Lightbulb moments

We reach number 21 in this 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 Gestalt theory - and the work of Kurt Koffka. In this post, we will explore another Gestalt theorist, Wolfang Köhler and his studies into insight and intuition. As usual, this is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

During the First World War German psychologist Wolfang Köhler spent time researching the behaviour of chimpanzees in the Canary Islands, and made some interesting claims about learning. He observed how apes, when presented with problems, would solve them through means which they could not have learnt previously. For example, their ability to use sticks to reach bananas that were beyond their normal reach, or the use of boxes to reach bananas that were out of reach in the roof of their cages led Köhler to conclude that some kind of insightful thinking was present. Köhler also noticed that there was a period of time between being presented with the problem to finding the solution. This thinking time led to a lightbulb moment when the ape suddenly realised the solution to the problem. British psychologist Graham Wallas called this thinking time the incubation phase - time needed before arrival at a creative solution, which is the illumination phase of thinking. Interestingly, the incubation period is not always identified with conscious thinking but is more often unconscious processing of the problem.

How it can be applied in education

Teachers should try to ensure that students are given enough thinking time. Time should be allocated in lessons so they can process problems before they arrive at their own solutions, instead of just being given the answers. Sadly, a large amount of schooling has been directive and didactic. This needs to change. It is what Ivan Illich once called these educational funnels, where there is little room for them to manoeuvre and little time to reflect. Giving students time to figure things out for themselves without being instructed, is very powerful learning. They will remember it for the rest of their lives. This is exemplified in some of the best flipped learning practices, but unfortunately these are rare. Students need that kind of lightbulb learning - thaqt Eureka! moment when they suddenly realise something new for the first time. Often teaching schedules don't have enough time programmed in for students to explore, incubate and then illuminate their learning.

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
20. Koffka Gestalt theory

Photo by Alan Cleaver

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Lightbulb moments by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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