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.
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.
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.