CBE and Teaching Machines

With the recent announcement of Obama’s Testing Action Plan and its inclusion of incentives to move states toward competency-based models, it seems that people are suddenly paying attention to what CBE is, and where it came from.

I’ve written quite a bit about the corporate push behind the resurgence of this model – particularly the role of digital learning and student loan companies – as well as the very shady way that policies to support this model have weaseled their way into our states. But it seems that now would be a good time to draw people’s attention to some of the theory behind competency-based learning.

So now let me introduce you – or reintroduce you, if you took any psychology courses back in college – to B.F. Skinner.


Skinner was a psychologist at Harvard back in the 50’s best known for his work with animal training. The guy was really good – like, could get pigeons to detonate bombs good.

Here’s a quote I’ve referenced a few times before, from a guy named Thomas Guines, who shows up in this article written in 1977 about a competency-based pilot program (oh yeah – did I mention this has been tried before?) that took place in Washington DC:

Guines said the new curriculum is based on the work in behavorial psychology of Harvard University’s B. F. Skinner, who developed teaching machines and even trained pigeons during World War II to carry bombs and detonate them.

The basic idea, Guines said, is to break down complicated learning into a sequence of clear simple skills that virtually everyone can master, although at different rates of speed.

“If you can train a pigeon to fly up there and press a button and set off a bomb,” Guines remarked, “why can’t you teach human beings to behave in an effective and rational way? We know we can modify human behavior. We’re not scared of that. This is the biggest thing that’s happening in education today.”

Makes you shudder, doesn’t it?

But now, if you want to get really creeped out, check out this Youtube video of Skinner talking about his teaching machine invention:

and then compare how eerily similar his descriptions are of the teaching machine to the new, next-gen assessment programs that are being pushed aggressively upon us from all angles.

Here’s Skinner:

As soon as the student has written his response, he operates the machine, and learns immediately whether he is right or wrong. This is a great improvement over the system in which papers are corrected by a teacher, where the student must wait perhaps until another day, to learn whether or not what he is written is right.

Such immediate knowledge has two principle effects: it leads most rapidly to the formation of correct behavior. The student quickly learns to be right.

 Those pesky teachers! I guess they were getting in the way of innovation back in the 50’s too.

Now compare the Skinner quote with this description that comes from the website of Questar – the testing company recently adopted by New York State:

With tablets and the right software, this approach is possible on an individualized basis: after every five minutes of individualized tablet-based instruction, students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level, much as computer-adaptive tests operate today. After that assessment, the next set of instructional material would be customized according to these results.

Here’s Skinner again:

Another important advantage is that the student is free to move at his own pace. With techniques in which a whole class is forced to move together, the bright student wastes time, waiting for others to catch up, and the slow student, who may not be inferior in any other respect, is forced to go too fast. …A student who is learning by machine learns at the rate, which is most effective for him. The fast student covers the course in a short time, but the slow student, by giving more time to the subject, can cover the same ground.   Both learn the material thoroughly.

Now, compare this with Questar:

Because students progress through subject material at their own pace, they can be grouped by ability instead of grade level, similar to competency-based learning approaches currently being tried in various schools and districts.

Questar and Skinner…pretty much indistinguishable, aren’t they?

Here’s Skinner one more time:

A teaching machine is simply a convenient way of bringing the student into contact with the man who writes the program. It is the author of the program, not the machines, who teaches.   He stands in the same position as a textbook writer, except that he is much closer to the student. He and the student are constantly interacting.

Parents, here’s the moral of the story: if you want your child “constantly interacting” with whatever corporate testing company your state has contracted with, and if you trust that company to be your child’s teacher, then by all means, CBE is for you.

Personally, these companies haven’t exactly earned my trust over the last few years.



Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

10 thoughts on “CBE and Teaching Machines”

  1. I’d argue that it’s much worse. The author of the program is not a teacher, it’s more likely a team of programmers who know nothing of teaching or of any the the subejcts that are “taught”. Instead, the programming team are experts an encoding operations and data into forms that a computer can execute. The executed operations may or may not be reliable, and they may or may not produce the desired result.
    But since the programming team is not present to watch the student or answer their questions, they are completely removed from the process. They simply produce a product that is used.

    And the data and instructions and design all must follow the ideas and vision of someone else, supposedly an “expert”, but one (or another team) who is (are) even more removed than the programmers.

    This is true indoctrination and training, since there is no human intellectual engagement to constitute any real evaluation of a student’s understanding.


  2. This is so wrong and so harmful on so many levels it’s painful to read about it. I remember being experimented on with a teaching-machine like program in the ’60’s. Even at that stage of my education I could see that it was possible to get the hang of answering the answers correctly without really understanding anything. What would become of a generation of students if they had to endure this CRAP throughout their schooling? Where is the humanity? We must stop this!


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