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No More Teachers Dirty Looks

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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     2008 is the fifty-year anniversary of psychologist B.F. Skinner's invention of a teaching machine designed to implement programmed instruction. Skinner believed that educational programs should be tailored to individual learners and that students should progress at their own pace, not according to communal designs.

    Skinner was a behaviorist who believed that individuals learn through rewards and punishment. His teaching machine incorporated behaviorist principles such as immediate feedback to let students know if they were on the right track or not.

    Skinner's machine grew out of his frustration with sitting in on his daughter's fourth-grade math class. He felt that under the traditional classroom model of instruction the needs of many students were overlooked as the teacher pegged lessons to an imaginary middle-of-the-road student, boring the brightest children and hopelessly confusing the slowest. Skinner also objected to the fact that feedback was haphazard at best. Students tackled new math problems before they knew whether they had answered preceding questions correctly.

    But Skinner did not specifically blame his daughter's teacher. He believed the fault lay in the traditional system of instruction.

    A half century after Skinner's largely overlooked invention, American education is in the doldrums. Our nation's classrooms and modes of instruction are little different than what Skinner encountered, despite the proliferation of computers and other technologies.
 
    Our students are outperformed on international tests by many other industrialized nations and some non-industrial societies as well. In the four areas tested on a national college admission's test, the ACT, less than one quarter of high school seniors in 2008 were judged college-ready. We read constantly about the failures of No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, and measures to close achievement gaps between classes and races.  As Skinner recognized, the fault lies in our insistence that classes full of students be taught and assessed by individual teachers.

    It's time to revisit Skinner. Today our computer sophistication is literally miles beyond frameworks from the 1950s. Whereas Skinner's programmed instruction was linear and close-ended, we now have computer programs that can "think"- along side our students. To cite a most basic example, on the computerized Graduate Record Exam, the chief test used for graduate school admissions, a student's answers determine the degree of difficulty of subsequent questions. If a student is answering questions correctly, the computer adapts so that subsequent questions become more difficult; if, however, a student is getting answers wrong, the questions become easier. A student's final score will therefore depend upon the degree of difficulty of the questions as well as the total number of correct answers.  Machine and student mutually shape one another.

    One of the most destructive forces operating in today's K-12 classrooms is the continuing adherence to lockstep education. Teachers cannot flexibly adapt to a classroom full of heterogeneous learners. It is not uncommon, for example, that in a typical sophomore history class, some students will read and comprehend at a fifth-grade level while others will easily handle college-level material. Under those circumstances, even the best teachers are hamstrung and cannot adequately provide for the daily needs of each student.

    Even though we may not want to immediately dismantle the nation's schools in favor of computer-programmed instruction, we should begin to explore the possibility of changing our traditional classroom model by opening computerized legal learning centers. Students could progress at whatever pace they deemed comfortable with progression dependent upon the same types of assessments currently being used.

    By shifting to a Skinnerian model, in which student-learning is individualized through programmed instruction administered and assessed by computer, we can better educate all our students and move beyond self-imposed limits of our current teacher-centered system. 

 

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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