Max Wertheimer (1880 - 1943)
Gestalt Learning Theory
Max Wertheimer was born in Prague, April 15, 1880. He studied law at the University of
Prague from 1898-1901, and became interested in psychology, philosophy, and
physiology. From 1901 to 1904 he studied these subjects and received a doctorate in
1905. He did further study in psychology in Prague, Frankfurt, and Vienna.From 1910 -
1914 he worked with Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka developing the fundamental
concepts of Gestalt theory. The three conducted experiments to test their theories. In
these early years he met many influential people including Carl Jung and Albert Einstein.
He served as professor of psychology at the University of Frankfurt from 1929 - 1933,
and migrated to the United States in 1933.He joined the faculty of the New School for
Social Research in New York City and remained there for ten years. In 1943 he finished
his work on "productive thinking" and died in New Rochelle, NY that same year.
Wertheimer was the core of the trio of early German Gestalt Theorists (with Koffka and
Kohler). His ideas featured the view that thinking proceeds from the whole to the parts,
treating a problem as a whole, and permitting the whole to command or dominate over
the parts. This was a synthesis (up - chunking to more inclusive concepts) approach
rather than an analytical approach (down - chunking to details). Wertheimer thought
reductionism was a fundamental problem of his time; he was particularly interested in the
nature of problem solving.
Gestalt theory had a central idea of "grouping", or aspects of visual and other stimuli
which cause the subject to interpret a problem or perceptual event in a certain way.
Grouping factors included (1) proximity, elements that are close in space tend to be
grouped together and perceived as one or a few objects, (2)similarity, items that have
some similar characteristics tend to be grouped, (3) closure, elements which appear to
complete some shape or object tend to be grouped, and (4) simplicity, the tendency to
organize objects into simple figures. These factors were called the "Laws of
Features of the productive thinking process included
1. Grouping and reorganizing components of a situation
2. Functioning in relation to characteristics of the whole rather than piecemeal
3. Avoids summing successions of parts or chance occurrences
4. Structural truth leads to sensible expectations and assumptions.
In Wertheimer's model, genuine thinking starts with a problem. The structural features
and requirements of the problem cause tension, the strain of which produces vectors that
prompt the individual to modify the situation in an improved direction. The process of
resolving a problem is to proceed from a bad gestalt to a better one.
Learning Theory Bibliography
Gestalt Learning Theory
Gestalt became one of the main theories of learning. The three main Gestalt theorists
(Wertheimer, Kohler, and Koffka) were all Germans, and received their training and did
their early work in Germany, but all three ended their careers in the US. The term
"Gestalt" was coined by Graf Christian von Ehrenfels. His ideas influenced the trio of
Gestalt was a holistic approach and rejected the mechanistic perspectives of the stimulus
- response models. Numerous new concepts and approaches emerged from this different
philosophical perspective. The Gestalt theory proposes that learning consists of the
grasping of a structural whole and not just a mechanistic response to a stimulus.
A "Gestalt" is an integrated whole system with it's parts enmeshed. The whole is greater
than just the sum of the parts.
The "PHI" phenomenon described a characteristic of things wherein they have a
recognizability inherent in their nature. Examples include the recognizability of a
melody, no matter how it is arranged or what instrument plays it, or the recognizability of
a letter rendered in a wide variety of different fonts or type styles. Other examples
include the apparent motion created by a rapid sequence of stills in motion pictures, and
the sequences of illminating elements in neon signs which give the illusion of movement.
Visual and auditory examples are numerous. This phenomenon leads to the conclusion
that elements sensed are not the only reality.
"Phenomenology" is the acceptance of first hand experience as it is found in human
Gestalt Learning Theory proposed several laws of organization, which are innate ways
that human beings organized perceptions. A gestalt factor is a condition that aids in
perceiving situations as a whole or totality. Isomorphism refers to the Doctrine of
Psychophysical parallelism and depicts the cerebral cortex as "mapping these gestalt
fields of stimuli.
The Factor of Closure suggests that perception tends to complete incomplete objects.
When only part of an image, sound, thought or feeling is presented as a stimulus, the
brain attempts to complete it to generate the whole.
The Factor of Proximity suggests that when elements are grouped closely together, they
are percieved as wholes. This has relevance in reading, visual arts, and music.
The Factor of Similarity proposes that like parts tend to be grouped together in cognition.
This has implications for instruction, suggesting that learning is facilitated if similar ideas
are treated and linked together and then contrasted with opposing or complementary sets
The Figure-Ground Effect suggests that the eye tends to see the objects, rather than the
spaces or holes between them.
Trace Theory - This proposes a mechanism for learning in which neruological changes
occur as connections are made in the brain. These changes, called traces, represent links
between thoughts, ideas, concepts, images, etc. REpetition and uniqueness reinforce a
trace. Thus, learning is the creation of traces. Traces group together to form maps.
Instructional methods relating to repetition and to making items to be learned somehow
distinctive to make learning (trace formation) quicker and more lasting.
From the early theorys of Gestalt, there also emerged a branch of therapeutic
interventions, called Gestalt Therapy. Fritz Perls went through psychoanalytic training
with Karen Horney and then with Wilhelm Reich. He also adapted existentialist
philosophy along with Zen and Taoist views to therapeutic work, and was strongly
influenced by Freud.