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As I noted earlier this year, I am taking Sam Freedman’s “book writing” class this term – taking it as an independent study, to be clear, which means I have to write a book proposal in the next week or so.

I’m spending my Spring Break, in part, working on precisely that very writing assignment. And despite having Teaching Machines on my To Do list for years now, I am still so uncertain about what the book should do. So more importantly, I’m spending my spending my Spring Break reporting. I’m in Columbus, Ohio for the next few days, at The Ohio State University Archives.

Some very quick thoughts from Day 1 of the trip, as I work my way through the papers of OSU education psychologist Sidney Pressey:

  • One of the articles that gave the most insight into Pressey as a human (versus as a “figure”) was his submission to A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol V. In it, he chronicled with a great deal of honesty the failures of his commercial endeavors – how his professional work had destroyed not only his personal life (he was divorced from his first wife), but how that had in turn shaped his professional life too (she was, after all, the co-author of his first book).

So at seventy-six I look back at my life, trying to device whether my psychology helps me understand it. It doesn’t, much! It should be evident to any reader who has stayed with me thus far, that I am a product of the Puritan work ethic and hope for a larger usefulness: I hoped that integrating the study of psychology and psychiatry might yield significant gains in understanding personality; that teaming together new techniques of curriculum-building, measurement, and educational automation might remark our schools; that bold action research might reconstitute psychology’s contribution to the preparation of teachers; that viewing life in full length and higher education in relation thereto might substantially improve both education and life-planing; that studying the aged before and after I was old, and then living with them, might yield more adequate understanding of age.

  • Historians will lament the move to digital as I cannot imagine how we will have access to as rich a corpus of correspondence as letter-writing offers

  • Pressey’s work to commercialize teaching machines was only part of the story. (And I think if we consider what else he commercialized – or tried to commercialize – perhaps by focusing on the “education technology,” we are rather missing the point.) He sold a lot of testing textbooks. He sold a lot of tests. He tried to commercialize a variety of other assessments, many of which were part of his belief in “auto-instruction” and “auto-assessment” – that is, tests that would automatically “grade themselves.” One of these was the “chemo-test,” a multiple-choice answer sheet in which the correct answer would be revealed when wet. (So the student would use a fountain pen filled with water, rather than ink.)

  • Pressey had won a military contract, something that made manufacturers more willing (so it seemed) to work with him.

  • Despite the willingness of manufacturers (initially at least) to work with Pressey, there were real struggles to bring his ideas to market. His plans were complicated. They were expensive – and even expensive when it came to the inks and papers for his self-grading cards.

  • I need to look more into SRA and IBM. I need to include Norman Crowder in my book.

  • I had never heard of the “classroom communicator” – developed by Dr. Raimy. (I need to check if this was a student of Pressey. Or just part of his military contracts/connections.) “It consists of a panel of lights, four for each subject, connected by wires with key units so that each student has at his place at a table, or on his chair arm, a small board on which are four keys. In using the communicator, the instructor presents material to the class and from time to time injects in his presentation a true-false or multiple choice question. The students indicate their responses by pressing the first key if they think the first answer is correct, the second key if they think the second answer is right, and so on. When a key is pressed, the corresponding light glows on the instructor’s panel; and by observing which lights show the instructor can see whether most of the class answered a, b, c, or d.” Classroom response technologies! Venture capitalists love this! They think it’s innovation!

  • The fear of students cheating is so pervasive.

  • I’m only halfway through the materials (and I haven’t got to the “teaching machines” section yet) but I only found one reference to computing education technology – a letter or two to and from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with regards to PLATO.

  • Pressey didn’t like Skinner. At all. I think there was a certain amount of deference – initially at least – but by the 1960s, Pressey really leaned into his criticisms of “programmed learning,” in the interest (of course) of promoting his version of auto-assessment and auto-instruction. I really don’t want my book to be a look at “what works” – it isn’t a study in educational research, that is – but this is a divide I will probably need to address. Ideologically. Etc.

Audrey Watters


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Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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