It's a publicity photo for a product that was never released. The little girl looks so happy, with her left hand hovering over the little box that promises to teach her spelling. It's the Didak 101, one of B. F. Skinner's teaching machines. The Didak displays a picture of a tree, and she has to choose which letter she associates with the word. If she's correct, the machine will give her another picture — positive behavioral reinforcement.

I'm thrilled that this photo is the cover of Teaching Machines, as I think it captures the enthusiasm for ed-tech in decades I write about. The little girl is Susan Burdorf, whose father was an engineer at Rheem Manufacturing, one of the companies that Skinner worked with to try to bring his invention to market. Susan was conscripted for a photo shoot, and one would think that meant Rheem was serious about manufacturing and marketing it. But, well, spoiler alert: things happened.

The photo also reminds me of a scene from an episode of The Simpsons — Season 10, Episode 7. Lisa Simpson cheats on a test, earning an A+++. Her grade raises the GPA for Springfield Elementary, qualifying the school for an improvement grant, which — in addition to a new, electronic billboard for the sports field, of course — will be used to purchase computers for the computer lab. Principal Skinner (yes, named after B. F.), Superintendent Chalmers, and Lisa enter the empty lab and watch a sales pitch (of sorts) from a Coleco salesperson. Ralph Wiggam is there, clicking on the sole machine, and he happily demonstrates the capabilities of educational computing with a program that sure looks a lot like what Susan Burdorf demoed in 1959. The computer shows Ralph picture of a cat, and he has to fill in the blank with the missing letter: C - _ - T. Ralph chooses A, the computer beeps cheerfully, and he turns to Lisa, proudly pronouncing "I'm learnding."

The promise (and the very practices) of teaching machines persists.

Teaching Machines is available for pre-order via the MIT Press website (and anywhere books are sold — consider supporting your local bookseller).

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning

Audrey Watters, (MIT Press 2021)

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