Posted: 9:04 AM EDT Tuesday, April 1, 2008 by; Vol. VI, Quarter II, 2008


Understanding the principles of Gestalt Learning Theory

By Dr. Clifford Eberhardt

When you experience an optical illusion, or when it's proven to you that the hand is quicker than the eye… and sometimes when you think that your eyes are playing tricks on you, think twice because it’s not an optical illusion of sensory perception of the eyes only, but Gestalt Learning Theory at work.  What Immanuel Kant theorized over two-hundred years ago, and what Gestalt psychologists like Max Wertheimer proved over fifty-years ago is that sensory perception is not the only transference of learning, but the mind has a mind of its own!

In his famous book, “Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant postulates that sensory perception is not the only source of knowledge.  He believed that with a careful study of human experiences, you will find certain categories of thought. Kant explains what he means by Critique of Pure Reason in the preface to the first edition:

I do not mean by this a critique of books and systems, but of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience. Kant (1788)

We have ideas of causality, unity and totality for example, but we can never experience these things empirically. The're merely abstraction of thought.  Kant identified these abstractions of thought as“faculties,” which are neither part of our sensory perception nor derived from sensory experience. If these abstract thoughts are not a result of our sensory perception, they must be innate categories of thought separate from our senses. Durant (1926)

Kant deduced that these faculties are superimposed over our sensory perception, therefore providing our senses with meaning, structure and order.  He identified at least twelve of these innate faculties that give meaning to our experiences of the environment… including unity, totality, reality, existence, necessity, reciprocity, causality, etc. Today's educators talk about motivating students to achieve in class; motivation is merely an abstraction of thought that cannot be measured empirically.

According to Kant, our conscious experience with our environment is influenced by both sensory perception caused by our interaction with the environment, and the faculties of the mind, which are innate to all minds. The mind transforms sensory experiences into thought, therefore giving us organization and meaning from our thought processes.  In Kant’s world, any attempt to understand the nature of learning must take into account the innate faculties of the mind.

Kant writes that "knowledge independent of experience is a priori knowledge, while knowledge obtained through experience he termed a posterion." Kant believed, a priori knowledge expresses necessary truths. He noted that statements which are necessarily true cannot be negated without becoming false. From his insight we now know that the mind is not tabula rasa knowledge or a blank slate; it comes with an instruction book that is called a priori knowledge; knowledge that existed before space and time. This is the foundation of Gestalt learning.

From Kant to The Gestalt Theory of Learning

Gestalt psychology is based on the fact that in normal observation we often experience things that are not a part of our existing sensations. The original recognition of this observational phenomenon was Wertheimer’s, when he noted that we perceive motion where there is nothing more than a rapid sequence of individual sensory events. It occurred to him that if two lights blinked on and off at a certain rate, they give the observer the impression that one light is moving back and forth.

This is what he saw in the toy stroboscope he bought at the Frankfurt train station, and what he saw in his laboratory when he experimented with lights flashing in rapid succession (like the Christmas lights that appear to course around the tree, or the fancy neon signs in Los Vegas that seem to move). The effect is called the Phi Phenomenon, and it is actually the basic principle of motion pictures! Wetheimer, M (1912)

If we see what is not there, then what is it that we are seeing? You could call it an illusion, but it’s not an hallucination.  Wetheimer explained that you are seeing an effect of the whole event, not contained in the sum of the parts.  We see a coursing string of lights, even though only one light lights at a time, because the whole event contains relationships among the individual lights that we experience as well.

Furthermore, say the Gestalt psychologists, we are built to experience the structured whole as well as the individual sensations.  And not only do we have the ability to do so, we have a strong tendency to do so.  We even add structure to events, which do not have gestalt structural qualities. Moreover, we see it and the mind interprets it — right or wrong.

In perception, there are many organizing principles called gestalt laws.  The most general version is called the law of pragnanz. According to Kurt Koffka and others, Pragnanz is German for pregnant, but in the sense of pregnant with meaning, rather than pregnant with child.  This law says that we are innately driven to experience things in as good a gestalt as possible. “Good” can mean many things here, such a regular, orderly, simplicity, symmetry, and so on, which then refer to specific gestalt laws. Koffka, K (1963)

In conclusion, Kant and the Gestalt psychologists believed that although psychological experiences result from sensory elements, they are different from the sensory elements themselves.  Ergo, they believed that phenomenological experience (e.g., apparent motion) results from sensory experience (e.g., flashing lights) but cannot be understood by analyzing the phenomenal experience into its components.  In other words, phenomenal experience is different from the parts that make it up.

Finally, the Gestaltists, following in the Kantian tradition, believed that humans add something to their experiences that are not contained in their sensory perception and that something is meaning, unity and organization.  I'm creating new knowledge here — in other words — the mind is the ruler of the universe and the collective power of mind(s) could be the essence of God!!


1. Durant, Will — The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers (1926) New York: Simon & Schuster, revised edition 1933

2. Kant, Immanuel (1788) Critique of Pure Reason, published in Germany

3. Koffka, Kurt (1963) [1934] . Principles of Gestalt psychology. New Your; Harcourt, Brace, and World

4.Wetheimer, Max (1959) Productive thinking, enlarged ed. By Wetheimer, M, edited by Michael Wetheimer, New Your: Harper & Row

Dr. Eberhardt has taught at the graduate level for Central Michigan University more than 17-years. His research interest is the study of Cognitive Physiology and its use in providing positive out comes in student achievement. The integration of computer and human information-processing system(s) to better understand their connection with teaching and learning is another research interest.  He has edited several online publications, and has published articles on educational technology.  His work on student assessment and instructional reform proves that Professor Eberhardt is on the cutting-edge in reforming our broken educational system.  He has worked in numerous pedagogical settings that dealt with infusing technology into classroom instruction.


"P.S." As educators, we must understand that there’s a void between a priori knowledge an a posterion knowledge; they are not connected. So, I believe that when (utility driven learning initiatives through imaginative lessons and activities) are connected between these the sides this knowledge divide, then positive learning outcomes are achieved for our student.


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