Before 1920 
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  Before 1920:
Empirical Knowledge Base for Education

Edward L. Thorndike: Education, A First Book

In 1912 Thorndike wrote Education, A First Book, while he was a professor of educational psychology at Columbia University. In the preface Thorndike writes:

This book furnishes an introduction to the study of education. It is, as entitled, a beginner's book. It will, I hope, prepare students in colleges and normal schools to see the significance of their more specialized studies in educational psychology and sociology, methods of teaching and class management, the history of educational theory and practice, and the applications of philosophy and ethics to education.

Thorndike contrasts personal teaching with textbook teaching in one chapter of his book. Personal teaching, that is the teaching that occurs through the instruction of a teacher, is usually oral and has two primary advantages. First, especially with younger children, it does not involve interpretation of what Thorndike calls "little-known visual symbols (page 161)." In addition, Thorndike states that words that one hears have a stronger appeal than "black marks seen (page 161)." Instruction from a book, on the other hand, allows a student "to think at his own pace, get the fact over and over again as he needs, test himself point by point as he goes along, and make notes ... (page 161)."

Thorndike then continues by describes the differences between instruction delivered by a textbook and a teacher in treatment of a topic.The principle differences, Thorndike contends, are in the length and detail, difficulty, and suitability to the audience. The personal instruction of a teacher in a classroom situation is enhanced with illustrations, practice activities, questions, explanations, directions and repetition. The teacher-delivered content is also often uniquely adapted to the audience. Thorndike defines this kind of instruction as "personally managed treatment of a subject (page 163)."

A common fault in textbooks, Thorndike states, is that habits to be formed are stated but the reader does not have the chance to practice. In addition, Thorndike continues, textbooks do not give the reader a chance to "think out conclusions himself so far as he can (page 164)." Thorndike's early view on problem solving was certainly a radical thought for the 1910s. Thorndike continues:

They (textbooks) commonly give the results of reasoning, and perhaps problems demanding reasoning, but they do not so manage the latter that the pupil is at each stage helped just enough to lead him to help himself as much as is economically possible...nor do they usually give work in deductive thinking so arranged as to stimulate the pupil to make and test inferences himself. (page 164-165)

Thorndike supposes that this difficulty is caused by the inability of students to follow directions.He provides an example about an experiment:

Books could be written giving data, directions for experiments and problems with the data, and questions about the inferences. The student could be instructed to read each helping piece of information, suggestive question and the like only after he had spent a certain time in trying to do for himself what he was directed to do (page 165).

Thorndike contends that this type of instruction might be better than "all but the best tenth of personal teaching if students would faithfully try as directed before reading ahead for the helps given (page 165)." But students, Thorndike continues, do not try to solve the problems for themselves but use all the clues first. It is here that Thorndike proposes a model for what will eventually become programmed instruction:

If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print. (page 165)

It is in these simple words that a radical departure from ordinary textbooks was predicted.


Thorndike, E.L. (1912, published 1923). Education: A First Book. New York: Macmillan Co.