Teaching Machines and Mechanical Learning

From the 1920s American psychologists experimented with teaching using machines. Inspired, in part, by the expansion of schooling, especially at the secondary level; the success of paper-and-pencil psychological tests in education; and the prestige associated with efficient machinery, they designed devices to present problems and reward accurate responses. Sidney Pressey of Ohio State University proposed such a machine in 1925. Joseph Ray of Tennessee worked on a combination of instruments in the 1930s. B.F. Skinner of the University of Minnesota and then Harvard University worked on machines for animal learning. During World War II, he proposed to guide missiles to their targets using trained pigeons in the nose cone. After the war, Skinner suggested several teaching machines for training people, both at an elementary level and in the college classroom. Although these were not widely adapted, learning with specially programmed textbooks and individually designed phonographic material entered the commercial marketplace. Traditional teaching tools like flash cards were modified to reflect principles of programmed instruction. Machines with electronic components even sold for teaching logic and principles of computer science.

Keller Breland and Marian Kraus, early graduate students of B.F. Skinner at the University of Minnesota, left the university in 1943 without completing their doctorates to establish Animal Behavior Enterprises. They used Skinnerian techniques to train animals to appear in advertisements and at theme parks, and also trained animal trainers. In 1950, the firm moved to Hot Springs Arkansas. By the middle of the decade, the Brelands had established their own “IQ Zoo” in Hot Springs that featured trained entertaining animals. Keller Breland died in 1964, but Marian continued the business. In 1976, she married Bob Bailey, the general manager. From the mid-1970s, ABE provided arcade games with specially trained animals. The Bird Brain featured a chicken trained to respond to directions from a microcomputer and play a game of tic-tac-toe. The Piano-Playing Duck was, as the name suggests, trained to operate a small piano. Thus, even when Skinnerian methods were not widely applauded in education, traditions of operant training lived on.


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