September 10, 2021

Audrey Watters: The Engineered Student: On B.F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine

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The MIT Press Reader features this excerpt from Audrey Watters’ new book, Teaching Machines and looks at Skinner’s ideas about using a machine to teach.

n the fall of 1953, Harvard psychology professor B. F. Skinner visited his daughter’s fourth grade math class at Shady Hill, a private school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he observed the teacher and students with dismay. The students were all seated at their desks, working on arithmetic problems written on the blackboard as the teacher walked up and down the rows of desks, looking at the students’ work, pointing out the mistakes that she noticed. Some students finished the work quickly, Skinner reported, and squirmed in their seats with impatience, waiting for the next set of instructions. Other students squirmed with frustration as they struggled to finish the assignment at all. Eventually the lesson was over; the work was collected so the teacher could take the papers home, grade them, and return them to the class the following day.

“I suddenly realized that something must be done,” Skinner later wrote in his autobiography. The classroom activities violated two key principles of his behaviorist theory of learning. Students were not told immediately whether they had an answer right or wrong. A graded paper returned a day later failed to offer the type of prompt and positive feedback that Skinner believed necessary to modify behavior — that is, to learn. Furthermore, the students were all forced to proceed at the same pace through the lesson, regardless of their level of ability or comprehension. This method of instruction provided the wrong sort of reinforcement, Skinner argued, penalizing the students who could move more quickly as well as those who needed to move more slowly through the materials.

A few days later, Skinner built a prototype of a mechanical device that he believed would solve these problems — and solve them not only for his daughter’s classroom but ideally for the entire education system. His teaching machine, he argued, would enable a student to progress through exercises that were perfectly matched to her level of knowledge and skill, assessing her understanding of each new concept, and giving immediate feedback and encouragement along the way.

It was a “primitive” machine, Skinner admitted, fashioned out of a rectangular wooden box. “Problems in arithmetic were printed on cards,” he explained. “The student placed the card in the machine and composed a two-digital answer along one side by moving two levers. If the answer was right, a light appeared in a hole in the card.” He quickly built a second model in which a student manipulated sliders bearing the numbers 0 through 9 in order to compose an answer. In another prototype, the student turned a knob after setting the answer. If the answer was wrong, the knob would not turn. If the answer was right, the knob would move freely, and a bell would ring.

Read the full excerpt here. Or save time and buy the book here.

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