B.F. Skinner

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It’s perplexing that video games aren’t used to teach children history and science, though the economics aren’t easy. A blockbuster game on par with today’s best offerings can cost hundreds of millions to develop and design, and that’s a steep price without knowing if such software would be welcomed into classrooms.

In addition to cost, there’s always been a prejudice against learning devices because they seem to reduce students into just more machines. That’s not altogether false if you consider that B.F. Skinner saw pupils as “programmable.” In an Atlantic article by Jacek Krywko looks the latest attempts at the making of mind-improving machines, which will not only teach language but also “monitor things like joy, sadness, boredom, and confusion.” Such robot social intelligence is thought to be the key difference: Don’t try to make the students more like machines but the machines more like the students.

A passage about the Skinner’s failed attempts in the 1950s at making education more robotic:

His new device taught by showing students questions one at a time, with the idea that the user would be rewarded for each right answer.

This time, there was no “cultural inertia.” Teaching machines flooded the market, and backlash soon followed. Kurt Vonnegut called the machines “playthings” and argued that they couldn’t prepare a kid for “one-millionth of what is going to hit him in the teeth, ready or not.” Fortune ran a story headlined “Can People Be Taught Like Pigeons?” By the end of the ‘60s, teaching machines had once again fallen out of favor. The concept briefly resurfaced again in the ‘80s, but the lack of quality educational software—and the public’s perception of mechanized teachers as something vaguely Orwellian—meant they once again failed to gain much traction.

But now, they’re back for another try.

Scientists in Germany, Turkey, the Netherlands, and the U.K. are currently working on language-teaching machines more complex than anything [Sydney] Pressley or Skinner dreamed up.•

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B.F. Skinner, who felt we could use some training, created a Teaching Machine in the 1950s to help improve our behavior. Thanks to the wonderful 3 Quarks Daily, I read Sophia Nguyen’s Harvard Magazine article about the reconsideration of Skinner’s contraption in the computer age, as classrooms become increasingly plugged in. The goal for such machines should, of course, be something other than teaching us chickens how to play tic-tac-toe. In investigating gaming as learning, Nguyen writes of the vision of designer Eric Zimmerman:

Future generations will understand their world in terms of games and systems, and will respond to it as players and designers—navigating, manipulating, and improving upon them.

The opening:

ON NOVEMBER 11, 1953, psychology professor B.F. Skinner sat in a fourth-grade math class, perturbed. It was Parents Day at his daughter Deborah’s school. The lesson seemed grossly inefficient: students proceeded through the material in lock-step, at the same pace; their graded assignments were returned to them sluggishly.

A leading proponent of what he called “radical behaviorism,” Skinner had devoted his career to studying feedback. He denied the existence of free will and dismissed inner mental states as explanations for outward action. Instead, he focused on the environment and the organism’s response. He had trained rats to push levers and pigeons to play Ping-Pong. A signed photo of Ivan Pavlov presided over his study in Cambridge. Turning his attention to a particular subset of the human animal—the schoolchild—Skinner invented his Teaching Machine.

Roughly the size and shape of a typewriter, the machine allowed a student to progress independently through a curriculum, answering test items and getting instant feedback with a few pulls of a lever. “The student quickly learns to be right. His work is pleasurable. He does not have to force himself to study,” Skinner claimed. “A classroom in which machines are being used is usually the scene of intense concentration.” With hardly any hindrance from peers or teachers, thousands of students could receive knowledge directly from a single textbook writer. He told The Harvard Crimson, “There is no reason why the school room should be any less mechanized than the kitchen.”

Sixty years later, Skinner’s reductionist ideas about teaching and learning continue to haunt public education—especially as it’s once again being called upon to embrace technology.•


Teaching machine and programmed learning, from 1954:

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B.F. Skinner, who spent more time with birds than Colonel Sanders, argues against free will as we normally define it.


When a pigeon in a lab setting believes wrongly that some incidental behavior it has displayed is the reason why it’s being fed, it takes about 1,000 repetitions in which the food no longer appears before the behavior ceases. Humans are also not always great at recognizing truth in patterns. Not every cluster has a cause. Spikes and discrepancies can occur naturally. They will occur naturally. It’s easy to confuse correlation and causation, to misread outliers. From B.F. Skinner’s 1948 paper “Superstition in the Pigeon“:

“The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition.The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to setup and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances.The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, noreal effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing — or, more strictly speaking, did something else.”


Long-form interview with B.F. Skinner about the nature of education.


William F. Buckley and B.F. Skinner, in Illinois in 1971, discussing behaviorism and freedom.

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Buckley and Skinner discuss moral devlopment. (1973)

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I put up a post about B.F. Skinner’s daughter staunchly denying that she was raised as some sort of guinea pig in a behaviorist box. Here’s the psychologist himself refuting such claims.

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Robert Epstein and B.F. Skinner observe humans, train pigeons, in 1982.

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B.F. Skinner, who could not stop messing with pigeons, makes a boid do a 360.


Are we so different than pigeons, you and I? By B.F. Skinner, of course.


Boids playing ping-pong, via B.F. Skinner.


Speaking of B.F. Skinner, his daughter, Deborah, has always vehemently denied charges that she was raised as a Behaviorist lab rat. From a 2004 Guardian article:

“My early childhood, it’s true, was certainly unusual – but I was far from unloved. I was a much cuddled baby. Call it what you will, the ‘aircrib,’ ‘baby box,’ ‘heir conditioner’ (not my father’s term) was a wonderful alternative to the cage-like cot. My father’s intentions were simple, and based on removing what he and my mother saw as the worst aspects of a baby’s typical sleeping arrangements: clothes, sheets and blankets. These not only have to be washed, but they restrict arm and leg movement and are a highly imperfect method of keeping a baby comfortable. My mother was happy. She had to give me fewer baths and of course had fewer clothes and blankets to wash, so allowing her more time to enjoy her baby.

I was very happy, too, though I must report at this stage that I remember nothing of those first two and a half years. I am told that I never once objected to being put back inside. I had a clear view through the glass front and, instead of being semi-swaddled and covered with blankets, I luxuriated semi-naked in warm, humidified air. The air was filtered but not germ-free, and when the glass front was lowered into place, the noise from me and from my parents and sister was dampened, not silenced.

I loved my father dearly. He was fantastically devoted and affectionate. But perhaps the stories about me would never have started if he had done a better job with his public image. He believed that, although our genes determine who we are, it is mostly our environment that shapes our personality. A Time magazine cover story ran the headline ‘BF Skinner says we can’t afford freedom.’ All he had said was that controls are an everyday reality – traffic lights and a police force, for instance – and that we need to organise our social structures in ways that create more positive controls and fewer aversive ones. As is clear from his utopian novel, Walden Two, the furthest thing from his mind was a totalitarian or fascist state.”

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William F. Buckley and B.F. Skinner, in 1973, discussing moral development.

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B.F. Skinner, the famed Behaviorist who plays a central role in one of my favorite New Yorker articles, Calvin Trillin’s “The Chicken Vanishes” (subscription required), is responsible for this 1954 video about his pre-personal computer Teaching Machine, which provided automated instruction.

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