One of the most interesting theories of personality to have emerged this century and one that has had an increasing impact on educational research is ‘personal construct theory’. Personal constructs are the basic units of analysis in a complete and formally stated theory of personality proposed by George Kelly in a book entitled The Psychology of Personal Constructs (1955). Kelly’s own experiences were intimately related to the development of his imaginative theory. He began his career as a school psychologist dealing with problem children referred to him by teachers. As his experiences widened, instead of merely corroborating a teacher’s complaint about a pupil, Kelly tried to understand the complaint in the way the teacher construed it. This change of perspective constituted a significant reformulation of the problem. In practical terms it resulted in an analysis of the teacher making the complaint as well as the problem pupil. By viewing the problem from a wider perspective Kelly was able to envisage a wider range of solutions.
The insights George Kelly gained from his clinical work led him to the view that there is no objective, absolute truth and that events are only meaningful in relation to the ways that are construed by individuals. Kelly’s primary focus is upon the way individuals perceive their environment, the way they interpret what they perceive in terms of their existing mental structure, and the way in which, as a consequence, they behave towards it. In The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Kelly proposes a view of people actively engaged in making sense of and extending their experience of the world. Personal constructs are the dimensions that we use to conceptualize aspects of our day-to-day world. The constructs that we create are used by us to forecast events and rehearse situations before their actual occurrence. According to Kelly, we take on the role of scientist seeking to predict and control the course of events in which we are caught up. For Kelly, the ultimate explanation of human behaviour ‘lies in scanning man’s undertakings, the questions he asks, the lines of inquiry he initiates and the strategies he employs’ (Kelly, 1969). Education, in Kelly’s view, is necessarily experimental. Its ultimate goal is individual fulfilment and the maximizing of individual potential. In emphasizing the need of each individual to question and explore, construct theory implies a view of education that capitalizes upon the child’s natural motivation to engage in spontaneous learning activities. It follows that the teacher’s task is to facilitate children’s ongoing exploration of the world rather than impose adult perspectives upon them. Kelly’s ideas have much in common with those to be found in Rousseau’s Emile.
The central tenets of Kelly’s theory are set out in terms of a fundamental postulate and a number of corollaries. It is not proposed here to undertake a detailed discussion of his theoretical propositions. Good commentaries are available in Bannister (1970) and Ryle (1975). Instead, we look at the method suggested by Kelly of eliciting constructs and assessing the mathematical relationships between them, that is, repertory grid technique.
Kelly proposes that each person has access to a limited number of ‘constructs’ by means of which