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“Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”– Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

As part of his graduate work, B. F. Skinner invented what’s now known as “the Skinner Box.” His “operant conditioning chamber” was used to study and to train animals to perform certain tasks. Do the task correctly; get a reward (namely food).

Skinner was hardly the first to use animals in psychological experiments that sought to understand how the learning process works. Several decades earlier, for his dissertation research, Edward Thorndike had built a “puzzle box” in which an animal had to push a lever in order to open a door and escape (again, often rewarded with food for successfully completing the “puzzle”). Thorndike measured how quickly animals figured out how to get out of the box after being placed in it again and again and again – their “learning curve.”

Pigeons and Puzzle Boxes


We have in the puzzle box and in the Skinner Box the origins of education technology – some of the very earliest “teaching machines” – just as we have in the work of Thorndike and Skinner, the foundations of educational psychology and, as Lagemann has argued, of many of our educational practices still today. (In addition to developing the puzzle box, Thorndike also developed prototypes for what we know now as the multiple choice test.)

“Once we have arranged the particular type of consequence called a reinforcement,“ Skinner wrote in ”The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching“ (1954), ”our techniques permit us to shape the behavior of an organism almost at will. It has become a routine exercise to demonstrate this in classes in elementary psychology by conditioning such an organism as a pigeon.”

…Such an organism as a pigeon.” We often speak of “lab rats” as shorthand for the animals used in scientific experiments. We use the phrase too to describe people who work in labs, who are completely absorbed in performing their tasks again and again and again.

In education and in education technology, students are also the subjects of experimentation and conditioning. But in Skinner’s framework, they are not rats; they are pigeons.

"…Comparable results have been obtained with pigeons, rats, dogs, monkeys, human children… and psychotic subjects. In spite of great phylogenetic differences, all these organisms show amazingly similar properties of the learning process. It should be emphasized that this has been achieved by analyzing the effects of reinforcement and by designing techniques that manipulate reinforcement with considerable precision. Only in this way can the behavior of the individual be brought under such precise control.” (emphasis mine)

Learning, according to Skinner and Thorndike, is about behavior – about reinforcing those behaviors (knowledge, answers) that educators deem “correct.”

When educators fail to shape and control a student’s behavior through these techniques and technologies, they are at risk, in Skinner’s words, of “losing our pigeon.”


Project Pigeon


From “Ed-Tech’s Monsters”:

During World War II, Skinner worked on Project Pigeon, an experimental project to create pigeon-guided missiles.


…The military canceled and revived Project Pigeon a couple of times. “Our problem,” said Skinner, "was no one would take us seriously.” By 1953, the military had devised an electronic system for missile guidance, and animal-guided systems were no longer necessary.


That same year, Skinner came up with the idea for his teaching machine. Visiting his daughter’s fourth grade classroom, he was struck by the inefficiencies. Not only were all the students expected to move through their lessons at the same pace, but when it came to assignments and quizzes, they did not receive feedback until the teacher had graded the materials — sometimes a delay of days. Skinner believed that both of these flaws in school could be addressed through a machine, and built a prototype which he demonstrated at a conference the following year.


All these elements were part of Skinner’s teaching machines: the elimination of inefficiencies of the teacher, the delivery of immediate feedback, the ability for students to move through standardized content at their own pace.


Today’s ed-tech proponents call this “personalization.”

Cry “Havoc!” and Let Slip the Pigeons of War


Doves and pigeons share the same bird family. The former is a symbol of peace; the latter has been a weapon of war.

Computing technology is also a weapon of war. The world’s first programmable, digital computer was developed by the British during World War II to crack German military communications.

Education technology has roots in war as well – in Thorndike’s development of standardized testing for World War I recruits, in the Department of Defense’s development of SCORM and in its use of computer-based training simulations. Simon Ramo, “the father of the intercontinental ballistic missile,” is also the oldest person to ever receive a patent – yes, in education technology – “for any person, business, or entity seeking information to ensure that information being presented is useful by being understood.”

The pigeon. The object of technological experimentation, manipulation, and control, weaponized.

The pigeon. The child. The object of ed-tech.

The pigeon. The history of the future of education technology. (And the new theme for Hack Education.)

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Audrey Watters


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Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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