3.3.2 The Power of Habit: The Empiricist Tradition

3.3.2 The Power of Habit: The Empiricist Tradition

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Locke, 1693/ 1968), the British empiricist philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) provided the intellectual foundation for the dominant theory of cognitive development in England and the United States until the mid-20th century. Empiricism is the philosophy that all knowledge is ultimately based on sense experiences and cognitive reflection on those experiences. Thus, Locke's main childrearing and educational advice was to observe children behaving in their context and to be aware that they are observing their parents' behavior in turn. Rather than forcing children to memorize texts and rules and to beat them if they forgot, Locke recommended that a parent or tutor encourage practice of skills in carefully graduated steps matched to the age, experience, and temperament of the child. Children should be encouraged to work for the praise and good esteem of their parents, rather than to receive concrete bribes or to avoid punishment. Locke believed that children are born without innate ideas and thus are blank slates, but he said that each child has a unique natural temperament that once observed should be taken into account.

Thus in the empiricist school, practice followed by praise or punishment was thought to lead to a buildup of proper habits. At its best, the empiricist tradition promoted a sophisticated pragmatism. E. L. Thorndike (1874–1949), one of the founders of educational psychology at Teachers' College at Columbia University in the early 20th century, believed that education did not expand general ability. Rather, he believed that every mental task could be decomposed into a series of discrete actions or thoughts that had met with success in particular tasks. Once a process had been trained to mastery in the classroom, only those elements that were the same between the training session and the new situation would transfer. This identical elements theory of education deem-phasized massive rote learning in favor of taking care that habits should be explicitly useful in the world. For example, Thorndike suggested that quantities in all arithmetic word problems should be given with units of measurement (feet, inches, or pounds), and a child should never have to calculate 16/18ths of a dollar. No habits should be taught that would later have to be broken; thus, careful consideration should be given to the context where habits of thought would be used. Thorndike believed that once basic habits are learned so well as to be automatic, higher-level thinking would emerge. (Thorndike, 1910–1913).
Every time math problem sets are ordered so that the next problem is only slightly more complex than the previous one, the insights of this tradition are used. But the empiricists saw the child as relatively passive, and thus the brunt of learning fell on the teacher to rigorously prepare step-by-step materials. Their notion of learning as the gradual build-up of knowledge largely ignored qualitative developmental shifts in thinking. Much of the bad reputation of this method comes from the fact that its teacher-centered view was corrupted by the so-called factory school, the scale of which undermined Locke's cardinal principle of constantly observing child-teacher interactions, and instead encouraged one-way rote learning.