American educational psychologist best known for his experimentally derived theories of learning and his influence on behaviorism.
Edward Thorndike was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, and grew up in a succession of New England towns where his father served as a Methodist minister. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University, Thorndike did graduate work in psychology, first at Harvard under the guidance of William James and later at Columbia under James McKeen Cattell. His first major research project—undertaken while he was still a graduate student—involved trial-and-error learning, using first chickens and then cats. Observing the behavior of cats attempting to escape from enclosed "puzzle boxes," Thorndike noted that responses that produced satisfaction—escape from the box and subsequent feeding—were "stamped in" and more likely to be repeated in the future, while responses that led to failure, and thus dissatisfaction, tended to be "stamped out." Thorndike termed this observation the law of effect, one of two laws of learning he derived from his research. The other law, called the law of exercise, stated that associations that are practiced are stamped in, while others are extinguished. Applied to humans, these laws became an important foundation of both behaviorist psychology and modern learning theory. Thorndike based his doctoral dissertation on his research, which he also published in the form of a monograph in 1898. After earning his Ph.D., Thorndike spent a year on the faculty of Case Western Reserve University, after which he was appointed professor of educational psychology at Columbia's Teachers' College, where he remained until his retirement. Thorndike made many early and significant contributions to the field of experimental animal psychology, successfully arguing that his findings had relevant implications for human psychology.
Upon his return to New York, Thorndike turned his attention to a new research area—termed "transfer of training"—which was concerned with the effect of performance in one discipline on performance in others. The belief in such a connection had sustained the traditional system of instruction in formal disciplines, such as the classics, through the rationale that achievement in a given field equipped students for success in other areas. Working together with his friend and colleague, Robert Woodworth, Thorndike found that training in specific tasks produced very little improvement in the ability to perform different tasks. These findings, published in
1901, helped undermine the tradition of formal disciplines in favor of educational methods that were more specifically task-oriented.
Continuing to focus on human learning, Thorndike became a pioneer in the application of psychological principles to areas such as the teaching of reading, language acquisition, and mental testing. In 1903, he published Educational Psychology, in which he applied the learning principles he had discovered in his animal research to humans. In the following year, Thorndike's Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements (1904), which provided administrators and users of intelligence tests access to statistical data about test results. Thorndike also devised a scale to measure children's handwriting in 1910 and a table showing the frequency of words in English (The Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words, 1944), which has been useful to researchers who rely on dictionary words. As a teacher of teachers, Thorndike was directly and indirectly responsible for a number of curricular and methodological changes in education throughout the United States. A prolific writer, Thorndike produced over 450 articles and books, including The Elements of Psychology (1905), Animal Intelligence (1911), The Measurement of Intelligence (1926), The Fundamentals of Learning (1932), The Psychology of Wants, Interests, and Attitudes (1935), and Human Nature and the Social Order (1940).
Clifford, G. J. Edward L. Thorndike: The Sane Positivist. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.