Outside the Skinner Box

The phrase “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a Skinner box.
– Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon

With this quote, firebrand-cum-iconoclast Gary Stager kicks off one of his more nuanced articles about the amazing potential of digital age tools to promote revolutionary learning.

In “Outside the Skinner Box” Stager lays out a familiar list of woes like the following:

  • “low-levels of technological fluency”,
  • “student empowerment remain controversial”,
  • “hysterical policies and cumbersome network obstacles”,
  • “‘devices’ with less and less computing power”, and
  • “the low-hanging fruit of ‘information access,’ note taking, and purposes of even less value”

Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing Stager speak or read from his extensive body of published work will recognize these topics. Stager is quick to point out the shortcomings of modern education and its less than progressive embrace of technology, placing most of what constitutes modern teaching and learning firmly in the behavioralist category. (Overview of Learning Theories)

Stager posits educational technology two myths which are holding back schools, teachers, and students even as the world around schools hums along at the speed of Moore’s Law. Those myths are:

  1. Technology is neutral.
  2. Technology changes constantly.

With the first myth, Stager asserts that “all hardware and software bestow agency on one of three parties: the system, the teacher, or the learner.” By this he explains that tools and services can benefit one of these parties at any given time, but never all three. A student information system  or school-home communication tool primarily benefit the system; interactive whiteboards and plagiarism detection software primarily benefit teachers; a 1:1 device program primarily benefits learners.

With the second, Stager decries the prevalence of “Wordles, note taking, looking stuff up, word-processing essays, and making PowerPoint presentations on topics students don’t care about for audiences they’ll never encounter” as the lowest common denominator of educational technology.

What sets this article apart for me is that Stager moves beyond these troubling myths and tackles the challenge of visualizing true change: What would success look like in Gary Stager’s World? Using series of topics and short paragraphs, Stager spells out a  vision that includes personal fabrication, physical computing, and programming which are all familiar topics to Stager’s fanbase. He goes on, however, to add awareness, governance, vision and consistent leadership to this growing list of necessary ingredients.

The list concludes with professional development, high expectations, and learning by doing. These last three are the key, in my opinion, to bringing about change in any system or environment and I strongly encourage you to read Gary Stager’s entire article below to feel challenged and inspired to be a leader for educational change in your own school.

Stager, Gary. “Outside the Skinner Box.” National Association of Independent Schools, Winter 2015, http://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/winter-2015/outside-the-skinner-box/. Accessed 1 Sept. 2018.

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