Emily Talmage lives in Maine, where she blogs about the latest fads to “reform” American education. In this post, she shows the relationship between the theories of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who was renowned in his time for his belief in behaviorism, and today’s big new idea: competency based education. In President Obama’s recent “Testing Action Plan,” he endorsed the strategy of competency based education, where every student moves at his or her own pace through programmed instruction on computers. The plan sets aside $25 million to encourage states to try new forms of assessment, including competency-based models. Although this approach is often referred to as individualized, customized, and personalized instruction, it is a direct descendant of B.F. Skinner’s teaching machines. In a previous post, she noted that:


A shift to competency-based education has been in the works a least a decade, with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Gates Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (among others) at the helm of this shift.



Here, she sets the ideas of B.F. Skinner, enunciated in the 1950s, alongside those currently on the website of testing company Questar, whose assessments have been adopted by New York State:


Here’s Skinner:

As soon as the student has written his response, he operates the machine, and learns immediately whether he is right or wrong. This is a great improvement over the system in which papers are corrected by a teacher, where the student must wait perhaps until another day, to learn whether or not what he is written is right.

Such immediate knowledge has two principle effects: it leads most rapidly to the formation of correct behavior. The student quickly learns to be right…


Now compare the Skinner quote with this description that comes from the website of Questar – the testing company recently adopted by New York State:

With tablets and the right software, this approach is possible on an individualized basis: after every five minutes of individualized tablet-based instruction, students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level, much as computer-adaptive tests operate today. After that assessment, the next set of instructional material would be customized according to these results.


Here’s Skinner again:

Another important advantage is that the student is free to move at his own pace. With techniques in which a whole class is forced to move together, the bright student wastes time, waiting for others to catch up, and the slow student, who may not be inferior in any other respect, is forced to go too fast. …A student who is learning by machine learns at the rate, which is most effective for him. The fast student covers the course in a short time, but the slow student, by giving more time to the subject, can cover the same ground. Both learn the material thoroughly.


Now, compare this with Questar:

Because students progress through subject material at their own pace, they can be grouped by ability instead of grade level, similar to competency-based learning approaches currently being tried in various schools and districts.

Questar and Skinner…pretty much indistinguishable, aren’t they?