Standards Opinion

Are Education Innovators Channeling B.F. Skinner?

By Anthony Cody — May 01, 2013 3 min read
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Phil McCrae has written afascinating history of “innovation” in education that should be required reading for everyone, most especially journalists attending this week’s Education Writers Association conference at Stanford, where the theme is “Creativity Counts: Innovation in Education and the Media.”

As I was reading this account, I clicked on the video the author embedded. This grainy film from 1954 features B.F. Skinner, describing the virtues of the “teaching machine.” Here are his words.

With this machine, the student sees a bit of text or other printed material. As soon as the student has finished his response he operates the machine and learns immediately whether he was right or wrong. This is a great improvement over the system in which papers are corrected by a teacher, where the student must wait, perhaps til another day, to learn whether or not what he has written is right. Such immediate knowledge has two principle effects. It leads most rapidly to the formation of correct behavior. The student quickly learns to be right. But there is also a motivating effect. The student is free of uncertainty or anxiety about his success or failure. His work is pleasurable. He does not have to force himself to study. A classroom in which machines are being used is usually the scene of intense concentration.
One function of the teaching machine then is to give the student a quick report on the adequacy of his response. This is important not only for efficient learning - it generates a high level of interest and enthusiasm.
Another important advantage is that the student is free to move at his own pace. With techniques in which a whole class is forced to move forward together, the bright student wastes time waiting for others to catch up. And the slow student, who may not be inferior in any other respect, is forced to go too fast.
A third feature of machine teaching is that each student follows a carefully constructed program, leading from the initial stage where he is wholly unfamiliar with the subject, to a final stage in which he is competent. He does this by taking a large number of very small steps, arranged in a coherent order.... Programs have been constructed in which, without any prior study, the student is right 95% of the time. This is partly due to the fact that the student only moves on when he has completely mastered all the preceding material.
A conservative estimate seems to be that with these machines, the average grade school or high school student can cover about twice as much material with the same amount of time and effort as with traditional classroom techniques.
There is no magic about this. A teaching machine is simply a convenient way of bringing the student into contact with the man who writes the program. It is the author of the program, not the machine, who teaches. He and the student are constantly interacting.

What is remarkable in listening to Dr. Skinner is how familiar these promises seem. Here we have the promise that students can work at their own pace, through curriculum presented in a coherent order. The student interacts constantly with the author of the program, and the result is that learning proceeds twice as fast. The word “personalized” is the only thing missing - but the idea is there for sure.

So what is wrong with these machines and this mechanical “personalization”? The modern versions of the teaching machines are certainly more sophisticated than these dinosaurs of the 1950s. But they have more in common than just the promises made on their behalf.

If we look over the shoulders of children in computer labs today, most of the programs are variations of those described by Dr. Skinner. Students are given a short text or math problem and must provide the correct answer. Often there is a game or snazzy cartoon characters who dress up the process and make it more fun, but the essence has not changed much. Students follow a course of study with bits of learning sprinkled along a pathway, and then take periodic tests to show they have mastered that mouthful.

As Phil McCrae points out, a vision very reminiscent of Skinner’s continues to drive US education policy.

The U.S. Department of Education (2013) has clearly articulated a commitment to making this happen with 'Competency-Based Learning' or 'Personalized Learning': "Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money...make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently...Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity."

Even more sophisticated machines are on the way, which will analyze and assess student essays, using algorithms that look at the vocabulary and sentence structure to determine if students are writing well. But these systems do not understand the real meaning the writer is attempting to convey. That means that you can score high with sentences that are written well, using advanced vocabulary, but be expressing absolute nonsense.

Computers are, of course, useful tools. And they have a place in the classroom as well. But there are good reasons that in the decade following Dr. Skinner’s unveiling of his teaching machine that they did not spread beyond a few lab schools.

Computers are the basis of the “competency-based learning systems” being sold to our schools, and also to measuring student performance. Our education system is being engineered to produce student outcomes aligned with the new standards, and as we are seeing in Seattle, those outcomes will be measured using computers. This means we must be more mindful than ever of the limitations of computers. David Auerbachwrote last summer,

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that, because computers cannot and will not "understand" us the way we understand each other, they will not be able to take over the world and enslave us (at least not for a while). The bad news is that, because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can "understand." Their dumbness will become ours.

In a sense, this is where our obsession with the measurement of learning leads us as well. We can only manage what we can measure, we are told by our managers. So in order to improve the students who graduate from our schools, we must define learning in terms of measurable outcomes. As we shift to using computers to do this measurement for us, these outcomes are more and more defined by the ways computers can “understand” what our students can do.

For our students, this is not, by and large, an innovation that empowers. While computers can lead them through the steps to learn certain skills, there are places that only a good teacher can take them.

Students are highly social, and most learn best when they are together in a supportive classroom community. They have their own interests and curiosities, and they really get excited about learning when they have the chance to pursue them. They make meaning by connecting what they are learning to the real world. David Greene this week has posed thequestion for the New York Times Dialogue, “What makes a great teacher? Part of his answer reads:

Seasoned professionals know what works: being creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending. Often it is the least orthodox teacher who most engages and excites students. Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot replace what the best teachers have: practical wisdom.

This aligns with what we are hearing from students as well. Members of the Providence Student Union this week issued their own vision for education, which said in part,

We're told to sit and listen, to do our test prep so we can pass our NECAP and move on. But that's not how we learn. That's certainly not how I learn. We need an education that is as creative as we are. We need projects, hands-on learning, debates, and conversations. We need opportunities to do arts and technology and to work in groups. And we need small enough classes where teachers have the flexibility to teach us like individuals.

Students want computers they can use as tools to expand what they can create, not “teaching machines” with all the answers programmed into them. B.F. Skinner gave us an example of an innovative teaching machine that went nowhere. In order to avoid his mistakes, we need to look beyond the glamour of the new, to see if innovations are allowing students to be truly creative.

What do you think? Are “innovations” still stuck in Skinner’s boxes? How can we make creativity count when computers are doing the counting?

Continue the dialogue with @anthonycody on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.