Skinner’s Metaphors

The other day I was standing in line outside the coffee shop waiting on my order, as one does now in this time of COVID.  My local coffee shop has erected a giant, rooved enclosure right outside their ordering window, with heaters and everything, and I was standing there, waiting for my drink, perusing a book of educational philosophy I’d been delinquent in returning and was on my way to do so when I came across one of the chapters I’d been skipping over for some time: behaviorism.  I leafed to the end of the chapter, where the sample writings are, and found myself transfixed by one of the passages, a write-up by BF Skinner called “The Etymology of Teaching.” 

Skinner and Behaviorism – Harvard University Brain Tour

What was fascinating about it was that it was doing just what I like most nowadays: getting down in one’s psyche and making explicit something that most of us seem to take for granted in our thinking about education — without even realizing it — then exposing it to the air so that we can consider whether they’re true or not.  I want to pause before I go into Skinner and say that I love this process, have come to newly love it.  Emerson once wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” While I completely agree with what he’s saying there, I also think that sometimes when we’re shown our deepest thoughts, or most fundamental understandings, and had them made clear, we sometimes feel a kind of sheepish feeling.  Sort of a sense of, “Oh, that’s all that my understanding is hanging on?  That thin justification?” I have come to love that, in a way, because, after all, continually checking one’s own ideas, continually reexposing them to the sunlight, is to me the very best way to try replacing them with better ideas.  I continually find myself these last two years trying to dredge down and really understand what my own understandings are resting on, and continually trying to find ideas that categorically contrast with my own.  I suppose you could say that it’s John Stuart Mill, god of contrasting ideas, who has become my patron saint.  More and more I find myself looking for real disagreement, more real alternatives.  They’ve done the thinking for you, those thinkers and writers in the past.  Not long ago I was reading a blog post by a fairly respected writer, one of those PD writers in education who always seem a little angry that things aren’t changing in a sensible way.  This writer was expounding on the idea that education should not be focused on knowledge, but on modifying behavior.  He’d constructed this piece as to make you think he was the one who’d come up with it; there were no sources cited, and he made it sound revolutionary, the ring of the PD expert selling his product.  But how liberating, then, to look back on that now and to realize that his point was nothing more than an established division that I can locate in my own Ed Psych book from grad school, his ideas about behavior ones that were not only prevalent, but trendy and influential, all of this worked out as a real, formidable system of approaching education by a writer like BF Skinner.  That’s what I want now: not shadows on the cave, but real alternatives.

But enough of this.  I want to write about Skinner’s article (or book chapter) in more depth, as I’ve just finally had a chance to sit down and read it more carefully now that I’m not waiting line outside the coffee shop.

Basically what Skinner does is take on some of the most persistent metaphors used then (in the 1950s) and I would argue still used now about education, and remind us that they’re only metaphors.  Let me go through them.

First, he gives three basic metaphors that we use in education, and describes the shortcomings of each.  He writes, “The educated person differs from the uneducated in almost everything he does. Three great metaphors have been devised to account for the behavior which distinguishes him.”

First up is the “growth” metaphor: education as growth.  But this is a specific kind of growth — the growth that occurs or should occur naturally.  For Skinner, “The metaphor assigns only a modest role to the teacher, who “cannot really teach but only help the student learn.” 

He writes, “To teach is to nourish or cultivate the growing child (as in a Kindergarten), or to give him intellectual exercise, or to train him in the horticultural sense of directing or guiding his growth.” This is fascinating: the Kindergarten is a literal garden, tending the naturally growing flowers.  While I did find Skinner’s analysis to be a little superficial — he doesn’t really seem to distinguish between the more natural conceptions of education as natural growth with something akin to Dewey’s conception of growth as requiring more guidance and tendency — I do think it’s especially interesting to highlight this metaphor.  If growth is something internal, that is the characteristic of an organism or being in itself (a flower is set up to grow; so is a natural body — is a mind the same?), then is a teacher’s role to get out of the way?  Surely there’s something missing there in that understanding, or something severely limited.

If the “growth” metaphor neglected any sort of environmental influences on education, those, for Skinner, are found in the second metaphor he cites: “acquisition.” A student “receives” education, or “acquires” new skills.  This is, in some sense, the passive view of education that is such an anathema to many educators, although there are varying levels of activity on the part of the student.  The acquisitive student “grasps” concepts, while the less active gets them “drilled” into him.  Skinner cites several main variations of the acquisition metaphor.  First is the “osmotic” version: students absorb, soak up, or let sink in.  Wisdom is “instilled.” Then there is the “gastronomic” version: you digest new concepts.  Or the “impregnation” metaphor: the student “conceives” of an answer or has a “fertile” mind.  

For Skinner, both of these basic metaphors are inadequate: “neither metaphor tells the teacher what to do or lets him see what he has done.” For Skinner, “No one literally cultivates the behavior of a child as one cultivates a garden or transmits information as one carries a letter from one place to another.”

The third metaphor is “construction” — Skinner is unclear about this in my view.  But we certainly talk about this — constructing knowledge.  We “scaffold” knowledge as we, perhaps, construct it.  Some times we “co-construct” it.  You build it in your head, or you can even build behaviors by shaping them.  This surely seems more active than the simple transaction of acquisition, or education as the natural process of unfolding.  

Even as I was reading this, I was starting to think ahead to the behavioristic understanding of education that I know Skinner is going to invoke.  When you think about Dewey’s notion that education is a kind of tending to the present moment, in order to set up conditions, as he might call them, that favorably affect further growth, surely there is more than a large hint of behaviorism in there.  Surely Dewey was a Darwinist, and surely there are deeply important connections between Darwin and behaviorism — I am thinking ahead here to operant conditioning, of course: the deliberate acting on one’s environment.  

Either way, at this point, Skinner pivots.  The use of metaphor, perhaps, is inevitable, but, he writes, “Any serious analysis of the interchange between organism and environment must, however, avoid metaphor.” I think this is an important point: the difference between metaphor and a kind of scientific understanding of learning.

Skinner turns then to an overtly behavioristic analysis.  He writes, “So far as we are concerned here, teaching is simply the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement.” Teaching is different than merely allowing students to learn; left to their own devices, yes, people will learn, but teaching is the deliberate influence to affect learning: and this, for Skinner, is most important when it comes to learning a behavior.

Then Skinner turns to three traditional means of characterizing the act of learning:

“We learn by doing.” Skinner critiques this by saying that Aristotle was incorrect — we don’t simply learn something by doing it.  Yes, you do form habits, but they can be habits that actually impede you from learning.  He also addresses the extension of this, the idea that it’s not just important to practice, but to do so frequently.  He again mentions the metaphor of “drilling” students, or of going over something enough that it forms a rut — which is where, he writes, learning “by rote” comes from.  He quickly alludes to “recency theories” as well — we continue to do something that produces a favorable response.

“We learn from experience” and we “learn by trial and error” are also considered.  I found his descriptions in this section relatively superficial, especially considered against John Dewey’s rich, philosophical theory of learning by experience.  But Skinner dismisses these conceptions of learning fairly swiftly:

“Such theories are no of historical interest only, and unfortunately much of the work which was done to support them is also of little current value.  We may turn instead to a more adequate analysis of the changes which take place as a student learns.”

What I love about this passage is his reminder of just how much metaphor does shape our talk about and our conception of education.  I do agree with Skinner: that’s not quite good enough.  We must be aware that we are speaking in metaphor, and we must be looking for a deeper understanding of the learning process.

These are just some pretty undigested thoughts after an admittedly brief encounter with behaviorism and with Skinner.  My first thought is that I love his highlighting of our reliance on metaphor — and the welcome reminder that metaphor is always a way to talk about what things are like, not about what things actually are.  My second thought is that behaviorism can lead to a pretty reductive view of education.  I can start to see that already as I read between the lines in Skinner’s work.  The notion that everything is just classical conditioning is simplistic and reductive in the way that some people say everything’s Freudian, or everything’s done in the name of self-interest.  But when you think more deeply about it (and I’m sure Skinner will go there), it’s actually quite rich.  As I alluded to, there’s something richly behavioristic about Dewey’s philosophy of experience — that a teacher must influence the conditions of the present moment to produce learning.  This is not by any means simple bribery: it’s a many-textured, sophisticated, ever changing environment that is influenced by and in turn influences its participants.  The stuff about operant conditioning — how humans are effected by but also effect their environment — that’s some rich ground.  

And in general, I do think so much of our thinking as educators is shaped by a kind of behaviorism.  Any time you say, “We can’t teach them that it’s okay to just turn things in late . . .” — you’re talking about behaviorism.  The whole notion of the hidden curriculum?  Same thing — even more subtle.  Because it’s true — education is not just about understanding, it’s about behaviors (in the richest possible sense).

I think about this a lot of course now as a parent: in fact, I sometimes think that I conceive of my role in almost entirely behavioral terms: influencing the environment as to set up favorable responses, even to anticipate ways my son might respond to his environment and alter it, and to design the environment to give back to him what I wish.  There’s quite a bit of this in Rousseau, also, which I’ve just put down again, as it (Emile, specifically) is just so rich and so long.  But there’s so much interesting behavioral philosophy in Emile: I am thinking here specifically of his writing in Book IV (where I left off) about how to tamp down Emile’s awakening desires by speaking to him matter-of-factly about childbirth and the like.  

So those are my two basic takeaways here at the start of this look into Skinner.  First, we could all do well to think carefully about our philosophy of behavioralism, about the messages we are sending in our classes.  And second that we would all do well to be aware of the metaphors we use to describe education and the relative shortcomings of each.  

I look forward to reading more.