What Is the Gestalt Learning Theory?


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Gestalt learning theory is based on the work of Max Wertheimer, among others, who argued that successful problem-solving relies on a holistic view of the problem. Gestalt learning theory therefore states that learners should be directed to identify the overall structure of a problem or topic; that is, how the component parts interrelate. While Gestalt learning theory is applicable to any type of human learning, it is especially relevant to the mechanisms of perception and problem-solving.

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Some other underlying principles of Gestalt learning theory are that disruptions within the overall structure of a problem can be a catalyst for learning, and that teaching should therefore concentrate on the grouping of ideas according to four factors, or "laws of organization." As outlined by Wertheimer, these factors are proximity, similarity, closure and simplicity. Ideas grouped by proximity have physical locations that are close to each other, while those grouped by similarity share other common or comparable characteristics. Ideas grouped by closure come together to complete a whole, and those grouped by simplicity are done so according to symmetry, regularity or smoothness.

Wertheimer demonstrated the application of Gestalt theory to learning by asking children to find the area of parallelograms. Presented with regular parallelograms, the task was a simple matter of drawing vertical lines from the base of the shape. The area of irregular parallelograms cannot be found in this way, however, forcing the children to identify the nature of a parallelogram, which is that it can be divided into two at any point and the ends joined to find the area.

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