Broadening Teaching

Oh, how I wish I’d paid attention!

But I was only seven or eight years old.

My father, John A. Barlow, was an experimental psychologist. Friends and colleagues I remember include B. F. Skinner, Fred Keller, Charles Ferster, and Tom Gilbert. Dad was particularly interested in teaching machines: he was a paid consultant for Field Enterprises (which did a lot of the commercial work on teaching machines and programmed instruction) and wrote the entry on the subject for their World Book Encyclopedia.

By the mid-1960s, my father and almost everyone else involved with teaching machines and programmed instruction had given them up. Under the influence of Keller and his Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), first publicized in his 1968 article “Goodbye Teacher,” PSI—or “Mastery,” as my father preferred to call it—became my father’s passion.

By the end of the decade, like all of the others who had been so involved with teaching machines, my father had abandoned them completely.

Like the others, he had discovered that effective teaching cannot be done by machines—or, more accurately, not by machines alone or through programmed learning systems. Teachers are needed, as is interaction. As are faces, the faces of people—right in front of the student.

Yes, some people can learn under any circumstances, as long as the information is available to them. For most, though, it takes something more.

It takes motivation.

The teaching-machine people realized that teaching cannot focus on technology, or on any one thing. A good education is based on lectures, on discussions, on reading, on writing, on labs, on getting outside of the classroom (or away from the computer) and just exploring. PSI isn’t a formula for education, but one tool a teacher can use—should use—among many.

Good teaching requires two things: the ability to motivate and flexibility, the ability to switch from tool to tool given the demands of the particular situation. Something that worked with one group of students may not work with the next. The good teacher needs to have had enough experience with a variety of teaching methods so that she or he can easily switch from one to another when the situation requires it.

What interests me most about the history of programmed instruction is that its lessons have been largely forgotten. Today, we are so star-struck by digital technology that we forget that nothing is new, really, that we can find things in the past that can inform what we are doing now.

What my father learned was to focus on students, not on teaching aids. He learned to use the aids, but to abandon them, too, when that was warranted. He learned to keep his options open.

What worries me about today’s online instruction is that it provides no options, making instruction a packaged whole. That, unfortunately, will only work for a few students, and not every time.

Had I paid more attention to what my father and the others were doing in the 1960s, I might not now be having to try to reconstruct what they learned. Like the rest of us, I have been too caught up in the future. Now, I want to learn more from the past.

Too bad I didn’t listen. Could have saved myself some work.

I’ll be writing more on this over the next weeks, exploring the ways PSI and Programmed Learning can be integrated into a broad approach to teaching, and explaining my doubts about the way online courses are generally structured today.

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