Ed tech behaviorism

Audrey Watters said:

I look around technology today (tech and ed-tech) and I see an incredible reverberation of the work of the behaviorist BF Skinner, for example. Now if you turn to “education theory programs” in “academia,” you’ll find that Skinner isn’t so “hot.” He hasn’t been for decades. He was resoundingly dismissed in tech circles too via Noam Chomsky. And yet, all around me, I see Skinnerism – click-for-immediate-feedback. People as pigeons. Zynga. Farmville. Gamification. But without the language and the theory and the history to say, “hey we recognized in the mid-1960s that this was a wretched path, one with all sorts of anti-democratic repercussions,” we’re not just making the same mistakes again, we’re actually engaging in reactionary practices – politically, pedagogically.

It matters what we know about the history of education. It matters what we know about the history of technology.

via http://www.hackeducation.com/2014/06/07/what-should-technologists-know-about-education

17 Responses to “Ed tech behaviorism”

  1. Amen! The other statement that Audrey mentions in this piece that I’ve been worried about for a long time is ” that while we work things out – because we’re too busy to learn about the past – we’re in the meantime screwing with a lot of (often marginalized) kids as we “play.””

  2. That’s at least partly because many entities have realized that they can make big money off the backs of marginalized kids. And also partly because the theory of ‘disruptive innovation’ aims at underserved areas of ‘the market,’ (i.e., marginalized students who already aren’t successful in traditional school) – what have they got to lose, right?

    Thanks for the comment, Lucie.

  3. Scott, you know I agree with you about many things you post here, but I have to protest this one. Audrey’s statement that you share here is such a gross oversimplification of behavioral principles of education and the impact that behavior analysis has had on education. It’s true that Skinnerian principles are not so “hot” in schools of education in academia, but that lack of popularity doesn’t mean they’re not effective. If anything, the backlash against behavioral approaches that I’ve seen in the past 20 years of my career has been because they’re “too scientific,” too “data-oriented” and not touchy-feely enough. And if you read the original Skinner-Chomsky debates and follow-up commentary I think you’ll agree that there is not a general consensus on who “won” those debates. In fact, they did little to shift the thinking of either side.

    I think it’s easy to reduce Skinnerian principles to pigeons pecking, but when we look at many of the most effective practices in education, described by Hattie and others, we find that immediate feedback, mastery-based instruction and even adaptive learning (based on what constructivists would call scaffolding) are based in behavioral principles. What does that mean? Essentially that the curriculum is responsive to the student performance and the goal is to increase more of the academic behavior that we want to see, building to mastery. Put simply, we know how to organize instruction to do that, using behavioral principles. The proof is actually in the pudding of performance data.

    I think it’s important to recognize that the swinging of the pendulum in educational practice often has nothing to do with proven student performance outcomes. Look at the results of Direct Instruction vs. Whole Language instruction. The first is one of the most effective methods for teaching phonics in history (see the results of Project Follow Through, for example) and yet, it fell out of vogue because teachers hated doing it and found it boring (not for the students, mind you, but for themselves). Whole Language, in spite of being an abject failure, results-wise, continues to be embraced by some teachers.

    I agree entirely that we need to understand history and learn from it. For me, however, the “wretched path” is one where we aren’t promoting methods that produce favorable learning outcomes and letting those outcome data be our guide. How many people read Audrey’s statement and were influenced to think “Skinner, bad” without reading a single article from journals like the Education and Treatment of Children or the Journal of Behavioral Education or Behavior Analysis in Practice, all of which publish articles on the impact behavioral principles are having in improving not just education, but other areas of application as well. It’s time for us to move beyond the 1960′s impression of behavioral principles as advocating cold and mechanistic brainwashing of learners a la A Clockwork Orange. Many instructional design models have a foundation in behavioral principles and to suggest that behavioral science hasn’t progressed in the last 50+ years from “people as pigeons” is woefully remiss.

    Thanks for hearing me out!

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Karen. I think the concern around adaptive learning systems and drill-and-kill apps and other potentially-’Skinnerian’ tech tools is not that they give immediate feedback or are focused on ‘mastery’ or include ‘performance data.’ It’s the concern around feedback on what? Mastery of what? Performance data on what? Responsive to student performance on what? And the answer almost invariably is low-level knowledge and skills because – absent deep immersion in what-can-you-do-with-what-you-know simulations – it’s all the tech can do at this time: push out content and then assess low-level learning.

    I’m not against adaptive learning systems. I’m against the elevation of automated low-level learning environments as transformative replacements of analog low-level learning environments. It’s not the tools I’m concerned with, it’s the type of learning we’re asking of our children. Replacing bottom-of-Bloom’s analog environments with bottom-of-Bloom’s digital environments is not transformative (although it is financially lucrative).

    So, yes, that means I’m not a huge fan of massive uses of direct instruction. Why? Because it’s based on teacher and system control, not student agency and empowerment (and because, taken to its extreme, it results in the sort of rote chanting classrooms that are downright frightening). If we want students to be independent and collaborative critical thinkers and problem-solvers, we need to give more of the learning process to them, not hold on to more of it ourselves. To the extent that direct instruction, or adaptive learning, or any other intervention is viewed as ‘successful,’ it should be within the lens of freeing up more opportunities for student agency and ownership of their own learning processes, not just scores on assessments of low-level learning.

    Okay, I’m ready for the pushback… ;)

  5. Scott, yes, great! Here’s the thing….all of those questions you ask in the first paragraph are the same things that I want to know, as a behavioral scientist!! But that’s a content issue, not a methodology issue. Complex skills? Problem solving? GREAT. That’s what I want too, not just low-levels of Bloom’s. Hey, Bloom was a behavioral guy and he has those higher level concepts in there too. But somehow the “what” has gotten confused with the “how” and we’re throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The fact of the matter is that we know how to do the HOW and it’s pretty much criminal, as far as I’m concerned, that it’s wasted on low level content. To me, that’s the real problem. But until we, as a community, can get past the “pigeons as people” debate and on to what a science of instruction can help us accomplish with complex skills, it won’t change.

    I don’t agree that low-level is all that the tech is capable of doing. I think it’s an instructional design problem. To me the upshot is that there are a lot of people designing edtech products who have NO BUSINESS designing edtech products. But, you know, their goals are different than yours and mine. You and I might say, “how do we want this skill to be applied and to what subject matter and in what real-world environment by the end of this program?” While they might say, “I can make an app where kids identify letters and numbers and I can do it pretty cheaply and sell it for 99 cents.” But I assure you, those people are not behavioral scientists!

    I don’t know how far into this you’re interested in getting, but here’s an article that might interest you about teaching problem solving, reasoning and analytical thinking using a behavioral model. You might be surprised! https://listserv.uhd.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A3=ind0911&L=TBA-L&E=base64&P=10218215&B=–Apple-Mail-44–714645774&T=application%2Fpdf;%20name=%22J%20Robbins%20Bk%20Chptr.pdf%22&N=J%20Robbins%20Bk%20Chptr.pdf

    Regarding Direct Instruction, I understand your point; my point would just be that all of the things you listed as reasons you don’t like it are philosophical, not empirical. Further, Direct Instruction is used for establishing basic phonics repertoires…it’s not intended, by any means, to be an endpoint. It’s the jumping off point! It gives the students the component skills that they need to extend, generalize, apply, etc. etc.

    I don’t have any objection to students having ownership of their own learning. I like the idea of giving students choices and they definitely need to learn to be collaborative and independent. I guess I’d flip your challenge to me and say that I just think that whether or not that ownership is successful needs to be viewed through the lens of performance metrics…and obviously not just low-level learning. What’s good for the goose? :)

  6. Karen, I feel like you’re arguing WHAT COULD BE and Audrey and I are arguing WHAT IS.

    I have no big disagreement with anything you’re saying here. But there’s a difference between possibility and reality. You say that I’m arguing from an ideological standpoint. And that’s true – I do indeed believe that schools should focus more on student empowerment as manifested in greater voice, choice, control, ownership, etc. But I’m also arguing empirically from the large-scale evidence that what you are advocating for is NOT HAPPENING. If it was, Audrey and I wouldn’t have our concerns. Instead, we see drill-and-kill apps and responsive low-level learning systems and other mechanisms for using tech to run kids through their paces (i.e., ‘people as pigeons’).

    Might we be able to teach problem solving, reasoning, and analytical thinking through a behavioral model? Perhaps. Might our current tech be able to do more than we currently use it for? Sure. Might direct instruction be a jumping off point for more complex thinking work? Of course. But the reality is that these things are not occurring at any level of scale that would mediate our concerns about what actually is happening instead with the vast majority of these technology-enabled learning systems in the vast majority of our learning environments.

    It’s all well and good for advocating for what could be. Goodness knows I do it every day. But let’s don’t hack at Audrey for calling it like it is…

    [And, yes, I'm all for performance metrics on higher-level thinking skills. They're desperately needed. Get 'em made and get 'em out there so folks can use 'em!]

  7. There is a distinction between “active” responding and engaged learners and “meaningful” responding and engaged learners. This distinction was first drawn by behaviorists in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, such distinction is often lost on individuals from all approaches. This distinction is likely one of the great behaviorist contributions to education.

    Nowhere in the many high quality behavioral programs does one see repetitive practice as a goal or often even a part of the program. (Yes practice is important, but it must be done carefully and deliberately with changing criteria and learner goal setting.) Scince the early 1970s behavioral approaches have focused on what might be called “higher cognitive” learning. Here the emphasis is on inquiry and the teaching/learning of concepts, principles, and generative strategies. Teaching learners how to collaborate, reason, and problem-solve have also been a focus. Creativity has received considerable attention, with books written on the topic.

    Perhaps of greatest interest is the application of systemic behavior analysis to understand emotions, particularly what results in feeling accomplished and included rather than angry and left out. Such a systemic analysis helps to define what it is to be free and feel free. The fact this comes from a robust and rapidly growing disciple that also includes work with animals may be unsettling for some, but in reality allows for pushing the envelope in understanding behavioral complexity.

  8. Scott, I think all three of us, you, Audrey and I, are in general agreement about the quality of many of the products on the edtech market. They stink.

    I just don’t think Audrey IS calling it like it is in the comments about Skinner and “Skinnerism.” And I think it’s divisive and dismissive. It keeps people like you and me from being able to sit down and ask “what problem are we trying to solve?” and work together to come up with a solution that has the empowerment, independence, complexity AND effectiveness that we would both like to see. That is my issue with what Audrey said.

    I have a colleague who is a cognitive psychologist. I am a behavioral psychologist. We could argue all day long about his explanations of underlying mechanism and my need for none. But we don’t because it’s not useful and doesn’t advance the problems we’re both trying to solve. Instead, we focus defining the questions, how to measure outcomes, how to define success and how to iterate when something isn’t working.

  9. I confess I empathize with Audrey on this one. It’s hard to see kids in cubicles or classrooms for huge chunks of the day, working through low-level knowledge items via ‘blended learning’ and getting badges along the way to reward their success on multiple choice assessments, and not feel like it’s pellets for pigeons…

  10. It may look like pellets for pigeons, but it is not Behaviorism. Mirabito & Layng (2013) wrote, There are two major types of personal consequences (Goldiamond, 1974; Layng, 2009). There are those that are extrinsic to the activity, extrinsic meaning that they are arranged by an outside agent. In contrast, there are those specific to an activity. Too often policymakers focus on the former and hope for the latter. B. F. Skinner (1953), commenting on why French was easier to learn in France than in the United States, said, “In an American school if you ask for salt in good French, you get an A. In France, you get the salt” (p. 402). The latter is an example of the kind of built-in consequences Skinner advocated; the former is arranged by others and is extrinsic to the activity, what Skinner (1968) called a “spurious” consequence. Behaviorism is about arranging highly interactive learning environments where naturally occurring consequences maintain behavior. The goal of Behaviorism is not to make learning fun, but to find the fun in learning. That is Skinner’s legacy.

  11. Thanks for the clarification. That may be Skinner’s legacy to those in the know but I don’t think that’s his legacy for the general public and/or educator population. I think his larger, more general legacy is pellets for pigeons. That may be unfair but I think it’s probably true, particularly in schools since we seem more than willing to attach extrinsic consequences to nearly everything we ask kids to do…

    I love the quote about France and salt!

  12. I agree, for a variety of reasons, Skinner’s work, and the work of those interested in applying the methods of the natural sciences to the study of behavior (i.e. Behaviorists), have been misrepresented (to be generous), with few of the critics actually reading original sources. It is up to all of us who value accuracy and truth not to let these pass as “conventional wisdom.”

  13. I am stepping into this with a severe concern that I am wasting time and breaking one of my cardinal rules.

    BUT part of what I am going to offer is a URL on the reading wars, which are still ongoing.

    I use an amazingly powerful series of reading instruction tools that are CLEARLY Skinnerian. I have no doubt that IF Education actually USED these tools our 40% illiteracy rate could be dramatically improved for the better. Right now Audrey and others are on the lovely side of “discovery learning” rather than instruction. Here’s something to read.


  14. Scott
    Your comment above about Skinner’s legacy for those in the know, really peaked my interest. I am a behaviorist and really enjoy collaborating with others but often run into this issue of people with misunderstandings about behaviorism, skinner, evidence based strategies, etc. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on how people who are “in the know” regarding Skinner and behaviorism could best dispel these myths for people who aren’t in the know and potentially have very deeply held beliefs about this topic that are unknowingly based on myths and misconceptions? How do we help people understand the incredible value we have to offer their classroom and students so all students can benefit from the type of classroom instruction that many teachers seem to value, which is the discovery learning/foster the child’s growth and creativity? I don’t think effective teaching based on the science of how people learn and creative/child driven discovery learning are mutually exclusive but it seems incredibly difficult to bring the two together when both sides perpetuate myths and misconceptions without reading original works and thinking about how to bring the two fields of thought together. So basically my question is, what could I say to you or how could I present the idea of behaviorism to you so that your previous experiences do not interfere with what I may have to offer?

  15. Great question, Megan. I’m really interested in hearing what you think, Scott. I think what Joe said is true…many critics have not read the primary sources and instead rely on the interpretations of folks like Noam Chomsky and Alfie Kohn. But the sense I get is that if I say to those who are not in the know something like, “Hey, you might want to check out Skinner’s book ‘The Technology of Teaching.’ He has a whole chapter about creativity and another about teaching critical thinking,” that they’re not really interested in checking it out. Is there a way for us to move beyond that? Or has the die been pretty much cast?

  16. Fascinating conversation!!
    In a way, I am a behaviorist because I believe the best way to understand meaning is to watch what people do (An idea from Wittgenstein). Yet scientific behavioral theory has yet to adequately address what was the most pressing issue for Vygotsky, that people appropriate cultural tools which they use to mediate their own behavior (without any observable predicates.), or that of Wittgenstein, that behavior is often embedded in interpretive language games that can’t be understood without referencing hermeneutic processes. It is particularly the last point that often makes behavioral approaches conservative when they implicitly advocating for the status quo.
    To Karen, Joe Richard and Megan; I could see potential in considering behavioralism as a technology of education and change, but not a broad theory of learning. Indeed the failure of many post-behavioral theories is that they do not address the contribution of behavioralism. However, the scientific status of behavioralism is questionable as described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on behaviorism
    “Is the case against behaviorism definitive? Decisive? Paul Meehl noted more than three decades ago that theories in psychology seem to disappear not under the force of decisive refutation but rather because researchers lose interest in their theoretical orientations (Meehl 1978). One implication of Meehl’s thesis is that a once popular “Ism”, not having been decisively refuted, may restore some of its former prominence if it mutates or transforms itself so as to incorporate responses to criticisms. What may this mean for behaviorism? It may mean that some version of the doctrine might rebound.”
    The upshot of this potential rebound is a Popperian refutation of
    Behaviorism’s scientific status. It may operate technically by experimental scientific methodology, but it is not in and of itself scientific.

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