You are on page 1of 8

A STUDY OF THE IMPLICATIONS OF GESTALT CLOSURE

IN TEACHING.
By Paul Henrickson, ©
1954, 2006

Closure is described as the attempt on the part of the


individual to reach a satisfying end-state of
equilibrium. Incomplete forms, missing parts, gaps in
information, etc., are completed and filled-in by the
perceiver.. It is also stated (The Nature and Conditions of
Learning, Kingsley,H’,&Garry,R.,2nd.edition,1958,p.109), that
closure is to Gestalt Psychology what reward is to
association theory. It provides the satisfying tension-
relieving end-state which terminates activity.

On first view the claims and explanations of the


Gestalt school seem to offer a flexibility in the
learning situation and, most importantly, a greater
selection of temporarily “right” responses than the S-
R theory of Thorndike. It tends to eliminate the need
for an artificially contrived reward or punishment.
However, it places a greater demand on the teacher
to provide the setting conducive to a learning
experience. It would necessitate the teacher
possessing a great knowledge about the students to
enable him to anticipate the kind and degree of
motivation necessary to secure the desired
responses. This, however, can imply the possible
necessity for an artificially contrived motivation as
much as does the S-R theory.

The following quotation substantially summarizes the


feelings I have ha concerning the learning theories of
Thorndike and Hull: all we understand about “the
behavior theories as conceived by Watson and Thorndike imply a
mechanical process in creativity. They encourage imitation because
they offer no explanation for invention and creative action.” (A
Foundation for Art Education, Manual Barkan, The Ronals Press Co.,
N.Y., 1955,p.121). John Dewey further
emphasizes..through my interpretation at any rate
..the essence of the worth of any teaching career or
learning experience. “Honesty, industry, temperance, justice,
like health, wealth and learning, are not goods to be possessed as
they would be if they expressed fixed ends to be attained. They are
directions of change in the quality of experience. Growth itself is
the only moral ‘end’ ”. (c.f. p.94.Barkan)

It seems that I have come too quickly to the problems


which confront me. They stand before me, however,
shrieking for proper placement within the scheme.
This is, itself, an expression of the need to “close in”,
as it were, on the problem, to arrive at an end-state
of equilibrium. If we briefly develop the implications
of the two theories mentioned above we shall shortly
see that neither, in their broad generalizations, seem
to satisfy the demand for final reasons. There is a
strong hint in the S-R theory that learning takes place
if such and such is followed, or so and so takes place,
and that such learning, to paraphrase Dewey, is the
end to be desired. Dewey seems to help the situation
by suggesting that such learning may not be the
desired end, but that “growth” itself is the “only moral
‘end’ ”. Even with this enlargement of our scope
something remains unsatisfied. The Gestalt
psychologists, e.g., Arnheim, have developed
fascinating studies in perception, neat analyses of
how human beings tend to see, or rather to perceive,
and leave one with the impression that application of
their studies, except in a most direct and practical
way is unimportant, or, at least, insignificant. My
criticism, at this point, turns on the academic
question of discipline and the tendency to
philosophize is strong but it may be possible for me to
validate my argument with reference to the
psychologist’s term “equivalent goals”, or beliefs.

It seems possible, at least at first, to equate


“equivalence beliefs” with what psychoanalysts might
term a “need transfer”, or what Freud might identify as a
sublimation of a basic drive. Academic disciplines do,
after all, exist in relation to each other and it is solely
for the advantage of what is supposed to be clarity
within a problem that disciplines have been
established. Nevertheless abundance evidence
seems to suggest that students ( I am thinking of college
students) demand that these arbitrarily established
disciplines be broken down. Recent endeavors to
establish courses which cut across disciplines, e.g.,
humanities, social studies, etc., indicate that scholars
already committed to disciplines entertain the
[possibility that all is not quite morally proper, or
even that truth (excepting the restricted truth within
a discipline) is not being served. I tend to think that
such expressions of dissatisfaction on the part of
students and scholars is an important and vital
reaction on the part of these people in their effort to
delay what the Gestalt psychologists call “closure”.
Such a delay, the Gestaltists indicate, is characteristic
of maturity, provides, one assumes, that closure
eventually takes place. The question that arises now
is, when can it, will it, or, should it, take place?

Lewin’s topographical theory suggests that concepts


of success and failures are relative, i.e., related to the
individual’s level of aspiration. This is a temporary
goal established after an estimate of his own
capabilities in the present situation. Working from
this point it is possible to say that closure can take
place in an emergency situation, immediately; that it
will and should take place immediately for the health
and perhaps the existence of the organism to
continue.

The key expression here, however, is that the goal in


the present situation is a temporary one. This, in turn
suggests that other goals, assuming the emergency
situation is over, will enlarge upon the expressive
possibilities of the individual; that he will, in short,
extend the boundaries of his influence and power as
far as the situation will allow him to do so.
The implication that there is a barrier or a limit to the
expansion of possibilities in any particular situation
relates itself to the power of the drive or motivation
as well as to the barrier itself.

One might ask, at this point, whether this system of


alternating experiences of barrier, closure, barrier,
closure doesn’t suggest the will-o-the wisp
characteristic of now-you-see-it-now you don’t, the
eternal search for truth which doesn’t allow capture.

Quickly, then, my point is this: to what extent is it


morally right for us to encourage this passion for
truth, discovery and experience in all, or in any individual,
when what we, in truth, seem to be establishing is a
pattern for continual change. I cannot, like Dewey,
call this “growth”, in spite of my being, to a great
extent, committed to the Western, as opposed to the
Oriental, ideal of development.

The house of intellect, to borrow a term from Jacques


Barzun, is an impressive edifice in Western
civilization, it exacts not only admiration but it also
tyrannical. The tyranny of abstract art of which Ernst
Gombrich in the April, 1958 issue of “The Atlantic” is
another kind of tyranny considered by some to be
anti-intellectual, and by others to be pseudo
intellectual.

Committed, as I am, to the ideals of Western


intellectual development I, nevertheless, balk, as a
child does at the censure and control of his parents,
at these demands made upon me and will, but also will
not, submit to its authority. One tends to throw up the
hands in a gesture of futility and proclaim adherence
to the doctrine of stupidity for clearly our problem, if
we take it seriously, is without solution.
The stupid, it seems, are more content because they
do not realize what they do not know. There is an
exquisite charm about some village idiots and
something repulsive about some educated gentry.
How many college professors, professing a love of
truth from their lecterns who, in the privacy of their
studies, shudder to admit the irrelevance to their
lives?
The encouragement we give our children to learn
more and to learn better, to develop intellectual
acuity and to find creative solutions to problems we
give them, or those they find for themselves, creates,
at the same time, the disease as well as the cure.

I imagine that the usual concept of a good teacher is


one who teaches, but in my experience, which has its
distinct limitations, the concept, in the minds of
students of all ages, is one that tends to define a
teacher in more dimensions than one that is usually
defined by the term. In other words a teacher is one
you can know in varying degrees of intimacy. Such
student-teacher relationships have been most
revealing for both parties. It is in this context that
the learning begins to have meaning for both the
teacher and the student. Although, I really prefer the
word “educator” to that of “teacher” as it touches
more closely upon the relationship between the
helper and the helped, or, rather, the midwife and the
pregnant.

Such a relationship has, of course, its hazards, and


even condoned and encouraged, which it is
sometimes, it is fraught with dangers both imminent
and distant. The value, however, in such situations is
that the duality of the roles of student and educator
on the one hand and of person and person on the
other are more flexible. The thing to be learned
becomes a point of contact between two individuals
and the process of learning becomes punctuated with
mutual understandings which enliven, vivify, and
make beautiful a contact which, in other
circumstances, can become dry, tedious and
disagreeably academic

To implement a program of teaching which would


bring this about, or, at least, take this variable into
consideration, is not, in a practical way, possible. It
would necessitate a vast screening of teachers in an
effort to determine their age-group preferences. It
would also be necessary to devise a teaching
schedule which would, in effect, create an insolvable
policing problem. One could never be certain where
either the student or the teacher might be. In the
final analysis the present school situation would
cease to exist and Rousseau’s suggestion would
become, by tacit agreement, the mode. This would be
so because there would be no “official”, implying
organizational program whereby one might know, in
theory, where and what was happening when. The
one clearly beneficial result of such a program would
be that learning becomes more intensely a medium of
communication.

This digression has its purpose in this essay in


attempting to suggest broader implications in the
Gestalt concept of closure which I have only recently
seen implied in print. Hadley Cantril stated: “…it is in
the nature of man to strive for an increment in the value attribute of
his experience even though he may know full well it will involve
sacrifice and pain” (The Why of Man’s Experience,N.Y., The
Macmillan Company, 1950, p.32). “This points to the conclusion that
the ultimate, the most generalized goal of man is what can be called
the enhancement of the value attributes of experience.” (Cantril, pg.5).

One wonders, at this point, whether mechanistic


learning theories, as interesting and informative as
they are, have not, as a by-product of their
application encouraged neuroses and psychoses in
highly intelligent and gifted individuals who seek
meanings, connections, and significances as opposed
to those who take delight in the security of being
“correct” and who express themselves in a
verbalizing, that is, without a meaning to life,
manner.

The Gestalt concept of closure, then, affects both


types, those who are never so anxiety-free that they
will not seek meanings beyond, adjacent to, or
implied by a fact, even though the fact may contain a
meaning that would make a better gestalt, as well as
those who delight in exploring the potential
significance of a fact. Both types will be affected by
whatever the decision a busy teacher might make.

If the standard employed is based on a “norm” of


expected accomplishment a percentage of “day-
dreamers” will be evaluated invalidly because of the
paucity of information about them. It seems that the
closure systems of those dreaming types operates
differently from the closure systems of the grade “A”,
well-behaved and attentive students. In this
connection a study of mine conducted with students
at The University of Northern Iowa (1970) indicated
that those students who achieved acceptable grades
for aspiring teachers also told more lies with the
intention to deceive and were less creative in the
products they produced than were the more creative
subjects who told fewer lies . These findings were
also supported by a more recent study involving
grade school children in an elementary school on
Malta (2005) where excellence in academic
achievement is even more urgently stressed and
divergent responses discouraged to the extent that it
has become a cultural norm and social virtue to
correct whomever, whenever there may be an error in
the expression of a culturally approved belief. A
choice where the spirit is denied in favor of the letter.
There are outstanding examples of students of
estimated average or below average public school
accomplishment who have “over-achieved”. The
concept of “over achievement “ is more than
ridiculous since it implies that the student has no
right to prove wrong the measuring tool, created by
anonymous others, of his predicted success.

Other interesting and bewildering statements issued


from the recent Institute on Creativity held at the
University of Minnesota. Among them was a
conclusion from Dr. Calvin Taylor from the University
of Utah suggesting that there are unintelligent
intellectual activities. Actually, the idea and the
terminology originated with Jacques Barzun in his
book “The House of Intellect”.

One assumes that at the basis of this statement lies


either a misunderstanding of what the meanings of
these terms might be, or a change in these meanings
agreed upon by psychologists.

Xaghra, Gozo, 2006