Theory of Functionalism In Education Psychology

by Sultan Muhammad
Functionalism is a theory of mind in contemporary philosophy, developed largely as an alternative to both the identity theory of mind and behaviourism. Its core idea is that mental states (beliefs, desires, being in pain, etc.) are constituted solely by their functional role — that is, they are causal relations to other mental states, sensory inputs, and behavioral outputs. Since mental states are identified by a functional role, they are said to be realized on multiple levels; in other words, they are able to be manifested in various systems, even perhaps computers, so long as the system performs the appropriate functions. While functionalism has its advantages, there have been several arguments against it, claiming that it is an insufficient account of the mind.

Functionalism formed as a reaction to Titchener theory of structuralism.
Titchener argue that such a functionalist analysis is incomplete without a Thorough investigation of the mental structure and functions, Titchener arguments formulate a coherent goal and helped functionalist due to which psychologist became interested in the function of mind.

Titchener was against functionalism but during describing his theory of structuralism, he explains in detail functionalism too. Before him functionalism was loosely formulated between empiricism and the common–sense Mentalism of the Layman.

Functionalism was heavily influenced by the work of William James and titchener

Functionalism’s Roots

Functionalism was rooted in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Evolution is based on individual differences and the survival of adaptive features.
“Adaptation” becomes a popular approach to measuring intelligence. “Individual differences” become a valued part of mental research.
Functionalists sought to explain the mental processes in a more systematic and accurate manner, Rather than focusing on the elements of consciousness. Functionalists focused on the purpose of consciousness and behaviour.
Functionalism also emphasized individual differences, which had a profound impact on education.

Mind is a complex processes like a computer, function of memory, judgment, acquire, retain, process and organize. Functionalists were interested in the “function”, the mental abilities of adapting to an environment

William James

William James commonly considered the father of U.S. psychology, Contributed to the foundation of functional psychology in the US, but he did not develop his own ideas into an independent “school” of study.

Principle of functionalism in psychology

• Functionalist oppose the search for the elements of consciousness as futile
• Functionalist believed that the mind has the function of helping us to adapt to the environment. They want to understand the function of the mind, the way it helps us to adapt
• Functionalist wants psychology to be practical, not pure science.
• They want psychology to be broadened to include research on animals, children, and atypical humans
• Functionalist believed that the needs and motivations of the organism should be understood if some one wants to understand behaviour
• Functionalist are more interested in what makes people different from each other than in what makes them similar
• They are willing to use a wide variety of methods of study

In 1906, Mary Whiton Calkins published an article in Psychological Review asking for reconciliation between these two schools of thoughts, she thinks Structuralism and functionalism were not so different, she argued, since both are principally concerned with the conscious of self.

Adaptation of organism

Functionalist approach adaptation of organism to environment is deep rooted in the Charles Darwin theory of natural selection which explain the origin of species by organic evolution

Charles Darwin theory of mental selection
1. Variation: Biological, social and mental variation among the species
Struggle for existence: Every specie on the face of this planet struggle for their existence
3. Nature selection: it is the adaptation to natural selection; to adapt to a certain environment for the survival of the self.

Major Functionalist Thinkers

• William James
• John Dewey
• Harvey Carr
• John Angell

Strengths of Functionalism

• Functionalism Influenced behaviourism and applied psychology.
• Functionalism influenced the educational system, especially with regards to John Dewey’s belief that children should learn at the level for which they are mentally prepared.

John Dewey as Functionalist

• Progressive education: founded experimental Elementary school in his university for the development of education
• the duty of school to give children, not only an insight into the social importance of such activities, but also the opportunities to practice in real life in the form of games or any other activity base task, which leads naturally into the problem solving
• Dewey emphasized on child interest and his motivation to solve the problems
• Functionalism emphasized on individual Differences (capacity) in mental abilities (Darwin theory of variation)
• Francis Galton and james Cattel functional psychologist work on mental abilities and how to measure with mental tests
• It starts a movement of mental testing on the school level and classifying children in different intellectual groupings

Functionalism in sociology

• Functionalism: Functionalists see society, as being structured like a human body with many interrelated parts that functions together to maintain a healthy whole. So as body has a heart, lungs, liver etc.... Society has Education, the Family and the Economy etc.
• Therefore, to understand the education system we must consider how it functions to contribute to the healthy maintenance of the whole social system.
• The originator of the functionalist perspective, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) argued that the main function of education is the transmission of society's norms and values in three mains areas:

1. Social Solidarity: For example, the teaching of history provides social continuity

2. Social Rules: At school, we learn to co-operate with strangers and to be self-disciplined.

3. Division of Labour -Education teaches individual skills necessary for future occupations. This is a most important function in advanced industrial society with its complex division of labour.

Angell defence of functionalism
· How, Why and what mental operations also called input-output psychology
· Functionalism is the psychology of adjustment of the organism to its environment (to solve the problem)
· Functionalism is interested in mind-in-body and interested in the physiological level of mental events
· American empirical psychology: Empiricism is a theory of knowledge which asserts that knowledge arises from experience

Strategies of Functionalism for psychological research

• Tolerant and critical and enjoy freedom: a functionalist researcher is critical in thinking and tolerant in nature. He is ready to accept any information obtained by introspection or by objective observation from either source mental test or case study. he is tolerant to Method and Content

• Functionalist is an experimentalist: in today world functionalist is an experimentalist. Today functionalism is dedicated to the experimental method.

Melton (1950)Dashiell’s Diagramof problem solving

• (1) How problem arise block by (2)
• (3) solve the problem through varied Behaviour
• (4) proceeds on his way to (5)
• If the process repeated again the (4) response recurs in Less time

Thus the learning process is the discovery of the adequate response to a problem situation and the fixation of the satisfying situation-response relationship (Melton)
· Motivation
· Initial discovery of the adequate response
· Fixation and elimination
· Transfer of training and retention


• Functionalism particularly emphasized on individual Differences (capacity) and mental abilities of the individual (Darwin theory of variation)
• Dewey emphasised on individual differences and established an experimental school for this purpose to confirm his viewpoint.
• Children with Different mental level, learn with different pace.
• Robinson Recognized individual differences in his law of Individual differences and composition
• McGeoch and irion also agree with him
• With increase in age = increase in learning abilities due to organic maturation and second changing in psychological conditions (transfer and motivation)

Capacity and Class Room

• Functionalist suggest different method of teaching, because some children will easily learn from one method and some from other method
• Functionalist also emphasised Teaching according to the pace and capacity of the students


• Long term Retain happen when the bond is stronger between two elements, which are associated with each other. Functionalists discourage rote memorisation.
• Practice help in the class room environment to strong this bond of association between elements etc

Class Room and practice
• Show the picture of cat to students and repeat again and again so the students associate them with each other, meaning full material memorise easily as illustrate in the above example

• Woodworth emphasised on the motivation and give core importance to it in learning by using different means to motivate the students
• Reward is a very good motive for students in class, it not only encourages the students who get the reward but also encourage the fellow students in the class
• Interest and Activity base teaching also motivate the student in learning process

• Functionalist emphasis on meaningful material in learning process because meaningful material is easily learned than meaningless material
• Use Visual aid for better understanding of learning material

• The effect (use) of old learning in new situation is called transfer of training; Insight is the extreme case of transfer of training according to McGeoch & Irion 1952.


Forgetting Forgetting

Maximum Minimum Medium
Similarity Similarity Similarity

• Theory of forgetting interference theory
• Association between two elements etc words, ideas, situational see the above graph
• Forgetting accord according to functionalist, due to weak bond between two element, one cant recall the original one, instead he remember other things which is identical to the old one and when the bond is stronger again between these two elements, one could recall it easily.


• James, W. (1904) The Chicago school. Psychological Bulletin. 1, 1-5.
• L. Gordon, (1990) Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era
• P. A. Graham, (1967) Progressive Education from Arcady to Academe
Similar Videos