Can People Be Taught Like Pigeons?

BF Skinner

Original caption:  Advocate of conditioning approach is Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, fifty-six, who developed his techniques through experiments with pigeons.  Bird shown is trained to fight under white light, to remain amicable when light is blue.  Pigeons accept corn as a reward for learning tricks.  People are less demanding.

This is the serious question posed as the title of an article about “programmed teaching” published in the October 1960 issue of Fortune magazine.  The following excerpts from the article by George A. W. Boehm reveal that technology has been trumpeted as the solution to perceived problems of mass education for decades.

More importantly, this article reveals assumptions about how we learn and what it means to be human that may lie at the root of many education problems today.  These assumptions have been embedded so deeply into how we visualize education that we no longer question them.  This means that solving these problems may require us to reexamine deeply ingrained beliefs about how we learn.

So what is “programmed teaching”?  Programmed teaching is essentially an early version of what is being called personalized learning today.

Students work with printed “programs” designed to be so easy to follow that they can proceed almost without supervision and at their own pace.

Programmed teaching, much like personalized learning, promised to usher in dramatic changes.

Programmed teaching, if it lives up to its early promise, could in the next decade or two revolutionize education.  It may also have an important impact on such U.S. educational problems as the shortage of teachers and the construction of schools.  Conceivably it could upset the whole social structure of American youth.


Aside from the interest of educators in the new theory, there is considerable interest among those who look to education as a market.  If the textbooks now used in schools were to be rendered obsolescent (which advocates of programmed teaching like to think is a real possibility), a whole new market would be created that might exceed $100 million a year.

Here is a photo of one of the programmed teaching machines called Didak that was being marketed at the time.  The caption suggests Didak is basically a primitive computer installed with personalized learning software.

Didak BoxThese machines and teaching techniques are the end-result of certain assumptions about how we learn and what it means to be human.  These assumptions were put forth most clearly by Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner who developed them, in part, through his work training pigeons.

B. F. Skinner’s method is based on the theory of “conditioning.”  The program is supposed to take the student by the hand, as it were, and lead him every step of the way through a course.  According to Skinner, a good program makes it almost impossible for a student to make a mistake.  The subject matter is atomized into tiny bits, presented to the student as a series of simple statements.  Each idea is repeated over and over again, always in different words.  Many of the statements include blanks to be filled in by the student with a word or two.  The object is to have the student “participate actively in the program.”  By filling in the blanks correctly, he “conditions” himself to absorbing the information being presented.

Skinner was a well-meaning man who held deep but disconcerting beliefs about the nature of human behavior.  These beliefs informed Skinner’s approach to education.

The Skinner method is in the tradition of the late John Watson of Johns Hopkins University, father of “behaviorism.”  Watson attempted to explain all behavior – human as well as animal, voluntary as well as instinctive – as a series of physiological responses to environmental stimuli.  Skinner thought teaching should be a science based on behaviorism.  He also thought that machines would be useful – an idea that had been tried earlier by Sidney L. Pressey, now professor emeritus at Ohio State University.  In the mid-Twenties, Pressey invented a machine that gave examinations and kept track of errors.  But at the time there was no shortage of teachers and little public pressure to speed up the pace of education, and Pressey’s ideas were ignored by educators.

In some respects Skinner’s technique is similar to the conditioning methods worked out by the great Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, who in his most famous experiment conditioned a dog to drool at the sound of a bell by ringing the bell every time the dog was about to be fed.

Skinner began studying the learning process in 1929.  At first he worked with rats; later he switched to pigeons.  He went beyond Pavlov when he induced entirely new patterns of behavior.  He taught the birds a number of complex tricks – complex for pigeons, at any rate.  They learned, among other things, to discriminate among playing cards, peck out tunes on a toy piano, and play a kind of table tennis.

It is a basic tenet of behaviorism that behavior patterns, such as learning, are essentially the same for all intelligent species.  So Skinner adapted his pigeon-training techniques to his own students.

Through his work with rats and pigeons Skinner developed a theory of human behavior.  Skinner was a behaviorist to the end.  He believed that all human behavior was conditioned through external positive and negative reinforcements.  Freedom, dignity, and free will were dangerous concepts that, according to Skinner, needed to be revealed as illusions and discarded.  Then, Skinner said, we could build a utopia based on a scientific examination of human behavior and the deliberate implementation of cultural practices engineered through the use of positive and negative reinforcements.  Famed literary critic Northrop Frye wrote, “Skinner’s book [Walden Two] shows how to develop children’s will power by hanging lollipops around their necks and giving them rewards for not eating them: its Philistine vulgarity makes it a caricature of the pedantry of social science.”

Skinner reveals an image of the human form that most certainly fails to account for its full measure.  For instance, by viewing us as motivated purely by external stimuli his theory has trouble accounting for self motivation.  New research has revealed that we possess a mysterious intrinsic motivation that seems to arise from within.  Although science cannot explain its origins it has documented its existence.  Most importantly, from a Skinnerian viewpoint, it has been documented that attempts to positively or negatively reinforce this intrinsic motivation kills it.  One example is the classic study which showed that preschoolers who were rewarded for drawing showed less interest in drawing and produced lower quality drawings than the preschoolers who were offered no rewards.

Or consider the importance of play to human development and the work of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp a/k/a “The Rat Tickler.”  Panksepp damaged the prefrontal cortex of rats and discovered that, even with their cognitive functions physically damaged, they still jumped around and played like the other rats suggesting that play originates in the deepest and most primitive areas of the brain.  Panksepp has also suggested that play could be used as a treatment for ADHD.  Panksepp has also shown that play activates gene expression in the higher brain regions of rats – i.e. play “fertilizes” the brain and makes you smarter.

And consider the seemingly magical effect of simply having a genuine high-image of the student and how testing might actually distort our image of human potential.  Scientific research has conclusively demonstrated the existence of the self-fulfilling prophecy effect but, much like intrinsic motivation, cannot explain its origins.

Despite mounting evidence, we continue to pursue an education model that is based on a stunted view of human nature.  The problems we face in education might have little to do with the usual issues and everything to do with something more fundamental.  Nobody doubts that most students begrudgingly respond to positive and negative reinforcements.  But scientific research is revealing that learning and development are far more complicated and miraculous processes than we could have imagined.  And more fragile.  It is time to reexamine some fundamental assumptions about learning and human nature so we can truly reimagine education.


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