Mention Skinner and people will tell you of how he put his daughter in a box, reared her with stimuli for food and that she then sued him, suffered from mental illness and eventually committed suicide. None of this is true and when Lauren Slater wrote a book, Opening Skinner's Box, claiming it was, Deborah Skinner, his actual daughter, an artist who lives in England, wrote a scathing article in The Guardian saying it was all hogwash. Every few years a book of this sort pops out, from people who want to make exaggerated claims about the malign influence of technology in learning.
In fact, Skinner's Box was actually the device in which he trained rats and pigeons. Some critics mistake this for the air-conditioned crib Skinner designed, designed to keep a child warm. It had nothing to do with teaching or learning. Quite another of Skinner's activities were his 'Teaching Machines'. These also arouse strong reactions. Yet they were a product of their time, simply mechanical and actually quite ingenious, as they did what few instructional designers do today and that's accept open input by the learner. They were not the first, that was Pressey decades earlier, with his multiple choice questions.
Teaching machines didn’t appear in a vacuum. These were serious psychologists who based their designs on deeply held beliefs about learning theory. They were created, unsurprisingly, during the behaviourist era, by quirky academics with strong views. It was also a period of technological and mass manufacturing. Yet, oddly, the educational system and manufacturers remained stubbornly immune to their charm. So, despite all the fuss, nothing really happened on scale and few who work in technology for learning see these machines as having had real influence on their work. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating period and one from which we can learn.
19th Century Precursors
Automona had been written about since the Greeks and then actually produced, for centuries, by the Byzantines, Arabs and Europeans, creating highly imaginative, essentially mechanical, clockwork devices that performed fixed choreographed movements and tasks.
But it wasn’t until the 19th century that mechanical devices were patented for teaching and learning. Mellan (1936) uncovered hundreds of these patents, although most were hand-cranked devices that offered little in the way of feedback. The first that was automated, was in 1866 by Halycom Skinner (no relation to BJ Skinner), for an automated spelling teaching machine. It fell short of giving feedback but was credible in terms of teaching. George Altman was another who had a scrolling device for teaching arithmetic patented in 1897, then Aikins in 1911 obtained a patent for a spelling machine that made you match letters to a shown object, which actually mentions the psychologist Thorndike as a justification for its efficacy. This late Victorian era was looking for industrial solutions to make mass schooling more efficient. None were actually manufactured and sold on scale.
The true origin of teaching machines was the relatively unknown figure of Sidney Pressey, who came up with his idea for a teaching machine in 1915. He had to shelve the idea, as the First World War intervened, until he finally filed a patent in 1926. This was the first known machine to deliver content, accept input and deliver feedback. He is therefore the true originator of the first teaching machine.
Pressey was a cognitive psychologist long before it was seen as a school of psychology. He refused to accept learning theory based on the reductionist behaviourism of animal psychologists such as Pavlov, the behaviourist evangelist Watson or Skinner, who he knew personally, and had little time for learning theory that excluded consciousness, language and mental phenomena. The claim, therefore, that Teaching Machines were based on crude behaviourism, is simply false. His teaching machines reflected his cognitive-based learning theory.
Using the second machine was easy, the learner simply pressed one of five keys (1-5), it had a small window that showed the numbers of questions asked and a window on the side showing the number of questions they got correct. In teaching mode the learners had to continue until the correct answer was chosen and the next question appeared. The questions number did not change until it was answered correctly and the window on the side showed the number of tries. He argued that this was quick, gave immediate results so that the learner didn’t have to wait days for results and saved the teacher time from the drudgery of marking, also eliminating marking errors. He also argued that this could free teachers to teach in a more inspirational manner. The learner could also repeat the experience until they got full mastery. You could quickly reset for the next student in seconds or the next test and could cope with up to 100 questions. These arguments are sound. An interesting attachment to the main machine delivered a candy if you passed a threshold number of correct answers (the threshold could be changed on the machine via a dial). All for under $15. Unfortunately, his timing was bad and the Great Depression put an end to his dream of manufacturing and popularising individualised learning.
Skinner’s teaching Machine
Skinner came nearly 40 years later, as a well known cultural figure, and grabbed all the attention with his own Teaching Machine, the GLIDER in 1954.
. The learning was structured in a series of small steps. Hints and prompts maximise success and being right, so there is progress towards more complex knowledge. Skinner saw the machine as giving quick feedback, free from error, providing active learning and the fact that the student moves at their own pace was seen by him as a real benefit, whether faster or slower, at the rate most appropriate for that student. He claimed that this machine-based learning doubled the rate of learning, compared to the traditional classroom.
The content was carefully programmed to build, step by step towards synthesis and complex ideas. The machines then began to include more complex branching, with audio and screen presentations. Industrial and military applications focused on vocational learning.
Pressey has very specific views on learning theory, more towards cognitive psychology than pure behaviourism. Errors or the correction of misconceptions were, for him, fundamental to learning, hence his fondness for multiple choice questions, which had 4/5 wrong answers. He saw learning as a complex process where relatively stable, cognitive structures had to be created. This had to be achieved through the analysis of errors, along with individualisation, diagnosis and feedback. Learning, for Pressey, was not a form of reinforcement, as with animals but involved uniquely human mediation through language, speaking, listening, reading and writing. It was a deeply cognitive process. He even formulated an early theory of Blended Learning, which he called, rather clumsily, ‘Adjunct Autoinstruction’. This involved the combination of programmed learning through technology and human teaching.
Plessy was the antithesis of Skinner, whose teaching machine was designed around positive reinforcement, hence his avoiding multiple choice questions, where the wrong answers (negative stimuli) outnumbered the right answer, that were actually given to the student, in advance of them having to think. Skinner saw this as weak learning and didn’t buy the idea that the study of wrong answers was anything but a distraction and, more seriously, seeding confusion in terms of what was learned.
There are several lessons we can learn from this episode in the development of learning technology. First, that the cultural inertia in education is as strong today as it was then. Second, that learning technology, if it is to teach, must provide the presentation of material, cognitive interaction and feedback. Third, that marking is an area ripe for automation as it frees teachers to do more and better teaching.
However the most important lessons lie around pedagogy. There is a serious debate around the nature of interaction and feedback, with one side still sticking to Pressey's multiple-choice questions and their variants versus Skinner's open input. AI is also being used to automatically create Skinner type content, along with AI identified links to the outside world. Open input (a feature of Skinner’s machine), and rarely applied even now in online learning, can now be interpreted using semantic analysis of open text answers. It requires more cognitive efforts with multiple choice questions, the answer is already given and you are selecting, rather than having to think deeply and recall. this was not coercion but a structured apron h to learning that puts the responsibility in the hand of the learner.
The advantages which automated, computer-based learning offer are much the same as they were 100 years ago, when Pressy built his first Teaching Machine. In fact, there is renewed interest in spaced, deliberate and retrieval practice, which have all shown significant learning gains, as well as learning in small steps (chunking). At its most advanced, adaptive learning systems resequence learning experiences to match the individual student’s progress. This optimises the path the student takes, based on individualised and aggregated data. Every learner learns uniquely. This keeps the student, on their learning journey, at the right level, neither pushing too far ahead nor making it too easy, both of which can destroy motivation and actual learning.
It turns out that both were correct. Pressey was right in seeing error correction with feedback a as powerful force in learning Metcalfe (2017). Skinner was right in seeing effortful learning, Brown (2014), as an important driver in learning. These were the germs of truth in their view that technology could significantly revolutionise learning, which has happened.
Pressey was convinced that education had to be reformed and called for an ‘industrial revolution’ in learning, based on the use of technology. He suffered a breakdown when his devices failed to sell and felt that the education system was closed to innovation. Skinner has similar frustrations. So by the 1960s mechanical teaching machines had had their day. As mechanical devices they were clunky and relied on discs, barrels, levers and buttons, all hardware and no software. They had little real effect on learning technology in the long-term, other than objects of obscure interest by commentators who perpetuate myths about Skinner’s Box being a Teaching Machine (it was not) and him hot housing his daughter (which he did not).
It is also a mistake to see these machines as being some sort of consequence of strict behaviourism. Pressey was more of a cognitive psychologist than behaviourist and Skinner's design had open input by the students, something few systems have to this day, hardly a primitive stimulus-response. Behaviourism was more than Skinner. In the long-term, Tolman's latent learning, along with Thorndike's work on transfer have stood the test of time. They were all much more sophisticated that their recent critics suggest.
In truth it was Babbage’s calculating machine in 1882 that was the real breakthrough, paving the way for computers and computer based learning. It was computers that were to provide the hardware and more importantly, the flexibility of software, logic and media presentation abilities that form the real evolutionary path for technology based learning. The 1970s saw the real rise of the personal computer and real teaching machines, with real software. The other great technological developments were in media; mass produced radios and television happened at the same time in the 50s. It was this confluence of hardware and software that created teaching machines that really were manufactured, sold and eventually became the desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones, bought by billions of consumers on a global scale, using that global network - the internet.
Having worked for many years in an adaptive learning company, that specialised in personalised learning, I can scotch the idea that these machines ever influenced the vision or design of personalised learning. No one ever made reference to Pressey or Skinner. I doubt that anyone, apart from myself, even knew of the existence of these mechanical machines.
Slater, L., 2005. Opening Skinner's box: Great psychological experiments of the twentieth century. WW Norton & Company.
Benjamin, L. T. (1988). A history of teaching machines. American Psychologist, 43(9), 703–712. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.43.9.703
Mellan, I., 1936. Teaching and educational inventions. The Journal of Experimental Education, 4(3), pp.291-300.
Petrina, S., 2004. Sidney Pressey and the automation of education, 1924-1934. Technology and Culture, 45(2), pp.305-330.
Ferster, B., 2014. Teaching machines: Learning from the intersection of education and technology. JHU Press.
Ferster, B., 2014. Teaching machines: Learning from the intersection of education and technology. JHU Press.
Metcalfe, J., 2017. Learning from errors. Annual review of psychology, 68, pp.465-489.
Brown, P.C., 2014. Make it stick. Harvard University Press.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFYruzWeFwQ General summary of Teaching Machines
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXHmFZyKEVY Skinner on his Teach Machine