Goodbye Teacher

Last week I was reading a blog that discussed different teaching methodologies.  One of those methods was Programmed Instruction (PI), a method that was developed by B.F. Skinner.  PI dates back to the 1950s when Skinner developed his Teaching Machine. The idea behind PI was that delivery of an instructional program could be automated so that kids could work independently and at their own pace, and the program adjusted to their performance.  Not theoretically different from many of the adaptive learning software programs that are on the market today.

But what disturbed me in the blog was that someone commented that the purpose of PI was to eliminate the teacher.  I wasn’t surprised in one sense…PI has always been accused of replacing the teacher as the delivery system of critical information.  But I had never heard the accusation levied that this was the purpose of PI.

It got me to thinking.  Not so much about Skinner and PI, but about another giant of behavior analysis, Fred S. Keller (pictured here).  Keller isn’t as well-known as Skinner, but he developed a system derived from PI and called it the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI).  PSI led to what we call “mastery learning” today…he was the first to focus on the idea of breaking down learning into units and then requiring “perfection” in each unit before progressing to the next.

What is fascinating to me about Keller is that he got many of his ideas during World War II when, as a faculty member at Colgate and then Columbia University, he developed a training program in Morse code for the Signal Corps.  Why train Morse Code?  Because Keller had been a Western Union messenger as a boy and was forced to learn Morse code by “memorizing dots and dashes from a sheet of paper and listening to a relay on the wall” (p. 8, 1968)  He was convinced there had to be a better way and came back to attempt to solve this training problem later in his career.  While training the Signal Corps, he had the chance to observe, first-hand and for many months, the operation of a military training center.

Here is what he noticed:

1. The instruction was highly individualized.

2. Students were permitted to advance at their own speed throughout a course of study.

3. The terminal skills for each course were clearly specified.

4. Carefully graduated steps leading to the terminal skills were arranged.

5. There was demand for perfection at every level of training and for every student.

6. They employed classroom instructors who were little more than successful graduates of earlier classes.

7. Minimization of the lecture as a teaching device.

8. Maximizing of student participation.

And this was during World War II.  With training provided by the military.

Now let’s fast-forward to 2012.  I met with a colleague who is producing simulation programs for military training.  These are combat simulations, space exploration simulations, flight simulations….you name it.  And guess what?  That list of items that Keller observed during World War II….they’re all the same principles utilized by the military simulation training team in 2012.  Technology has changed, of course, but the methodologies are the same.

I said to my colleague, “Wow, this is amazing.  You are using these principles in military training with great success, and I’ve spent my whole career trying to convince educators to use them.  What’s your secret?”

And you know what he said to me?  He said:

“Well, for us, it’s a matter of life and death.”

And he said it without an ounce of irony.  The implication was that we can continue messing about in education because we have the luxury of our kids not dying if they do not reach mastery performance.

Powerful, huh?

So here I am, thinking, well, this kind of is life and death, isn’t it?  Perhaps the consequence isn’t as immediate in education as it is in the military, but what about when we think of the long-term?  And so what if it’s not life and death?  Don’t we still want to use the most effective and efficient instructional methods that we know of for education as well as for training?  Because it seems like we have different standards.

I’d like to leave you with a passage from Fred Keller’s 1968 paper, Goodbye Teacher,” as food for thought:

In systems like [programmed instruction] the work of the teacher is at variance with that which has predominated in our time.  His public appearance as classroom entertainer, expositor, critic, and debater no longer seem important.  His principal job, as Frank Finger (1962) once defined it, is truly “the facilitation of learning in others.”  He becomes an educational engineer, a contingency manager, with the responsibility of serving the great majority, rather than the small minority, of young men and women who come to him for schooling in the area of his competence.  The teacher of tomorrow will not, I think, continue to be satisfied with a 10% efficiency (at best) which makes him an object of contempt by some, commiseration by others, indifference by many, and love by a few.  No longer will he need to live, like Ichabod Crane, in a world that increasingly begrudges providing him room and lodging for a doubtful service to its young.  A new kind of teacher is in the making.  To the old kind, I, for one, will be glad to say “Good-bye!”

My days of teaching are over.  After what I have said about efficiency, I cannot lay claim to any great success, but my schedule of rewards was enough to maintain my behavior, and I learned one very important thing: the student is always right.  He is not asleep, not unmotivated, not sick, and he can learn a great deal if we provide the right contingencies of reinforcement.  But if we don’t provide them, and provide them soon, he too may be inspired to say, “Good-bye!” to formal education.

Those words were written 44 years ago and it strikes me that they couldn’t be more true today, as we see education consumers moving toward mobile and elearning solutions.  Can classroom learning be salvaged, or is it too late and will we all soon be saying “Goodbye Teacher?”

This post is dedicated to a very good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, who stepped on Fred Keller’s foot one time when we were in graduate school.  Fred was gracious, as was typical.  He was a true gentleman and always had a kind word for young behavior analysts like me.  Even when one stepped on his foot.


Finger, F. W. (1962). Psychologists in colleges and universities. In W.B. Webb (Ed.), The Profession of Psychology. New York: Hold Reinhart and Winston, 50-73.

Keller, F.S. (1968). “Good-bye teacher…”. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1 (1). 79-89.

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
This entry was posted in Instructional Design, Learner Behavior and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Goodbye Teacher

  1. Tracey bell says:

    Do you think 100% mastery is necessary or even possible. I think sparking a student’s interest is important, they may not master the subject but if they need to they can refer to a manual (just in time learning) or research the subject in depth if they need to at a future date, but at least they now know that the theory or subject exists. I find that the more I Iearn the less I know…or it seems that way. Everytime I explore a new topic if leads to something else, I will never be able to master all the topics that I am interested in.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Tracey- I guess whether or not mastery is necessary really depends on what we expect (or hope) students to do with those skills. When I think of reading comprehension, for example, I think it’s critical that students can demonstrate mastery in that…mastery to me doesn’t necessarily mean that they all have to be 100% correct 100% of the time, but there needs to be level of achievement that indicates that the skills are likely to generalize. I agree that there are many subjects that kids don’t need to be “experts” in. When I think of “mastery,” I just mean that the learners reach a level of competence with the skills that we DO expect them to perform…even if that is just at an introductory level. To use a music example, if I’m playing the piano, it’s not unreasonable to expect me to perform basic scales to mastery even if I am never going to play like Beethoven. Does that make sense? Different subject require a vast array of skills, so I think it’s important to break those down and figure out what is important for kids to be able to do and what isn’t (and may be, to your point, something that can be looked up) and then set goals for mastery from there.

    • Mastery criteria in a behavior analytical setting (which PSI is derived from) is not always 100%. Mastery criteria is always differentiated between the task and individuals, but a common criteria example is a similar variation to …”(80 or 90%) across (2-3 consecutive sessions) with at least (#) of trials”.

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