The Biography and Learning Theory of Edwin Guthrie
A number of professionals worked on the development of the learning theories concerning the enhancement of human skills and abilities. Edwin Guthrie is one of the main contributors to the development of the learning theory, which explained the behavioral patterns of an individual in the perception of new information and the enhancement of personal skills and abilities. The contiguity law and one-trial theory are the main contributions of Guthrie to the educational and psychological fields, which explain the effectiveness of the learning process. Childhood, personal development, family, and education have become the primary triggers guiding Guthrie on his way to success. Throughout his life, Guthrie expanded his worldview and experience, which led to the formulation of a new approach to the learning process. The evaluation of Guthrie’s biographical facts and learning theory shows the connection between different events in his life and the professional growth of the well-known philosopher and psychologist.
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Edwin Ray Guthrie (1886-1959) was born on January 9 in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was one of the five children of the Guthrie family. His parents worked in different spheres. His father successfully managed a store selling bicycles and pianos while his mother worked as a teacher educating children and telling them about the surrounding world in a sophisticated way, which caught their attention and interest (Clark, 2005). Appropriate upbringing methods of Guthrie’s parents helped him to form an open mind full of aspirations to learn more about the surrounding world. Due to his mother’s experience and positive influence, Guthrie was a curious child: a mother’s care and initiative were aimed at motivating her son to make his own investigations and explorations. In the 8th grade, Guthrie had a chance to read Darwin’s Origin of Species, which influenced his worldview and further development of knowledge. Another Darwin’s work titled The Expression of the Emotions in Men and Animals also became an important factor in Guthrie’s further investigations and contributions to the learning theory (Clark, 2005). Both books became a trigger of Guthrie’s transition to another educational level with new interests and aspirations. Thus, it became a breaking point when Guthrie was inspired to work in the direction of his future contributions and theoretical perspectives. When Guthrie turned 17, he graduated high school and already caused the outburst of criticism and doubts at school regarding his final essay. Guthrie’s work focused on proving that religion and science had a significant dependency on words and words depended on the experience of their users, which resulted in the absence of absolute truth. Guthrie managed to impress his teachers and the principal of the school. This philosophical aspect started the long way toward professional growth and evolution of Professor Edwin Guthrie.
After school, Guthrie continued his personal and professional growth. He had a great interest in natural sciences, mathematics, psychology, and philosophy. Guthrie enjoyed reading philosophical tracts and criticizing them in his own way in order to understand the truth behind the words written in those works. In general, books became the primary source of his knowledge, which guided him toward the establishment of personal theoretical perspectives and learning aspects based on the collected information. Guthrie continued learning Latin and Greek, which he found appealing at school (Clark, 2005). It supported his comprehensive development and ability to assess vast amounts of information. Guthrie also received a title of the lay reader in Episcopal Church located in his neighborhood. He worked on his spiritual development and kept looking for justice in the surrounding world. The criticism of every book and religious text motivated Guthrie to focus on the essence of every theory. As a result, his sensitivity to finding the truth behind every theory helped him to obtain a philosophy degree at the University of Nebraska. He also specialized in mathematics and psychology. Guthrie could not resist searching for proof and establishing the background for every psychological theory and mathematical formula. Notably, Guthrie inherited his mother’s natural interest in the learning process, which helped him to stay interested in personal educational enhancement in order to be capable of sharing reliable facts with others. Guthrie also received a doctorate degree in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1912 (Clark, 2005). The educational training of Guthrie explains his analytical thinking pattern in the psychological writings, which discussed various theories and encouraged the reader to develop their own opinion based on the reading. Guthrie has always supported the idea that people are free to express their opinion and worldview based on their experience and lifestyle. This idea formulated Guthrie’s career path.
Guthrie started his professional career from teaching high school mathematics in Philadelphia and Lincoln for 5 years, which made his mother proud. In 1914, Guthrie successfully joined the University of Washington in the position of the philosophy instructor with his further transition to the Department of Psychology. It helped Guthrie to find his vocation and apply the obtained knowledge in practice. As a result, in association with Stevenson Smith, Guthrie managed to establish his learning theory by the end of 1928 (Clark, 2005). Occupying the position of the department chairperson of psychology at Washington, Stevenson Smith helped Guthrie to formulate his thoughts in theoretically comprehensive learning theory. In the 1920s, Guthrie showed deep interest in divergent mechanisms in psychology including extroversion and introversion along with non-musical intervals and fusion (Potthoff, 1935). It resulted in Guthrie’s natural aspiration to develop a learning theory and work on its improvement in the 1930s.
Guthrie considered himself a behaviorist focusing on the behavioral patterns of people as the core of the psychological research. He also preferred to make experiments and avoid self-examination in order to generate transparency in theoretical concepts in psychology. As a result, Guthrie managed to incorporate his findings into the law of contiguity, which became one of the major life accomplishments. Guthrie managed to provide a complex theoretical explanation of the learning process based on the simple differences in the learning of various fields of human activity (Benjamin, 2006). His theory became one of the main topics for debates evaluating the effectiveness of his work due to the lack of comprehensive reflection on the psychological background in his theory. However, it is worth considering Guthrie’s theory in a separate way in order to understand his thinking pattern and logic concerning the psychological aspects of the learning process.
Edwin Guthrie became the so-called father of the contiguity law and one-trial learning, which became a new branch in the development of learning theories supported by evidence and experiments (Angell, 1950). Guthrie believed that every learning process depends on the stimulus-response interconnection. His law of contiguity states that every movement is the result of stimuli’s influence, which continues to characterize movement on its recurrence. Movements are specific combinations taking place in response to a stimulus from the external environment (Angell, 1950). Movements formulate an act driven by a myriad of the stimulus. Learning is a combination of memorized movements, which means that knowledge, skills, and abilities are movements. Guthrie rejected the thought of behavior development claiming that every action is a memorized pattern of reaction to the stimuli of the external environment (Angell, 1950). Thus, it is appropriate to consider learning as an outlining element in the establishment of memorized acts.
Scientific psychology became a mandatory sphere of Guthrie’s activity. He wanted to prove that the simplest forms of investigation are the most beneficial explanations of the learning process. In addition, it became the idea for supporting the response of every individual to the stimuli leading to the establishment of the consequent movements (Ziegler & Stoeger, 2010). Guthrie initiated personal research because of the doubts in theoretical perspectives on the learning of other professional psychologists. He believed that the economy of time had a significant influence on the theoretical backgrounds supported by other theorists (Potthoff, 1935). Guthrie was the one willing to target the change in behavior because of a single action. He generated his learning theory by conducting hundreds of repetitions in an experimental way, which proved his hypothesis and formulated a final idea about the learning process. The contiguity theory, which Guthrie perceived the most transparent in terms of the learning process, found its evidence in the experiment with cats in a puzzle box (Guthrie & Horton, 1946). Guthrie used a maze in a glass box in order to take photos of cats and analyze their behavior. As a result, cats learned to repeat the sequence of movements to escape the maze. In this way, the contiguity theory proved that unlearned and unsuccessful movements are not included in the individual’s response to the stimuli.
It is possible to define several principles based on the theory of Edwin Guthrie. First, the effectiveness of the learning process depends on the responses of an individual to the external environment (Angell, 1950). The quicker the response is, the better the learning process develops. As long as every movement produces stimuli, the stimuli transform into a conditioned phenomenon, which shows the learning path for the individual. It happens because of a comprehensive system of senses developed in a living organism. Every movement triggers specific stimuli, which further reflect a pattern-like nature (Angell, 1950). Thus, every learning process involves the sequence of repetitive actions, which further transform into the behavioral pattern improving an individual’s knowledge. For example, Guthrie’s theory finds its reflection in routine activities, which every human learns to do since childhood. Everyone has to tie shoelaces for the first time at some point in their lives. The first attempts to tie shoelaces may be challenging and difficult; however, the repetitive action leads to the development of a behavioral pattern, which leads to the improvement of the process. The same example refers to the development of reading ability (Andersen, Daly, & Young, 2013). It starts with many difficulties but transforms into fluent reading and excellence with time.
Another principle of the contiguity theory lies in the presentation of specific tasks due to the involvement of the conditioning of the particular movements in the learning process. If the task is too general, it may be challenging to activate the same movement patterns because of the inability to analyze the situation with full comprehension (Benjamin, 2006). Nevertheless, every uncommon task leads to the development of new movements due to the influence of new stimuli based on the conditions of the external environment. The next principle is associated with the exposure to different variations of tasks, which contribute to the development of the patterned behavior and general improvement of the responses (Angell, 1950). The last principle focuses on making the final step in the responses to the situation correctly and appropriately as long as it will be the final note in the learning process, which the individual will memorize. These principles perfectly describe the learning process from the point of view of behaviorism.
Edwin Guthrie’s theory is a result of his natural interest in psychology and the learning process in particular. It is obvious that his childhood, dedicated studying at school, and persistent work at the university led to the development of a personal viewpoint on the psychological processes behind the learning process. His theory became a breakthrough in the field of psychology and learning in general. Guthrie succeeded in viewing the comprehensive learning process in a simple way explaining the meaning of various stimuli of the surrounding environment. In addition, the literature that Guthrie had read as a child formulated his further direction of the development. Even the high school essay may be regarded as the beginning of Guthrie’s work on the contiguity theory based on his idea of experience playing the role of the main regulator in the expression of ideas with the help of words. Guthrie’s learning theory was a new explanation of a complex process, which led to the establishment of a new approach to learning in accordance with Guthrie’s principles.
The contiguity theory became one of the most controversial theories in the field of psychology raising many doubts among critics. One may say that the contiguity theory became a highly beneficial element in the learning process in general. Simple explanations of Guthrie facilitated the understanding of the interdependency of learning outcomes and learning stimuli. First, Guthrie’s theory became a key to the improvement of the learning process based on the development of the behavioral patterns. Guthrie’s point of view on the psychological aspects of learning explained the essence of teaching new material at school or university. In addition, simplicity became the main advantage of boosting a natural process of learning new information, acquiring skills, and developing abilities (Schunk & Zimmerman, 2008). Owing to Guthrie, it became possible to understand the influence of various stimuli on the response of the participants of the learning process. The experiment on cats showed the essence of repetitive actions, which become a behavioral pattern leading to success (Guthrie & Horton, 1946). In addition, as long as every individual memorizes the final step in the decision-making process, success becomes imminent.
Another advantage of the contiguity theory is its accommodation to the situation. As long as the developed theory has a broad specter of influence, it is appropriate considering its application in the diverse areas of human activity. However, the most beneficial effect of the theory should take place in the fields related to physical activity. The theory explains the learning process in sports, arts, dancing, and even singing, which depend on physical activity and human actions (Yoshioka, Matsuura, & Gotoda, 2015). The sequence of movements leads to the establishment of acts under the influence of the individual’s motivation and stimuli based on personal aspirations and needs (Potthoff, 1935). All these factors bring a practical significance to the study of the learning process using Guthrie’s theory as a background and explaining the connection of human actions.
Apart from the positive aspects of the contiguity theory, it is possible to outline the disadvantages of the introduced theoretical framework. Simplicity is the primary negative aspect of contiguity law. Guthrie’s theory became a narrow-focused framework, which can hardly find its essence in a mental learning process. Physical behavioral patterns are effective enough to enhance the learning process of the individual in a specific field (Ziegler & Stoeger, 2010). However, it is impossible to apply the same principle of learning in such fields as mathematics, physics, chemistry, sociology, and engineering. Guthrie’s theoretical framework has a serious limitation, which does not cover all situations and their transformation in a variety of fields. It is impossible to find the applications of the contiguity theory in the medical field, which is full of unpredictable outcomes requiring immediate accommodation to the situation (Richland, Kornell, & Kao, 2009). As a result, medical professionals have to experiment and risk when looking for the most successful act.
Finally, Guthrie’s contiguity theory has a narrow scope due to its inability to predict further behavior. On the one hand, it supports the development of behavioral patterns. On the other hand, it cannot guarantee the development of the same outcomes in the same situations due to the myriad of factors influencing the situation in every specific case. As a result, the inability to explain the transformation of behavior is the primary disadvantage, which makes the contiguity theory inapplicable in some aspects of human activity. Guthrie developed the theory based on the behavior of cats and their willingness to escape the maze. The learning process of every human is more complex than the evaluated experiment. In addition, the human ability to absorb information and obtain new skills depends on the individual’s aptitude for a particular field. Guthrie’s theory became too broad, which does not allow applying it in every sphere of human activity.
The evaluation of the biographical facts of Edwin Guthrie helped to define the role of family, school education, and university experience in shaping his interest and connecting his theory to the learning process. Guthrie partially owes his success to his mother who has developed a natural interest in various fields in him. In addition, Guthrie’s interest in Darwin’s works greatly contributed to his mental work on the development of a personal understanding of the learning process. Furthermore, his university life motivated him to improve his skills and knowledge in different fields, including philosophy, mathematics, and psychology. However, psychology remained a primary area of his interest, which led to his obtaining a doctorate degree in psychology. As a result, Guthrie successfully introduced the contiguity law and one-trial theory in association with Stevenson Smith. The theory has definite advantages, which mainly concerned with making the learning process simple and clear. However, the lack of consideration of the changeable nature of the behavioral patterns is the main limitation of the theory. In general, Guthrie is an outstanding psychologist who deserves attention from contemporary students willing to study the logic of his scientific conclusions.
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