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Edward L. Thorndike (1874–1949)

The Man and His Career, A Psychology for Educators, Education as Specific Habit Formation

Edward L. Thorndike was an American psychologist, educator, lexicographer, and pioneer in educational research. The groundwork for research into learning was provided in 1913–1914 by his three-volume Educational Psychology, which set forth precepts based on his experimental and statistical investigations. These precepts–which covered such wide-ranging topics as teaching practices and individual differences between students and such administrative concerns as promotion decisions and grouping according to ability–came to dominate professional thinking.

While such men as John Dewey and Robert M. Hutchins influenced the philosophy of education, Thorndike and those whom he inspired wrote reading and arithmetic books for pupils, school dictionaries and spelling lists, tests, and pedagogical guidebooks and teachers' manuals. Because, however, it is far more difficult to assess influence in the operations of many thousands of American classrooms than to analyze ideas in the words of educational theorists, Thorndike's contributions are taken largely for granted.

The Man and His Career

In its external details, Thorndike's life was uneventful and circumspect; its drama lay in his genius (his IQ was estimated at nearly 200) and in the tumultuous times to which his work bore such marked reference. Born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, on August 31, 1874, of a family line resident in New England since 1630, Thorndike, like a surprising number of other notables of his day, was reared in a clergyman's household. But in an era when science was challenging religion as a source of truth, when inquiry and universal education threatened dogmatism and sectarian inculcation, and when a career in the church was becoming less attractive than life in the laboratory, Thorndike rejected even his father's liberal brand of Methodism for an agnostic secularism. Yet, in his evangelical regard for science, Thorndike transferred to science a religious-like belief in the possibility of personal and societal salvation. Science was, he said repeatedly, "the only sure foundation for social progress."

Thorndike grew up in a household where excellence was expected, for the children of a minister were to be models for the congregation in all matters. In academic performance the Reverend Thorndike's children complied, all earning excellent grades and winning the scholarships which made college studies possible. In addition, all established academic careers: Ashley as a professor of English, Lynn as a historian, and Mildred as a high school English teacher; eventually all three Thorndike brothers taught at Columbia University. Edward Thorndike's children continued this scholastic brilliance but turned, like father, from literary to scientific and mathematical careers. All four children earned Ph.D. degrees: Elizabeth Frances in mathematics, Edward Moulton and Alan in physics, and Robert Ladd in psychology. Thus, from his own boyhood, when his parents encouraged early reading and supervised homework, to his own close guidance of his children's schooling, Thorndike brought high degree of personal involvement to his professional study of education.

Because of the church's requirement that a minister be moved regularly, Thorndike grew in eight New England towns before 1891, when he left home to enter Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Never feeling at home anywhere in his childhood, when he possessed the power to decide for himself he chose to stay put: he spent forty years at Teachers College, Columbia University, spurning other positions offered, and built a home at Montrose, New York, at age thirty-three. He died there on August 9, 1949, near age 75, leaving his widow, Elizabeth Moulton, whom he married in 1900, and their four grown children.

The early moving about left Thorndike with pronounced shyness and social uneasiness, helping to make the lonely privacy of research a comfortable world. His educational work also displays a certain nonsocial cast. Unlike the psychologies of the Progressive educators with whom he shared many beliefs, Thorndike's educational psychology was not a social one. To him learning was an essentially private, organic undertaking, something that happened under one's skin, in the nervous system; the "connections" of interest to the teacher were properly those between stimulus and response–not the interactions between individual students, which concern those who view a class primarily as a social group.

During Thorndike's youth the United States fully entered the age of industrialization and urbanization. The mill towns of New England were part of the industrial revolution that was attracting hundreds of thousands of immigrants a year to manufacturing jobs and making Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York great, if trouble-plagued, cities. Coming to New York City in 1897 to complete his doctoral studies at Columbia University, Thorndike was to remain there for the rest of his life, except for a brief tenure from 1898 to 1899 as a teacher of psychology and pedagogy at the College for Women of Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

It was understandable that an urban setting would be attractive to the modern academic man, particularly to the man of science; it was in the cities that industrial wealth built museums, libraries, and laboratories, and it was there that philanthropic foundations had their headquarters. Such foundations as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the General Education Board, and the Commonwealth Fund established the Institute of Educational Research at Teachers College, to which Thorndike devoted his energies almost exclusively from 1921. It was at this time that the wealth and centrality of New York City were helping to make Columbia a great national university and its Teachers College the most important center for the training of the leaders in public education in the United States. By 1900 all leading American universities were, like Columbia, in urban settings. Moreover, the leadership of public education nationally was passing into the hands of the superintendents of big-city school systems and to their counterparts in the state capitals and in the Federal Bureau of Education.

By the turn of the century, elementary education in the United States was virtually universal; thereafter, the task was to extend secondary schooling to the entire nation. The need for teachers was great. Although the normal schools, frequently rural institutions, continued to train many teachers, departments of education became common within universities after 1900. Thorndike first arrived at Teachers College in 1899, when its status was changing from that of a private normal school to the education department of Columbia University. Because universities were preeminently places of research, their departments for training teachers and school administrators partook of the prevailing atmosphere favoring scholarly and scientific inquiry. In leaving Western Reserve for Teachers College, Thorndike abandoned a traditional training school for a place which he quickly helped make a center for the scientific study of education and for the training of educational researchers. As its dean, James Earl Russell, recalled: "In developing the subject of educational psychology … for students in all departments, Professor Thorndike has shaped the character of the College in its youth as no one else has done and as no one will ever again have the opportunity of doing" ("Personal Appreciations" 1926, p. 460).

In addition to urban resources and leadership for research and to the prestige accorded science by the universities, there was another incentive for expanding educational research: the widespread desire in educational circles to have teaching recognized as a profession. Schoolmen were aware of the high total of public spending for education and shared the prevailing faith in schools as critical agencies of character training and national development. Even in an occupation marked by low prestige, minimal preparation, a preponderance of women, high turnover, and legal dependence upon boards of laymen, professional status was regarded as an attractive, realizable goal.

One of the characteristics claimed by an occupational group seeking professional status is its possession of a large and growing body of expert knowledge. The function of research was to replace the folklore of the teaching craft with scientifically verifiable assertions. Thorndike acknowledged after thirty years of work that research had yielded only a few answers to the practical questions raised by school operations. He maintained, however, that a true profession awaited those who patiently researched fundamental educational questions. The principal barrier was not, he believed, the limitations of science, but the traditional conservatism and inertia characteristic of institutionalized education.

A Psychology for Educators

At Teachers College, Thorndike taught psychology to large numbers of teachers and school administrators. In his early courses and in such books as his Notes on Child Study (1901a), Principles of Teaching, Based on Psychology (1906), and Education: A First Book (1912), he tried to inform educators of what was already known of human nature and human variation, of what had been written about behavior and learning by such creative psychological thinkers as Scotland's Alexander Bain and William James at Harvard, under whom Thorndike had once studied. Increasingly, however, he turned away from concentrating his efforts on converting teachers to a scientific attitude and away from deducing educational precepts from existing psychological thought. Instead, he began to construct a new educational psychology–one more in keeping with the experimental quantified directions laid out by the "new psychology" being developed in German and American research centers.

The scientific requirement. As much as he admired the brilliance, humane perceptiveness, and stylistic elegance of William James's Principles of Psychology, Thorndike was of that new generation of younger psychologists who, after 1895, sought to sever psychology's ties with "mental philosophy" by rejecting armchair theorizing, avoiding such philosophical concepts as "soul," and opting for the methods, language, and standards of physics and experimental biology. He was deeply impressed by the painstakingly precise observations of animal behavior by Charles Darwin, by the methodological controls in the memory studies of Hermann Ebbinghaus, and by the statistical inventiveness of Sir Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. Discussions in the summer of 1900 with the famed experimentalist Jacques Loeb at the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, finally convinced Thorndike that his talent lay in "doing science," and that he "ought to be shut up and kept at research work" (Jonçich, p. 265).

Lacking mechanical aptitude, Thorndike never incorporated into his research the elaborate instruments found in Wundt's Leipzig laboratory and among Titchener's students at Cornell, or favored by Charles Judd, another important educational psychologist. Thorndike's approach was basically observational and problematic: place the subject in some problem (test) situation–seeking to escape from a confining place, having to rank his attitudes, choosing the correct response among several alternatives to avoid a mild shock–then observe the behavior aroused and report it in quantitative form. The typical Thorndike experiment was a simple paper-and-pencil investigation, like the first he ever attempted: as a Harvard graduate student he tried to measure children's responsiveness to unconscious cues by giving candy rewards to those correctly guessing the number or object he had in mind.

Lessons from animal studies. Despite his typically simple approach, Thorndike is credited with two research techniques basic to modern psychological studies of animal behavior: the maze and the problem box, both of which were invented for his now classic study of learning, Animal Intelligence (1898). A thoroughgoing Darwinist, Thorndike was convinced that, because of evolutionary continuity, the study of animal behavior is instructive to human psychology. Hence, when he had difficulty in securing human subjects, Thorndike switched easily from children to chickens in his Harvard studies.

A significant portion of Animal Intelligence is a critique of the uncontrolled observation and casually acquired anecdotal reportage prevalent in what little comparative psychology existed in the 1890s. The faulty methods, Thorndike declared, contributed spurious data and led to unwarranted interpretations. The most serious error was attributing to animals a higher order of intelligence than would be justified by scientific observations of animal behavior. His own painstaking research with cats and dogs, and later with fish and monkeys, convinced Thorndike that the process of animal learning rested not on some form of reasoning and not even on imitation. Learning depends, instead, upon the presence of some situation or stimulus (S) requiring the animal to make various, more or less random responses (R); as a result of such trial and error, the correct, or most adaptive, response is eventually made (for example, hitting a lever to escape a box or to reach food). The effect produced by the appropriate response is a sort of reward: it may be escape, food, sex, or a release of tension (in animals and humans) or an experienced feeling of success or other learned rewards (in humans alone). The effect acts physiologically, creating or reinforcing a neural connection between that response and the situation which provoked it; repetition of that or a similar stimulus becomes more readily able to produce the previously successful response, and inappropriate responses are forgone. Learning has taken place.

Reward: the key to learning. The basic principle which Thorndike formulated to account for the S-R connection is the law of effect; in the language of such later psychologists as Clark Hull and B. F. Skinner, this is a reinforcement theory of learning.

If, as Thorndike maintained, human behavior represents primordial attempts to satisfy native and learned wants, then an effective, positive, and humane pedagogy is one which facilitates the making of desired and successful responses, forestalls incorrect responses, and is generous with rewards; a poor teaching method, on the other hand, carelessly permits wrong responses and then must punish them to prevent their becoming established as bad habits. Initially Thorndike assumed that reward and punishment were equal opposites, effects evenly capable of causing learning. Reward is preferable since it is more efficient to forestall inappropriate responses by producing and rewarding desired behavior than by punishing incorrect responses; a positive pedagogy is preferable to a punitive one. As a result of empirical studies undertaken in the late 1920s and 1930s, however, Thorndike concluded that he had been mistaken earlier. Punished responses are not weakened as rewarded connections are strengthened; despite common sense and tradition, punishment may actually enhance the probability that an undesired response will be repeated.

Thorndike was virtually the first educator to give theoretical and empirical attention to effect, although reward and punishment had been given practical attention by generations of schoolmen. Still, the pedagogical emphasis at the turn of the century centered on punitive and repressive measures and on fault-finding. In 1906 Thorndike warned teachers that the most common violation of human nature was the failure to reward desired behavior. In propounding the law of effect, then, Thorndike gave a psychologist's support to those educational philosophers, like John Dewey, and those founders of Progressive schools, like Marietta Johnson, who wished to make schools more humane and to have them better relate educational methods to the nature of childhood. However, because of his articulation of another law of learning–the law of exercise–Thorndike's psychology differed from that Progressivist thinking which emphasized spontaneity and favored student selection of activities and freedom from a planned curriculum sequence and from drill. (The law of exercise states that once a given response is made to a particular stimulus, each recurrence of that stimulus tends to recall that response; hence, an S-R bond is being strengthened. The educational implication of the law promotes drill, or practice, of desired responses and careful teacher attention to forming appropriate habits.)

Education as Specific Habit Formation

Accepting William James's views, Thorndike wrote:

Intellect and character are strengthened not by any subtle and easy metamorphosis, but by the establishment of particular ideas and acts under the law of habit …. The price of a disciplined intellect and will is eternal vigilance in the formation of habits ….Habit rules us but it also never fails us. The mind does not give us something for nothing, but it never cheats. (1906, pp. 247–248)

A radical educational theory stressing freedom, spontaneity, inner direction, and "unfolding," one that "stands out of nature's way," was to Thorndike a "something for nothing" pedagogy. In its place, Thorndike's psychology required the careful ordering of learning tasks, as in the Thorndike Arithmetics (1917), which he prepared for school use; practice (exercise, drill) with reward; and measurement of progress through frequent testing, preferably by standardized tests so that more reliable estimates of learning could be had.

Another "something for nothing" educational theory–this one from the conservative, formalistic right wing of educational opinion–was the belief in mental (formal) discipline: that various mental or perceptual faculties are strengthened by being exercised upon some formal, preferably difficult task; that the study of a rigorously logical subject, like geometry, promotes logical behavior; and that practice in accurate copying transfers to other behavior, making one more accurate generally.

Some skepticism about transfer of training had already developed, on a priori grounds, before Thorndike published the first major empirical challenge to this widely held theory. The proponents of more modern subjects–vocational courses, the modern languages, physical education, even the sciences–had attacked formal discipline and faculty psychology because the defenders of the classical studies had based classical domination of the curriculum primarily on the grounds that these difficult and abstruse subjects, which were unappreciated by pupils, had tremendous transferability value, just as lifting the heaviest weights develops muscle power better than lighter burdens do. Between 1901 and 1924, Thorndike's research supported those educational reformers who believed that a subject or skill should be included in the curriculum because of its intrinsic value, and not because of unproved assertions about transfer power.

Education as a Science

In his Educational Psychology, Thorndike wrote: "We conquer the facts of nature when we observe and experiment upon them. When we measure them we have made them our servants" (1903, p. 164). Equally as important as empiricism to Thorndike's psychology was his emphasis on measurement and quantification; poorly prepared by the schools in mathematics and largely self-taught in statistics, Thorndike became the educational world's exponent of the use of science's universal language of description, numbers. His theme was, all that exists, exists in some amount and can be measured. He introduced the first university course in educational measurement in 1902, and two years later he wrote the first handbook for researchers in the use of social statistics, An Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements.

Educational and intellectual tests. The movement toward testing was the primary outcome of attempts to translate qualitative statements (Mary seems to be having trouble in reading) into quantitative and comparable terms (In grade 5.6, Mary tests at 4.4 in reading comprehension and 4.7 in vocabulary knowledge). Standardized achievement tests in school subjects were built on centuries of use of teacher-made tests. What the twentieth century added was the standardization necessary for reliability and comparison of results from class to class. Professionally written and administered to thousands of pupils, using norms based on nationwide samples of students, achievement tests were created for every level of schooling, from primary through graduate school, including tests for out-of-school adults at various age levels. In 1921 use of these tests was established when 2 million pupils took standardized tests of academic achievement; thereafter, growth in the use and development of tests was virtually taken for granted. Thorndike contributed several works on construction of tests and devised various tests of his own: rating scales for handwriting, drawing, and composition; tests of oral and silent reading skill, geographical knowledge, English usage, spelling, reading and reasoning; and college entrance tests and law-school entrance examinations.

Intelligence and scholastic aptitude tests have a shorter history but have been even more crucial in shaping school practices (like promotion policies, grouping, and grading) and professional and public thinking. Alfred Binet's point scale, developed in France early in the twentieth century, is the landmark contribution. But before such testing could have great educational or social impact, it was necessary to find means of adapting the individually administered, Binet-type artifact tasks to groups using paper and pencil. This did not come about until World War I, when the U.S. Army commissioned psychologists to prepare and administer tests to aid in classifying recruits. Thorndike was a member of the Committee on Classification of Personnel from 1917 to 1919 and supervised work on the Beta form (the form for illiterate recruits); it and the Alpha form (for literates) were administered to 2 million soldiers by 1919, the world's first effort in the mass measurement of intelligence. Within three years, 1 million schoolchildren took similar tests, many of them the National Intelligence Test which a group of former army psychologists, including Thorndike, had developed. He later devised the CAVD (sentence completion, arithmetic, vocabulary, following directions) intelligence examination and a nonlanguage scale (for illiterates).

Aside from the kind of general intelligence measurements which concern educators most, Thorndike was interested in other types of aptitudes, believing that intelligence is not a unitary or general factor but is constituted of millions of discrete stimulus-response bonds; any intelligence test is simply a selective sample-taking of all the possible learned connections that might be present. Thorndike believed that since individuals differ, primarily by heredity, in their relative ability to form connections (that is, to profit from experience, to learn), and since any one individual is unevenly endowed in the ability to form connections of different types, tests of intelligence-in-general may miss certain aptitudes useful for vocational counseling, hiring programs, or selection of employees for special training programs.

In 1914 Thorndike began devising tests for use in locating persons with clerical aptitudes and interests and thereby fathered personnel-selection psychology in business and industry. In 1918 he headed the wartime search for men with aptitude for learning to fly. To try to prophesy flying success was itself a pioneering venture in a day when hardly a flying school existed in the United States and the aircraft industry was yet unborn. Such wartime experience in measuring aptitudes was continued in Thorndike's later research into vocational guidance for schools. He advocated special efforts and new departures in vocational education for those schoolchildren–perhaps as much as a third of the total–who "may learn only discouragement and failure" from much of the existing curriculum (Jonçich, p. 473). The vocational education movement lagged, however, with the decline of public interest in the 1920s and massive unemployment of the 1930s.

Studying human variation. The new instruments for measuring ability and achievement and especially the widespread use of these instruments inspired new knowledge of and intensified concern with individual differences. "It is useless to recount the traits in which men have been found to differ, for there is no trait in which they do not differ," Thorndike wrote in Individuality (1911, p. 6). The new educational psychology, he said, must reject classical psychology's assumption of a typical mind from which pattern there were only rare departures; it must study individual minds, be a differential psychology which describes, explains, and seeks to make predictions about human variation.

Society's commitment to universal schooling must not, Thorndike believed, obscure its responsibility to every individual and its respect of difference. While psychology will, as a science, search for universal laws explaining human behavior, the pedagogical art, Thorndike believed, must recognize that it is individuals who act, who learn or refuse to learn.

The practical consequence of the fact of individual differences is that every general law of teaching has to be applied with consideration of the particular person … [for] the responses of children to any stimulus will not be invariable like the responses of atoms of hydrogen or of filings of iron, but will vary with their individual capacities, interests, and previous experience. (1906, p.83)

Of these sources of variation, the most important in Thorndike's view was differing capacities–differences caused primarily by genetic inequalities. To the persisting debate about heredity and environment, Thorndike offered comparative studies of twins, siblings, and unrelated individuals, of family histories, and of school eliminations (dropouts). His findings convinced him that heredity is the primary determinant of intellectual difference and, because such other traits as personal morality, civic responsibility, industriousness, and mental health correlate positively with intelligence, that genetic endowment is the critical variable for welfare and social progress. So, in the interest of improving the human gene pool, he espoused eugenics.

In an age when psychoanalysis introduced arresting concepts of the primitive motivations of mankind, when the arts made a virtue of the "natural," when such educational theorists as G. Stanley Hall espoused a naturalism in education which urged teachers to step aside lest they interfere with nature's way, Thorndike offered dissent. Investigations of original nature and its differing expressions in individuals is not an end in itself, he argued. To find that heredity shapes human potential more than does a favorable environment does not end society's responsibility to improve its institutions, any more than the discovery of gravity was an excuse to cease man's efforts to fly. "The art of human life is to change the world for the better," Thorndike wrote in Education: A First Book (1912, p. 1). "Only one thing [in man's nature] is unreservedly good, the power to make it better. This power of learning … is the essential principle of reason and right in the world," he wrote in Educational Psychology (1913–1914, Vol. 1, pp. 281–282).

It is to institutions called schools and universities that modern societies assign most of the formal stimulation of this power of human learning. For his efforts to improve the abilities of educational institutions to capitalize upon learning potential Thorndike received much recognition during his lifetime: the presidencies of and honorary memberships in numerous American and international scientific and educational associations, honorary degrees from many universities, and election to the National Academy of Sciences. A most appropriate award, the Butler Medal in gold, was bestowed upon Thorndike by Columbia University in 1925 "in recognition of his exceptionally significant contributions to the general problem of the measurement of human faculty and to the applications of such measurements to education" (Jonçich, p. 487).


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