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Edward Lee Thorndike
 
Researched and written by:  Bryan E. Henchey
 
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work.

Biography
 
    Edward L. Thorndike was born on August 31, 1874 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.  He was the second 
son of Edward Roberts Thorndike, a local Methodist minister, and Abbie Ladd Thorndike, a homemaker.  Edward Thorndike was married on August 29th, 1900 to Elizabeth Moulton.  The two had a total of 5 children, with his one son, R.L. Thorndike following in his father’s footsteps by getting involved in Educational Psychology and specializing in psychometrics (Hiemstra, 1998).  Thorndike first became interested in psychology while attending Wesleyan University in 1895.  It was during this time that Thorndike first read William James’ “Principles of Psychology” (Schultz & Sydney, 2000).  Few things happened in Thorndike’s young life that would indicate the huge impact that he would one day have on psychology. 
    
    Thorndike was one of the first psychologists to receive his entire education in the United States.  In 1891 he graduated from high school at which point he then attended Wesleyan University, from which he graduated in 1895.  After attending Wesleyan University, he chose to continue his education at Harvard University to study under the great William James.  He never did graduate from Harvard though, having left after he was spurned by a certain young lady when she did not show the interest in him that he had shown in her.  Instead of graduating, he opted to leave the Boston area for Columbia University in 1897 instead.  The thesis that Thorndike completed at Columbia University pioneered the study of animal learning, with Thorndike graduating with his Ph.D. in psychology in 1898 (Schultz & Sydney, 2000).  After graduation Thorndike returned to his love of Educational Psychology.  Immediately after graduation he worked at the College for Women of Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, although he left after barely working there a year.  After leaving there Thorndike took a position teaching psychology at the Teachers College at Columbia University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1939 (Reinemeyer, n.d.).
 
    Thorndike’s major contributions to psychology were the methods that he developed for educational psychology.  This is the main reason for him being called the father of modern educational psychology.  Thorndike’s original choice of subjects were children, but due to supposed inappropriate acts of an anthropologist when he loosened childrens’ clothing to take measurements at Harvard, working with children was frowned upon (Schultz & Sydney, 2000).  From here Thorndike chose to work with baby chicks.  This change in his subjects led to some of his most important work involving animals, but at the same time pioneered many different aspects with children.  For instance, Thorndike was one of the first psychologists to develop a way of measuring a child’s intelligence and ability to learn (Graham, n.d.).  This, in turn, revolutionized methods used in schools to evaluate its students.  These methods are still used today in public schools by measuring a students’ aptitude, achievements, and intelligence (“Thorndike, Edward Lee,” 2001).  A study that Thorndike did has also led to adults receiving more non-traditional schooling; for example, night courses have become more popular.  This was due to him discovering that an adult’s ability to learn decreases very little with age.  He discovered this by experimenting with adults through the use of group discussions, motion pictures, audio/visual aides, demonstrations, and case studies (Hiemstra, 1998). 

    Probably the most famous thing that Thorndike is known for is his theory of connectionism.  Thorndike first developed this theory through his extensive work with animal behavior and the learning processes of cats.  Although this theory was tied to earlier behavioral psychology, its main focus was the connections made in the mind between the situation and the response (S-R), whereas the old school of thought focused on the connections between ideas.  Thorndike’s theory consisted of three primary laws.  The first was the law of effect, which is that responses to a situation that are followed by positive reinforcement will be strengthened and become habitual.  The second law is the law of readiness.  This law states that a series of responses can be chained together to satisfy some goal, which will result in annoyance if blocked.  The third and final law is the law of exercise.  This law is the basic premise that states that connections become strengthened under repeated practice, but that connections weaken when the associations are stopped.  Thorndike was also the designer of puzzle boxes to examine animal behavior.  These boxes usually contained three ways of escape for the animal, usually a cat.  The way this puzzle box worked was that the cat was usually restricted from food for a certain period of time.  When testing began a piece of food was placed outside the box, just out of the cat’s reach.  At this time the cat was required to discover a way out of the box using one of the three means of escape.  One way might be to pull on a string, or step on a lever, or even flip a lever.  Thorndike discovered that the first time the cat escaped, it was more due to dumb luck than it was to anything else.  He did discover though, that after the first escape, the time it took for the cats to escape became shorter and shorter (Reinemeyer, n.d.). 
 
    Other reasons that Thorndike was so important to psychology were the number of awards that were bestowed upon him and the vast amount of work that he had published.  Thorndike’s bibliography alone boasts 507 different items.  A few and some of his most important  works are (“Edward Thorndike,” 2001):
        · The Journal of Educational Psychology in 1910
        · Animal Intelligence in 1911
        · Thorndike Century Junior (1935) and Senior (1941) dictionaries (“Edward L. Thorndike,” n.d.)
        · Teacher’s World Book (1944)
The awards bestowed upon Edward Thorndike were both prestigious and deserving.  One year after publishing Animal Intelligence, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association.  In 1921 he was ranked number one as an American Man of Science.  Although not all of his awards are listed, the last award he attained was in 1934 when he was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  In 1939, he retired from teaching at Columbia but continued to be active in the psychological community until his death on August 9th, 1949.  For these reasons, Edward L. Thorndike was not only the father of educational psychology, but an instrumental character in the field of psychology that we know today (Schultz & Sydney, 2000).
 


References
 
 Edward L. Thorndike. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14,
2002, from
http://www.a2zpsychology.com/great%20psychologists/edward_1_thorndike.htm.


    Edward Thorndike. (2001, October). The Psi Café.
Retrieved April 14, 2002, from
http://www.psy.pdx.edu/PsiCafe/KeyTheorists/Thorndike.htm.


    Thorndike, Edward Lee. (2001). Retrieved April 14,
2002, from
http://search.biography.com/print_record.pl?id=20102
    Graham, M. (n.d.). Edward Lee Thorndike. Retrieved
April 14, 2002, from
http://www.massey.ac.nz/~i75202/2001/assign2/MG/TimeLine.html.


    Hiemstra, R. (1998, November). Edward L.
Thorndike. Retrieved April 14, 2002, from
http://www.distance.syr.edu/pvitaelt.html.
    Reinemeyer, E. (n.d.). Edward Lee Thorndike.
Retrieved April 14,2002, from
http://muskingum.edu/~psychology/psycweb/history/thorndike.htm.


    Schultz, D.P. & Sydney E.S. (2000). A History of
Modern Psychology. Florida, Harcourt, Inc., 7th ed.


 

 

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