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Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) Paving the Way to Educational Psychology


Edward Thorndike, an American psychologist, spent his life developing theories. He was born August 31st, 1874 in Williamsburg Massachusetts and died August 9th , 1949 in Montrose, New York. He is known for studying animal behavior with William James at Harvard University (1895-1897) as well as with James McCeen Cattell at Columbia University (1898). Through this work he established two laws: the law of effect and the law of exercise. While at Columbia he also studied transfer learning with Robert S. Wordsworth. Before publishing Educational Psychology, Thorndike and Wordsworth published a paper in 1901, stating that learning in one area doesn't mean learning in another area, "where specific training in one task seemed to cause improvement in learning another, the improvement could be attributed to common elements in the two exercises, not to overall enhancement of the subject's learning abilities." Thorndike was a professor of educational psychology from 1904-1940. Thorndike contributed a great deal to the development of a scientific, effective, and efficient way of schooling. Along with Educational Psychology (1913-1914), which is a three volume book, he also published other books which contributed to early use of psychology in the classroom. (2)

What was believed before the publishing of Educational Psychology?
Before Thorndike developed his views on educational psychology, he has predecessors, who developed their own theories. One of them was Stanley Hall (1844-1924), who was the founder of a child-study movement. Hall's parents had a great influence on his becoming an educational psychologist because they were both teachers. He founded developmental psychology in America and paved the way for Thorndike. Another researcher, Joseph Mayor Rice (1857-1934) started research on teaching. (1)
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Before these researchers' beliefs and theories were accepted, including Thorndike's, faculty psychology was still dominant. When Rice presented his beliefs to a board in Atlantic City New Jersey in 1897, because he was asked to present his class-room based research. The faculty did not like his presentation and still remained with the dominant belief. The belief was that it was good for children to be drilled, having to memorize, practice, and work hard for their education. "It was the process, not the outcome, that determined good teaching. Good teaching, a normative judgment, was more valued than efficient or effective teaching, terms that derive their meaning from empirical data." It was the process that was more important than the actual outcome before research in educational psychology was accepted right up until 1912 during the annual meeting of superintendents. (1)


What was believed after the publishing of Educational Psychology?
After publishing Educational Psychology, Edward Thorndike published a few other books in the subject of educational psychology in particular school subjects, mental and social measurement, and psychology in general. (3)

By the time World War II began, however, educational psychology took a back seat in importance and it wasn't until the middle of the war and after the war that the subject was dusted off and ready to be re-examined again. Psychologists developed learning theories, but there was no set one that was believed by the masses. There wasn't much hope of finding a single, cookie-cutter fitting theory for all subjects. People who addressed educational psychology after Thorndike were Walter Borg, Lee J. Cronbach, John Flanagan, N. L. Gage, Robert Gagne, Robert Glaser, J. P. Guilford, and B. F. Skinner. (1)

Today, the subject of educational psychology is still evolving, but it was Thorndike who laid down the basis of educational psychology and his early theories are still being developed today. Since the 1960s there have been fields specialized in the psychology of teaching itself and there are more sophisticated studies that are more naturalistic than previous studies. Educational psychology and psychology in general is still believed to be important today for society and this is why it is still studied today. (1)

How do schools still act as if we have the “old” belief?
Many old-fashioned methods of teaching, such as repetition and having a class memorize together are still practiced by many teachers. It is all dependent on the teacher and it is the teacher's choice as to whether or not they apply educational psychology in the classroom. The field of psychology is attempting to be perfected, but it is still rapidly changing in this rapidly changing world.









Links for further reading:
1.100 Years of Educational Psychology
2. Edward Lee Thorndike Biography
3. Edward Thorndike's Entry from Britannica Online Encyclopedia

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