Harmon assesses students’ learning, too. “I try to give them
many ways to demonstrate their knowledge,” she says. For an
assignment designed to teach the parts of the brain, students
wrote poems or stories with characters whose names — such as
Thelma the Thalamus — reflected various anatomical features. “I
even have a student who knit the brain,” says Harmon, describing
a colorful, mobile-like yarn artwork with labels dangling from
each brain structure. “She could enjoy doing something she’s
really proud of and use that to demonstrate her knowledge.”
Harmon’s unorthodox approach to assessment continues
when it’s time to give grades. Although she includes tests similar
to the AP exam at the end of every unit to “inoculate” students
against testing anxiety, she tries to be flexible in her approach:
She allows re-tests and counts only the highest score. “That’s
a more accurate assessment of the knowledge they’re walking
away with,” she says, noting Principle 19: “Students’ skills,
knowledge and abilities are best measured with assessment
processes grounded in psychological science with well-defined
standards for quality and fairness.”
Expecting the best
Ask Michael Sullivan what he’s proudest of in his 24-year
teaching career, and the answer is the inclusiveness of his AP
psychology classes. “About 70 percent of our senior class takes
AP psychology,” says Sullivan, another 2015 TOPSS award-winner.
Sullivan attributes that fact to his belief
in the potential of every student — a belief
bolstered not just by an early job teaching
preschoolers who had developmental
disabilities but nonetheless had a passion
for learning but also by Principle 11:
“Teachers’ expectations about their
students affect students’ opportunities to
learn, their motivation and their learning
To avoid the kind of bias his own
high school teachers exhibited, Sullivan
grades subjective work like essays without
knowing whose work he is evaluating.
He also tries to create a classroom
environment in which every student can
“If you keep placing children in
situations where they can’t succeed or
demanding things without giving them
the tools they need, the natural animal
inclination is to quit trying,” says Sullivan,
who also chairs the department.
Instead, Sullivan works to build
students’ sense of accomplishment and
self-esteem, but in an authentic way. “They
have to believe you mean it,” says Sullivan.
“I want to give them a sense of ‘You can learn, succeed and enjoy
this process and that it’s not always easy, but that’s part of what
makes it fun.’”
Sullivan’s collaborative, playful teaching style allows students
to enjoy themselves while mastering complex content.
In a lesson designed to teach students about the power of
conformity to group pressure, for example, Sullivan enlists
the help of what he calls “student confederates” who are
primed ahead of time to give incorrect answers to Sullivan’s
questions. “I’ll ask, ‘Who was the first official president of
the United States, putting that word ‘official’ in there to put
students off their guard,” he says. While other students call out
“Washington,” the plants insist the answer is John Hancock. The
result is a powerful lesson about how a little bit of doubt plus
peer pressure can easily sway people, even when it’s something
as straightforward as the first president.
“You could tell kids about social conformity and they might
remember it, but they internalize it when you conduct this
experiment and they become part of it,” he says.
Building relationships with students
When junior high social studies teacher Ray Kinzie began to
study African drumming six years ago, he shared that passion
with his students and founded an after-school drum circle
for his sixth, seventh and eighth graders at Rufus M. Hitch
Coalition for Psychology in Schools
With a mission of improving PreK– 12 education, the Coalition for
Psychology in Schools and Education works to make psychological
research more accessible and to promote APA’s involvement in
the nation’s education policy arena. Sponsored by APA’s Education
Directorate, the coalition consists of psychologists with expertise
in all facets of K– 12 education. Coalition members who served as
contributing authors for the Top 20 Principles from Psychology for
PreK– 12 Teaching and Learning include:
• Joan Lucariello, PhD, City University of New York (chair).
• Sandra Graham, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles.
• Bonnie Nastasi, PhD, Tulane University.
• Carol Dwyer, PhD, formerly of the Educational Testing Service.
• Russ Skiba, PhD, Indiana University Bloomington.
• Jonathan Plucker, PhD, University of Connecticut.
• Mary Pitoniak, PhD, Educational Testing Service.
• Mary Brabeck, PhD, New York University.
• Darlene DeMarie, PhD, University of South Florida.
• Steven Pritzker, PhD, Saybrook University.
Several other current and former coalition members reviewed
the draft report. Rena Subotnik, PhD, and Maie Lee of APA’s
Education Directorate served as staff liaisons.