The Engineered Student: On B. F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine

AHP readers may be interested in an excerpt from Audrey Watters’ recent book Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning now up on the MIT Press Reader: “The Engineered Student: On B. F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine.” As Watters writes about Skinner,

…His teaching machine, he argued, would enable a student to progress through exercises that were perfectly matched to her level of knowledge and skill, assessing her understanding of each new concept, and giving immediate feedback and encouragement along the way.

It was a “primitive” machine, Skinner admitted, fashioned out of a rectangular wooden box. “Problems in arithmetic were printed on cards,” he explained. “The student placed the card in the machine and composed a two-digital answer along one side by moving two levers. If the answer was right, a light appeared in a hole in the card.” He quickly built a second model in which a student manipulated sliders bearing the numbers 0 through 9 in order to compose an answer. In another prototype, the student turned a knob after setting the answer. If the answer was wrong, the knob would not turn. If the answer was right, the knob would move freely, and a bell would ring.

Read the full excerpt here.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.