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Experimentation and Learning Theory

by Morris L. Bigge - 1970

Dr. Bigge is Professor of Educational Foundations at Fresno State. Here, seeking a theoretical basis for reflective teaching, he examines some of the paradigms which have emerged in the development of a science of learning. The behaviorists, he believes, have never moved far enough beyond the S-R approach with its presumption of a passive, reactive learner. Drawing his conception of reflective teaching from Deweyan experimentalism, Professor Bigge concludes that cognitive-field learning theory provides a paradigm most suggestive for "problem-centered, exploratory teaching."

In adopting a psychology of learning, an edu­cator has at least three possible choices. He may conform rigidly to one systematic psychology; he may borrow eclectically from various psychological outlooks and arrange his ideas into a patchwork mosaic that is available for him to draw upon as need arises; or he may develop an ideological, emergent synthesis. In the sense it is used here, an emergent synthesis is a new outlook which benefits from knowledge of previously developed psychological sys­tems but is not an eclectic compromise among them.

Eclecticism has its own strengths. However, its basic weakness is that one who is dedicated to it has no defensible systematic basis for knowing when to use discrete aspects of respective positions. Thus, the choice of outlook and method for each psychological situation largely is a matter of chance.

Within the course of history of experimentalism, all three general psycho­logical approaches have been advocated and used. In fact, different schools within experimentalism may be identified upon the basis of the ways in which adherents of each school have approached the psychology of learning. How­ever, it is high time that experimentalists clarify their position concerning the nature of the learning process, and that they develop a distinctive experi­mentalist's model or paradigm for the study of human learning. Today's ex­perimentalist embraces either some form of behaviorism or some form of cog­nitive-field theory or a compromise between the two, probably garnished with a modicum of mental discipline and apperception. Now, how do these and other paradigmatic approaches emerge?

Thomas S. Kuhn1 concentrates his approach to the development of each scientific area upon the meaning and emergence of paradigms. He defines a paradigm as a universally recognized scientific achievement that for a time provides model problems and types of solutions for a community of sci­entific practitioners. He tells us that, in the very early stage of a science, there are about as many views about the nature of the subject as there are experimenters. Then later, several competing paradigms emerge for the study of a scientific area. This constitutes a middle stage in the development of scientific thought. Still later, a mature area of science with one basic para­digm, around which scientists in that field cluster their thought, comes to be recognized by people competent in the field. Then, within a mature "normal science"—a science clustered around one prevailing paradigm—most scientists concentrate their endeavors upon solving the "puzzles" which appear within that paradigmatic approach. Thus, most scientists engage in a “mopping up” enterprise within which, in the interest of elegance, any anomalies which might appear are quietly ignored or perhaps merely mentioned in passing. An anomaly, to Kuhn, is nature's violation of a paradigm-induced expectation.  This process of bypassing anomalies continues until a few scientists in a given area concentrate their attentions on the anomalies instead of the paradigm and thereby give birth to a new paradigm which in turn becomes the pivotal design for further "normal science.”

Now, let us apply Kuhn's hypothesis to the historical development of psychologies of learning. Theories of learning, for example, mental discipline, apperception, behaviorism, and Gestalt theory are some of the competing paradigms of the middle stage in the development of a science of learning. Logi­cal empiricists in philosophy and their intellectual counterparts, S-R associationists in psychology, are wont to think that psychology, and more specifical­ly learning theory, has achieved a common basic paradigm for a mature science of psychology. This paradigm centers upon a mechanistic, deter­ministic, and reductionistic behaviorism which is an extension of biological science. However, this psychological paradigm has been, and still is, too burdened with anomalies to be accepted as anything more than one of the competing paradigms of the middle stage of a developing science.

Behaviorist Paradigms

Behaviorists have de­vised numerous modifications of their position in order to eliminate its ap­parent inadequacies, and they have used their own paradigm to argue in that paradigm's defense. However, the anomalies and inadequacies are merely glossed over, not eliminated. Accordingly, the field is still open. Several paradigms continue to be in open competition and the winner, the paradigm of a mature learning theory, is yet to be structured. To quote Kuhn, "when . . . the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice—then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead the profession at last to a new set of commitments, a new basis for the practice of science."2

Although psychology should be in the forefront in the movement toward a more adequate conception of scientific knowledge, it continues to be ham­strung in an inadequate "Newtonian" approach. To quote Sigmund Koch, "Psychology is thus in the unenviable position of standing on philosophical foundations which began to be vacated by philosophy almost as soon as the former had borrowed them. The paradox is now compounded: philosophy and, more generally, the methodology of science are beginning to stand on foundations that only psychology could render secure."3

Many behavioristic psychologists have advanced multistage models of learn­ing far beyond the single-stage models such as those developed by Thorndike and Watson. Their multistage or mediational models often imply, as stated by Gagne, that: "The learner supplies something himself out of his own previous experience," that ". . . the learner does something to those units be­fore they are stored . . . the units stored in memory are first coded" and that ". . . the conception of learning as a 'stimulus-response association' is al­ready an anachronism."4 However, even the most advanced of the behaviorists persist in thinking of the mediation process as occurring serially between the stimulus and the response and its coming mechanistically from the mem­ory storage of the individual's nervous system. Thus, whereas many behav­iorists recognize that learning occurs "inside the learner," they seldom develop the full implications of this recognition. For example, they fail to view man as a genuinely purposive person interacting with his psychological or per­ceived environment.

Within the philosophic paradigm, experimentalism, a cognitive-field theory merits, at the least, a place along side the behaviorisms as a middle-stage paradigm for learning theory. In contrast with the views of behaviorists, cognitive-field theorists' image of man is not that of a passive, reactive re­cipient of stimuli and emitter of responses. But, neither is the image of an active, autonomous being which engages in thinking completely independent of his environment. Instead, the proposed image is that of a purposive person interacting with his unique psychological environment. In a life space, the basic concepts of cognitive-field psychology, person and environment, are not mutually exclusive; however, they do function as subwholes of a psy­chological field. Thus, they are in simultaneous mutual interaction and are mutually interdependent. Each depends upon the other for its nature and functions; it is impossible to treat one adequately without also treating the other.

Experimentalist Theory

John Dewey repeated­ly called our attention to the fact that prevalent psychologies of learning were inadequate paradigms for human learning. At times, he provided hints concerning what he thought an adequate theory would be like. But, since he thought of himself primarily as a philosopher, he did not develop an ex­perimentalist's theory of learning as such. In his "Rejoinder" of 1939, Dewey laid a foundation for a cognitive-field psychology with his statement "... I have held that the relative defects of both the idealistic and realistic epistemologies is a result of their failure to set knowing in this context of prob­lematic situations . . ."5 He thought that, even though it had not been carefully delineated, a systematic psychology was implicit within his philosophy. Ac­cordingly, he wrote, ". . . although I have said that I regard psychology as indispensable for sound philosophizing at the present juncture, I have failed to develop in a systematic way my underlying psychological principles."

For experimentalists, learning involves persons' development of more ade­quate insights or understandings, their extension of knowledge and discovery, their fashioning of artistic creations, their furtherance of ties that hold people together in mutual aid and affection, and their expansion of areas of common goals and purposes through harmonization of their individual thoughts and interests. Through learning, so construed, knowledge becomes a power which may be used experimentally for the benefit of individual selves and all man­kind. Thus, by the development and use of knowledge, man can change him­self, transform his habits, broaden his life activity, and give his perspective a wider scope.

Within the perceptual process as viewed by experimentalists, a person is neither active nor passive nor a combination of the two. Instead he is inter­active. His being interactive means that, in a perceptual or psychological sit­uation, a person acts in relation to his psychological environment and simul­taneously realizes the consequences of so doing. As Dewey put it, "An or­ganism does not live in an environment; it lives by means of an environment."6

When one interacts with an object or activity; he sizes it up. Thus, a person's environment—what he gains from "what is out there"—is viewed as fluid and dynamic, not changeless and static.

Life Space

Cognitive-field theorists, who see perception as an interactive, not alternatingly reactive, process of person and environment, use life space as a model, paradigm, or root metaphor which enables them to take into consideration the total contemporaneous life situa­tion of an individual. Such a contemporaneous situation or life space in­cludes the person, his psychological environment, his insights, and his goals. Consequently, the object of study, when applied to man, is a unit which can best be described as a-discerning-person-in-interaction-with-his-psychological environment; this is a life space.

Within cognitive-field theory, learning, briefly defined, is a relativisitic— non-mechanistic—process within which a person develops new insights or changes old ones. In no sense is it an associationistic process of connecting stimuli which impinge upon and responses which are evoked or emitted from a biological organism. Nor is it a deterministic operation within which responses of an organism are made more probable or frequent.

The critical issue between cognitive-field psychology and the behaviorisms is not molarity versus atomism, but purposiveness and contemporaneity versus mechanistic determinism and serial cause and effect. Today, many behaviorists have adopted a molar approach to behavior. Thus, they often refer to the organism as a whole and to the total environment, but psychological pur­posiveness and contemporaneity still remain outside their life spaces. Accord­ingly, they continue to think mechanistically in terms of a time lapse be­tween stimuli and responses. To quote Hebb, "Temporarily integrated be­havior, extended over a period of time, is treated as a series of reactions to a series of stimulations. . . . Stimulus followed directly by response is the archetype of behavior.. ."7

Within cognitive-field psychology it is assumed that, as Dewey stated, "Every intelligent act involves selection of certain things as means to other things as their consequences."8 Furthermore, the purposiveness of cognitive-field psychology is immanent, not transcendental to the world of experience; it prevails in workaday life situations. Accordingly, adherents of this position postulate that men exercise choice, but they neither assert nor imply identifi­cation with either side of the metaphysical free will-determinism antinomy.

Behaviorists and cognitive-field psychologists agree that there is little basis for assertion of future cause of events. However, cognitive-field psycholo­gists differ sharply from behaviorists in their insistence that derivation of be­havior from the past is equally metaphysical and thus beyond the realm of sci­ence. Psychologically, "Since neither the past nor the future [as such] exists at the present moment, it cannot have effects, at the present."9 This statement by Kurt Lewin implies that any psychological past or psychological future is a simultaneous part of a person's contemporaneous field. Thus, this psycho­logical paradigm is centered, not upon either original or final goals or purposes in any metaphysical sense, but on contemporary human situations with their existent goals.

Cognitive-field, as well as behavioristic psychology, establishes order but it goes about it in a different way. Along with benefiting from the experimenta­tion done under other banners, it develops its own unique type of scientific research. Experimentation within cognitive-field psychology involves the study of such matters as cognitive processes, the recall of uncompleted tasks, the relationship of levels of achievement and levels of aspiration, psycholog­ical ecology, group dynamics, action research, concepts of self, personality rigidity, individual and social perception, and reflective teaching. It is in its development of a theoretical basis for reflective teaching that cognitive-field learning theory probably makes its greatest contribution to the science and art of education.

Reflective teaching is problem centered, exploratory teaching. It is based on the conviction that a student studies and learns best when he seeks the rele­vance of his learning to what he intelligently needs. Reflective teaching in­volves problem raising and problem solving. In its process, teachers constantly persuade and induce students to reconstruct, reorganize, and reinterpret their own experiences. When reflective teaching is successful students become per­plexed just short of frustration, and they emerge with an enlarged store of gen­eralized insights and an enhanced ability and desire to develop and solve prob­lems on their own.


1   Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Volume II, Number 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

2   Ibid, p. 6.

3    Sigmund Koch, "Psychology and Emerging Conceptions of Knowledge as Unitary," in T. W. Wann, Behaviorism and Phenomenology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

4   Robert M. Gagne, "Learning Research and Its Implications for Independent Learning," in Gerald T. Gleason, Ed., The Theory and Nature of Independent Learning. Scran-ton, Pa.: International Textbook Company, 1967.

5   John Dewey, "Experience, Knowledge and Value: A Rejoinder," in Paul Arthur Schilpp, Ed., The Philosophy of John Dewey. Northwestern University, Evanston: The Library of Living Philosophers, 1939.

6   John Dewey. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1938.

7   Donald Olding Hebb. A Textbook of Psychology. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1958.

8   Dewey, John. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, op. cit.

9   Kurt Lewin. Principles of Topological Psychology. New York:  McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1936.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 71 Number 3, 1970, p. 407-412
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1732, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 4:24:29 AM

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