Joining the dots

This is number 20 in my series on learning theories. I'm working through the alphabet of psychologists and theorists, providing a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In my last post I featured the work of Marie Jahoda on ideal mental health. In this post, we will explore the Gestalt theory of Kurt Koffka. As usual, this is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

German born psychologist Kurt Koffka is credited with his colleagues Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler for introducing a theory known as Gestalt psychology. Gestalt is German for pattern or shape, and provides a useful explanation for visual perception. The key principle of Gestalt is that the mind organises a 'global whole' of what the eyes see. Gestaltists believe that the human brain is capable of perceiving whole forms even though only partial component parts may have been seen. The phrase 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' is particularly apt in terms of Gestalt principles, although Koffka's original phrase was 'the whole is other than the sum of the parts'. The Gestalt laws of perception are innate, according to Koffka, and introduce an organisation component into the old behaviourist stimulus response links so that S-R becomes S-O-R. There are many examples to illustrate the several laws of Gestalt perception. The law of continuity for example, can be seen when people view rows of spots, and connect them into a line in their minds. Central to this process is the law of Prägnanz which suggests that each of us is seeking order from chaos and meaning from ambiguity.

How it can be applied in education

Teachers can capitalise on some of the key principles of Gestalt to enhance and enrich the learning experience. Students will have an innate need to make sense of what they see or hear, so teachers could provide them with puzzles, challenges and problems to solve that require them to 'close' or make sense of. Joining the dots or filling in the gaps are strategies teachers can use to test understanding, but they can be more powerful methods when used to encourage students to study deeper.

One example would be ill-structured problems, which have several possible solutions. Ill structured problems are deliberately poorly defined. The solution the student chooses to solve the problem must be justified, which requires them to consider other possible solutions before making their decision. Ill-structured problems have been used in a number of educational contexts to promote deeper thinking, critical analysis and the development of more divergent problem solving skills.

Further reading 

Carlson, N. R. and Heth, C. D. (2010) Psychology: the Science of Behaviour. Ontario, CA: Pearson Education Canada.
Koffka, K. (2013 - first published in 1935) Principles of Gestalt Psychology. Abingdon: Routledge.

Previous posts in this series:

1.  Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
2.  Argyris Double Loop Learning
3.  Bandura Social Learning Theory
4.  Bruner Scaffolding Theory
5.  Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
6.  Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
7.  Dewey Experiential Learning
8.  Engeström Activity Theory
9.  Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves
10. Festinger Social Comparison Theory
11. Festinger Cognitive Dissonance Theory
12. Gardner Multiple Intelligences Theory
13. Gibson Affordances Theory
14. Gregory Visual Perception Hypothesis
15. Hase and Kenyon Heutagogy
16. Hull Drive Reduction Theory
17. Inhelder and Piaget Formal Operations Stage
18. Jung Archetypes and Synchronicity
19. Jahoda Ideal Mental Health

Photo by Clemens Koppensteiner

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Joining the dots by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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