Edward Thorndike

Born in Willamsburg, Massachusetts, Edward Lee Thorndike attended Wesleyan University, and studied under James as Harvard. His initial animal studies used chickens as subjects but Thorndike’s landlady objected to their presence in his room.

After James unsuccessfully tried to find additional lab space at Harvard, he allowed his basement to be used as Thorndike’s lab. The James’ children were delighted with that solution, and volunteered to feed and play with the animals.

Although Thorndike took his two best chickens with him to Columbia, he soon turned his attention to the puzzle-solving abilities of cats and dogs in puzzle-boxes. Thorndike’s contention was that learning is the process of creating S-R connections (“bonds”). According to him, learning is not insight but trial and error attempts to find the correct response. Once the correct response is discovered it is “stamped in.”

In contrast to the belief that a human mind should be trained (with good literature, etc.), Thorndike proposed three laws of learning: readiness, exercise and effect. The Law of Readiness held that the subject must be able and ready to perform the task (the cat must be hungry, the child ready to read).

The Law of Exercise proposed that practice strengthens bonds and disuse weakens bonds. The Law of Effect noted that the consequences of a behavior strength (or weaken) the S-R bonds. The great satisfaction experienced, the greater the bond strength. With great dissatisfaction (punishment), the bonds are “stamped out.” According to Thorndike, punishment doesn’t always stamp out bonds but rewards always help strengthen bonds.

In place of the trained mind approach to education, Thorndike advocated the “transfer of training.” According to his theory, learning new tasks is related to how similar they are to previously learned tasks. That is, transfer depends on how many identical elements are held in common.

Similarly, Thorndike’s definition of intelligence is the amount of transfer capacity. He identified three types of intelligence: abstract, social and mechanical. Abstract intelligence is show by the manipulation of words, concepts and symbols. Social intelligence is required for tact and leadership, and mechanical intelligence is shown in the ability to use tools and machines. There is no general mental ability as far as Thorndike was concerned.

In Thorndike’s later years, the Law of Exercise was modified to include feedback. Learning is not blind practice but practice with immediate feedback. Thorndike applied many of his ideas to education, and was a leader in school reform.


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