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Thorndike and Identical Elements
At the beginning of the 20th century, the doctrine of formal (or mental)
discipline was an influential view of transfer. This perspective was based on the idea that
the mind was like a muscle, and that with proper exercise a muscle can be strengthened to
improve performance in a variety of tasks. Following this logic it was believed that the
mind could also be made stronger through exercise, and the increased mental strength
would enhance performance in any number of mental activities (Kolesnik, 1958). From
this perspective an important goal of education was to strengthen learners’ mental muscle
by engaging students in the rigorous study of difficult subjects such as Greek, Latin, and
mathematics (Lemire, 2002). These difficult courses were thought of as mental
calisthenics that would help students develop a strong, flexible mind.
Thorndike and his colleagues challenged the formal discipline perspective of
transfer. In a series of experiments these researchers found that transfer was more limited
phenomena then had been previously supposed (Thorndike & Woodworth, 1901). They
found that practice in such basic mental tasks as estimation, visual search, and
memorization did not directly increase the ability to perform similar tasks in different 9
situations. Rather, the influence of training in one situation on performance in a second
situation was related to the similarity between the two situations. This observation
prompted Thorndike and Woodworth to speculate that the influence of training was only
likely to extend to those functions that shared identical elements with the training
situation. Identical elements are the aspects or activities (e.g. stimuli and responses) that
are common to two different situations. In other words the likelihood that transfer will
occur depends to a large extent on the similarities between one situation and another.
Consider the following situation:
⇒ While on here senior trip with her French club, Mary has an opportunity to
travel to some other European countries. In order to be able to get around,
Mary purchased travel guides with common phrases in various languages. As
she traveled, she noticed that it seemed easier for her read the signs and
understand the people in Spain and Italy than it was in Germany.
How might the concept of identical elements explain the differences in Mary’s ability to
understand different European languages? The grammar and vocabulary of French is
more similar to that of Italian and Spanish than it is to German. In other words, French
shares more identical elements with Spanish and Italian. Mary’s ability to read and
understand other languages is influenced by the languages she already knows.
The contrast between the view of transfer proposed by Thorndike and
Woodworth, with the formal discipline view of transfer helped draw attention to some
important questions about transfer. What actually will transfer, and what impact do
environmental similarities have on transfer? Advocates of the formal discipl...
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- Spring '08