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.