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Learning programme design

Why introduce psychology into the curriculum?

Psychology challenges students to think in different ways to other school subjects. Given the wide range of psychological theories and theorists, students have to sift through and examine a host of experiments and research projects before reaching and then justifying their own conclusions.

By introducing psychology, schools can help ensure that they are offering ‘all students a broad education that makes links within and across learning areas, [and] provides for coherent transitions, and opens up pathways to further learning’ (The New Zealand Curriculum, p. 9). Teachers may tailor programmes of learning in psychology to specifically address the needs of individual students.

Schools don’t have to begin by introducing a complete programme in psychology. A start can be made by individual teachers introducing psychological discourse into their current classes, whether English, science, mathematics and statistics, social sciences, the arts, technology, economics, health, or just about any other subject.

This involves moving students beyond superficial understandings of behaviour to thinking about the fundamental ideas at stake, then encouraging them to pursue these ideas through questions and into the issues that arise out of them.

For example, if studying black civil rights in year 11 history, students could explore racism as a genetic argument: What does it mean to say ‘all human beings are equal’? Racism and intelligence could be examined in conjunction with each other – according to British biologist Steven Jones, author of The Language of the Genes (1993), questions as to who is less or more intelligent arise only when people live in racially divided societies.

Because psychology addresses big questions and interesting contexts, it encourages in-depth, informed, critical thinking, meaning that it can play an important role in developing the understandings, attitudes, and skills that enable students to become positive, well-informed citizens.

The skills gained in psychology are transferable to other senior school subjects and can facilitate successful transition from school to tertiary learning environments.

Programme suggestions

Psychology cannot be meaningfully taught from a syllabus or prescription. Rather, teachers should select contexts that have meaning for their students and draw tools from the vast domain of psychological research and theory that will enable the students to explore those contexts.

Teachers and students can keep lines of inquiry open by:

  • avoiding premature interpretive judgment of behaviour(s)
  • investigating behaviour from a variety of viewpoints
  • developing understandings and skills in scientific methodology and statistical literacy
  • examining and discussing a range of relevant psychological studies
  • being prepared to move where the inquiry takes them.

In any programme, the values and core competencies developed are of greater importance than the areas selected for study.

Level 6

Develop core competencies. Use the psychology context to engage students in learning and improve the quality of their personal decision-making.

Use short, thematic topics as a basis for developing a richer, evidence-based view of human behaviour in the students.

Use scientific methodology to study topics such as animal behaviour, identity, stress, attachments, relationships, phobias, memory, moral development, stereotypes, and prejudice.

Level 7

Use a variety of approaches and scientific methodologies to develop curiosity and understandings about the complexity of human behaviour.

Encourage students to apply their developing skills and understandings in a broad range of real-life applications and scenarios.

Provide opportunities for students to plan and conduct a research study, analyse data, and critically evaluate psychological research.

Provide an overview of the subject by basing a course around approaches in psychology and scientific methods and a selection of topics such as learning, memory, human development, social psychology, personality, and intelligence.

Level 8

Examine selected topics in some detail, with the aim of encouraging independent, in-depth exploration of psychological themes.

Provide opportunities for students to evaluate a research study, analyse data, and critically evaluate psychological research.

Explore themes such as: the brain and behaviour and their adaptive functions as expressed through affiliation or cognition; nature versus nurture in relation to intelligence or aggression; and analyses of how psychological theories are applied.

Specific examples of learning programmes can be obtained from members of the  New Zealand Association of Psychology Teachers (NZAPT).

See also:  Introducing psychological ideas into other subjects

Connecting psychology with other learning programmes

It is entirely possible for a teacher of English, health, or just about any other subject, to introduce students to psychological ideas within the context of their own teaching, whether or not the school offers psychology as a timetabled subject. Where psychology is timetabled, productive collaborations can be entered into with teachers of other subjects.

Here are some examples.

Media studies/English

When teaching film, consider the ideas behind the filmmaker’s decisions. Psychological ideas offer students other ways of comprehending and analysing a film, and can contribute to the development of their critical thinking skills. Students could look at auteur theory, which seeks to explain how it is that a director’s personal style tends to come through in all their productions.

Choose a film that explores a social psychology theme. Why did the director choose this theme? What message is developed? How does this shape our world? Students could use the lens of feminist theory to look at how a particular film explores what people think and feel, and what they do.

Select a character from a film and examine the actions of the character in terms of psychology. How does the character show anger? What psychological ideas and theories can help explain their behaviour?

Psychological researchers such as Skinner and Chomsky offer theories of language development that an English or media studies teacher can get their students to examine. By doing this, students gain greater understanding of how language is learned and how it may be taught.


What leads to addictions? The reason is usually psychological. A normal person may be naturally a risk taker but it is neither normal nor natural for taking risks to become an obsession. By examining the psychological reasons behind such an obsession, students gain greater understanding of the behaviour.

Mathematics and statistics

A psychological research project can provide an excellent, authentic context for statistical exploration. All that is needed is for teachers of mathematics and psychology to work together to come up with a suitable context, and to plan the work as a joint venture.


The neurological aspects of psychology fit perfectly with science topics. A science teacher (particularly, a teacher of biology and chemistry) can work effectively with the psychology teacher to develop understanding of the human brain and how it works.


History is an excellent partner to psychology because psychology has a socio-historical dimension. Behaviour is often ritualistic, influenced by culture, genes, and environment. Nazi Germany and the behaviour of the German people can be examined using psychological theory. Five Steps to Tyranny and the television series In our Time both provide excellent examples that will engage students and provide excellent contexts for learning in history and psychology.

Required resources

Setting up a psychology programme need not be expensive because many online resources are available. Textbooks are not essential when starting a course. See the list of useful websites in Resources.

The New Zealand Association of Psychology Teachers (NZAPT) has information about psychology resources and assessment. It can also put you in contact with other teachers in your area. For details on how to register as a member, see the contacts page.

Ethics and safety issues

Students need to understand that ethical standards must underpin all psychological research. For guidance, see the Code of Ethics for Psychologists working in Aotearoa/New Zealand, found on the New Zealand Psychological Society’s website.

As well as teaching about ethical practices, teachers have a professional responsibility to ensure a safe learning environment for all their students. This means:

  • respecting the dignity and well-being of students, including their rights, beliefs, perceptions, customs, and cultural heritage
  • considering the safety of students and the community when choosing content and resources
  • signalling in advance any content that may disturb, and allowing students to withdraw at any time if they feel uncomfortable
  • maintaining the confidentiality of personal information disclosed during classroom activities
  • avoiding in-depth study of abnormal psychology as the issues can be intensely personal for students and the classroom is not the place for counselling or clinical applications
  • creating an inclusive learning environment (see Creating an inclusive learning environment in psychology)
  • Level 3 teacher responsibility – the teacher must have checked that prior to practical work being undertaken the inquiry does not breach ethical standards. Failing to meet ethical standards should not be used as a learning opportunity.

Planning for research

Students need to develop a strong understanding of scientific methodology since this forms the basis of all psychological methodologies. Students need to learn the difference between observation and interpretation.

A useful starting point can be the objective observation of animals, moving on to objective observation of humans.

Limit interpretations of observable human behaviours (such as acts of playground aggression or acts of altruism) to simple inferences.

Where possible, reports should follow the conventions of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Learn more:

Bicultural perspectives and kaupapa Māori research

Kaupapa Māori research challenges the ‘ordinary’ or the notion of ‘normal’ that has been constructed by the dominant culture.

It seeks to identify and uphold Māori views, solutions, and ways of knowing. It is about empowering Māori people, voice, processes, and knowledge.

Kaupapa Māori research offers a framework for Māori to engage in ‘culturally safe’ (Irwin, 1994) research. It explicitly aims for transformative outcomes and encourages Māori to remain as Māori through all phases of the research process.


All psychology teachers in New Zealand need to be cognisant of the principles of partnership, participation, and protection of Māori rights that are inherent in the Treaty of Waitangi.

A growing number of resources examine Māori research. Russell Bishop’s writings on the Te Kotahitanga project are one example. Others include Decolonising Methodologies by Linda Smith, Mason Durie’s various works on mental health, and reports on Te Tere Auraki (a strategy to improve outcomes for Māori in English-medium schools).

Learn more:

Multicultural perspectives

Students come from diverse backgrounds (ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, and socio-economic). They bring with them their own values and beliefs, which they use to make sense of the world around them.

Find out as much as possible about your students’ backgrounds so that you can choose appropriate and relevant content.

A Sāmoan student, for example, might benefit from exploring the tension between individualism and collectivism. This may help them cope with the different – and at times opposed – values and expectations of Fa’a Sāmoa and Pākeha society.

You could start by surveying students at the start of the year.

Literacy and numeracy in psychology

Why are literacy and numeracy important?

The New Zealand Curriculum identifies “using language, symbols, and texts” among five key competencies that all people need in order to live and learn. These skills prepare students for successful participation in tertiary education, for careers in an increasingly knowledge-based society, and for life as reflective and informed citizens.

The curriculum makes it clear that every learning area requires both literacy and numeracy skills, and presents opportunities for students to develop them.

For example, a strong grasp of reading, writing, mathematics, and statistics gives students the necessary skills to comprehend psychological text, diagrams, and data and to communicate their own ideas.

At the same time, studying psychology can motivate students to enhance their literacy and numeracy skills.

Literacy in psychology

Literacy involves reading and understanding texts (in print/online), visual images, graphs, tables, diagrams, visual cues, and thinking critically about them. These texts have both written and visual features.

For psychology learners, literacy is the ability to understand, respond to, and use a range of specialist language to describe the natural world and represent and communicate ideas.

Psychology students need specific help from teachers as they learn:

  • the specialist vocabulary associated with psychology
  • how to read and understand psychology terms and texts
  • how to communicate knowledge and ideas using the language of psychology
  • how to listen and read critically and assess the value of what they hear and read.

Psychology teachers support student learning by:

  • knowing their students and their literacy needs
  • identifying the literacy demands of the curriculum
  • identifying concepts students will find difficult and having strategies to address these
  • making outcomes appropriate for each student
  • supporting students to make abstract concepts concrete
  • recycling language and terminology so that it becomes an integral part of students’ vocabulary
  • encouraging students to self-evaluate and strive for improvement.

When students have the opportunity to select their own context for their learning they are more motivated to develop increasingly sophisticated literacy skills through expressing understandings about psychology. They can generate and discuss ideas and access a range of information within this context (use the “think it - draw it – talk it – write it” strategy).

Learn more from the TKI Literacy Online website:

Numeracy in psychology

Numeracy is the ability to understand numbers and calculations. As they become numerate, students develop the confidence, willingness, and ability to apply these skills to different learning areas at school and in their lives beyond the classroom.

Psychology students rely on mathematics knowledge and skills when they undertake scientific inquiry and communicate about their own and others’ ideas. Students specifically use numeracy skills when they:

  • gather data by making observations and taking measurements
  • process data using calculation, tabulation, graphing skills
  • interpret data by identifying patterns and trends
  • calculate and predict values
  • make judgments about accuracy of data
  • consider issues of uncertainty and reliability.

A key strategy for developing students’ numeracy and mathematical skills involves changing information from text to data and vice versa, for example:

  • interpreting information presented in tables and graphs to describe trends
  • taking information from a piece of text and presenting it as a table or graph 

For further information about literacy and numeracy standards: see  NZQA

Last updated August 15, 2019