Aug 232016

#BlAugust Continues with my Knowing and Learning posts


I was sitting down this morning at 7:30 to do today’s post, and I was stymied. What to write, what to write? So I opened Twitter for inspiration and Christopher Danielson had re-tweeted this:


Okay, it is on. I read the article (found here) and immediately thought of my Knowing and Learning readings (week 4) on B.F. Skinner and his “Teaching Machines.”

If you need a refresher on Skinner’s ideas, you can read the book in it’s entirety (please don’t, gag) or you can just read this one picture that sums up the entire chapter in a gut wrenching caption.

teaching machines by skinner

That’s right! There is your video that Sen. Ron Johnson referred to! You see, this isn’t a new idea to replace teachers with that “one good teacher” and have the learners then rewind and redo the material until they get it right.

On the Nature v. Nuture discussion, Skinner falls on the nurture side, but it is a nurture grounded firmly in behaviorism. While educators of the constructivist philosophy threw up a little in their mouths upon reading the words of Mr. Johnson, the behaviorists celebrated. They have been saying this since 1957, and the philosophical underpinnings of the approach are as solid as Piaget or Pappert.

We can see this thread of education going strong in Mr. Johnson’s remarks, but also in the gobs of money thrown at Kahn Academy. His original, poorly done, math videos were celebrated as the pinnacle of education. Well, the pinnacle of behaviorist teaching machines, at least. “Look, when the learner doesn’t understand something, the response is not correct, and they can just work around the disk again, er, I mean, they can rewind the video.”

I think it is very important for teachers to come out of college knowing that these statements by people like Mr. Johnson, and movements like Kahn’s have a history. A history of failure, but also of enough success that they just won’t die.

And there is a time and place for behaviorism in teaching math. But the extremes that Skinner, Kahn, Mr. Johnson, and others take it to is ridiculous.


[And, as an aside, yes. these are my opinions. This blog has my name in the URL, and I am unabashedly a constructivist teacher. This wasn’t always true, but I learned better.]

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