Thursday, July 20, 2017

Seymour Papert vs. The "Teaching Machines"


There's a classic image in cartoons: the main character has a moral choice to make, and there's a little angel version of themselves on one side, and a little devil version on the other.

Who will they listen to? What will they do? Will they follow their better selves or concede to their darker natures?

Those of us in edtech (teachers, coaches, administrators, vendors) have a similar decision. Only for us, the consequences aren't as cartoonish as the possible flattening of the RoadRunner with an ACME brand anvil, and the characters whispering in our ears aren't haloed or horned.

On our right shoulder is Seymour Papert, on our left is B.F. Skinner and his "Teaching Machines."

Seymour Papert is the visionary behind the idea that the child should program the computer, the computer shouldn't program the child. To Papert, students should use technology to explore the world around them, create, play, and explore. (Papert's responsible for a whole lot more...check out Dr. Gary Stager's TEDx talk).

Photo Credit: shen-montpelier | wikimedia commons

B.F. Skinner's "Teaching Machines," on the other hand, were specifically created to program the child through behaviorist response/reward reinforcement. Students saw a sentence or an equation and wrote their answer in the blank space on the right. If they were correct, they moved on. If not, they were given carefully sequenced information in the smallest of steps to teach them the missing material.

Skinner saw his machines as being able to take over all the instruction in a classroom, which he envisioned becoming as "mechanized as the kitchen."

Photo Credit: silly rabbit | wikimedia commons

In my mind, "Papert vs. The Teaching Machines" is the choice that faces everyone involved in edtech, every single day. Are we going to take the time to develop Papert's rich learning experiences where students program, design, collaborate, inquire, discover, and create?

Or are we going to remand our students to call center cubicles, hand them their headphones, and outsource all our instruction to the 21st century version of Skinner's machines?


Just something to think about.