Behaviourism and the roots of learning technology


Educators, learning designers and students of the 21st century have been empowered and inspired by what we now call ‘Web 2.0’ technologies. Practitioners are constantly developing new ways to facilitate rich, socially-situated, authentic and networked learning experiences that incorporate a wide range of digital tools and strategies.

But using technology in education is not a new idea. To find the origins of technology-enhanced learning, we need to look back as far as the 1920s. This was the era in which the potential for machines to improve teaching and learning practice started to be explored. Rudimentary contraptions, like Sidney Pressey’s teaching machines, emerged long before the microcomputer had become a reality. And of course, they weren’t digital.

Much like the learning innovations of today, those early experiments were heavily influenced by the dominant psychological theories of their time. By the 1950s, ideas about operant conditioning were all the rage, most notably espoused by the Harvard psychology professor, B. F. Skinner.

Skinner and behaviourism

Skinner believed that successful learning occurred when students were given programmed instruction, and that desirable behaviours could be reinforced by giving them instant positive feedback on their actions. In other words, when students were consistently and immediately rewarded for answering questions correctly, they soon learned to adjust their behaviour — sometimes unconsciously — to get more correct answers. This was the essence of operant conditioning, and yes, it owed more than a nod to Ivan Pavlov and his famous salivating dogs.

Way back in 1913, the psychologist John Watson first coined the term behaviourism for this sort of approach, and he described it as having the “prediction and control of behaviour” as its ultimate goal. Associationist is another term used to describe pedagogies that focus on creating automatic associations between specific stimuli and desired behaviours.

The teaching machine

Today, most educators would agree that simply creating changes in learner behaviour is not the most desirable goal of learning, nor a real indicator of its success. But Skinner was so committed to his behaviourist theories that he developed his own teaching machine to put them into practice. He described his invention as “a device which creates vastly improved conditions for effective study,” and he developed a few different versions of it. He tried them out with both school age and adult learners in a range of subjects.

For the learner, the basic experience of using the machines was quite straightforward. There were variations in the exact process, but most were based on a fill-in-the-blank type quiz. Little snippets of information were displayed in a small window in the box, setting some problem or asking a question. The student had to indicate her response to each problem by writing on an exposed strip of paper. She then lifted a lever or turned a knob on the machine to reveal the correct answer, which she could compare to what she had written.

If she got the answer right, the learner could turn a knob to proceed to the next question. But if she answered incorrectly, the knob would either not turn at all until she gave the right answer, or she would have to face the same question again when it appeared in a future round. In any case, the learner had to keep trying until all questions were answered correctly and satisfaction was ultimately achieved.

Talk to me, dammit!

Skinner’s machines were not without pedagogical benefits. Learners could work at their own pace, for example, and at a level of difficulty suitable for their individual development. Unlike in the traditional classroom setting, no one got left behind. Also, facilitating learner activity instead of passive absorption of information, and providing students with instant, intrinsic feedback, are still considered key components of successful learning design.

But the assumption behind the teaching machines was that all learners basically learn the same way, and that everyone can be “programmed” to reproduce the same sets of behaviours via a single conditioning mechanism. The machines couldn’t provide personalised, remedial feedback in response to incorrect answers, so learners never got an explanation of why their answer was wrong. They were never encouraged to reflect upon their understanding of difficult concepts, or to engage in dialogue with teachers or peers.

Combining approaches

Skinner was certainly a pioneer in his day. While his teaching machines may have come to epitomise a rather crude application of behaviourist psychology to education, today’s learning designers remain open to the use of carefully applied associationist pedagogies for certain purposes. They can work well for drill-and-practice types of learning, for example, in which basic facts or processes are being taught.

But today, many educators believe that associationist methods are best combined with constructivist and situative activities to facilitate deeper, richer, and more authentic learning experiences. We will look at these other two learning theories in future articles.

For now, sit back and enjoy this fuzzy old film clip from 1954 in which B. F. Skinner himself demonstrates his famous teaching machines in action.


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About The Author

Dr. Mark Anderson is an archaeologist, anthropologist, educational developer and teacher. Author of Marothodi: The Historical Archaeology of an African Capital and Digital Learning. Follow Mark on Twitter: @m_anderson_phd.

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