Gestaltist Theory

“The notion that people learn by forming simple associations, or connections, between events was anathema to the Gestaltists” (Benjafield, 1992).  

Marci, 1990Gestaltists like Wertheimer, Kohler, Koffka, and Duncker asserted that experiences or meanings cannot be understood by breaking them down to the individual associations made within the development of the meaning-making; that is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Koffka (1935) (who spent the last 14 years of his life teaching at Smith College in Northampton) along with other Gestalt theorists, claimed that people will organize information into the simplest form possible, and will view information holistically rather than its individual parts.  Benjafield (1992) uses this wildlife illustration as an example.  Individually, the parts of the illustration work  together to form an outdoor scene, but from a holistic vantage, the entire scene creates an image of Frankenstein.  (I believe we aesthetically organize and categorize incoming data for pleasure and to avoid cognitive overload, but this is fodder for a later post.)

Gestaltists oppose the Assosiationist assertion that the mere contiguity of information leads to learning and assimilation of other information.  Rather than proximity, the important aspect for learning and association is that the pieces of information together have meaning.  They are part of a greater whole.  Vygotsky (1978) writes approvingly of Koffka’s disdain for opposition to formal disciplined teachings, where students were drilled in latin mantras, as if it would improve their knowledge in other domains (p. 81).

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