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Beyond Personality and Professionalism: Pestalozzi, Skinner, and the Infallibility of the Art of Teaching

Fri, April 4, 12:25 to 1:55pm, Convention Center, Floor: 100 Level, 121B


Reform discussions in education are often characterized by a binary construction of ‘old’ and ‘new’. Current systems or practices of education are being characterized as inhuman, inefficient, or inexpedient and clustered under the label of ‘old’ or ‘outdated’. The counterpart is the ‘new,’ which evidently offers itself as a solution for everything that was old and outdated. Binary constructions like these are risky and can be propagated only on the condition of absolute certainty. Since the late 1800’s it is often the idea of linear development (either of the human mind and/or of the school subject) that provided this certainty. Relevant research detecting the prefiguration of developmental lines in the human/children’s mind would solve problems in the construction of the curriculum and the challenges in the art of teaching.
This paper will focus on two prominent exponents of this kind of binary argumentation, two exponents that would usually not be set in one line, namely Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Burrhus F. Skinner. Pestalozzi promised that the art of teaching would become as precise as the functioning of a wood chipping machine as long as his “method” was followed. This method was constantly propagated as completely new. It was understood as guided by the natural development of the human mind, so that it was based on developmental psychology. Due to this basis, teaching was to become quick and easy. The method thus required no knowledge or skills of both teacher and the student, but only healthy senses. The success of this method was seen as to reinforce the students’ self-esteem and through this to foster their self-satisfaction, which in turn would promote morality. This way of teaching was not limited to elementary school subjects but was a method for all school subjects, including religion.
Skinner had surprisingly similar ambitions. Here, the machine is not a metaphor, but as a “teaching-machine” a real instrument in the art of teaching. The art of teaching by the machine is programmed by experts of the developmental logic of the school subject. All they do is present sentences or equations in arithmetic with some small parts missing, where the student must supply the missing part. Skinner sees three fundamental advantages of the machine: immediacy, individuality, perfectibility, which together would strengthen the self-esteem of the learner. The idea of small steps increases the chance of success, and success in turn motivates the student to continue (“positive reinforcement”). Skinner promised that such an approach is not only better in terms of motivation but also in terms of efficiency: “A conservative estimate seems to be that with these machines, the average grade or high school student can cover about twice as much material with the same amount of time and effort as with traditional classroom techniques.”
This paper will discuss Pestalozzi's and Skinner's ideas in order to explore the underlying motives of such binary constructions and the (religious) fundaments of the ‘search for certainty’ in educational research that promises perfectibility and infallibility in the art of teaching.