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Unlocking Human Potential

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TC Professor Emeritus Ernst Rothkopf

TC Professor Emeritus Ernst Rothkopf

The life and career of Professor Emeritus Ernst Rothkopf 

By Michael Swart

Ernst Z. Rothkopf, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Education, Emeritus, has served on the TC faculty in the Departments of Human Development, and Science, Mathematics, and Technology since 1985. In a career that has spanned academia and industry, he has explored the mysteries of how people learn.

Rothkopf was born in 1925 in Vienna, Austria, when Europe was rebuilding after the devastation of World War I. As a boy, he read extensively, especially books about explorers in South America and Asia. 

After Hitler’s armies occupied Austria in March 1938, the Rothkopf family fled the country, securing berths on an Italian ship sailing out of Genoa. They arrived in New York City on December 6, 1939, and made their way to Connecticut, where an uncle of Rothkopf’s had settled before World War I. Here, the 13-year-old Ernst found a school system quite different from his rigid Gymnasium school back in Austria.

He recalls that he “…spent a few weeks in the seventh grade, then a few weeks in the eighth, then the ninth and ended up starting the tenth grade in the fall of 1940. …I became very interested in Biology. I picked up English by going to movies five times a week – double features, with a short, a cartoon, a serial, and a newsreel. It constituted about 20 pleasant hours of English instruction per week. There was an important lesson to be had: learning does not have to be intentional and one does not have to suffer in order to learn. Sadly, a critical point in learning to speak a new language without accent is whether you arrive before or after puberty. I came just a little too late, and the accent unfortunately remained.”

After graduating from high school in June 1943, Rothkopf enrolled at Syracuse University. He was drafted by the U.S. Army in the spring of 1944 and saw action in the Italian campaigns north of Rome as a forward observer and executive officer in the 105 mm field artillery battery of the 88th Infantry Division. “After the war ended in May 1945, I managed to get back to Vienna. It was a very strange experience. Here I was, not quite six years after I had been forced to leave my first home – and now I returned as one of the victors, not one of the victims.”

After being demobilized as a first lieutenant, Rothkopf returned to Syracuse where he finished his undergraduate work (with one semester at Columbia). “I wanted to be a zoology major but there were so many pre-meds in line to register, and the Army had made me averse to lines. So I signed up for psychology, specializing in experimental psychology. One of the old professors with whom I studied had been a student of William James.”

Rothklopf continued his studies at the University of Connecticut, where he completed his doctoral dissertation on the role of internal context, especially proprioceptive feedback [information absorbed through one’s sense of the orientation of one’s limbs in space], in the spacing of practice in rat learning. “I became very interested in the work of Clark Hull at Yale who was one of the first to develop a rigorous, quasi-mathematical model of learning. Other psychologists were following in that path, notably Estes, as well as Bush and Mosteller, who were building mathematical models of complex learning.”

When Rorthkopf completed his Ph.D., in 1952, there was a shortage of job opportunities in the academic market and he took a job in the U.S. Air Force Personnel and Training Research Center [AFPTRC. “The Center was directed by Arthur Melton, an outstanding experimental psychologist, who was then the editor of The Journal of Experimental Psychology,” Rothkopf recalls. “Melton was a rigorous experimentalist and especially interested in tackling the problem of optimizing human performance. It was an exciting place to be and an exciting time. Bob Gagne and Art Lumsdaine were in the laboratory looking for new ways of applying fundamental psychological findings to applied problems. A whole field was developing. We were inventing teaching machines and programmed instruction and experimenting radically new ways of preparing people to handle very complex machinery. Working on these, I became keenly interested in stimulus similarity as a mechanism for determining transfer of training and interference. Can we develop a calculus of practice that will allow us to rationally design lessons that will speed learning? In our lab, we developed similarity measures that later led people like Roger Shepard to perfect multidimensional scaling [a set of related statistical techniques often used in information visualization  for exploring similarities or dissimilarities in data]. It was a very productive time for me and my difficulties in finding a suitable academic job proved to be lucky after all. I worked at AFPTRC in Illinois and then Colorado from 1952 through 1957 and became the head of the Learning and Training Section. The Air Force allowed me to ask fundamental research questions and at the same time got me thinking realistically about important applications.” 

In 1957, Rothkopf went on to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York as an assistant professor of psychology before being recruited by Carl Hovland of Yale to work at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Rothkopf says that from “1957 until the mid-1980s, Bell Labs was an ideal setting for scientific research where we could pursue any problem that aroused our curiosity. We had abundant resources and were surrounded by some of the brightest minds in mathematics, physics, engineering, and information science. Three Bell Labs scientists won Nobel Prizes. Best of all, these very bright people were willing to talk to each other and to act both as provocateurs and critics. We walked into each other’s offices, exchanged ideas freely, and honed them by debating them over numerous cups of tea. Everyone seemed eager to hear what the others had to say. My colleagues were wonderful people and I learned a lot from them. Two current adjunct professors of mathematics at TC – Henry Pollack and Henry Landau – were also researchers at Bell.”

Bell Labs was linked to a parent company, AT&T, that employed and trained thousands. “It was a paradise for learning researchers because AT&T maintained the largest training establishment outside the military. It was a wonderful way to find out how people acquired useful knowledge.” As head of the Learning and Instructional Research Department, Rothkopf was part of the team that developed multidimensional scaling  and created empirical methods for perfecting highly effective lessons. “At that time – and it was an important change for me – I decided to shift the emphasis of my own work from calculus of practice studies to greater concern with the student’s role in processing instructive stimuli. I called these learning-producing activities ‘mathemagenic’ activities, from the Greek mathemain – ‘that which is learned’ -- and gneisthos, or ‘to give birth.’ These are labile [highly changeable] activities that determine how instructional materials are inspected, processed, and elaborated. Mathemagenics is about the activities that you engage in learning and how that engagement is maintained.” Rothkopf adds that, “You can lead a horse to water, but the only water that reaches his stomach is what he drinks.” The student determines what becomes an effective stimulus in instruction. This theoretical approach stimulated a wide range of research on the uses of questions, tests, and other student-teacher interactions in shaping mathemagenic behavior. Mathemagenic behavior is adaptive. It can be altered both positively and negatively by teacher interventions and demands. The term “mathemagenic,” coined by Rothkopf in the mid-60’s now yields 22,500 hits in Google.

Another line of research developed by Rothkopf at that time was his investigation into how people learn from written text. Rothkopf recalls that, “When I first started in the verbal learning area, there was hardly a study in which people were working with full sentences. Most of them were using words or nonsense syllables. We were among the first to experiment with extensive real texts, like 5,200 word excerpts from Rachel Carson’s The Sea around Us. Such materials were practically on an astronomic scale for verbal learning.

“Text materials play a tremendously important role in American education and they are often badly designed. Much printed material neglects learning issues and is not designed to aid learning. Just as toy stores seek to appeal to grandparents, so textbooks are frequently configured to appeal to teachers – and sometimes even school board members -- and not necessarily to learners.”

Another reason for working with texts, besides their practical importance, is that they are artificial, tangible systems. Some of the most effective applications of science were with artificial man-made systems or devices such as radar and light bulbs. These materials can be altered by iterative process such as editing to incorporate findings and principles. This is not easily done by teachers speaking extemporaneously. With a closed artificial system like a text we could become more certain that laboratory findings could be put to work in the classroom. Some of the earliest results of this work were actually announced at Teachers College in the late 60’s, when Rothkopf organized a conference, supported by the United States Navy, on verbal learning and effective text design at TC’s Greystone House in Riverdale.

In 1985, Rothkopf was called to Teachers College to become the first professor to occupy the Cleveland E. Dodge Chair of Telecommunications and Education. “Coming to Teachers College was very exciting for me. It was here that pioneers like Thorndike and Irving Lorge first gathered and trained students to carry out learning-related educational research using rigorous empirical methods.”

Rothkopf’s research at TC included a number of experimental explorations of the role of spatial, thematic and environmental context in learning and memory, including the severe impoverishment of environmental context which occurs when computers are used as instructional tools. He also established an electro-oculographic laboratory in order to continue his work on learning from text, particularly on drifting off, i.e., the loss of attention during reading. Convinced of the mutual benefits of working on both very basic questions and realistic practical problems, he organized a course on learning problems in industrial and other closed systems settings.

He has since tried trying very hard to persuade people of the merits of national polymorphic computer support [e.g., a programming language that allows values of different data types to be handled using a uniform interface] for teachers of the most critically important school subjects. He sees this as a kind of information utility for schools that includes a wide variety of expositions, explanations, exercises, demonstration, and other related instructional procedures. “It’s time we stop running schools like cottage industries and start providing to every student the best available experiences.”

Rothkopf says, “I hoped to develop in my students a healthy skepticism because the field of educational research requires it. I wanted to help students become rigorous, careful experimenters, to cultivate boldness and to seek to apply systematic approaches to research. Teachers College provided me with many opportunities, which, I fear, I did not always meet. Students and faculty were splendid, and the college occupies a unique historical position to influence American education.

“If I have any regrets, it is that we are a bit too civil about intellectual matters. We may argue about prosaic matters such as space allocation and preference, but in arguments about research and policy we act as if we were afraid to hurt each other’s feelings. Both basic science and application thrive on cool analysis and candid debates. And we are much too tolerant of nonsense and cant and even downright deception in educational reforms. We chat about grim deficiencies in American schooling in muted, tranquil voices, barely audible over the clink of our tea cups. Where is the outrage? Cognitive psychology, educational research, and information technology have given us tools that could be substantial help to teachers right now if we would marshal the resources to use them. Instead we have become preoccupied with elaborate grand schemes spawned mostly in business schools and focused mainly on the management of ‘laggard’ teachers.” 

In addition to his tenure at Teachers College, Rothkopf has taught as a visiting professor at New York University, Rutgers, Stanford, and UC Berkeley, and  lectured at Goteborg in Sweden and Humboldt University in Berlin. He has also served as president of Division 15 of the American Psychological Association, as editor of the Review of Research in Education, and on the editorial boards of Cognition and Instruction, Educational Psychology Review and The Journal of Educational Psychology. He has edited four books and published over 120 articles. In 1985, he was awarded the American Psychological Association’s Edward Lee Thorndike Medal for Distinguished Psychological Contributions to Education. His contributions spanning over five decades have significantly influenced both experimental and educational psychology. We are grateful to build on his legacy and continue the adventure.


The above story is an edited version of a piece published by Michael Swart in the Winter 2011 issue of HUDN, the newsletter of TC’s Department of Human Development, which he edits. Swart is s a Ph.D. student in Educational Psychology at Teachers College. 

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