Edward Lee Thorndike
(31 August 1874–9 August 1949) often is referred to as the Father
of Educational Psychology. During his 55-year career, he wrote more
than 500 books and articles on topics as varied as adult education,
animal intelligence, and behavioral psychology.
Thorndike was born to Abigail Brewster Ladd and Edward Roberts Thorndike in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Though Thorndike’s father was an itinerant Methodist minister, the predominance of religion during Thorndike’s youth did not inspire his latter beliefs. Rather, he rejected religion as an adult and viewed science as a secular alternative. He often referred to himself as an “intellectual agnostic” (Joncich 1968, 63).
Children of 19th-century ministers were more likely to receive higher education than other children because of the strong ties between the clergy and universities. Thorndike chose to attend Wesleyan University, a Methodist ministry-sponsored college, from where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1895. He received another undergraduate degree from Harvard University, and then shifted his focus to psychology and earned a master’s degree in 1897.
Thorndike subsequently applied to Columbia University and entered its psychology doctoral program. In his first summer term, Thorndike met James McKeen Cattell, a nationally prominent and distinguished professor. Cattell quickly gained Thorndike’s respect and admiration. They corresponded regularly, and Thorndike solicited thesis advice and assistance with experiments. Cattell proved very supportive of Thorndike’s work and accepted one of his manuscripts for publication in Science magazine. He also invited Thorndike to give his first lecture at the American Psychological Association. Cattell exerted great influence within the scientific community, and his acceptance of Thorndike as a star pupil proved to be immensely rewarding for the young scholar.
Many psychologists consider Thorndike’s 1898 doctoral thesis Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals to be the origin of the scientific study of animal behavior. In his field-breaking work, Thorndike described his “puzzle box” experiments with cats. From these, he proposed several “laws” concerning the bonds between stimuli and responses, which he labeled the Connectionism Theory of Learning. Though Thorndike’s work appears quite similar to Ivan Pavlov’s 1902 law of reinforcement, the two studies appear to be a case of simultaneous independent discovery. Pavlov (1928) himself wrote, “I must acknowledge that the honor of having made the first steps along the path belongs to E. L. Thorndike.”
Following Cattell’s recommendation, Thorndike began to apply his doctoral research on animal intelligence to human subjects—particularly children. Thus began Thorndike’s merger of psychology and pedagogy.
Thorndike, a proponent of research-based curriculum reform, prompted curricular and methodological changes in several subject areas. For example, he frequently spoke out against the classical course of study traditionally offered in secondary schools, and considered both Latin and Greek to be unnecessary. He asserted that progress in these languages did not correlate to progress in other subject areas. In 1910, he published a scale to measure children’s handwriting that used a positive correlation between rate and quality. The scale gained quick acceptance and became the first standardized achievement test to be widely used in public schools.
Mathematics was another of his curricular foci. Thorndike did not approve of arithmetic practice solely for the sake of “mental gymnastics” (Joncich 1968, 398), and incorporated this theory into his 1917 series Thorndike Arithmetics—an instant best seller. In this exercise book, Thorndike only included mathematical problems that were directly relevant to real, daily life.
Thorndike authored a number of books and articles to help educators and textbook writers choose the appropriate vocabulary for their students. In 1927, he compiled The Teacher’s Word Book, a list of 4.5 million words in English from 41 different sources, including newspapers, advertisements, and popular fiction. He ordered these words on the basis of most commonly to least commonly used. He released two subsequent revisions of this popular list in 1932 and 1944. The latter books also contained word lists, but a greater number of these words were taken from a broader range of contextual sources. His main desire for these lists was that they be used to determine if a specific word should be included in writing for children. Thorndike also published several dictionaries that included only “real” (as opposed to esoteric) meanings. Many contemporary dictionaries that contain Thorndike’s name in the title follow this same concept.
During the first half of the 1920s, Thorndike changed his scholarly focus to intelligence testing and scientific measurement. He argued for the existence of inherited intellectual differences, and that an accurate intelligence test could predict an individual’s future career. Thorndike thus developed the CAVD Intelligence Test, which measured completion, arithmetic, vocabulary, and directions. The logic behind this test became the foundation for modern intelligence tests.
In 1928, Thorndike conducted a major study of adult learning, the first of its kind. This study revealed that the ability of adults to learn declined very little with age, disproving the prevalent belief that ability for mental development stopped at about age 16. This finding changed the direction of adult learning and spurned new developments in the field of adult education. Thorndike’s ideas became popular worldwide, and his book Adult Learning was even translated into Polish.
In 1939, Thorndike officially retired from Columbia University, but continued his research and writing. In 1946, Thorndike gave his last public speech at the Roxbury Latin School. Soon afterward, Thorndike (in Joncich 1968, 587) wrote to a friend, “I am now a very tired old man, but not unhappy”. His last year was one of illness—pneumonia, shakiness, and a minor stroke. His wife later found files, papers, and personal correspondence that he had carefully arranged in preparation for death. Many of these papers are in Montrose, New York, under the custody of Frances Thorndike Cope. Another large collection is held at the Teachers College Archives at Columbia University. Small collections of miscellaneous papers and notes can be found at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, the Cornell University Library, and the Harvard University Library.
Contributed by Mindy J. Spearman, The University of Texas at Austin
Cumming, W. W. 1999. A review of Geraldine Joncich’s The sane positivist: A biography of Edward L. Thorndike. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 72(3): 429–32.
Curti, M. E. 1959. The social ideas of American educators. Paterson, N.J.: Pagent Books.
Dewsbury, D. A. 1998. Celebrating E. L. Thorndike a century after Animal Intelligence. American Psychologist 53: 1121–24.
Galef, B. G., Jr. 1998. Edward Thorndike: Revolutionary psychologist, ambiguous biologist. American Psychologist 53: 1128–34.
Joncich, G. 1968. The sane positivist: A biography of Edward L. Thorndike. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
Murchison, C. 1936. A history of psychology in autobiography, vol. 3. Worcester, Mass.: Clark University Press.
Pavlov, I. P. 1928. Lectures on conditioned reflexes, trans. by W. H. Gantt. New York: International Publishers.
Schultz, D. P. 1969. A history of modern psychology. New York: Academic Press.
Thorndike, E. L. 1898. Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. Ph.D. diss., Columbia University.