Hooking Children to Computers

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Charlotte Thomson IserbytDay 3: The Skin­ner Hor­ror Files

Pro­grammed Instruc­tion: An Introduction

Exhibit 1, p. 163

Exhib­it 1, p. 163

Exhib­it 1 is from a 1971 text­book Psy­chol­o­gy Applied to Teach­ing by Robert F. Biehler (Houghton Mif­flin Co., Boston). This pho­to illus­trates the ear­ly use of Skin­ner’s PROGRAMMED INSTRUCTION in the class­room using a “teach­ing machine” com­put­er. In order to under­stand what has been hap­pen­ing in edu­ca­tion reform that past half cen­tu­ry, it is first nec­es­sary to under­stand Skin­ner’s Pro­grammed Instruc­tion. It would go on to be devel­oped, adapt­ed, and expand­ed, and even giv­en new names (Mas­tery Learn­ing, Direct Instruc­tion, etc.).

Exhibit 2, p. 162

Exhib­it 2, p. 162

Text from page 162 (Exhib­it 2) describes how the pro­grammed means of instruc­tion was accom­plished via a com­put­er flow chart. Keep in mind as you look at this, that Skin­ner’s METHOD pro­vid­ed “rein­force­ment” — i.e., con­di­tion­ing the child to respond cor­rect­ly through behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion. So this was­n’t sim­ply a spelling exercise!

…the key idea behind Skin­ner’s tech­no­log­i­cal approach [was] that the learn­ing of stu­dents in school should be shaped by a series of rein­force­ments.” (p. 159, empha­sis in original)

In his book The Tech­nol­o­gy of Teach­ing, Skin­ner wrote that

[The two basic con­sid­er­a­tions of pro­grammed learn­ing are] the grad­ual elab­o­ra­tion of extreme­ly com­plex pat­terns of behav­ior and the main­te­nance of the behav­ior in strength in each stage. The whole process of becom­ing com­pe­tent in any field must be divid­ed into a very large num­ber of very small steps, and rein­force­ment mut be con­tin­gent upon the accom­plish­ment of each step.… By mak­ing each suc­ces­sive step as small as pos­si­ble, the fre­quen­cy of rein­force­ment can be raised to a max­i­mum, while the pos­si­bly aver­sive con­se­quences of being wrong are reduced to a min­i­mum.” (p. 159, empha­sis added, cit­ing Skin­ner, 1968, pp. 21–22)

Schol­ar­ly crit­i­cisms of Pro­grammed Instruc­tion were men­tioned in this old col­lege textbook:

…the the­o­ry is based on exper­i­ments per­formed on low­er ani­mals and… the stu­dent work­ing on a pro­gram is being treat­ed like an animal.”
“…pro­grammed learn­ing pro­duces reg­i­men­ta­tion and lim­its creativity.”
“…many pro­grams are designed so that the stu­dent will answer almost every response cor­rect­ly [dumb­ing down, ed.].…[E]asy mate­r­i­al may be for­got­ten quickly… ”
“…the stu­dent will fail to devel­op per­se­ver­ance and hence be unable to cope with dif­fi­cult prob­lems lat­er on.”
“…pro­grammed learn­ing is just a glo­ri­fied ver­sion of ani­mal-train­ing tech­niques which have been known and prac­ticed for centuries.…”
“…machines will even­tu­al­ly replace teach­ers.” (pp. 166–167)

Exhibit 3, p. 171, "the lowest common denominator" admission

Exhib­it 3, p. 171, “the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor” admission

In Exhib­it 3 can be seen the star­tling admis­sion that “pro­gram­mers are forced to keep revis­ing pro­grams for the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor–the slow­est stu­dents in the group,” which can lead “to pro­grams which are over­sim­pli­fied and rep­e­ti­tious.” More evi­dence of a dumb­ing down. Note the oth­er crit­i­cisms on this para­graph of page 171.

On page 172 teach­ers are giv­en a series of warn­ings, that include the omi­nous first state­ment: “Remain aware of the extent and dis­ad­van­tages of aver­sive con­trol.” An admis­sion that this isn’t just about pos­i­tive rein­force­ment. The Skin­ner­ian sys­tem, despite the glossy “spin” to the con­trary, always requires rewards AND penal­ties in order to work.

Exhibit 4, p. 27

Exhib­it 4, p. 27

Final­ly, take note of the fact that to Skin­ner the child was referred to as an “organ­ism.” This was a con­tin­u­ous progress sys­tem, in which the stu­dent could be manip­u­lat­ed to progress through stages of learn­ing. This belief is found­ed upon evo­lu­tion. “In the eyes of an advo­cate of guid­ed expe­ri­ence the child is an organ­ism which devel­ops and learns by pass­ing through a pre­cise sequence of stages.” (p. 32)

This idea took root. Skin­ner’s utopi­an sys­tem would go on to be applied to orga­ni­za­tions in soci­ety (also con­sid­ered to be “organ­isms”). It would be applied by New Agers who desired to facil­i­tate an evo­lu­tion of the species. And Social Engi­neers such as David Horn­beck would go on to pro­pose the Skin­ner­ian ide­al of reward­ing schools, teach­ers and chil­dren that per­formed up to par, and penal­iz­ing those that didn’t.