Edward Lee Thorndike
Researched and written by: Bryan E. Henchey
|I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original
| 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,
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
· Thorndike Century Junior
(1935) and Senior (1941) dictionaries (“Edward L. Thorndike,” n.d.)
· Teacher’s World Book
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,
| Edward L. Thorndike. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14,
Edward Thorndike. (2001, October). The Psi Café.
Retrieved April 14, 2002, from
Thorndike, Edward Lee. (2001). Retrieved April 14,
Graham, M. (n.d.). Edward Lee Thorndike. Retrieved
April 14, 2002, from
Hiemstra, R. (1998, November). Edward L.
Thorndike. Retrieved April 14, 2002, from
Reinemeyer, E. (n.d.). Edward Lee Thorndike.
Retrieved April 14,2002, from
Schultz, D.P. & Sydney E.S. (2000). A History of
Modern Psychology. Florida, Harcourt, Inc., 7th ed.