How Many Ways To Skinner A Cat?

As promised in my last post, it’s time to briefly discuss some changes that are still needed in  teaching. A colleague recently loaned me a copy of B. F. Skinner’s Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1978). Skinner makes the following points:

  • The teacher acts upon the behavior of the student, not the student’s mind, character, or personality. Changing the student’s behavior comes from altering the environment in which the student is in (p. 134).
  • Students frequently behave in the ways desired by teachers in order to “avoid the consequences of not doing so” (p. 135). Students instead should be rewarded for doing the things that will increase their learning; in other words, incentives have to align with goals.
  • Instruction that requires large numbers of students to advance at the same pace — i.e., four year degree programs, semester-long courses, classrooms containing dozens if not hundreds of students — is extremely inefficient if one assumes that learning is the purpose of teaching. If all students are required to move forward at the same speed, that speed will be the wrong one for most of them (p. 136). The most proficient students find their time wasted and the least proficient get left behind. Also, “[w]hen large numbers of students are taught at the same time, few of them will acquire effective verbal behavior, oral or written” (p. 139).
  • Learning occurs more efficiently when instruction is designed around small units of increasingly complex knowledge and skills and demonstrating mastery of one unit is necessary for advancement to the next (p. 136).

As Skinner points out, truly individualized instruction would require that our educational institutions adopt a radically different architecture. But our Fordist approach to formal education has predominated for only about a century, and one can see signs that it is losing some ground to lower cost alternatives. At minimum there is some indication that the current system holds back the very talented* while it fails to address the needs of those at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

How does all this relate to me and what I do in the classroom? I admit that I don’t really know how to bundle knowledge about politics into discrete chunks and test students for mastery of each chunk, much less let each student go at his or her own speed.  This is something I really need to work on.

*Yes, I know this is a joke.