Learning Theory, Personality Theory, and Clinical Research: The Kentucky Symposium

By Donald K. Adams; O. H. Mowrer et al. | Go to book overview

The Premature Crystallization of Learning Theory

NORMAN R. F. MAIER

In recent years a great deal of emphasis has been placed on developing a learning theory, and we may actually classify certain psychologists as learning theorists. Many of our courses in psychology now devote more time to discussing the relative merits of various learning theories than to the facts of learning, and our graduate students are required to develop skills in applying several theories to a given set of data. Thus the student's knowledge often is judged by how well he knows what different psychologists think and not by how well he is acquainted with experimental subject matter. Granting that both theories and experimental facts are important, what constitutes a healthy balance? I personally feel that an interest in theories is desirable for the development of science because theories help us organize facts and they help us to ask good research questions. However, an interest in theories can become a liability if it prevents us from exploring certain kinds of relationships or causes us to ignore facts that do not fit the theory with which we identify ourselves. When these things occur, the theory becomes an attitude and ideas become good or bad rather than right or wrong.

Perhaps we are somewhat overambitious and have assumed that psychology is more advanced than facts warrant. We seem to want a learning theory that works not only for all learning situations but also for all behavior. We seem to want to predict, to do research by stating hypotheses, and seem no longer to be content with asking questions of the universe and getting our answers through research. When we ask questions we can be open-minded and are likely to let the answer to one question influence the nature of the next. It is in this way that we get acquainted with our universe. However, when we predict we show our maturity, and we can even determine a scientist's success by calculating his percentage of correct predictions. But we must not act more mature than we really are.

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