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A Tradition of "Sure Progress"

EDUCATION PSYCHOLOGY WAS BORN IN 1899, WHEN EDWARD LEE THORNDIKE, A young animal researcher who had studied with both James McKeen Cattell and William James, arrived at Teachers College as Instructor of Genetic Psychology. Thorndike had developed a new law of learning – the law of effect – which held that the consequence of a particular behavioral response influenced whether that response was likely to be repeated.  At TC, he sought to empirically validate specific methods of teaching. He also founded The Journal of Educational Psychology, and authored the landmark three-volume Educational Psychology and The Measurement of Intelligence, which launched the field of educational testing.

TC’s early education psychology faculty also included Arthur Gates, an expert on literacy in students with learning disabilities; Naomi Norsworthy, a pioneer in studying childhood mental deficiencies;  Percival Symonds, a  leading school psychologist;  Leta Hollingworth, an expert on gifted children and gender differences in education; Rudolf Pintner, a leader in the fields of mental measurement and deaf education; and Goodwin Watson, founder of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

At TC these leaders taught some of the major figures in American psychology, including:  

Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology.  
Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, a more active, direct approach to treating psychological disorders than traditional psychoanalytic models, and a forerunner to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.
Rollo May, the author of Love and Will and The Courage to Create, who outlined a series of overlapping stages that people pass through en route to shedding their ego-centrism.

TC’s seminal group of psychology faculty members was succeeded by another generation, equally brilliant, some of whom remain active today.

Edmund Gordon, TC’s Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education and the founder of the College’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education, has been called “the premiere black psychologist of his generation” by the New York Times.  He is best known for championing supplementary education – the formal and informal learning children receive through their families, personal relationships, and community groups and religious institutions. 

Morton Deutsch, Professor Emeritus and founder of TC’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, is widely recognized as one of the fathers of the field of conflict resolution. His work has influenced deliberations at the United Nations and American arms negotiations. 

Professor Emeritus Leonard Blackman has been a leader in describing the learning processes of individuals with mental retardation. He spearheaded the nation’s first comprehensive Research and Demonstration Center for the Handicapped, winning grants that helped fund construction of TC’s Thorndike Hall.

More than a century ago, E.L. Thorndike wrote that “testing the results of teaching and study is for the teacher what verification of theories is to the scientist—the sine qua non of sure progress.” Much has changed in the field since then, but at Teachers College, that progress continues. 



This piece was based substantially on a soon-to-be published monograph, “A History of Psychology at Columbia University: 1891-1970, by Robin L. Cautin, Professor and Psychology Department Chair at Manhattanville College, and Ludy T. Benjamin, Department Head, Professor of Psychology and Educational Psychology, and Presidential Professor of Teaching Excellence, Texas A&M University


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