Locus of Control as a Tool for Historians

Dorothy W. Hewes, Ph.D.

The psychological theory called locus of control, proposed by Julian Rotter in the 1950s, can provide historians with a framework to trace the waxing and waning of educational system. Since it refers to the expectations individuals hold about whether they can accomplish goals or cause change by their own actions, its characteristics are referred to as Internal/External or abbreviated as IE. Those with an Internal locus have independent judgement and establish their own goals. Conversely, those with an External locus feel that outcomes are a function of chance or luck, or are preordained by powerful authorities -- governmental, celestial, or spiritual. Analysis of IE control expectancies at different times, in different places, and by different theorists, can be utilized by historians studying early childhood education.

Most research regarding IE theory has been within the domain of social psychologists. For example, in her 1988 "Presidential Address" to the American Psychological Association, Bonnie Strickland pointed out that children with higher I scores had better adaptive behaviors, were more successful academically, and were more likely to choose delayed rewards such as planning strategies for college admission. Those at the other end of the continuum, with higher E scores, not only tended to believe they couldn't escape from adversive situations but showed physical characteristics such as lowered immune function and more illness.

Educators, religious leaders, parents and governing agencies have tended to consciously or unconsciously structure the learning experiences of young children toward one end or the other of the continuum from Internals to Externals. Systems that allowed little autonomy or freedom of expression produced citizens with an expectation of failure or punishment if they strayed from the designated path and a willingness to be governed by higher powers. For example, the rigidly External authoritarian culture in Puritan Boston during the 17th century produced docile children destined to grow up obedient to their parents, their God, and their government while producing little that was creative or original. This approach, maintained when public schools were developed, meant that corporal punishment was routinely administered to those who deviated.

Systems in which teacher-guided learning was based upon efforts to satisfy individual needs, using methods that encouraged self-reliance and self-determination, aimed to develop Internals with a high level of autonomy. An early example would be Jan Amos Comenius, whose School of Infancy was published in 1628. He advocated free and compulsory education for all children, recognized the importance of sensory education, and viewed the years before six as a vitally important part of the educational process. His ideas met acclaim during the mid-1600s, but authoritarian systems of the Protestant Reformation soon prevailed.

Comenius was almost forgotten by 1828, when Carl Krause introduced Friedrich Froebel to his writings, but they provided a catalyst for the development of a systematic educational program for children aged three through six. After two decades of teaching older boys and girls, Froebel had come to the conclusion that the first years of life are critical. It is worth noting that he took some elements from his observations of Pestalozzi's Swiss school, but even Froebel felt that it had too little structure. Using the IE framework, we would say that the program in Yverdon had excess emphasis upon Internalization. Froebel's kindergarten was at a midpoint on the IE continuum. He balanced the idea that children learn through play and an active exploration of their environment with their need for a security of structure. While he is best known as the originator of kindergartens for children aged about three through six, he believed that this balance remained important for lifelong learning.

The period of technological and geographic expansion during the final decades of the nineteenth century provided fertile climate for Internals. New art, new inventions and new educational ideas became popular. By the 1880s, the new Froebelian kindergartens made major contributions. As Norman Brosterman persuasively wrote in Inventing Kindergarten, Froebel's system was "the seed pearl of the modern era" -- designed specifically to alter the mental habits of the general populace. He advanced the intriguing idea that the confluence of historical, artistic, scientific, psychological, and philosophical currents in the early twentieth century resulted from the kindergarten years of those who later developed this "new worldview."

Educational philosophies popularized by leaders advocating methods suporting one side or the other of the IE continuum have been subsequently altered or extinguished when the group belief system became dominated by Externals. During the last half of the nineteenth century, William and Eudora Hailmann, together with other progressive Froebelians, trained teachers and functioned through educational associations and publications to change the dominant methods of the American public schools from a position far to the External side of the scale to the New Education that included Internal development for students of all ages. At the same time, a highly structured External method for the Froebelian system was promoted by Elizabeth Peabody, William Harris, and those who had grown up with New England rigidity and discipline. Even though they professed to believe in the Froebelian kindergartens, and are often considered to be its major exponents, their methods were authoritarian. Children followed explicit directions given by a teacher and little spontaneity was allowed. When kindergartens were incorporated into public schools during the 1890s, they moved away from the IE balanced kindergartens that were truly Froebelian and became characterized by regimentation that placed them far over on the External side of the continuum. It was not until the 1920s, during a time of national prosperity and innovation, that progressive educators like John Dewey and Patty Smith Hill again demonstrated an IE balance for preprimary classes. It must be emphasized that IE isn't an either/or classification. Cultures or individuals may assume Internal positions in regard to some aspects and External positions about others. However, when used to trace the history of education, this locus of control framework can help clarify and trace the age-old struggles between humanists and those standing for an authoritarian structure.

Brosterman, N. (1997). Inventing Kindergarten. New York: Harry N. Abrams. Hewes, D.W. (2001). W. N. Hailmann: Defender of Froebel. Grand Rapids: Froebel Foundation USA. Rotter, J.B, Chance, J.E., & Phares, E.J. (1.972). Applications of a Social Learning Theory of Personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Strickland, B. R. (January 1989). "Internal.-External Control Expectancies" in American Psychologist.

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