These were my remarks today during my "flipped" keynote at DigPed. You can read the transcript of my keynote here.

We haven't had a dog in well over a decade. Kin and I travel so much that it just seemed cruel. But now, what with the work-from-home orders and no travel til there's a vaccine (and even perhaps, beyond that), we decided to get one.

It's actually quite challenging to adopt a dog right now, as everyone seems to be of the same mind as us. And even before the pandemic, there's a big of a dog shortage in the US. Spay-and-neuter programs have been quite effective, and many states have passed laws outlawing puppy mills. The West Coast generally imports dogs from other parts of the country, but these rescue-relocations have largely been shut down. The shelters are pretty empty.

It's a great time to be a dog.

Adopting a dog is quite competitive, and we have been on multiple waiting lists. But finally, we lucked out, and last week we adopted Poppy. She is a 9 month old Rottie mix. She weighs about 55 pounds. She is not housebroken yet — but we're getting there. She's very sweet and super smart and is already getting better on the leash, at sitting when in the apartment elevator, at sitting at street corners, at sitting when people and other dogs approach her. It's important, I think, if you have a big dog, that you train them well.

If you have a dog, you probably know that the best way to train it is through positive behavior reinforcement. That is, rather than punishing the dog when she misbehaves, the dog should be rewarded when she exhibits the desired behavior. This is the basis of operant conditioning, as formulated by the infamous psychologist B. F. Skinner.

The irony, of course. I've just finished a book on the history of teaching machines — a book that argues that Skinner's work is fundamental to history, to how ed-tech is still built today. Ed-tech is operant conditioning, and we should do everything to resist it, and now I'm going to wield it to shape my dog's behavior.

Some background for those who don't know: As part of his graduate work, Skinner invented what's now known as "the Skinner Box." This "operant conditioning chamber" was used to study and to train animals to perform certain tasks. For Skinner, most famously, these animals were pigeons. 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, the psychologist 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."

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 Ellen Condliffe Lagemann has pronounced in her famous statement "Thorndike won and Dewey lost," of many of the educational practices we carry through to this day. (In addition to developing the puzzle box, Thorndike also developed prototypes for the multiple choice test.)

"Once we have arranged the particular type of consequence called a reinforcement," Skinner wrote in 1954 in "The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching," "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. Indeed, that is the point. In Skinner's framework, they are not "lab rats"; they are pigeons. As he wrote,

...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.

Learning, according to Skinner and Thorndike, is about behavior, about reinforcing those behaviors that educators deem "correct" — knowledge, answers, not just sitting still and raising one's hand before speaking (a behavior I see is hard-coded into this interface). When educators fail to shape, reinforce, and control a student's behavior through these techniques and technologies, they are at risk, in Skinner's words, of "losing our pigeon."

In 1951, he wrote an article for Scientific American: "How to Train Animals." I pulled it out again to prepare for this talk today and realized that it contains almost all the tips and steps that dog trainers now advocate for. Get a clicker. Use that as the conditioned reinforcer. But then give the treats and associate the click with the reward. (The clicker is faster.) You can train a dog anything in less than twenty minutes, Skinner insisted. And once you're confident with that, you can train a pigeon. And then you can train a baby. And then…

Two years later after that article, 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 mechanization, and he built a prototype for his teaching machine which he demonstrated at a conference the following year.

Skinner believed that materials should be broken down into small chunks and organized in a logical fashion for students to move through. The machine would show one chunk, one frame at a time, and if the student answered the question correctly, could move on to the next question. Skinner called this process "programmed instruction." We call it "personalized learning today." And yes, this involves a lot of clicking.

Skinner is often credited with inventing the teaching machine. He didn't. Sidney Pressey, another educational psychologist, had built one decades beforehand. (Skinner said that Pressey's was more testing than teaching machine.) Despite who was or wasn't "the first," Skinner has shaped education technology immensely. Even though his theories have largely fallen out of favor in most education psychology circles, education technology (and technology more broadly) seems to have embraced them — often, I think, without acknowledging where these ideas came from. Our computer technologies are shot through with behaviorism. Badges. Notifications. Haptic alerts. Real-time feedback. Gamification. Click click click.

According to Skinner, when we fail to properly correct behavior — facilitated by and through machines — we are at risk of "losing our pigeons." But I'd contend that with this unexamined behaviorist bent of (ed-)tech, we actually find ourselves at risk of losing our humanity. To use operant conditioning, Skinner wrote in his article on animal training "we must build up some degree of level and again reinforces only louder deprivation or at least permit a deprivation to prevail which it is within our power to reduce." That is, behaviorial training relies on deprivation. Behaviorist ed-tech relies on suffering — suffering that we could eliminate were we not interested in exploiting it to reinforce compliance. This pigeon pedagogy stands in opposition to the Luddite pedagogy I wrote in the text for this keynote.

So, here's to our all being "lost pigeons," and unlearning our training. But dammit, here's to Poppy learning to be a very good and obedient dog.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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