From Skinner to computer-based education: Can machines teach?

We speak with independent journalist Audrey Watters, author of “Teaching machines: The history of personalized learning,” about the origins of teaching machines and the pedagogies that incorporate mechanical devices for teaching and learning. Ms. Watters explains how BF Skinner’s emphasis on behaviorism, in combination with commercial opportunism, has led in some cases to the supplanting of teachers by computer software.


00:00-00:37 Intros

00:37-01:33 Significance of the book title

01:33-04:19 What personalized learning is

04:19-05:40 Teaching machines and today’s computers

05:40-09:06 Encouraging students to find their interests: how humans are better than computers

09:06-10:29 How choices are presented in personalized study tools

10:29-12:10 Responsibility of adults to help students experience things they don’t even know they don’t know

12:10-15:35 “Dewey lost and Thorndike won,” “Skinner won and Papert lost”

15:35-17:58 B.F. Skinner

17:58-21:04 Economics of technology in schools

21:04-26:38 “Technology shapes education; education shapes technology and capitalism and white supremacy shape both”

26:38-30:01 Algorithms and their problems

30:01-32:35 Can software be a useful supplement to constructivist or project-based learning; why don’t we invest in humans?

32:35-34:39 Underlying reasons why Dewy and Papert lost to Thorndike and Skinner

34:39-36:51 Education is the “practice of care”

36:51-40:23 Lessons from the pandemic

40:23-44:30 Outro


Click here to see the full transcription of this episode. 


Soundtrack by Poddington Bear

Image: Columbia University (YouTube channel)