challenged students to apply psychological research on persuasion to convince three other people to vote for a candidate of the student’s choice (either people who supported a different candidate or weren’t going to vote). Students then had to write a report describing the strategies they used, the reactions people had, and the number of votes they secured through these efforts. Plous says a similar exercise could be done to increase levels of voter registration.

And in a class entitled “Perspectives on the Holocaust,” a professor at Bridgewater State College taught students about psychological factors that played a role in the Holocaust, including conformity, obedience, and diffusion of responsibility. Next, local middle school teachers visited the class to talk about the challenges their students faced with peer pressure and bullying. The college students then developed and presented to the middle school children lessons from the Holocaust about prejudice, hate speech, and bullying.

“The reason many of us began teaching in the first place is to have a positive effect on society, so why not teach in a way that directly addresses social problems?” asks Plous. “When it comes to the most pressing issues of the day — climate change, war, prejudice, and so on — we don’t have a moment to lose.”