The teaching machine was a mechanical device whose purpose was to administer a curriculum of programmed instruction. In one incarnation, it housed a list of questions, and a mechanism through which the learner could respond to each question. Upon delivering a correct answer, the learner would be rewarded.
Skinner advocated the use of teaching machines for a broad range of students (e.g., preschool aged to adult) and instructional purposes (e.g., reading and music). Another of the multiple machines he envisioned could teach rhythm:
- A relatively simple device supplies the necessary contingencies. The student taps a rhythmic pattern in unison with the device. "Unison" is specified very loosely at first (the student can be a little early or late at each tap) but the specifications are slowly sharpened. The process is repeated for various speeds and patterns. In another arrangement, the student echoes rhythmic patterns sounded by the machine, though not in unison, and again the specifications for an accurate reproduction are progressively sharpened. Rhythmic patterns can also be brought under the control of a printed score. (Skinner, 1961, p. 381).
The teaching machine had such instructional potential because it provided immediate and regular reinforcement that maintained students’ interest, as the “material in the machine always novel” (Skinner, 1961, p. 387). In this way, a student’s attention could be maintained without the use of aversive controls. The efficiency of the teaching machine resulted from its automatic provision of reinforcement, individualized pace setting, and a coherent instructional sequence for the student. It engaged students and allowed them to learn by doing.
Teaching machines, though perhaps rudimentary, were not rigid instruments of instruction. They could be adjusted and improved based upon reports of students’ performance. For example, if a student’s report showed numerous incorrect responses, then the machine could be reprogrammed to provide less advanced prompts or questions- the idea being that students acquire behaviors most efficiently when their error rate is minimized. Along these lines, multiple choice formats were not best suited for teaching machines because contingencies of reinforcement would be left to chance; moreover, this format could increase student mistakes and induce erroneous behaviors.
Not only useful in teaching explicit skills, machines could also promote the development of a repertoire of behaviors Skinner called self-management. Self-management refers to how students think- how they attend to the environment with the view of responding appropriately to stimuli. Machines give students the opportunity to first pay attention before receiving a reward as reinforcement. This is in stark contrast with what Skinner noticed as the classroom practice of initially capturing students’ attention (e.g., with a lively video) and delivering a reward (e.g., entertainment) before they have actually done attended- a practice which actually counters the development of self-management and fails to correctly apply reinforcements for correct behavior. What Skinner referred to as a teaching machine would probably be akin to a computer software program today that provided highly structured and incremental instruction. Though it was just one of a number of inventions, it embodies much of Skinner’s theory of learning and has wide-reaching implications for education in general and classroom instruction in particular.
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