Review: Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning, by Audrey Watters
Updated: Sep 9
Researched and written just before the pandemic, Audrey Watters' new book, Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning, has arrived, serendipitously, at the ideal moment. As schools around the world race to curate the expertise they developed in 18 months of remote teaching and learning and as the educational technology industry races to capitalize on the sales opportunity of a century, Watters' book invites the reader to pause and examine schools today from a more accurate understanding of the last century of American education.
Watters' history is dramatically different from the stock narrative, which typically goes like this: American schools have evolved glacially throughout the past 100 years moving inevitably toward a technology-centric future. Sadly, though, teachers today employ the same desultory practices (lectures) that their great grandteachers did to impart one-size-fits-all curricula in a lock-step program that moves students from one grade to the next regardless of mastery. And then, a hero arrives to awaken schools from their century-long slumber: digital technology. Offering personalized learning to the student, a relief from the drudging, bureaucratic part of schooling to the teacher, digital tools are here to disrupt and democratize education at every level. Pressed into action through the pandemic, digital tools became the primary means of teaching and learning for millions of students. Now, the edtech pundits tell us, a return to the "old normal" would be an enormous failure.
It's a narrative common in Silicon Valley where only the future matters to many entrepreneurs, in the media which routinely hauls "American education" to the woodshed, and in school reform rhetoric. But, as Audrey Watters details in Teaching Machines, it's wrong. On a purely practical level, the number of children--and their broadening diversity on every level--attending schools and graduating from high school has doubled since 1920, years that also included seismic shifts brought on by standardized testing, the GI Bill, Brown v. Board, Sputnik, the student protests of the 60s and the many landmark policies, standards, curricula, and practices they inspired. "To call the US education system "static" from 1892 onward (Sal Khan's assessment, my note) is to narrate a history of education that is woefully inaccurate--offensively so, in fact," Watters says.
And, this stock narrative glosses over the long history of teaching machines and the promise they offered in personalizing learning, a story that begins with Ohio State University professor and inventor, Sidney Pressey, in 1920. The terms of that century-old conversation are almost identical to those used today. The bulk of Watters' book is focused on the teaching machine's greatest champion, the behaviorist, B.F. Skinner and his enormously frustrating attempt to make these tools revolutionize the American classroom. Starting first with IBM in 1954 and ending with Rheem Manufacturing Company in 1963, Skinner found his enthusiasm for teaching machines thwarted by the lackluster results of commercial market testing. And, Watters notes, Skinner was far from being the only player in the game. By 1962, some 200 companies were creating teaching machines and marketing them to individuals and school systems. Many of these products were far-less expensive workbooks that employed the same kind of "branching" strategies that the machines used, effectively a choose-your-own-adventure of learning. And yet, the revolution in schooling that Skinner imagined never arrived. His machine never reached production, and the machines and "programmed" workbooks that did make it to market were regarded more as novelties than as game changers.
Skinner and his counterparts blamed over-cautious manufacturers, Luddite teachers, obstructionist unions and short-sighted school budgeting offices for this lack of enthusiasm, the same complaint we hear today from the edtech industry. But Watters argues that resistance to teaching machines, including today's far more sophisticated digital technologies, arises from much deeper sources. They are, for one, inextricably behaviorist; that is, the programs run by teaching machines are by their very nature reductive. This makes them boring, for one. Watters notes that even in our imagining of technologies of the future "they're very rarely all that innovative. Electronic worksheets. Math drills. Televised lectures interspersed with multiple-choice questions." More importantly, they "strip away student agency and selfhood," effectively programming (and increasingly surveilling) the child. Watters writes, "Skinner had said as much himself (in his last book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, my note): his technology of behavior--and that included the teaching machines--was not interested in or committed to freedom." Even more, Watters concludes, systems, programs, machines and computers have come to be the metaphors that define how we think of and design schools and, even more insidiously, the mind. "From the history of refusal," Watters concludes, "we can see when students and teachers and communities protested attempts to engineer them, into either enlightenment or submission." The alternatives they created "privilege the much messier forms of teaching and learning, forms that are necessarily grounded in freedom and dignity."