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What is Gestalt?

Gestalt theory focused on the mind’s perceptive processes (Kearsley, 1998). The word "Gestalt" has no direct translation in English, but refers to "a way a thing has been gestellt ; i.e., ‘placed,’ or ‘put together’"; common translations include "form" and "shape" (EB: "Gestalt Psychology", 1999). Gaetano Kanizca refers to it as "organized structure" (Moore, Fitz, 1993). Gestalt theorists followed the basic principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, the whole (a picture, a car) carried a different and altogether greater meaning than its individual components (paint, canvas, brush; or tire, paint, metal, respectively). In viewing the "whole," a cognitive process takes place – the mind makes a leap from comprehending the parts to realizing the whole.




At the time that Gestalt theory emerged, associativist and structural schools dominated psychology and schools of thought. Essentially, they espoused "similarity and contiguity, whereby an idea of something is followed by an idea of a similar or related thing." (EB: "Thought", 1999). As for behaviorist theory, "connections among psychological contents are more readily and more permanently created on the basis of substantive concrete relationships than by sheer repetition and reinforcement." (SGTA: "What is Gestalt Theory?") In contrast to this "psychological structurism" (Moore, Fitz 1993), the "qualities of form, meaning, and value" (EB: "Gestalt Psychology", 1999) interested Gestalt theorists. Associative theorists broke down and analyzed individual stimuli, or the "elementary constituent parts" of the mind; for Gestalt theorists, the grouping of these stimuli, the viewing of the "organized wholes," (Moore, Fitz 1999) produced a different view. Grouping comprised:




proximity - elements tend to be grouped together according to their nearness,

similarity - items similar in some respect tend to be grouped together,

closure - items are grouped together if they tend to complete some entity, and

simplicity - items will be organized into simple figures according to symmetry, regularity, and smoothness.

These factors we re called the laws of organization (Kearsley, 1998)




Challenging the idea that "perceptual organization was the product of learned relationships (associations)," (eb perception) Gestalt theorists argued that "the percepts themselves were basic to experience." (EB: "Perception", 1999). For example, in an ellipse , one does not only see individual dots, but a dotted line – the dots grouped together form something more meaningful than just a group of dots. In addition, Gestalt theorists asserted that memory structures information "based on associative connections" and a "tendency for optimal organization." (SGTA: "What is Gestalt Theory?") For example, motion pictures are just that: pictures in motion. The pictures themselves are static, but when played at 24 frames per second, the images onscreen appear to be in motion.




With these components of grouping and perception, Gestalt theory influences thinking and problem-solving skills by "by appropriate substantive organization, restructuring, and centering of the given ('insight') in the direction of the desired solution." (SGTA: "What is Gestalt Theory?") In other words, Gestalt theory introduces the idea of regrouping and restructuring the whole problem, or idea, in order to solve it or make sense of it. This is known as the "phi-phenomenon" (EB: "Gestalt Psychology", 1999).




The founders of Gestalt theory are Germans Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka. These theorists focused on different aspects of Gestalt that have, throughout the 20th century, continued to develop across multiple disciplines.




Wertheimer applied Gestalt theory to problem-solving (Kearsley, 1998). According to Wertheimer, the parts of the problem should not be isolated but instead should be seen as a whole. This way, the learner can obtain "a new, deeper structural view of the situation." (Kearsley, 1998) Wertheimer developed a concept titled "Pragnanz" (the German word for "precision"), which states that "when things are grasped as wholes, the minimal amount of energy is exerted in thinking." (EB: "Wertheimer, Max", 1999). In addition,




Directed by what is required by the structure of a situation… one is led to a reasonable prediction, which like the other parts of the structure, calls for verification, direct or indirect. Two directions are involved: getting a whole consistent picture, and seeing what the structure of the whole requires for the parts." (Kearsley, 1998)




Koffka applied Gestalt theory to applied psychology and child psychology. His research with infants led to a theory that infants "initially experience organized wholes" as opposed to discrete elements. (EB: "Koffka, Kurt", 1999). Kohler’s experiments with animal learning led him to conclude that they exhibited "insight," (Driscoll 1993), where relations among stimuli and responses were learned, rather than simple stimulus-reponse connections critical to behaviorist theory. In these experiments, apes were subjected to different trials of having to obtain food that was just out of their reach. They learned how to construct a way to get the food, whether standing on a box to get it, making a long stick to reach it, through trial and error. Kohler determined that the apes generated an "interconnection based on the properties of the things themselves" (Driscoll 1993) and thus developed insight on how to get the food based on the tools they had available at a given time.





Instructional Strategies and Gestalt Theory




Gestalt is not so much concerned with what students learn as much as how they learn it. For Gestalt theorists, "knowledge is conceived as a continuous organization and rearrangement of information according to needs, purposes and meanings" (Polito). Essentially, as the learner ingests new material, the new material undergoes "assimilation and… cognitive and existential remodeling…" (Polito). As a challenge to conventional thinking, "learning is not accumulation, but remodeling and insight" (Polito). Each new experience




such as a new historical text, an exposition in science, or a problem rider in geometry—begins by seeming relatively formless and unstructured. The learner, who does not yet know his way about the material, begins by seizing upon what appear to him to be important features or figures. He then reformulates the experience in these new terms. The insight gradually becomes more and more structured until finally he reaches an understanding or a solution to the problem. (EB: "Pedagogy")




The interchange between learners and teachers, as well as other learners, are given value and weight. Ultimately, it is the teacher who allows the potential for this exchange to take place.




Applying Wertheimer’s research on problem-solving, Gestalt theory encourages the learner to "discover the underlying nature of a topic or problem" (Kearsley, 1998). In other words, how do the elements relate to each other? How can they be restructured so that the learner gains knowledge? In research on Gestalt theory and instructional design, Moore and Fitz (1993) state that "written instructions must be visually attractive, inviting, and easy to access, follow, and understand"—ideas that conform to six laws that Gestalt psychologists have developed in studies on perception.




1. Law of Proximity


The Gestalt law of proximity states that "objects or shapes that are close to one another appear to form groups" (Moore, Fitz 1993). Even if the shapes, sizes, and objects are radically different, they will appear as a group if they are close together. How they are grouped is important also, as in the example below:





The same number of faces is in each graphic, but how they are grouped determines if you see rows or columns. In designing instruction, it may be sometimes necessary to eliminate or place elsewhere elements of the instruction that do not lend themselves to the grouping taking place, to "create a stronger sense of groups and differences" (Moore, Fitz 1993). In their example, Moore and Fitz eliminated two sentences of information from instructions on disassembling a light switch; this information did not pertain directly to the tasks at hand but rather on background information that may best be located elsewhere (or even assumed by the learner).




2. Law of Closure


Gestalt theory seeks completeness; with shapes that aren’t closed, they seem incomplete and lead the learner to want to discover what’s missing, rather than concentrating on the given instruction. Moore and Fitz draw boxes around the illustrations in their instruction, to separate it from other illustrations and group the elements of one illustration together. Otherwise, the user is not sure which parts belong to what illustration (Moore, Fitz 1993). The mind must work harder to fill in the gap, as shown in the example below:






3. Law of Symmetry


Gestalt theory espoused the symmetrical so that the learner is not given the impression that something is out of balance, or missing, or wrong. (Moore, Fitz 1993). Again, if an object is asymmetrical, the learner will waste time trying to find the problem instead of concentrating on the instruction. The chunking, or grouping, of information should follow a logical pattern.





4. Figure-Ground Segregation


For a figure to be perceived, it must stand apart from its background. Moore and Fitz’s example had labels of switch parts overlapping the switch graphic, so that the words were hardly visible and therefore lost information (Moore, Fitz 1993). In the picture below, all elements of the boardroom are clearly visible, though each element is on top of the other, and each is black or white.





In the familiar example below, the figure-ground segregation is lost. Is the figure a young or old woman?




5. Law of Good Continuation


This Gestalt law states that learners "tend to continue shapes beyond their ending points" (Moore, Fitz 1993). The lines identifying switch parts on Moore and Fitz’s example simply continued onto the graphic itself. The improved version stopped the lines before reaching the graphic and used arrowheads to identify specifically to which part of the graphic the label belonged (Moore, Fitz 1993).





The example below illustrates that learners are more apt to follow the direction of an established pattern rather than deviate from it.







6. Law of Similarity


Gestalt theory states that objects that appear to be similar will be grouped together in the learner’s mind (Moore, Fitz 1993). For visual instruction, this can include font styles, size, and color, for example. In the graphic below, the learner is likely to discern a shape in the middle, though each individual object is the same color.







Gestalt and Other Theories




Gestalt theory is a cornerstone of learning theory. Unlike behaviorists who relied on concrete, observable human behavior to determine whether learning occurred, Gestalt theorists were interested in the entirety (the whole) of the problem or experience. To Wertheimer, truth was determined by the entire structure of experience rather than by individual sensations or perceptions. (EB: "Wertheimer, Max" 1999). By contrast, human information processing states that "each human processes in his own distinctive fashion," (Saettler 1996) which is open to subjective interpretation.




The STM-LTM memory model includes aspects of Gestalt theory. In sensory memory, the selective attention model directs attention to the learner’s ability to filter unnecessary information and focus on relevant material (Driscoll 1993). Components of selective attention include similarity and task complexity or difficulty, both of which are illustrated in Gestalt’s laws above. Another big part of sensory memory is pattern recognition—being able to recognize patterns, groupings, and similarities. Of course, the influences on a learner to recognize patterns, such as education, culture, environment, etc., are out of the scope of Gestalt theory. As for working memory, Driscoll (1993) states that "working memory capacity may be increased through creating larger bits, known as the process of ‘chunking’"; this concept mirrors the Gestalt idea of grouping information and rearranging it so that it becomes meaningful and more information is gained, perhaps a problem solved. Ultimately, relating new information back to information already stored in memory is part of Gestalt theory and aids its placement into long-term memory.




Gagné’s learning outcomes and events of instruction include components of Gestalt theory. The intellectual skills component of Gagné’s five learning outcomes includes discrimination: "the ability to distinguish, on the basis of perceptual characteristics, one object from another… one symbol from another" (Driscoll 1993). This directly relates to Gestalt’s figure-ground segregation law. Gagné’s cognitive strategies also includes elements of the "insight" theory of Kohler, that is, taking a new set of circumstances with previously learned information to solve a problem (Driscoll 1993). Another cognitive strategy is to paraphrase, that is, regroup, reorganize, remodel the information so that it a new meaning or insight can reveal itself; this parallels Gestalt’s grouping concept (Driscoll 1993). Gagné’s events of instruction also use elements of Gestalt theory. In presenting the stimulus to the learner, the instruction uses the concepts of pattern recognition and selective perception. In providing learner guidance, the instruction uses the concepts of chunking and encoding (Driscoll 1993).




In summary, Gestalt theory has had wide-ranging implications for several disciplines and learning theories. Several theories build on components of Gestalt theory. Several disciplines, including art, music, psychology, and instructional design, among others, can be related to Gestalt theory and follow Gestalt principles in some form. In addition, Gestalt theory is continually being redeveloped and reassessed, so it has the added benefit of standing the test of time.








Driscoll, M. P. (1993). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


Fultz, J. (date unknown). Gestalt Psychology. Anderson University On-line. Available: http://users.anderson.edu/~jfultz/gestalt.html


Kearsley, G. (1998). Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database: Gestalt Theory. George Washington University On-line. Available: http://www.gwu.edu/~tip/wertheim.html


Moore, P., & Fitz, C. (1993). Gestalt Theory and Instructional Design. J. Technical Writing and Communication, 23 (2), 137-157, 1993.


Polito, M. (date unknown). How Gestalt theory can facilitate teaching and learning processes. Society for Gestalt Theory and Its Applications On-line. Available: http://rdz.acor.org/lists/gestalt!/gerhards/polito.html


Saettler, P. (1990). The Evolution of American Educational Technology. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.


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(1999). Perception. Encyclopædia Britannica Online On-line. Available: http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=119394&sctn=6#s_top


(1999). Thought. Encyclopædia Britannica Online On-line. Available: http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=115409&sctn=3#s_top


(1999). Wertheimer, Max. Encyclopædia Britannica Online On-line. Available: http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=78598&sctn=1#s_top


(1999). Koffka, Kurt. Encyclopædia Britannica Online On-line. Available: http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=46940&sctn=1#s_top


(1999). Pedagogy. Encyclopædia Britannica Online On-line. Available:



"pedagogy" Encyclopædia Britannica Online

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