Gestalt Theory (von Ehrenfels)

Summary: The Gestalt theory of learning originated in Germany, being put forth by three German theorists who were inspired by the works and ideas of the man who gave the learning theory its name. Graf Christian von Ehrenfels was a learning theorist who took the holistic approach to learning by putting forth the idea that learning takes place as students were able to comprehend a concept in its entirety, rather than broken up into parts[1].

Key Terms: holistic, mechanical response, phenomenology, Isomorphism, factor of closure, factor of proximity, trace factor, factor of similarity, figure ground effect

Theorists: Graf Christian von Ehrenfels, Wertheimer[2][3], Kohler[4], Koffka[5], insight learning

Gestalt Theory

The term “Gestalt,” comes from a German word that roughly means pattern or form.  The main tenet of the Gestalt theory is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; learning is more than just invoking mechanical responses from learners.

As with other learning theories, the Gestalt theory has laws of organization by which it must function. These organizational laws already exist in the make-up of the human mind and how perceptions are structured. Gestalt theorists propose that the experiences and perceptions of learners have a significant impact on the way that they learn.

One aspect of Gestalt is phenomenology, which is the study of how people organize learning by looking at their lived experiences and consciousness. Learning happens best when the instruction is related to their real life experiences. The human brain has the ability to make a map of the stimuli caused by these life experiences. This process of mapping is called “isomorphism.”

Whenever the brain sees only part of a picture, the brain automatically attempts to create a complete picture. This is the first organizational law, called the “factor of closure,” and it does not only apply to images, but it also applies to thoughts, feelings and sounds.

Based upon Gestalt theory, the human brain maps elements of learning that are presented close to each other as a whole, instead of separate parts. This organizational law is called the “factor of proximity,” and is usually seen in learning areas such as reading and music, where letters and words or musical notes make no sense when standing alone, but become a whole story or song when mapped together by the human brain.

The next organizational law of the Gestalt theory is the “factor of similarity,” which states that learning is facilitated when groups that are alike are linked together and contrasted with groups that present differing ideas. This form of Gestalt learning enables learners to develop and improve critical thinking skills.

When observing things around us, it is normal for the eye to ignore space or holes and to see, instead, whole objects. This organizational law is called the “figure-ground effect.”

As new thoughts and ideas are learned the brain tends to make connections, or “traces,” that are representative of the links that occur between conceptions and ideas, as well as images. This organizational law is called the “trace theory.”

The Gestalt theory placed its main emphasis on cognitive processes of a higher order, causing the learner to use higher problem solving skills. They must look at the concepts presented to them and search for the underlying similarities that link them together into a cohesive whole. In this way, learners are able to determine specific relationships amongst the ideas and perceptions presented.

The Gestalt theory of learning purports the importance of presenting information or images that contain gaps and elements that don’t exactly fit into the picture. This type of learning requires the learner to use critical thinking and problem solving skills. Rather than putting out answers by rote memory, the learner must examine and deliberate in order to find the answers they are seeking.

When educators are presenting information to the students using the Gestalt theory of learning, they must ensure that their instructional strategies make use of the organizational laws presented earlier in this article.

The Gestalt theory of learning came into the forefront of learning theories as a response to the Behaviorist theory. Other theories have evolved out of the original Gestalt learning theory, with different forms of the Gestalt theory taking shape. The field of Gestalt theories have come to be acknowledged as a cognitive-interactionist family of theories.

The Gestalt theory purports that an individual is a whole person and the instructional strategies used to teach them will help to discover if there is anything that is mentally blocking them from learning certain new information. Teaching strategies are used to present problems as a whole and to attempt to remove any mental block from the learner so that new information can be stored.

Designing instructional strategies that take into consideration the learner’s past and current experiences and perceptions is the key to teaching new information. In Gestalt learning theory, when the learners come across information or concepts that are not organized, the mind organizes it in an attempt to enable the learner to recognize and apply the concepts being taught.


  1. Ehrenfels, C. V. (1937). On Gestalt-qualities. Psychological Review, 44(6), 521.
  2. Wertheimer, M. (1938). Laws of organization in perceptual forms.
  3. Wertheimer, M., & Riezler, K. (1944). Gestalt theory. Social Research, 78-99.
  4. Köhler, W. (1970). Gestalt psychology: An introduction to new concepts in modern psychology. WW Norton & Company.
  5. Koffka, K. (2013). Principles of Gestalt psychology (Vol. 44). Routledge.