Didactics and Gestalt Psychology

Helmut SEEL
University of Graz (Austria)

Abstract of the lecture at the 10th Scientific Convention of the
Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications (GTA)
Vienna/Austria, March 1997

In this lecture, the following points will be covered:
1.) The concept 'didactics'.
2.) The numerous relationships between Gestalt psychology and didactics in the 1950's and 1960's.
3.) Developments in didactics oriented to and based on Gestalt theory.
4.) Some aspect of didactics based on a Gestalt psychological foundation.
5.) Causes for the stagnation of the development in the 1970's and 1980's.

ad 1)
Didactics should be understood as the science of and operating theories for teaching. Teaching is dependent on situational and institutional conditions. In this connection, teaching refers to the various types of instruction as the specific form of teaching which appears in school institution. I shall present and discuss three approaches to the concept of didactics as a theory of planned teaching in schools (instructing): the education-theoretical approach, the instruction-analytical approach and the learning-theoretical approach.
Various problems have to be solved in order to organize successful learning processes in school; the Gestalt psychological theory of learning can contribute to solve these problems.

ad 2.)
In Gestalt psychology, learning which leads to insight and recognition is viewed as the specifically human form of learning. Processes of learning are understood as the structuring and organizing of the field of perception and imagination , accordingly, as cognitive occurrences. Learning and thinking are seen as closely interrelated. A new organization of behaviour is considered to come as a result of a new organization of the field of perception.

Under the term organizational change one should understand, "that in the course of a learning or thinking process, an already existent organisation is transformed into a higher level of organization.." (MÜLLER, 1964). The formation and change of psychic organizations follows on the basis of the Praegnanz principle (METZGER).

Gestalt order also provides the basic conditions for remembering.

ad 3)
People engaged in didactics who are at home in gestalt psychology, especially criticize two aspects in the traditions of the pedagogical theories which have been influenced by HERBART.

-- the passivity of the learners, who, according to associations-psychological rules should be fed component blocks of knowledge with a prepared content. Now learning is seen as active.

-- "The clarity of the particular issue" which the teacher is supposed to hold before the eyes and ears of the student. There exists, in contrast to this, the concept that learning processes are set in
motion through experiences of unclarity and poor order.

ad 4)
Didactics as a theory of school pedagogics would need to come to terms with the question of the content and procedure of the lessons. Two questions in regards to the procedure are especially significant:

a) How is the course of the lessons to be structured, so as to enable the students to accomplish the learning process? The point here is to produce a proceeding Gestalt (Verlaufsgestalt) of teaching which grows out the proceeding Gestalt of thoughtful learning.

b.) How is the learning situation to be arranged within the social net of the school class in order to enable individual and active learning for the pupils? The goal would be the best possible support of the learning process of the individual pupil by the teacher, existing in a balanced relationship between self steering and external steering.

ad a) The first phase of the (ideal) process of teaching, which begins with the attempt to effectively present the student with a learning assignment, and ends when the student has an insight into the problem at hand (but does not yet have an insight into the solution to the problem).
This can be designated the PHASE OF INSIGHT INTO THE PROBLEM. The second phase, which adjoins this, is the PHASE OF THE SOLUTION. The PHASE OF EXECUTION (also the phase of accomplishment or doing) requires that the students transform their thoughts into action, therein testing their imagined solutions. The school learning process is, however, not completed before the achieved form of thinking and acting has become established. In the area of schools, the phase of excecution leads to a PHASE OF PRACTICE. Along with this, the consolidation, the transfer, or carry over of what has been newly learned into other contexts, will be prepared.

ad b) Two relevant aspects for the situation of the pupil should be kept in mind here:

-- the type and extent of the steering influence of the teacher on the learning process
-- the extent and direction of developing relationships during the pupil's learning process

The possibility to take part in steering the learning process, and thereby to influence the teaching procedure, increases for the pupil as the steering influence of the teacher decreases and the size of the learning group is reduced. With the goal of best possibly realising insightful problem solving processes of learning for all pupils, IMPULSE TEACHING appears to have the best advantage, being capable of attending to time differences in the time of learning. In this type of teaching, the class takes the form of a discussion community in which the teacher plays the role of a partner.

ad 5)
In the 1970's and 1980's the Gestalt psychological findings received little attention in educational politics and theory. A behavioristically oriented psychology of learning was implemented. The programming of teaching was then called for.

Then in the 1990's the picture changed again. The principle of "open teaching" began to replace the strategy of "goal oriented teaching". The pupil is now more seriously taken into considertion as a co-fashioning and co-decisive factor. Teachers understand themselves once again as stimulaters in the individual learning process.

In the new contexts of educational politics and educational theory, the findings of Gestalt psychology and their didactical applications are once again becoming more modern and topical.

This is a provisional abstract of the lecture. The final and complete version has been published in German in GTA's journal GESTALT THEORY:
Helmut Seel: Didaktik und Gestaltpsychologie. Gestalt Theory, 19 (2/1997), pp 100-127.

A related text by Prof. Helmut Seel is available on the Internet. Click at the title:
DIDAKTIK: Lehren und Lernen in der Lehrerbildung - A Socrates European Module

Back to conference program 1997 in English.
Zum Tagungsprogramm 1997 in Deutsch.

Click here for a list of on-line abstracts of lectures at the Scientific Conventions of the GTA since 1997

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Most recent revision: 19.8.2000