William James, elder brother of Henry James the novelist, asked his younger brother to stay close for six weeks after he died, as he wanted to try to contact him from the next world. No messages were ever received but it showed how seriously he took real inquiry and experimentation. In fact he is widely regarded as the father of modern psychology. His The Principles of Psychology (1890) set the tone for future inquiry into the mind, establishing psychology as a separate discipline; the scientific study of the mind. Grounded in his philosophical theory of pragmatism, James’s theories emphasised the consequences of one’s actions, rather than pure theoretical speculation.
Learning by doing
Like Locke, he wrote a practical book Talks to Teachers (1899), originally a series of lectures, giving practical advice to teachers. The difference is that psychology had now become, through his efforts, a science, and its principles could be used in practice. It was here that he put forward his now famous theory on learning by doing. This was to heavily influence John Dewey, and the future of educational theory through to Kolb, Schank and others. The book doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, as psychology is a science; teaching an art. But some psychological principles are clear.
Vocational learning - habits
Like Locke, he believed that education is, above all, the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behaviour. Children should not be expected to learn by rote. Their experiences must be turned into useful and habitual behaviour through action. The learner must listen, but then take notes, experiment, write essays, measure, consult and apply.
He recommends learning through work and the creation of real things or dealings with real people in, for example a shop, to give you educational experiences beyond mere theory. He was in fact a firm advocate of vocationally oriented schools and work-based learning.
The supervision of the acquisition of habit is another of his principles. Habit is the enormous flywheel of society, and should be exercised until securely rooted. The result of almost all learning is this habitual behaviour. Association, interest, attention, will and motivation; these are James’s driving forces in education. In addition there is memory, curiosity, emulation, constructiveness, pride, fear and love - all impulses that must be turned to good use. This is not to say that he favoured a lazy, or what he called ‘soft pedagogics’. He recognized that learning was sometimes hard, effortful, even arduous.
William James proved to be a turning point in the history of both psychology and educational theory. He set both off in a more orderly fashion, introducing the scientific study of the mind as applied to learning. This has since proved to be by far the most fruitful approach to education and learning theory, although still often ignored. In particular, his emphasis on learning by doing still reverberates through Dewey, Kolb and others. James warned us about being too academic and imbalanced in our educational systems, ignoring the vocational and learning by doing. This is a lesson that has been ignored but many countries are now looking at rebalancing their national systems their national systems towards the vocational.
Myers, G (Editor). William James: Writings 1878-1899, Library of America
Myers, G (Editor). William James: Writings 1902-1910, Library of America
James, William. (1899) Talks to Teachers
James, William. (1899) The Principles of Psychology
James, William. (1899) Pragmatism
Putnam, Hilary. (1995) Pragmatism: An Open Question, Blackwell