Defence of Skinner as early ed
reform critic B F Skinner facts and Direct Instruction
Date sent: Sun, 25 Jan 1998 13:53:39 -0500
From: "J. E. Stone"
Subject: B F Skinner facts and Direct Instruction
At the risk of needlessly burning up everyone's time with something that has
been previously discussed at length, I want to add to David Feeney's remarks
about B. F. Skinner and his daughter, Professor Julie Skinner Vargas at West
I have know Professor Vargas and her husband, Professor Ernest Vargas, for
years. I see them at scholarly meetings. Not only are they well published
educational psychologists, they are among the few teacher-educators who
would agree practically all of the criticisms of public schooling that one
reads in the ClearingHouse! Knowing of their spoken and written views on
education, they would shout for joy in reading Hirsch's THE SCHOOLS WE NEED
AND WHY WE DON'T HAVE THEM. In fact some years ago, Ernest Vargas and I
worked on a paper about the adversities confronted by teacher-educators who
do not adhere to the progressive/learner-centered orthodoxy.
I mention all of this because the same ill-informed criticisms of Direct
Instruction that I saw a year or so ago on another list are again bubbling
up. The discussion at that time was prompted by some rather personal
attacks on the character of Professor Doug Carnine--a well known proponent
of DI. These recent discussions have pertained to the Federal legislative
proposal mandating that reading instruction be grounded in replicable
research. I do not like the idea of the Federal government having direct
involvement in this kind of education issue, but Direct Instruction would
well fit the legal requirement. The material below was my attempt to sort
out some of these issues for the loop last year.
Having taught learning theory for 25 or so years, I would urge those who
repeatedly criticize DI and Skinner to inform themselves more thoroughly
about that which they criticize. In fact, I may post one of Skinner's
articles on education just so the everyone can judge his ideas for
themselves. I have no objection to disagreement with Direct Instruction or
Skinner, but most of those which I have seen posted are based on
fundamentally flawed understanding of their object.
Discussion of DI and Carnine on THE LOOP from January 1997.
I know Doug Carnine personally and have known of him professionally for
years. I can tell you unequivocally that he is NOT on the side of the
educational establishment and, to the contrary, is one of the greatest
friends we have in the academic/educational world. He and Ziggy Engelmann
are among a very small group of educational psychologists who have been
opposed to the all of the pedagogically correct nonsense (progressive
education, whole language, open classrooms, developmentally appropriate
instruction, etc.) and their precursors since these ideas originated in the
nineteen sixties. I might add that they have had their brains beaten out by
the schooling establishment for their efforts.
In fact, it may shock you to know that B. F. Skinner was himself was among
the first and certainly among the most visible of the early opponents of
what was then called humanistic education. This is back in the early to mid
sixties when the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California and Carl Rogers
were leading the way in convincing the education world that improved
self-esteem should be the primary aim of education. Roger's ON BECOMING A
PERSON and A. S. Neill's SUMMERHILL were mandatory reading for education
majors at the time. This is back in the days when Dr. William Coulson who
is now one our best friends in the fight against all of the above was, I
believe, with the Esalen Institute. Contrary to something I read about a
philosophic alignment between Skinner and Rogers--perhaps written by Anita
Hoge--there was such a disagreement between the two that one of the
intellectual highlights of era (in education circles) was a series of
debates between Skinner and Rogers broadcast on public radio. Skinner
basically argued that schools should seek objectives of the sort we today
associate with E. D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum and that we should
use teaching methods that will assure that kids learn. Rogers argued that
"personal growth" should be education's main concern and that teacher and
parent efforts to instill specific knowledge, beliefs, and values would
prevent true "growth."
I can tell you all of this with a great deal of confidence because I was a
graduate student first at the University of Kentucky and later at the
University of Florida while it was happening. I have met Rogers and Skinner
and I studied under Art Combs who was another of the leading humanistic
thinkers of the era. I worked with Ira Gordon who was the director of the
Piagetian based Parent Training Model in the Follow Through project--one of
the early programs for federally sponsored educational intervention into
families. I can tell you that if it were not for people like Engelmann and
Carnine, there would have been no one saying that the problem of getting
kids to learn in schools does not require families (and society) to be
straightened out, it requires the schools and the theories taught in the
teacher training programs to be straightened out.
I don't want to bore you with a dissertation on the topic but there is
fundamental problem that we consumers of education have in being clear about
what we favor and what we oppose. This controversy about Carnine and Direct
Instruction is just the most recent illustration. Some educational programs
and techniques are hopelessly flawed but many can be used for good or for
ill. Miseducation frequently arises when good techniques are twisted to fit
an agenda that is contrary to that which parents and communities intend.
Many valid education initiatives are subject to being perverted in this way.
For example, "choice" and homeschooling are both excellent policies but they
could be turned to miseducation by teaching that trains kids to be
pickpockets or prostitutes. The real problem is not the particular education
program or technique so much as it is a monopolistic education establishment
selectively adopting and shaping programs and techniques in ways that fit
their purposes and not those of parents and taxpayers. In other words, we
need to look at results, not theory.
Mastery learning has been destroyed by that process. It started off as an
approach to teaching that said good teaching is that teaching which results
in measurable student achievement. The idea was that teachers will specify
that which students are expected to learn and they will consider they have
done a good job only when students can show that they have learned that
which was expected. This concept of teaching success was a great
advancement over the traditional concept embraced by the education
establishment, i.e., good teaching is more or less a matter of doing what
the teacher training programs say is good teaching, i.e., it is the process
that counts, not the results. With the traditional definition, students
might experience so called "good teaching" and learn nothing. Of course,
after the various state departments of education and people like Bill Spady
got finished with mastery learning, it effectively became a device for
dumbing down education (everyone had to reach the same lowest common
denominator) and it was redirected from its original academic aims to
affective and personal and social development objectives. Look at Charles
Sykes assessment in DUMBING DOWN OUR KIDS. To my knowledge, the original
mastery learning people are as opposed to what is now ML and OBE as everyone
in the LOOP is.
Skinner and behaviorism has been misunderstood, misused, and trashed to the
point that it would be laughable if the consequences weren't so serious.
What is especially crazy is that the academics who hate the Skinnerians the
worst are the liberal/progressive/developmentalist touchy-feely crowd who
refer to people such as those of us who inhabit the LOOP as wacko Christian
fundamentalist right-wing extremists. The mistaken linkage of Skinner with
Carl Rogers is well known and use to discredit the several books written by
parent critics. They think its hilarious that methodologies like Direct
Instruction are attacked by the very people they are intended to help. They
will probably be hysterical when they hear that Doug Carnine is under fire.
I have nothing but the greatest appreciation of authors like Charlotte
Iserbyt, Peg Luksik, Pam Hoffecker, Berit Kjos, Anita Hoge who have plunged
in, raised issues, asked questions, challenged answers, and done some very
thoughtful research. The truth is that much of the information we get from
the public education establishment is biased and self-serving. We aren't
going to get otherwise unless we become informed ourselves but we need to be
sure about the details.
Direct Instruction and the DI Follow Through model were the work of a small
group of researchers who were very much from outside the mainstream
education establishment. The education research community did everything
they could to keep them out. They were funded reluctantly but their
evidence was irrefutable and the feds could not legally reject them. The
government spent $500,000,000 (1975 dollars) over a period of 7 years to
compare all of the best approaches to education. Despite
less-than-hospitable circumstances, Direct Instruction was the only model
that enabled disadvantaged kids to keep up with non-disadvantaged peers.
The other approaches--mostly ones based on humanistic/developmentalist
thinking--ACTUALLY PRODUCED WORSE RESULTS THAN THOSE HAD BY DISADVANTAGED
KIDS WHO WERE NOT ENROLLED IN ANY PROGRAM. The establishment was outraged
and the whole assessment of Follow Through conducted by Abt Associates was
attacked in Harvard Educational Review. (If you are interested in knowing
where much of the nutty stuff you fight in your local school originates,
pick up a copy and take a look.) When all attempts to discredit DI and
Follow Through failed, the ed establishment types managed to manipulate the
federal National Diffusion Network into disseminating all the Follow Through
models as equally worthy.
It is true that DI is informed by behavior principles and that it employs
phonics. More importantly, however, it is a teaching methodology that is
pragmatically shaped by the results it produces and not by doctrinal
considerations. In the classroom it looks like a fun version of the drill
and practice that was routinely used in schools years ago. It is, in my
opinion, one of the most promising and best vindicated approaches in all of
educational research. It indeed would be a tragedy (as well as an
incredible windfall victory for the education establishment) for Direct
Instruction to be rejected.
As a professor whose discipline is educational psychology, I can't resist a
parting word about behaviorism generally. Skinner's primary interest was
not education. Rather his aim was to move psychology away from philosophy
and Freud and toward the natural sciences. His "experimental analysis of
behavior" led to a science of behavior that is science in same sense that
physics and chemistry are science. It is no more pro or anti Christian than
physics or chemistry. Applied to education, it stands for the idea that a
researcher can claim a teaching method works only if that method is tried
out under controlled conditions and shown to work.
His experimental analysis of behavior with animal subjects led to the
discovery of operant conditioning, i.e., how reinforcers work. These are
what most of us call incentives and disincentives. For example, if a
teacher tells a child that they must finish their math before they can read
a favorite book a behavior analyst would say that the teacher established a
positively reinforcing contingency. Skinner's colleagues and followers
applied operant principles to some of the most formidable problems in
education and psychiatry and had enormous success. Ivar Lovaas at UCLA
succeeded in developing a program for treatment of a virtually untreatable
condition called early infantile autism. Others did wonders in helping
children with all forms of retardation. The numbers of children who have
been saved from being warehoused for a lifetime by operant conditioning is
staggering. The same kind of successes were encountered in treatment of
mental health problems and in the care of patients at institutions. Most
notably, patients with disabling conditions like panic disorders and a wide
range of phobias have been successfully treated. I could go on at length in
this vein. The point is that his science has proven valid and successful in
the real world.
Although one hears of "behavior modification" being applied in the public
schools, there are extremely few competent practitioners other than in
special education. The reason is that despite a burst of interest in the
late sixties and early seventies, virtually all the teacher training
programs rejected behavioral teaching methodologies by virtue of their
disagreement with the progressive/developmentalist/humanistic orthodoxy that
has been around since the time of Dewey, Hall, and Kilpatrick. The vast
majority of negative publicity one hears about "behaviorism" comes from the
trashing it routinely receives in schools of education and from
misapplications in the public schools by teachers and administrators who may
be trying to do a better job but who just don't know what they are doing.
These are some of the absolute worst instances of wrongful experimentation
in the school setting.
Forgive me for going on at such length, but I would have been remiss had I
not urged you to learn more about Direct Instruction before concluding that
it is somehow irreconcilably opposed to educational aims of responsible
parents and teachers.
EDUCATION CONSUMERS CLEARINGHOUSE
Subject: B. F. Skinner Facts
Date sent: Sat, 24 Jan 98 20:19:52 -0000
From: "David R. Feeney"
On 1/24/98 11:16 PM, Quentin49 wrote:
>Skinner was all wet in this area, screwed up
>own child with his "baby box" experiments, but some of the techniques he
>discovered have been useful in improving learning instruction.
It is sad to see these inaccuracies persist about B. F. Skinner. Here
are some facts:
B. F. Skinner, who died in August, 1990, had two daughters. Both are
still alive, in late middle age and degreed, well adjusted individuals.
Deborah Skinner is a professional artist in Great Britain. Julie Skinner
Vargas is a tenured professor of educational psychology at West Virginia
University, and was a member of my thesis committee. Julie also
administers the B. F. Skinner Foundation in Cambridge, MA.
Julie, in particular, was well acquainted with the peculiar cultural myth
of "Skinner kept his daughter in a box, and she committed suicide".
Julie shared the humor that often ensued from correcting people in a way
only she, Skinner's living daughter, could.
I won't bore anyone by discussing:
*Skinner's lasting contributions to psychology and education;
*Skinner's respect for biological explanations of behavior;
*Skinner's use of the Aircrib, the socalled "baby box" (which was
reviewed favorably by Good Housekeeping magazine in the 1940's... and
which was a forerunner of the modern incubator seen in any hospital
However, it is important for people to have accurate facts about behavior
analysis, and that means correcting pernicious myths about Burrhus
Frederick Skinner. Neither of Skinner's two adult daughters were harmed,
in any way, through abuse or baby box "experiments".
For more information:
The B. F. Skinner Foundation web:
The B. F. Skinner Foundation email: email@example.com
David R. Feeney, Webmaster
Behavior Analysis League for Accuracy in News, Commentary, and Education
The BALANCE Website is a public service of
OnLearn/Online Learning Center
EDUCATION CONSUMERS CLEARINGHOUSE
Date sent: Sat, 24 Jan 1998 18:17:35 EST
Copies to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Re: DISTAR Schools
Organization: AOL (http://www.aol.com)
I have followed your thread on this dicussion with some interest. I have some
read Ziegfried Engelmann's books on Direct Instruction and so I think I know
what the technique advocates. You are correct in recognizing that it does use
a strong dose of stimulus-response-stimulus in the instructional method. The
method is highly teacher-directed, but it does not allow the students to be
passive. It is also a very highly teacher-student interactive method with the
teacher asking many questions and requiring responses from the students. I
personally do not see this as bad in leading a lecture-discussion type of
format. My Calculus teacher in college led the class in this manner and I
found it very conducive to understanding some very tough concepts. It was
I disagree strongly with the suggestion that DI teaches skills taught in
complete isolation. This is not at all what Engelmann describes in his books.
In DI the classes are scripted, but they are done in a very sequential manner
so that each topic builds upon the previous one, there is frequent review and
the teacher is supposed to assess how well the students are understanding the
concepts through the question-answer responses they get. The intent is
comprehension and understanding at a fundamental level, not simple rote
memorization and regurgitation.
I am also familiar with the ABeka program and know several home schoolers that
use it. The description of what you gave for the instructional methods
differs substantially only in the fact one is meant to be applied to a single
student-tutor situation and the other is used in a group-teacher environment.
Attention control techniques with a group differ from those that work with one
child. DI requires a fact-based curriculum delivered in an orderly fashion.
There is spiraling, although not as much as is required by other methods.
Likewise the DI instruction moves from the simple to the complex in math,
science and reading. I don't think you would be able to perceive much
difference in the content between the ABeka and a good DI curriculum.
I agree that BF Skinner was a rather odd, atheistic individual who believed
people were simple products of their environments and could be programmed
accordingly. I think time has proven most of these ideas of his to be quite
false. In particular, the studies on twins separated at birth, has shown that
environment plays a much smaller role than anyone conceived in a person's
personality and development. Skinner was all wet in this area, screwed up his
own child with his "baby box" experiments, but some of the techniques he
discovered have been useful in improving learning instruction.
I also disagree with you in the Mastery Learning/ABeka comparison. The
mastery learning "model" very much matches what you described you do with
ABeka. However, very few such models were ever implemented. Most used the ML
technique and applied all sorts of other notions to it that guranteed it would
never work. An ML model constructed around a solid curriculum and conducted
in a small/single group setting will work well. On a large group, where it
was supposed to be used, it fails most of the time.
Part of the reason the education battles are so hard is that people look for
black and white solutions in philosophy and methods. As an engineer, I
definitely fall into that category. I prefer an absolute proof to a fuzzy
defense every time. What I have found in education is that there are few
totallly black/white situations. There are some pretty dark grey ones
though. Even the worst progressive methods have some elements to them that
are sound. If we could grab those strands and put them together into a single
philosophy, weed out all of the nonsense, we might be able to reach a good
compromise. It would not be black and white and it might not fit all
The radical progressive model is essentially a model of anarchy with no
teacher input and total student control. On the other side are mind control
techniques meant to brainwash rather than educate. Real education is
somewhere between these two spectrums. Today there are very few of the "mind
control" methods being employed -- except by the progressives who claim to
disdain them! I do NOT think DI or DISTAR fall into the category of "mind
control". They are simply improvements to good teacher-directed teaching
methods we already were using. Sure it could be misused, but I certainly do
not think this is what Engelmann advocates and it is not what occurs in
general practice. The fact that some of these techniques correspond to what
BF Skinner also found and advocated does not mean that we should discard them.
If we do this in every case, there is NO technique we will ever keep.
The program you outlined that ABeka uses is sound and would be acceptable by
me and many others on this loop. What I know of DI would lead me to say the
same for it. What I know of "student-centered" education methods and whole
language would lead me to NOT advocate their use. This is based on the
efficacy of the method, not the people who may have worked on the particular
philosophies at one time or another. I think we do have to remain somewhat
flexible in this or we will lose sight of the real goal -- a good education
for our children. Thanks again for your simulating comments.
EDUCATION CONSUMERS CLEARINGHOUSE