Dr Catherine Stern and Gestalt Psychology

 In the previous post I stated that there was a link to Max Wertheimer and Gestalt theory and that little was known about his input with Sterns system except that it was indeed Max Wertheimer who named her approach Structural Arithmetic….. ….Well now we do!

Rather fortuitously I was recently invited to provide a Stern workshop at the National Association of Maths Advisors (NAMA) annual conference where the theme was: “MATHEMATICS BACK TO THE FUTURE – Learning from the past moving forward” This was a very appropriate platform to introduce Stern – past and present.

For those of you who are not aware, Stern’s Structural Arithmetic programme has been around for some 70 years, and 30 of those years the apparatus was used extensively in primary schools in the UK. It began to disappear from schools in the mid 80s, not because it was no longer effective in the classroom, but with the introduction of the National Curriculum which brought about a different emphasis to how we teach children mathematics. This change meant that good and effective concrete apparatus was relegated to the classroom cupboards to gather dust. Also, over time, the training in its use disappeared from Teacher Training Institutes and schools. I believe this was a classic case of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water!”

 In preparing for this workshop, together with my continuing curiosity as to WHY Stern’s approach delivers such sound results, I began to investigate further – AND broaden and clarify my own understanding!

Sound credentials: Dr. Catherine Stern was, without a doubt, an extraordinary woman and achieved much recognition in her life time. Details of her life and works appeared in The Biographical Dictionary of Notable American Women by Richard D. Troxel. She was a mathematician, with a PhD in physics and mathematics,  an educator, Psychologist, Montessorian, as well as Consultant on Mathematics to the Carnegie Corporation. In essence, Catherine Stern devoted a life time to improving elementary maths teaching in the USA which had an impact on maths teaching in other countries especially England and Sweden.

Max Wertheimer – Founder of Gestalt Psychology –was one of the greatest 20th century scholars and theorists, who was the first to propose a Gestalt theory in psychology. This further evolved from the work of Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka. Many great scholars and theorists were associated with the New School of Social Research and were colleagues of Wertheimer: Karl Duncker (problem solving) George Katona (organising and memorising) Dr Catherine Stern (who explicitly applied ‘structural understanding’ to teaching), Abraham Luchins (problem solving) Albert Einstein (Theory of Relativity) who also showed a keen interest in the work of Stern. It was as a student of Wertheimer that Dr Stern amalgamated her search for more ACTIVE methods of teaching with Wertheimer’s Gestalt psychology. Her fundamental premise was that arithmetic should be taught so that the structural characteristics of the number system are understood and not just memorised.

From many years of study with children from early years, primary and secondary, Wertheimer remarked “Dr Catherine Stern has developed tools and methods for teaching arithmetic in which genuine discovery in tasks of a structural nature plays an essential role.”

This must have been a very exciting period in history where so many scholars gathered together in one place. Wertheimer’s ideas had an impact on the works of many great theorists and were of central importance in education and other fields such as social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, problem solving, art and visual neuroscience. However, it is said that the work of Katona and Stern probably came closest to his vision of Gestalt Theory of Education.

Throughout most of his career, the Psychology of Productive Thinking remained Wertheimer’s predominent focus where he called for greater co-operation and discovery learning in the classroom; that basic concepts should involve the nature and the role of structure in understanding.

  • Insight comes as an aspect of the discovery process
  • That the situation needs to be structured so as to make the necessary discovery as certain as possible!
  • The need to provide children with experiences in which a structure is evident, or by guiding them to the structure

Max Wertheimer’s greatest work was the Theory of Productive Thinking which was published after his death in 1943.

 Vikki Horner

My grateful thanks to Professor Brett King and Professor Michael Wertheimer – University of Colorado, Boulder USA

Recommended reading:
Historical extracts taken from:

MAX WERTHEIMER & GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY by D. Brett King and Michael Wertheimer

Published 2005 Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey www.transactionpub.com

NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN – Biographical Dictionary of by Richard D. Troxel.

Published 1980 Cambridge, Mass., & London: Harvard University Press

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11 Responses to “Dr Catherine Stern and Gestalt Psychology”

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  5. Viktor Sarris Says:

    This is good reading. The facts are correct, and I´m glad to learn that
    Dr. Catherine Stern´s intellectual relationship to Max Wertheimer´s formidable work on creative math learning, etc is remembered (cf. M. Wertheimer, Productive Thinking, 1st ed. 1945).

    Viktor Sarris
    Max Wertheimer Chair of Psychology
    J.W. Goethe University
    Frankfurt/M., Germany

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