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I have volunteered to be a guest speaker in classes this term. Yesterday, I talked to the students in Roxana Marachi’s educational psychology class at San Jose State.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to your class. I will confess at the outset: I’ve never taken a class in educational psychology before. Never taken any psychology course, for that matter. My academic background, however, is in literature where one does spend quite a bit of time talking about Sigmund Freud. And I wrote my master’s thesis in Folklore on political pranks, drawing in part on Freud’s book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that Freud is probably one of the most influential theorists of the twentieth century.
A decade ago, I might have said the most influential. But I’ve been spending the last few years deeply immersed in the work of another psychologist’s work, B. F. Skinner. I’ve read all his books and several books about him; I spent a week at the archives at Harvard, pouring through his letters. Perhaps it’s colored my assessment — I’m like that kid in The Sixth Sense except instead of dead people, I see behaviorism everywhere. Okay sure, Skinner’s cultural impact might not be as widely recognized as Freud’s, but I don’t think his importance can be dismissed. He was one of the best known public scholars of his time, appearing on TV shows and in popular magazines, not just at academic conferences and in academic journals. B. F. Skinner was a household name.
It’s too easy, I think, to say that Freud and Skinner’s ideas are no longer relevant — that psychology has advanced so far in the past century or so and that their theories have been proven wrong. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. One of the stories that often gets told is that after the linguist Noam Chomsky published two particularly brutal reviews of Skinner’s books — a review of Verbal Behavior in 1959 and a review of Beyond Freedom and Dignity in 1971 — everyone seemed to agree behaviorism was wrong, and it was tossed aside for cognitive science. Certainly cognitive science did become more widely adopted within psychology departments starting in the 1960s and 1970s, but the reasons the field turned away from behaviorism were much more complicated than a couple of book reviews. And outside of academic circles, there were other factors too that diminished Skinner’s popularity. The film A Clockwork Orange, for example, probably did much more to shape public opinion about behavior modification than anything else. In 1974, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a report on the use of behavior modification as there was growing concern about the ways in which these were being used in federally-funded programs, including prisons and schools. In 1972, the public learned about the Tuskegee Experiment, a blatantly racist and decades-long study of the effects of untreated syphilis on African American men. People became quite wary of the use of humans in research experiments — medical and psychological, and the National Research Act was signed by President Nixon, establishing institutional review boards that would examine the ethical implications of research.
But behaviorism did not go away. And I’d argue that didn’t go away because of the technologies of behavior that Skinner (and his students) promulgated.
There’s a passage that I like to repeat from an article by historian of education Ellen Condliffe Lagemann:
I have often argued to students, only in part to be perverse, that one cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.
I’m guessing you know who these two men are, but I’ll explain nonetheless: Edward L. Thorndike was an educational psychology professor at Columbia University who developed his theory of learning based on his research on animal behavior – perhaps you’ve heard of his idea of the “learning curve,” the time it took for animals to escape his puzzle box after multiple tries. And John Dewey was a philosopher whose work at the University of Chicago Lab School was deeply connected with that of other social reformers in Chicago – Jane Addams and Hull House, for example. Dewey was committed to educational inquiry as part of democratic practices of community; Thorndike’s work, on the other hand, happened largely in the lab but helped to stimulate the growing science and business of surveying and measuring and testing students in the early twentieth century. You can think of the victory that Condliffe Lagemann speaks of, in part, as the triumph of multiple choice testing over project-based inquiry.
Thorndike won, and Dewey lost. You can’t understand the history of education unless you realize this. I don’t think you can understand the history of education technology without realizing this either. And I’d go one step further: you cannot understand the history of education technology in the United States during the twentieth century – and on into the twenty-first – unless you realize that Seymour Papert lost and B. F. Skinner won.
I imagine you’ll touch on Papert’s work in this course too. But a quick introduction nonetheless: he was a mathematician and computer scientist and a student of Jean Piaget — another key figure in educational psychology. Papert was one of the founders of constructionism, which builds on Piaget’s theories of constructivism — that is, learning occurs through the reconstruction of knowledge rather than a transmission of knowledge. In constructionism, learning is most effective when the learner constructs something meaningful.
Skinner won; Papert lost. Thorndike won; Dewey lost. Behaviorism won.
It seems to really bother folks when I say this. It’s not aspirational enough or something. Or it implies maybe that we’ve surrendered. Folks will point to things like maker-spaces to argue that progressive education is thriving. But I maintain, even in the face of all the learn-to-code brouhaha, that multiple choice tests have triumphed over democratically-oriented inquiry. Indeed, when we hear technologists champion “personalized learning,” it’s far more likely that what they envision draws on Skinner’s ideas, not Dewey’s.
In education technology circles, Skinner is perhaps best known for his work on teaching machines, an idea he came up with in 1953, when he visited his daughter’s fourth grade classroom and observed the teacher and students with dismay. The students were 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. This classroom practice violated two key principles of his behaviorist theory of learning. Students were not being told immediately whether they had an answer right or wrong. A graded paper returned a day later failed to offer the type of positive behavioral reinforcement that Skinner believed necessary for learning. Furthermore, the students were all forced to proceed at the same pace through the lesson, regardless of their ability or understanding. This method of classroom instruction also provided the wrong sort of reinforcement – negative reinforcement, Skinner argued, penalizing the students who could move more quickly as well as those who needed to move more slowly through the materials.
So Skinner built a prototype of a mechanical device that he believed would solve these problems – and solve them not only for a whole classroom but ideally for the entire education system. His teaching machine, he argued, would enable a student to move through exercises that were perfectly suited to her level of knowledge and skill, assessing her understanding of each new concept, and giving immediate positive feedback and encouragement along the way. He patented several versions of the device, and along with many other competitors, sought to capitalize what had become a popular subfield of educational psychology in the 1950s and 1960s: programmed instruction.
The teaching machine wasn’t the first time that B. F. Skinner made headlines – and he certainly make a lot of headlines for the invention, in part because the press linked his ideas about teaching children, as Skinner did himself no doubt, to his research on training pigeons. “Can People Be Taught Like Pigeons?” Fortune magazine asked in 1960 in a profile on Skinner and his work. Skinner’s work training a rat named Pliny had led to a story in Life magazine in 1937, and in 1951, there were a flurry of stories about his work on pigeons. (The headlines amuse me to no end, as Skinner was a professor at Harvard by then, and many of them say things like “smart pigeons attend Harvard” and “Harvard Pigeons are Superior Birds Too.”)
Like Edward Thorndike, Skinner worked in his laboratory with animals (at first rats, then briefly squirrels, and then most famously pigeons) in order to develop techniques to control behavior. Using a system of reinforcements – food, mostly – Skinner was able to condition his lab animals to perform certain tasks. Pliny the Rat “works a slot machine for living,” as Life described the rat’s manipulation of a marble; the pigeons could play piano and ping pong and ostensibly even guide a missile towards a target.
In graduate school, Skinner had designed an “operant conditioning chamber” for training animals that came to be known as the “Skinner Box.” The chamber typically contained some sort of mechanism for the animal to operate – a plate for a pigeon to peck (click!), for example – that would result in a chute releasing a pellet of food.
It is perhaps unfortunate then that when Skinner wrote an article for Ladies Home Journal in 1945, describing a temperature-controlled, fully-enclosed crib he’d invented for he and his wife’s second child, that the magazine ran it with the title “Baby in a Box.” (The title Skinner had given his piece: “Baby Care Can Be Modernized.”)
Skinner’s wife had complained to him about the toll that all the chores associated with a newborn had taken with their first child, and as he wrote in his article, “I felt that it was time to apply a little labor-saving invention and design to the problems of the nursery.” Skinner’s “air crib” (as it eventually came to be called) allowed the baby to go without clothing, save the diaper, and without blankets; and except for feeding and diaper-changing and playtime, the baby was kept in the crib all the time. Skinner argued that by controlling the environment – by adjusting the temperature, by making the crib sound-proof and germ-free – the baby was happier and healthier. And the workload on the mother was lessened – “It takes about one and one-half hours each day to feed, change, and otherwise care for the baby,” he wrote. “This includes everything except washing diapers and preparing formula. We are not interested in reducing the time any further. As a baby grows older, it needs a certain amount of social stimulation. And after all, when unnecessary chores have been eliminated, taking care of a baby is fun.”
As you can probably imagine, responses to Skinner’s article in Ladies Home Journal fell largely into two camps, and there are many, many letters in Skinner’s archives at Harvard from magazine readers. There were those who thought Skinner’s idea for the “baby in a box” bordered on child abuse – or at the least, child neglect. And there were those who loved this idea of mechanization – science! progress! – and wanted to buy one, reflecting post-war America’s growing love of gadgetry in the home, in the workplace, and in the school.
As history of psychology professor Alexandra Rutherford has argued, what Skinner developed were “technologies of behavior.” The air crib, the teaching machine, “these inventions represented in miniature the applications of the principles that Skinner hoped would drive the design of an entire culture,” she writes. He imagined this in his novel Walden Two, a utopian (I guess) novel in which he envisaged a community that had been socially and environmentally engineered to reinforce survival and “good behavior.” But this wasn’t just fiction for Skinner; he designed technologies that would improve human behavior, he argued – all in an attempt to re-engineer the entire social order and to make the world a better place.
“The most important thing I can do,” Skinner famously said, “is to develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us,” adding that he intended to develop “the social infrastructure for community – for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”
Oh wait. That wasn’t B. F. Skinner. That was Mark Zuckerberg. My bad.
I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.
B. J. Fogg and his Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford is often touted by those in Silicon Valley as one of the “innovators” in this “new” practice of building “hooks” and “nudges” into technology. These folks like to point to what’s been dubbed colloquially “The Facebook Class” – a class Fogg taught in which students like Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the founders of Instagram, and Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked, “studied and developed the techniques to make our apps and gadgets addictive,” as Wired put it in a recent article talking about how some tech executives now suddenly realize that this might be problematic.
(It’s worth teasing out a little – but probably not in this talk, since I’ve rambled on so long already – the difference, if any, between “persuasion” and “operant conditioning” and how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity. Rhetorically and practically.)
I’m on the record elsewhere arguing this framing – “technology as addictive” – has its problems. Nevertheless it is fair to say that the kinds of compulsive behavior that we display with our apps and gadgets is being encouraged by design. All that pecking like well-trained pigeons.
These are “technologies of behavior” that we can trace back to Skinner – perhaps not directly, but certainly indirectly due to Skinner’s continual engagement with the popular press. His fame and his notoriety. Behavioral management – and specifically through operant conditioning – remains a staple of child rearing and pet training. It is at the core of one of the most popular ed-tech apps currently on the market, ClassDojo. Behaviorism also underscores the idea that how we behave and data about how we behave when we click can give programmers insight into how to alter their software and into what we’re thinking.
If we look more broadly – and Skinner surely did – these sorts of technologies of behavior don’t simply work to train and condition individuals; many technologies of behavior are part of a broader attempt to reshape society. “For your own good,” the engineers try to reassure us. “For the good of the global community,” as Zuckerberg would say. “For the sake of the children.”