The Skinnerian teaching machine (1953-1968)

I wrote this design case based partially on my thesis research from 2002-2003, and original research conducted earlier this year. One of the reasons I wrote it was because I’m getting more interested in the design knowledge that can be communicated through means like design cases. And I used this chapter as a chance to explore this further: how far can we go in generating real and unique forms of knowledge in a design case, that make a meaningful contribution towards designers’ practical judgments? In particular, what does it really look like when theory has been intentionally and rationally applied to a design? I couldn’t think of a better example to illustrate this than the work of B. F. Skinner. Even though I don’t endorse teaching machines as an educational technology, it’s hard to deny that Skinner was one of the better examples the field has produced about how to operationalize theory. And while the purpose of a design case isn’t to pass judgment on the design (so I didn’t discuss this in the chapter directly), I think one of the lessons we learn from Skinner is that using theory as an explicit guide to practice creates some real difficulties. Designs may be theoretically pure, but functionally inelegant or even counter-productive. That’s one of major lessons of the teaching machine movement, at least for me.

As I said in my chapter introduction:

This design case describes B. F. Skinner’s teaching machine, an educational tech- nology developed in the mid-twentieth century, commonly viewed as a precur- sor to later innovations such as computer-based instruction (Niemiec & Walberg, 1989) and eLearning (McDonald et al., 2005).The value of this case is not only as historical precedent, however. Although it does provide insight into the design of later approaches, Skinner’s device was only one antecedent of modern educa- tional technologies, and, in fact, was not even the first mechanical apparatus that could be referred to as a teaching machine (Benjamin Jr., 1988). An additional benefit of the case, then, is found by examining how Skinner made design deci- sions to intentionally apply his behavioral theory of operant conditioning in the development of his machine. Even today, despite how Skinner and his behaviorist approaches have fallen out of favor, his work is still an important illustration of how a psychological theory has been operationalized for practical implementation in a specific technology.


At ResearchGate

At BYU Scholar’s Archive


McDonald, J. K. (2021). The Skinnerian teaching machine (1953-1968). In Boling, E., Gray, C. M., Howard, C. D. , & Baaki, J.(Eds.), Historical instructional design cases: ID knowledge in context and practice (pp. 85-103). Routledge.

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