Gestalt Psychology


Mind (perceptual–interpretive system)

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … ever-changing sum of current possibilities
  • Knowing is … effective perception (interpreting a complex, changing world in meaningful, coherent ways)
  • Learner is … a holist agent (individual)
  • Learning is … adapting perceptions and interpretations (to maintain a coherent, meaningful world)
  • Teaching is … assisting (offering appropriate orienting and interpretive help)




In Gestaltism, an individual’s mind is seen as a global whole that generates its own reality. Anticipating key conceptual underpinnings of Complex Systems Research by many decades, Gestaltism embraced notions of self-organization and emergence in descriptions of the mind as arising in the interactions of but transcending its parts. Gestaltism thus rejected Behaviorisms and other theories that rely on Newtonian mechanics to describe and/or explain cognition. Defining principles of Gestaltism, all of which have implications for the formatting of information for learners, including:
  • Part–Whole Problem – within education, the question of whether a specific learning should be approached by decomposing, memorizing, and recomposing its parts or by engaging with its totality. Beyond education, the Part–Whole Problem refers to the issues and controversies that arise between two opposing attitudes toward complex issues: the analytical and the holistic. Within the analytic attitude, the phenomenon under study is seen as the sum of its parts, and so understanding its parts is seen as adequate to understanding the whole. Within the holistic attitude, the phenomenon is seen as an integrated totality that must be engaged across its levels of functioning.
  • Perceptual Field – the scope of experiences across one’s life, no single event of which can be isolated from the entirety
  • Perceptual Organization – the structure and meaning that one imposes on one’s world, as influenced by common tendencies:
    • Proximity – the tendency to group together things that are near one another
    • Closure – the tendency to perceive whole objects rather than constituting parts
    • Continuity – the tendency to perceive broken and jagged lines as continuous and flowing
    • Similarity – the tendency to group together like-forms in perception
    • Simplicity – the tendency to perceive objects in the simplest way possible
    • FigureGround Relationship – the tendency to separate the visual world into figure (the focus of consciousness) and ground (nonconscious aspects that are nonetheless necessary for the figure to be perceptible)
    • Focal Point – the tendency to notice and attend to whatever stands of visually
    • Common Region – the tendency to perceive objects in the same closed region as grouped together
    • Common Direction – the tendency to perceive separate elements that are moving in a pattern as as a single form or figure
    • Law of Pragnanz – the tendency of humans to ascribe meaning to all experiences (note: “pragnanz” is German for “essence”)
  • Productive Thinking – holistic and patient pondering on a problem that often enables sudden insight
  • Reorganization Principle – the suggestion, originating in Gestaltism but common to most Non-Trivial Constructivisms, that new learning entails transformation of perceptual habits – which, in turn, entails reorganization of established structures (vs. elaboration of those structures)
Associated discourses include:
  • Divided Brain Theory (Iain McGilchrist, 2000s) – the empirically grounded perspective that each hemisphere of the brain has a radically distinct worldview – that is, each perceives reality in its own way, and so one’s emergent sense of the world arises in a complex dialectical synthesis. It’s difficult to summarize the Divided Brain Theory without sounding like it aligns with pop-psychology beliefs about the two hemispheres (e.g., Modularity of Mind, or Left-Brain/Right-Brain Theory, under Cognitive Styles Theories), so we will suffice it to say here that the theory reaches much farther, from the necessary co-participation of the two hemispheres in personal perceptions of reality into the speculation that the shape of modern western culture as a consequence of a slow, centuries-long societal shift toward privileging the values, habits, and tactics of the left hemisphere.
  • Field Theory of Learning (Topological Psychology; Topological and Vector Psychology) (Kurt Lewin, 1930s) – a perspective on learning that is based on the metaphor of a “field of forces” – that is, of multiple simultaneous influences of varying natures, directions, and strengths. One’s learning, it is posited, is a complex outcome of the strengths, directions, and persistences of such forces.


There’s a bit of common wisdom in the sciences that goes something like this: There are three stages of arguments against important new ideas, from “not true,” to “perhaps true, but not important,” to “true, important, but not new.” Such seems the trajectory of Gestaltism through the 20th century. First it was seen as too conceptual, even flaky, in a research world dominated by Behaviorisms. Then, as Coherence Discourses began to get some airplay, it was seen as relevant, but offered no grand insights. It wasn’t until Complex Systems Research rose to prominence across the sciences that the profound – even visionary – insights of Gestaltism were recognized … but by then they were eclipsed by similar insights out of Cognitive Science and other domains. Within education, prominent associated discourses include:
  • Holism (Jan Smuts; 1920s) – Derived from the Greek word for “all” or “entire,” Holism is associated with the principle that systems should be seen and interpreted as wholes, rather than collections of parts. Within education, Holism has two principle meanings – firstly, as a near synonym of Gestaltism and, secondly, as an indication of the conviction that the individual’s body, soul, and spirit are aspects of an inseparable unity. Types of Holism include:
    • Logical Holism ­– the philosophical perspective that no part of the world can be known (i.e., deeply understood) without a prior knowledge of the functioning of the whole
    • Practical Holism (Martin Heidegger, 1930s) – the assertion that it is impossible to come to a compete understanding of one’s own experience, because that experience exists in a complex matrix of social and cultural practices
    • Theoretical Holism – (Pierre Duhem, 1910s) – the assertion that a scientific theory can only be truly appreciated if it is understood in its entirely
  • Holistic Education (Helping Model) (Jan Christiaan Smuts, 1920s) – Both a philosophy and a movement, Holistic Education is concerned with the integrated development of all aspects of the learner (frequently expressed in terms of “mind, body, and spirit,” but sometimes emphasizing social/interpersonal relationships and cultural/democratic sensibilities).
  • Holistic Psychology – an emphasis in some branches of Psychology on understanding a person as a biological, psychological, social, and cultural totality that cannot be parsed into traits or components
  • Organismic Psychology – an emphasis in some branches of Psychology on the total organism in its environment

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Berlin School of Experimental Psychology

Status as a Theory of Learning

Gestaltism is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Gestaltism is not a theory of teaching, although for decades it was frequently mentioned among educational researchers and in teacher educational programs as an alternative for the reductive advice out of Behaviorisms.

Status as a Scientific Theory

While the core ideas of Gestaltism currently have strong support, thanks to other perspectives and theories, the actual theory was originally articulated and defended more as a philosophy than a science. It rested principally on a body of arguments and indirect evidence until fairly recently, and more contemporary discourses offer more grounded and coherent accounts of cognition.


  • Closure
  • Common Direction
  • Common Region
  • Continuity
  • Divided Brain Theory
  • Field Theory of Learning (Topological Psychology; Topological and Vector Psychology)
  • Figure–Ground Relationship
  • Focal Point
  • Holism
  • Holistic Education (Helping Model)
  • Holistic Psychology
  • Law of Pragnanz
  • Logical Holism
  • Organismic Psychology
  • Part–Whole Problem
  • Perceptual Field
  • Perceptual Organization
  • Practical Holism
  • Productive Thinking
  • Proximity
  • Reorganization Principle
  • Similarity
  • Simplicity
  • Theoretical Holism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Gestaltism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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