Download Thorndike

yes no Was this document useful for you?
   Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the workof artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Document related concepts

Classroom management wikipedia , lookup

Systematic inventive thinking wikipedia , lookup

Inquiry-based learning wikipedia , lookup

Cooperative learning wikipedia , lookup

Learning theory (education) wikipedia , lookup

Project-based learning wikipedia , lookup

Educational psychology wikipedia , lookup

Differentiated instruction wikipedia , lookup

Reflective practice wikipedia , lookup

John Dewey wikipedia , lookup

Constructivist teaching methods wikipedia , lookup

Experiential education wikipedia , lookup

Learning through play wikipedia , lookup

Edward Thorndike wikipedia , lookup

Edward Thorndike and John Dewey
Two Theories Revisited
Brian E. Kinghorn
CEP 911
October 7, 2005
When it comes to the current state of the American school system it is rather
obvious that Dewey lost and Thorndike won. Clearly, from a methodological and
philosophical approach, some of Thorndike's philosophies have played key roles in
influencing the direction and development of current education practices in the United
States. However, although Dewey and Thorndike were fundamentally different in their
approaches to motivation and ideology in education, their ideas for educational practice
and their specific instructions to teachers regarding practice are not that distant from one
another. In fact some of Thorndike's recommendations for classroom practice could
function as well under Dewey's flag as they do under his own, perhaps even better.
Students' Learning Experience
The terms 'discovery learning' and 'authentic activity' come to mind when
thinking about Dewey's ideas of psychologizing the subject matter so that the child's
“experiential continuum” shapes the learning process. However, the same terms and
process of continuity could equally be applied to many of the teaching practices that
Thorndike recommended. His motivation for these activities was not directly related to
the child's prior experiences, but rather to the goal of effectively learning a specific
predetermined fact or concept. Yet his beliefs about the importance of experiential
learning, at least when it came to subject-matter related experiences, seem as pertinent
and fundamental to the success of education as Dewey's. For example, Thorndike pointed
out the importance of teaching concepts such as mathematics or even the alphabet in a
context that is more related to real experiences the child will encounter rather than simple
rote learning. (pp. 114-115) He also recommended that teachers should lead students “to
take the active attitude of discovery in identifying the essential element.... [rather] than....
merely passively observ[ing] the element as it is shown to him” (p. 118). Equally
compelling is Thorndike's caution about the use of rules, definitions and formulas to
define difficult concepts. Although these can be useful tools, it is important that students
don't learn them in a way that they are not connected meaningfully to the “experience
being emphasized” (p. 120). If this happens there is a risk that the students will merely
learn the rule and not understand its application or the concept that was the “primary”
focus of learning.
Thorndike even went as far as to point out the importance of the child's prior
experiences from what had already taken place in the educative process. For example, as
a child learns specific concepts or facts at higher levels with greater degrees of
refinement, the concepts become “more useful because [they] can be applied more
widely” (p. 116). He further stated that “it is necessary to choose situations and
experiences so as to emphasize the essential elements in the idea or fact and to carry the
conception gradually onward to increasing levels of refinement and wider application” (p.
117). Specifically, Thorndike suggested that the vocabulary words a child is taught
should be words the child will need for immediate and practical use in the child's own
world experiences. (p. 113) Although Thorndike didn't focus on the child's interests or
own past experiences in knowledge construction, it seems he had his own, more limited,
experiential continuum related to the child's progress in changing the child's “nature into
forms which serve [man's] needs” (p. 1)
Goals for Education
This process of changing the nature of children to fit the needs of the human race
was one of Thorndike's main goals in the educative process. He called this “the
production and prevention of changes” (p. 2). According to Thorndike, these changes, if
properly orchestrated, will be the “preventive and cure” (p. 7) to all of the social and
socioeconomic problems which beset humankind. Technological advances alone cannot
do this. Advances “in the world's things” he said, only produce benefits “when
accompanied by the changes in the human nature's who are to live with them” (p. 5). In
order to bring about this change he laid out some specific goals and conditions which are
necessary to reach those goals in the educative process. Most importantly, education must
facilitate thinking through teaching “facts which are relevant to the problems which
children and adults are likely to need to solve and to teach them in such a way that they
will come to mind when the concrete problem is faced” (p. 131) When a child recognizes
that what he is learning will be pertinent to solving real-life problems, “readiness” is
activated. This readiness should be motivating enough to produce the learning outcomes
which can then be applied in the pursuit of a better world.
Thorndike emphasized the importance of “readiness” as a key element in
obtaining the goals of education. Readiness is activated “when an individual is ready to
act in a certain way, for him to act in that way is satisfying and for him not to act is
annoying” (p. 89). However, of equal importance is the means employed to promote that
readiness. Unlike Dewey, Thorndike did not initially cite the child's prior experiences as
important in promoting readiness. Instead he turned to social and individual motives from
the perspectives of overcoming difficulties and competition with self and others. (p. 89)
Although these motives are at the forefront and foundation of Thorndike's theories, his
practical explanations of how to promote readiness seem much more in line with Dewey
and cognitive psychologists than his behaviorist contemporaries.
According to Thorndike, promoting readiness for thinking and problem solving in
practice involves providing the facts necessary to solve the problem, understanding the
child's intellectual capacity, and engaging and increasing the child's metacognitive skills
(a term Thorndike wouldn't use but quite clearly defined). (p. 130) This must all take
place with the use of authentic activities designed so that the child will be able to apply
the knowledge (or reactions in behavioral terms) in similar real life situations (pp. 131132). From this perspective, Thorndike's goals for education are not so different from
Dewey's since this approach is largely based in the child's educative experiences and their
ability to have future meaningful and useful experiences as a result of that learning. Both
Thorndike and Dewey eschew the practice of “imposing adult standards, subject-matter
and methods upon those who are only growing toward maturity” (p. 19) as Dewey put it.
Rather, both would probably support Thorndike's proposed practice of “offering the
child problems which his own thinking can usually solve and of increasing their difficulty
only enough to permit him successfully to apply his best efforts to them” (p. 136).
Teachers' roles in supporting/enabling learning
Both Thorndike and Dewey made it quite clear that their ideas wouldn't work
without much effort, skill and adaptability one the part of teachers. According to
Thorndike, it is the job of the teacher to arouse the child to action (p. 84) and provide
motivation where “learning is the means of satisfying some want” (p. 85). Neither Dewey
nor Thorndike portray teachers as mere distributors of knowledge. They must take active
roles in the learning processes of their pupils. Thorndike summed it up in this way:
The teacher's function consists in arousing readiness, sustaining whole-hearted
responses, selecting appropriate situations which tend to elicit the right and
sidestep the wrong reactions, encouraging by demonstration, indication, speech
and otherwise, the correct reaction, making it satisfying where it appears and
detecting and eliminating the wrong reactions. (p. 129)
Thorndike also emphasized the teacher's responsibility to “utilize... wants as a means of
getting [the child] to make the desired response and to utilize his wants again to make the
response satisfying” (p. 88). It is clear that Thorndike is recommending a very teacher
oriented approach to guidance where the teacher's responsibility is to create an
environment of readiness for the pupils.
In contrast, Dewey's approach requires the teacher to find those things which are
inherently motivating in the subject matter and then “psychologize” the subject to fit the
prior knowledge and experience of the child. Some originally misinterpreted this to mean
that the teacher should play a more passive role in the educative process, but Dewey
explained that it actually requires much more effort and involvement from the teacher.
This approach “may mean more multiplied and more intimate contacts between the
mature and the immature... and consequently more, rather than less, guidance by others”
(p. 21).
Even though they may have pointed out much different reasons, it is clear that
both Dewey and Thorndike put a great deal of emphasis on the necessity of good teachers
to put their ideas into practice. Without well qualified, knowledgeable and dedicated
teachers, all the theorizing and philosophizing in the world would never amount to any
effective changes in educational practices.
Perhaps it is better that Thorndike won when he did. Although Dewey's ideas are
very inspiring, he left much room for interpretation and gave few examples of how to put
psychologizing into practical use in the classroom. The 'progressive schools' that Dewey
denounced in “Experience and Education” claimed to be under Dewey's banner, yet they
had misinterpreted his ideas so grossly that they were no better than the traditional
schools. It is no wonder that Thorndike (although he praised some of Dewey's ideas)
would have looked elsewhere for an effective practical remedy to the problems so
apparent in the traditional schools of the time. Unfortunately, many of the techniques and
practices that are contributing to the deficiencies in today's schools can be attributed to
Thorndike's influence. However, just as Dewey's ideas were misinterpreted, many of
Thorndike's very useful suggestions for classroom practice were left unimplemented or
poorly implemented. Perhaps this is because he built many of his very good ideas about
what we now call meaningful learning and metacognitive skills on a behaviorist
foundation that doesn't really support those ideas. In contrast, Dewey's experiential
continuum, or continuity theory, provides a more fitting context and foundation for the
effective implementation of Thorndike's suggestions for classroom practice. With many
of his ideas and practices already in place, it seems that Thorndike has now laid
somewhat of a foundation for more of Dewey's ideas to be put into effective practice
Because of the disasters of with the progressive schools in the early part of the
twentieth century, Dewey and Thorndike were pitted against each other (at least in a
historical ideological sense) in a way that prevented the use of Thorndike's practical
teaching methods as psychologizing tools. Today, given the added experience and
knowledge available to us, it would behoove us to find ways to meld the positive aspects
of both theories together. Dewey was adept at understanding how to use the child's own
experiences and curiosities to motivate the child and Thorndike had excellent ideas for
making future learning motivating. Rather than continue to pit these two theories
completely against each other, trying overthrow one in favor of the other, we should
follow Dewey's advice and try to put the useful aspects of each of these philosophies in
context with each other rather than in opposition to each other. Both have the potential
for improving current educational trends. In this case the sum of Dewey and Thorndike
would be a much greater positive influence either one of them left alone.