Early Childhood Education

Thorndike, Edward L. (1847-1949)


Edward Lee Thorndike was a leader in educational psychology at the turn of the twentieth century. Thorndike grew up in New England, where his father was a Methodist minister. He attended Wesleyan University in 1891 and showed intellectual independence from his father when writing for the Eclectic Society and by later referring to himself as an agnostic. While at Wesleyan, Thorndike studied the work of William James and later credited James for his own devotion to psychology. Thorndike later attended Harvard for two years, then Columbia University. At Columbia, Thorndike found a second mentor in James Cattell. Thorndike’s thesis was entitled “Animal Intelligence, An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals,” wherein he explained learning as the forming of associations between situations and impulses to action within that situation. Thorndike’s thesis is noted as a starting point for experiments in animal psychology.

Thorndike accepted a teaching position at Western Reserve’s College for Women, where he taught two courses on education and teaching theories. In 1899, Thorndike returned to Columbia University and was selected for Teachers College as Associate Professor of Genetic Psychology. Thorndike also taught child psychology but held that courses were generally a waste of time because education came best through personal reading and study. He married in 1900 and subsequently wrote Human Nature Club, The Elements of Psychology, and Principles of Teaching.

Thorndike spent a decade researching animal and human psychology. He believed that progress in science led to social advance. He studied monkeys, wrote the article “The Evolution of Human Intellect,” and conducted experiments with A.R. Woodworth. In 1903, Thorndike published Educational Psychology and, later, An Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements as the first complete theoretical and statistical handbook in social science. Thorndike believed that individuality was the key concept of school theory and practice and stated that the school must respect the needs and capacities of individual students. “Individuality” was his first extended statement about differential psychology, and his three-volume series on Education Psychology was published at the peak of his influence. This volume focused upon learning as the central issue of psychology and asserted that man is by nature a connection-forming creature with many possibilities. Thorndike later discovered high correlations between reading and intelligence tests. His Thorndike Arithmetics became adapted as a statewide text and was widely used.

Thorndike was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1917. He became more involved in research when Teachers College established its Institute of Education Research. Receiving honors at the international level in 1937 and 1938, he became President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Thorndike was known for the extension of measurement to all education and for his learning theory. He believed education to be a theory, an art, and a science.

Further Readings: Joncich, Geraldine (1968). The sane positivist: A biography of Edward L. Thorndike. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press; Weber, Evelyn (1984). Ideas influencing early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Charlotte Anderson