The Dead Ideas of B. F. Skinner Are Driving School “Innovation”

Along with the tenets of “human capital”, “behaviorism” informs the radical restructuring of public education. It drives the demand for the secret databases, where like prisoners in Guantanamo, abducted data is tortured until it yields to the miner’s will. Mined data is then used (for a fee!) to create “personalized learning environments” for those held captive by this more than half a decade old “innovation”.

For the famous behaviorist B. F. Skinner, love, hope, conscience and conviction do not exist. The aim is to create an “environment” that constantly modifies and controls human behavior through the application of various stimuli; rewards and punishments following the application of stimuli (read: “accountability”) are central to this outlook. (High-stakes tests, anyone?) For radical behaviorists such as Skinner, there is only the biological machine which can be made more efficient and useful to rulers through the careful manipulation of these “environments”. The result of this manipulation is called learning. Computer graded essays will reign. “Measurement” of organism responses to stimuli (read: “student learning outcomes” or “results”) becomes a dominant form of social control and thus “drives instruction”. Efficiency is the highest ideal. Computers and other machines are to be seen as themselves in control (“technological determinism”), thus hiding the decisions of those who have usurped power that betray the secret of collective human agency (i.e., hiding that there is an alternative).

This is a vision without humanity. Indeed, this “innovation” is quite “rigorous”.  Remember (as if we could forget), insurgents love rigor, and they want more of it for students and teachers. Rigor is short for rigor mortis: the stiffening of the joints and muscles of a body a few hours after death.

These insights were inspired by Anthony Cody’s post, “Are Education Innovators Channeling B.F. Skinner?“. An excerpt:

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… As Phil McCrae points out, a vision very reminiscent of Skinner’s continues to drive US education policy.

The U.S. Department of Education (2013) has clearly articulated a commitment to making this happen with ‘Competency-Based Learning’ or ‘Personalized Learning’: “Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money…make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently…Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity.”

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