After my time at the Stanford University archives didn’t work out exactly as planned, I thought about changing my flight and heading back to New York. But a) that was too expensive and b) that seemed like too quick a surrender. So I put out some inquiries yesterday to do a different kind of research while in town.
Today I had lunch with Larry Cuban, Emeritus Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and probably the premier historian of education technology. He’s the author of one of my favorite books on ed-tech, Teachers and Machines, which chronicles attempts in the early twentieth century to introduce film, radio, and television into K–12 classrooms. I see my book in some ways as a companion to his – both interested in the ways in which education reform has long been intertwined with the implementation of various technologies, both providing some historical context to help people understand the origins and philosophies that drive the adoption of computers in schools today.
I got a lot of good feedback from Larry, and I was pleased that he wasn’t familiar with some of the history I plan to write about. He commented that my book will trace a history of behaviorism, and I think this is a particularly useful insight because – as I’ve written elsewhere – despite the popular notion that “Skinnerism” has been excised from education, it certainly has not; indeed, behaviorism is a core feature of almost all ed-tech. Behaviorism isn’t simply about behaviors as conduct or comportment. Behaviorism as a sub-field of educational psychology also involves identifying the smallest possible units of content and then arranging them in the most efficient manner possible. It assumes, as such, that all content is known. (That’s partly why I plan to end Teaching Machines with very different view of knowledge and learning: the constructionism that inspired Alan Kay’s not-a-teaching machine, the Dynabook.)
Talking through my research with Larry made me feel a bit overwhelmed about how much work I have to do – finding out more about Patrick Suppes’ Dial-a-Drill program and locating Norman Crowder’s papers and convincing Alan Kay to talk to me, for starters. But now, even though yesterday was a disappointment, I am more excited than ever to keep at it. To hear Larry Cuban say he is glad I am writing this book was a huge boost to my confidence.