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 tensionrelieving 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 SR 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 “daydreamers” 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

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.