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Thorndike, Edward

Thorndike, Edward 18741949

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Although he spent his mature career in educational psychology at Columbia Universitys Teachers College in New York City, American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndikes most important work was done in animal learning, begun at Harvard under William James (1842 1910). Thorndike, along with Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (18491936), provided the methodological tools of behaviorism, in which psychologists used animal models to formulate theories of learning and behavior that would include humans.

When Thorndike and Pavlov began their research, comparative psychology used the so-called anecdotal methodcollecting stories about animal behavior in natural and seminatural settingsin order to understand conscious animal thinking. Thorndike challenged the anecdotal method for lack of control, overestimation of animal intelligence, and tendencies to anthropomorphize the animal mind. He substituted experiments for anecdotes, establishing one of the two major paradigms for studying learning: instrumental, or operant, conditioning. Contemporaneously, Pavlov established Pavlovian, classical or respondent, conditioning. With regard to animal thought, Thorndike set out to catch the animal mind at work but concluded that animals do not reason their way to problem solutions. Rather, they engage in mindless trial-and-error learning.

In the experiments that defined instrumental conditioning, Thorndike placed young cats inside wooden cages called puzzle boxes from which they could escape by working a manipulandum inside the box, such as a foot treadle. Thorndike observed that cats tried out a variety of instinctive responses before accidentally hitting on the correct response. Nor did they show insight. Instead of stepping on the treadle immediately on the next trial, cats repeated erroneous responses, although the correct response emerged sooner as trials progressed until it became dominant. Thorndike described the process of learning as a gradual stamping out of connections between the box stimuli (S ) and the incorrect instinctive responses (R ), and the gradual stamping in of connections between S and the correct R. Hence, Thorndike called his theory of learning connectionism, a behavioral version of associationism.

Thorndike proposed three laws governing learning. The law of exercise held that using a connection strengthened it and disuse weakened it, while the law of readiness stated that when a connection was available, its use would be satisfying to the organism; these laws were later abandoned. Most important was the law of effect. Initially, the law of effect held that when a response to a stimulus led to pleasure, the S-R connection was strengthened, and when a response led to painful punishment, the connection was weakened. Thorndike later revised the law of effect, having found that punishment did not weaken S-R connections, but inhibited their expression, a view held today.

Because Thorndike never proposed a comprehensive system of psychology, his ideas were subjected to detailed rather than systematic criticism. Most significant were critiques of the law of effect and the methodology of the puzzle boxes. Eager to purge references to mental states from psychology, behaviorists objected to Thorndikes reference to pleasurea subjective conscious feelingas the cause of learning. They substituted less mentalistic causes such as contiguity of stimulus and response (Edwin R. Guthrie [18861959]) or biological drive reduction (Clark Hull [18841952]), or they defined reinforcers functionally as events that strengthen the responses that produced them (B. F. Skinner [19041990]). Later, as information-processing views of learning gained strength, psychologists questioned Thorndikes law of effect in a new way (anticipated by Edward C. Tolman [18861959] in the 1930s). Thorndike assumed that rewards and punishments work via pleasure and pain, but they also provide information (a concept not available to Thorndike) that a response was correct or incorrect. Experiments that separate the two (e.g., making a painful stimulus indicate that a response was correct) have shown that learning depends on the information value of reinforcers more than their subjective quality.

The Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler (1887 1967) offered an important criticism of Thorndikes puzzle-box method. One of the driving issues in psychology of learning is whether learning occurs gradually or can occur suddenly via insight. Thorndike found no signs of insight in his puzzle-box studies, while Köhler found evidence of insight in his studies of problem solving by chimpanzees. Köhler argued that Thorndikes method was faulty because it made insight impossible: Trapped in the puzzle box, the cat could not see the connection between the manipulandum and the door opening, and so was forced to resort to trial and error. In Köhlers experiments, on the other hand, all the elements needed to solve a problem were available to the subject, who was able to assemble them insightfully into a solution. The force of Köhlers critique extends beyond issues of learning. Psychologists perform experiments in order to discover laws explaining behavior in real life, but experiments are necessarily artificial, and may lead psychologists to propose universal laws of behavior that are in fact laws induced by their experiments.

Nevertheless, Thorndikes influence was enormous. He initiated the S-R concept of learning elaborated by Clark Hull and his followers from the 1930s to the 1960s, which overshadowed the cognitive tradition of the Gestalt psychologists and Edward Tolman, which held that learning consisted of developing internal representations of the world, the main view in cognitive science today. The law of effect provided the basis for Skinners principles of reinforcement, though Skinner did not view operant learning as making connections. There is today a new connectionist (neural network) movement, but it is not linkable to Thorndike.

SEE ALSO Hull, Clark; Reinforcement Theories; Skinner, B. F.; Tolman, Edward

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Leahey, Thomas H. 2004. A History of Psychology: Main Currents in Psychological Thought. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Thorndike, Edward L. [1911] 1965. Animal Intelligence: Experimental Studies. New York: Hafner. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Thorndike/Animal/.

Thomas Leahey

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Thorndike, Edward

Edward Thorndike

1874-1949
American educational psychologist best known for his experimentally derived theories of learning and his influence on behaviorism.

Edward Thorndike was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, and grew up in a succession of New England towns where his father served as a Methodist minister. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University, Thorndike did graduate work in psychology, first at Harvard under the guidance of William James and later at Columbia under James McKeen Cattell. His first major research projectundertaken while he was still a graduate studentinvolved trial-and-error learning, using first chickens and then cats. Observing the behavior of cats attempting to escape from enclosed "puzzle boxes," Thorndike noted that responses that produced satisfactionescape from the box and subsequent feedingwere "stamped in" and more likely to be repeated in the future, while responses that led to failure, and thus dissatisfaction, tended to be "stamped out." Thorndike termed this observation the law of effect , one of two laws of learning he derived from his research. The other law, called the law of exercise, stated that associations that are practiced are stamped in, while others are extinguished. Applied to humans, these laws became an important foundation of both behaviorist psychology and modern learning theory . Thorndike based his doctoral dissertation on his research, which he also published in the form of a monograph in 1898. After earning his Ph.D., Thorndike spent a year on the faculty of Case Western Reserve University, after which he was appointed professor of educational psychology at Columbia's Teachers' College, where he remained until his retirement. Thorndike made many early and significant contributions to the field of experimental animal psychology, successfully arguing that his findings had relevant implications for human psychology.

Upon his return to New York, Thorndike turned his attention to a new research areatermed "transfer of training"which was concerned with the effect of performance in one discipline on performance in others. The belief in such a connection had sustained the traditional system of instruction in formal disciplines, such as the classics, through the rationale that achievement in a given field equipped students for success in other areas. Working together with his friend and colleague, Robert Woodworth, Thorndike found that training in specific tasks produced very little improvement in the ability to perform different tasks. These findings, published in

1901, helped undermine the tradition of formal disciplines in favor of educational methods that were more specifically task-oriented.

Continuing to focus on human learning, Thorndike became a pioneer in the application of psychological principles to areas such as the teaching of reading, language acquisition, and mental testing. In 1903, he published Educational Psychology, in which he applied the learning principles he had discovered in his animal research to humans. In the following year, Thorndike's Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements (1904), which provided administrators and users of intelligence tests access to statistical data about test results. Thorndike also devised a scale to measure children's handwriting in 1910 and a table showing the frequency of words in English (The Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words, 1944), which has been useful to researchers who rely on dictionary words. As a teacher of teachers, Thorndike was directly and indirectly responsible for a number of curricular and methodological changes in education throughout the United States. A prolific writer, Thorndike produced over 450 articles and books, including The Elements of Psychology (1905), Animal Intelligence (1911), The Measurement of Intelligence (1926), The Fundamentals of Learning (1932), The Psychology of Wants, Interests, and Attitudes (1935), and Human Nature and the Social Order (1940).

Further Reading

Clifford, G. J. Edward L. Thorndike: The Sane Positivist. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

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Edward Lee Thorndike

Edward Lee Thorndike

The American psychologist and educator Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949) was the originator of modern educational psychology and influenced 20th-century American education immeasurably.

Edward Lee Thorndike was born on Aug. 31, 1874, in Williamsburg, Mass., a minister's son. Before he entered Wesleyan University in 1891, his family had moved eight times within New England. Although this experience caused him to become self-reliant, it also left him reserved and shy; the lonely boy grew into a man happiest when alone with his work.

Thorndike was inspired by the psychological writings of William James, and after graduation from Wesleyan, Thorndike entered Harvard University to study under James. James let Thorndike perform learning experiments with animals in his own basement. Thorndike continued these experiments at Columbia University and published his results as Animal Intelligence (1898), his doctoral thesis. Thus, he reported the first carefully controlled experiments in comparative animal psychology. To study animal behavior scientifically, Thorndike invented the problem box and maze, techniques later adopted by other psychologists.

While teaching psychology to prospective teachers at Western Reserve University, Thorndike was attracted to human learning and to psychology's potential usefulness to education. He transferred to Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1899, where he introduced courses in educational psychology, tests and measurements, and the psychology of school subjects. In 1921 he became director of Teachers College's new Institute of Educational Research; he retired in 1940. He died on Aug. 9, 1949, in Montrose, N.Y.

Many of Thorndike's writings, including Notes on Child Study (1901), Principles of Teaching (1906), Education: A First Book (1912), and The Psychology of Arithmetic (1922), dealt with both practical school problems and issues underlying education. Thus, he investigated and wrote about the probable causes of differences in intellectual abilities, how habits are formed, the positive effects of practice, learning by rewards, the value of studying one subject for learning another, the arrangement of skills, and the effects upon students of tiredness and time of day.

Thorndike's belief in applied psychology prompted the Thorndike Arithmetics (1917), Thorndike-Century Junior and Senior Dictionaries (1935, 1941), and The Teacher's Word Books (1921, 1931). To satisfy education's desires for precise measures of students' aptitudes and achievements, Thorndike constructed numerous scales and tests. Beginning with scales rating handwriting (1910), English composition (1911), and drawing (1913), personnel selection tests for business, and psychological scaling for the U.S. Army during World War I, Thorndike next authored intelligence tests, college admissions tests, and an examination for law school students.

As a scientist, Thorndike sought to develop a cohesive theory of human behavior. He elaborated his stimulus-response psychology in such works as The Human Nature Club (1900), The Elements of Psychology (1905), The Fundamentals of Learning (1932), Human Nature and the Social Order (1940), and, especially, his three-volume classic, Educational Psychology (1913, 1914).

Further Reading

A brief collection of Thorndike's writings, including his autobiography, is included in Geraldine M. Jonçich, ed., Psychology and the Science of Education: Selected Writings (1962). Jonçich's The Sane Positivist: A Biography of Edward L. Thorndike (1968) is a biographical history of Thorndike's life, times, and work. A critical account of his contributions appears in Merle E. Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (1935; rev. ed. 1966), and a more favorable interpretation in Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (1961). For additional background on the development of psychology and education during Thorndike's lifetime see Joseph Peterson, Early Conceptions and Tests of Intelligence (1925); Ernest R. Hilgard, Theories of Learning (1948; new ed. 1966); and Willis Rudy, Schools in an Age of Mass Culture (1965). □

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THORNDIKE, Edward L(ee)

THORNDIKE, Edward L(ee) [1874–1949]. American psychologist and lexicographer, born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, and educated at Wesleyan U., Connecticut, and Harvard. He won a fellowship to Columbia, where he studied with the psychologist James McKeen Cattell and the anthropologist Franz Boas, from whom he acquired a lifelong interest in the quantitative treatment of psychological data. Thorndike's research on stimulus-response and transfer of learning had a major impact on English-language instruction in US schools for both native and second-language speakers. He suggested that conditioned responses account, in part, for word meaning in everyday life and maintained that words which occur frequently in contiguity come to be associated with each other and function as a class. The meaning of a word could therefore be described as a ‘habit bond’. To demonstrate his contention that the frequency of a word's usage was related to the recognition of its meaning on the part of the learner, Thorndike prepared with Irving Lorge several lists of the most commonly used English words (published as The Teacher's Word Book series, 1921, 1931, 1944) which were used by editors of elementary school readers and ESL texts to select vocabulary for their publications. Applying the results of his research on language and learning, Thorndike influenced the design, order, and writing style of The Thorndike Junior Dictionary (1935) and The Thorndike Senior Dictionary (1941), on which he collaborated with Clarence Barnhart. The definitions and illustrative sentences in these dictionaries emphasized what he held to be the ultimate aims in education: happiness, appreciation of beauty, utility, and service. Although many of his opinions were controversial, his influence was widespread. He produced more than 500 works, including Reading Scales (1919), The Thorndike Test of Word Knowledge (1922), and Teaching English Suffixes (1941), and served as president of the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Psychological Association.

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Thorndike, Edward Lee

Edward Lee Thorndike (thôrn´dīk), 1874–1949, American educator and psychologist, b. Williamsburg, Mass., grad. Wesleyan Univ., 1895, and Harvard, 1896, Ph.D. Columbia, 1898. Appointed instructor in genetic psychology at Teachers College, Columbia, in 1899, he served there until 1940 (as professor from 1904 and as director of the division of psychology of the Institute of Educational Research from 1922). His great contributions to educational psychology were largely in the methods he devised to test and measure children's intelligence and their ability to learn. He conducted studies in animal psychology and the psychology of learning, and compiled dictionaries for children (1935) and for young adults (1941). The great number of his writings includes Educational Psychology (1903), Mental and Social Measurements (1904), Animal Intelligence (1911), A Teacher's Word Book (1921), Your City (1939), and Human Nature and the Social Order (1940).

See biography by G. M. Joncich (1968).

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