Posts Tagged ‘Skinner’


Allowing learners to determine the amount of time they spend studying, and, therefore (in theory at least) the speed of their progress is a key feature of most personalized learning programs. In cases where learners follow a linear path of pre-determined learning items, it is often the only element of personalization that the programs offer. In the Duolingo program that I am using, there are basically only two things that can be personalized: the amount of time I spend studying each day, and the possibility of jumping a number of learning items by ‘testing out’.

Self-regulated learning or self-pacing, as this is commonly referred to, has enormous intuitive appeal. It is clear that different people learn different things at different rates. We’ve known for a long time that ‘the developmental stages of child growth and the individual differences among learners make it impossible to impose a single and ‘correct’ sequence on all curricula’ (Stern, 1983: 439). It therefore follows that it makes even less sense for a group of students (typically determined by age) to be obliged to follow the same curriculum at the same pace in a one-size-fits-all approach. We have probably all experienced, as students, the frustration of being behind, or ahead of, the rest of our colleagues in a class. One student who suffered from the lockstep approach was Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. He has described how he was fed up with having to follow an educational path dictated by his age and how, as a result, individual pacing became an important element in his educational approach (Ferster, 2014: 132-133). As teachers, we have all experienced the challenges of teaching a piece of material that is too hard or too easy for many of the students in the class.

Historical attempts to facilitate self-paced learning

Charles_W__Eliot_cph_3a02149An interest in self-paced learning can be traced back to the growth of mass schooling and age-graded classes in the 19th century. In fact, the ‘factory model’ of education has never existed without critics who saw the inherent problems of imposing uniformity on groups of individuals. These critics were not marginal characters. Charles Eliot (president of Harvard from 1869 – 1909), for example, described uniformity as ‘the curse of American schools’ and argued that ‘the process of instructing students in large groups is a quite sufficient school evil without clinging to its twin evil, an inflexible program of studies’ (Grittner, 1975: 324).

Attempts to develop practical solutions were not uncommon and these are reasonably well-documented. One of the earliest, which ran from 1884 to 1894, was launched in Pueblo, Colorado and was ‘a self-paced plan that required each student to complete a sequence of lessons on an individual basis’ (Januszewski, 2001: 58-59). More ambitious was the Burk Plan (at its peak between 1912 and 1915), named after Frederick Burk of the San Francisco State Normal School, which aimed to allow students to progress through materials (including language instruction materials) at their own pace with only a limited amount of teacher presentations (Januszewski, ibid.). Then, there was the Winnetka Plan (1920s), developed by Carlton Washburne, an associate of Frederick Burk and the superintendent of public schools in Winnetka, Illinois, which also ‘allowed learners to proceed at different rates, but also recognised that learners proceed at different rates in different subjects’ (Saettler, 1990: 65). The Winnetka Plan is especially interesting in the way it presaged contemporary attempts to facilitate individualized, self-paced learning. It was described by its developers in the following terms:

A general technique [consisting] of (a) breaking up the common essentials curriculum into very definite units of achievement, (b) using complete diagnostic tests to determine whether a child has mastered each of these units, and, if not, just where his difficulties lie and, (c) the full use of self-instructive, self corrective practice materials. (Washburne, C., Vogel, M. & W.S. Gray. 1926. A Survey of the Winnetka Public Schools. Bloomington, IL: Public School Press)

Not dissimilar was the Dalton (Massachusetts) Plan in the 1920s which also used a self-paced program to accommodate the different ability levels of the children and deployed contractual agreements between students and teachers (something that remains common educational practice around the world). There were many others, both in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

The personalization of learning through self-pacing was not, therefore, a minor interest. Between 1910 and 1924, nearly 500 articles can be documented on the subject of individualization (Grittner, 1975: 328). In just three years (1929 – 1932) of one publication, The Education Digest, there were fifty-one articles dealing with individual instruction and sixty-three entries treating individual differences (Chastain, 1975: 334). Foreign language teaching did not feature significantly in these early attempts to facilitate self-pacing, but see the Burk Plan described above. Only a handful of references to language learning and self-pacing appeared in articles between 1916 and 1924 (Grittner, 1975: 328).

Disappointingly, none of these initiatives lasted long. Both costs and management issues had been significantly underestimated. Plans such as those described above were seen as progress, but not the hoped-for solution. Problems included the fact that the materials themselves were not individualized and instructional methods were too rigid (Pendleton, 1930: 199). However, concomitant with the interest in individualization (mostly, self-pacing), came the advent of educational technology.

Sidney L. Pressey, the inventor of what was arguably the first teaching machine, was inspired by his experiences with schoolchildren in rural Indiana in the 1920s where he ‘was struck by the tremendous variation in their academic abilities and how they were forced to progress together at a slow, lockstep pace that did not serve all students well’ (Ferster, 2014: 52). Although Pressey failed in his attempts to promote his teaching machines, he laid the foundation stones in the synthesizing of individualization and technology.Pressey machine

Pressey may be seen as the direct precursor of programmed instruction, now closely associated with B. F. Skinner (see my post on Behaviourism and Adaptive Learning). It is a quintessentially self-paced approach and is described by John Hattie as follows:

Programmed instruction is a teaching method of presenting new subject matter to students in graded sequence of controlled steps. A book version, for example, presents a problem or issue, then, depending on the student’s answer to a question about the material, the student chooses from optional answers which refers them to particular pages of the book to find out why they were correct or incorrect – and then proceed to the next part of the problem or issue. (Hattie, 2009: 231)

Programmed instruction was mostly used for the teaching of mathematics, but it is estimated that 4% of programmed instruction programs were for foreign languages (Saettler, 1990: 297). It flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, but even by 1968 foreign language instructors were sceptical (Valdman, 1968). A survey carried out by the Center for Applied Linguistics revealed then that only about 10% of foreign language teachers at college and university reported the use of programmed materials in their departments. (Valdman, 1968: 1).grolier min max

Research studies had failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of programmed instruction (Saettler, 1990: 303). Teachers were often resistant and students were often bored, finding ‘ingenious ways to circumvent the program, including the destruction of their teaching machines!’ (Saettler, ibid.).

In the case of language learning, there were other problems. For programmed instruction to have any chance of working, it was necessary to specify rigorously the initial and terminal behaviours of the learner so that the intermediate steps leading from the former to the latter could be programmed. As Valdman (1968: 4) pointed out, this is highly problematic when it comes to languages (a point that I have made repeatedly in this blog). In addition, students missed the personal interaction that conventional instruction offered, got bored and lacked motivation (Valdman, 1968: 10).

Programmed instruction worked best when teachers were very enthusiastic, but perhaps the most significant lesson to be learned from the experiments was that it was ‘a difficult, time-consuming task to introduce programmed instruction’ (Saettler, 1990: 299). It entailed changes to well-established practices and attitudes, and for such changes to succeed there must be consideration of the social, political, and economic contexts. As Saettler (1990: 306), notes, ‘without the support of the community and the entire teaching staff, sustained innovation is unlikely’. In this light, Hattie’s research finding that ‘when comparisons are made between many methods, programmed instruction often comes near the bottom’ (Hattie, 2009: 231) comes as no great surprise.

Just as programmed instruction was in its death throes, the world of language teaching discovered individualization. Launched as a deliberate movement in the early 1970s at the Stanford Conference (Altman & Politzer, 1971), it was a ‘systematic attempt to allow for individual differences in language learning’ (Stern, 1983: 387). Inspired, in part, by the work of Carl Rogers, this ‘humanistic turn’ was a recognition that ‘each learner is unique in personality, abilities, and needs. Education must be personalized to fit the individual; the individual must not be dehumanized in order to meet the needs of an impersonal school system’ (Disick, 1975:38). In ELT, this movement found many adherents and remains extremely influential to this day.

In language teaching more generally, the movement lost impetus after a few years, ‘probably because its advocates had underestimated the magnitude of the task they had set themselves in trying to match individual learner characteristics with appropriate teaching techniques’ (Stern, 1983: 387). What precisely was meant by individualization was never adequately defined or agreed (a problem that remains to the present time). What was left was self-pacing. In 1975, it was reported that ‘to date the majority of the programs in second-language education have been characterized by a self-pacing format […]. Practice seems to indicate that ‘individualized’ instruction is being defined in the class room as students studying individually’ (Chastain, 1975: 344).

Lessons to be learned

This brief account shows that historical attempts to facilitate self-pacing have largely been characterised by failure. The starting point of all these attempts remains as valid as ever, but it is clear that practical solutions are less than simple. To avoid the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, we should perhaps try to learn from the past.

One of the greatest challenges that teachers face is dealing with different levels of ability in their classes. In any blended scenario where the online component has an element of self-pacing, the challenge will be magnified as ability differentials are likely to grow rather than decrease as a result of the self-pacing. Bart Simpson hit the nail on the head in a memorable line: ‘Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of the class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are? Coo coo!’ Self-pacing runs into immediate difficulties when it comes up against standardised tests and national or state curriculum requirements. As Ferster observes, ‘the notion of individual pacing [remains] antithetical to […] a graded classroom system, which has been the model of schools for the past century. Schools are just not equipped to deal with students who do not learn in age-processed groups, even if this system is clearly one that consistently fails its students (Ferster, 2014: 90-91).bart_simpson

Ability differences are less problematic if the teacher focusses primarily on communicative tasks in F2F time (as opposed to more teaching of language items), but this is a big ‘if’. Many teachers are unsure of how to move towards a more communicative style of teaching, not least in large classes in compulsory schooling. Since there are strong arguments that students would benefit from a more communicative, less transmission-oriented approach anyway, it makes sense to focus institutional resources on equipping teachers with the necessary skills, as well as providing support, before a shift to a blended, more self-paced approach is implemented.

Such issues are less important in private institutions, which are not age-graded, and in self-study contexts. However, even here there may be reasons to proceed cautiously before buying into self-paced approaches. Self-pacing is closely tied to autonomous goal-setting (which I will look at in more detail in another post). Both require a degree of self-awareness at a cognitive and emotional level (McMahon & Oliver, 2001), but not all students have such self-awareness (Magill, 2008). If students do not have the appropriate self-regulatory strategies and are simply left to pace themselves, there is a chance that they will ‘misregulate their learning, exerting control in a misguided or counterproductive fashion and not achieving the desired result’ (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013: 177). Before launching students on a path of self-paced language study, ‘thought needs to be given to the process involved in users becoming aware of themselves and their own understandings’ (McMahon & Oliver, 2001: 1304). Without training and support provided both before and during the self-paced study, the chances of dropping out are high (as we see from the very high attrition rate in language apps).

However well-intentioned, many past attempts to facilitate self-pacing have also suffered from the poor quality of the learning materials. The focus was more on the technology of delivery, and this remains the case today, as many posts on this blog illustrate. Contemporary companies offering language learning programmes show relatively little interest in the content of the learning (take Duolingo as an example). Few app developers show signs of investing in experienced curriculum specialists or materials writers. Glossy photos, contemporary videos, good UX and clever gamification, all of which become dull and repetitive after a while, do not compensate for poorly designed materials.

Over forty years ago, a review of self-paced learning concluded that the evidence on its benefits was inconclusive (Allison, 1975: 5). Nothing has changed since. For some people, in some contexts, for some of the time, self-paced learning may work. Claims that go beyond that cannot be substantiated.


Allison, E. 1975. ‘Self-Paced Instruction: A Review’ The Journal of Economic Education 7 / 1: 5 – 12

Altman, H.B. & Politzer, R.L. (eds.) 1971. Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction: Proceedings of the Stanford Conference, May 6 – 8, 1971. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare

Chastain, K. 1975. ‘An Examination of the Basic Assumptions of “Individualized” Instruction’ The Modern Language Journal 59 / 7: 334 – 344

Disick, R.S. 1975 Individualizing Language Instruction: Strategies and Methods. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Ferster, B. 2014. Teaching Machines. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Grittner, F. M. 1975. ‘Individualized Instruction: An Historical Perspective’ The Modern Language Journal 59 / 7: 323 – 333

Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Januszewski, A. 2001. Educational Technology: The Development of a Concept. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited

Kirschner, P. A. & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. 2013. ‘Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education’ Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183

Magill, D. S. 2008. ‘What Part of Self-Paced Don’t You Understand?’ University of Wisconsin 24th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning Conference Proceedings.

McMahon, M. & Oliver, R. 2001. ‘Promoting self-regulated learning in an on-line environment’ in C. Montgomerie & J. Viteli (eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2001 (pp. 1299-1305). Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Pendleton, C. S. 1930. ‘Personalizing English Teaching’ Peabody Journal of Education 7 / 4: 195 – 200

Saettler, P. 1990. The Evolution of American Educational Technology. Denver: Libraries Unlimited

Stern, H.H. 1983. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Valdman, A. 1968. ‘Programmed Instruction versus Guided Learning in Foreign Language Acquisition’ Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German 1 / 2: 1 – 14


One could be forgiven for thinking that there are no problems associated with adaptive learning in ELT. Type the term into a search engine and you’ll mostly come up with enthusiasm or sales talk. There are, however, a number of reasons to be deeply skeptical about the whole business. In the post after this, I will be considering the political background.

1. Learning theory

Jose Fereira, the CEO of Knewton, spoke, in an interview with Digital Journal[1] in October 2009, about getting down to the ‘granular level’ of learning. He was referencing, in an original turn of phrase, the commonly held belief that learning is centrally concerned with ‘gaining knowledge’, knowledge that can be broken down into very small parts that can be put together again. In this sense, the adaptive learning machine is very similar to the ‘teaching machine’ of B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who believed that learning was a complex process of stimulus and response. But how many applied linguists would agree, firstly, that language can be broken down into atomised parts (rather than viewed as a complex, dynamic system), and, secondly, that these atomised parts can be synthesized in a learning program to reform a complex whole? Human cognitive and linguistic development simply does not work that way, despite the strongly-held contrary views of ‘folk’ theories of learning (Selwyn Education and Technology 2011, p.3).


Furthermore, even if an adaptive system delivers language content in personalized and interesting ways, it is still premised on a view of learning where content is delivered and learners receive it. The actual learning program is not personalized in any meaningful way: it is only the way that it is delivered that responds to the algorithms. This is, again, a view of learning which few educationalists (as opposed to educational leaders) would share. Is language learning ‘simply a technical business of well managed information processing’ or is it ‘a continuing process of ‘participation’ (Selwyn, Education and Technology 2011, p.4)?

Finally, adaptive learning is also premised on the idea that learners have particular learning styles, that these can be identified by the analytics (even if they are not given labels), and that actionable insights can be gained from this analysis (i.e. the software can decide on the most appropriate style of content delivery for an individual learner). Although the idea that teaching programs can be modified to cater to individual learning styles continues to have some currency among language teachers (e.g. those who espouse Neuro-Linguistic Programming or Multiple Intelligences Theory), it is not an idea that has much currency in the research community.

It might be the case that adaptive learning programs will work with some, or even many, learners, but it would be wise to carry out more research (see the section on Research below) before making grand claims about its efficacy. If adaptive learning can be shown to be more effective than other forms of language learning, it will be either because our current theories of language learning are all wrong, or because the learning takes place despite the theory, (and not because of it).

2. Practical problems

However good technological innovations may sound, they can only be as good, in practice, as the way they are implemented. Language laboratories and interactive whiteboards both sounded like very good ideas at the time, but they both fell out of favour long before they were technologically superseded. The reasons are many, but one of the most important is that classroom teachers did not understand sufficiently the potential of these technologies or, more basically, how to use them. Given the much more radical changes that seem to be implied by the adoption of adaptive learning, we would be wise to be cautious. The following is a short, selected list of questions that have not yet been answered.

  • Language teachers often struggle with mixed ability classes. If adaptive programs (as part of a blended program) allow students to progress at their own speed, the range of abilities in face-to-face lessons may be even more marked. How will teachers cope with this? Teacher – student ratios are unlikely to improve!
  • Who will pay for the training that teachers will need to implement effective blended learning and when will this take place?
  • How will teachers respond to a technology that will be perceived by some as a threat to their jobs and their professionalism and as part of a growing trend towards the accommodation of commercial interests (see the next post)?
  • How will students respond to online (adaptive) learning when it becomes the norm, rather than something ‘different’?

3 Research

Technological innovations in education are rarely, if ever, driven by solidly grounded research, but they are invariably accompanied by grand claims about their potential. Motion pictures, radio, television and early computers were all seen, in their time, as wonder technologies that would revolutionize education (Cuban, Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920 1986). Early research seemed to support the claims, but the passage of time has demonstrated all too clearly the precise opposite. The arrival on the scene of e-learning in general, and adaptive learning in particular, has also been accompanied by much cheer-leading and claims of research support.

Examples of such claims of research support for adaptive learning in higher education in the US and Australia include an increase in pass rates of between 7 and 18%, a decrease of between 14 and 47% in student drop-outs, and an acceleration of 25% in the time needed to complete courses[2]. However, research of this kind needs to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. First of all, the research has usually been commissioned, and sometimes carried out, by those with vested commercial interests in positive results. Secondly, the design of the research study usually guarantees positive results. Finally, the results cannot be interpreted to have any significance beyond their immediate local context. There is no reason to expect that what happened in a particular study into adaptive learning in, say, the University of Arizona would be replicated in, say, the Universities of Amman, Astana or anywhere else. Very often, when this research is reported, the subject of the students’ study is not even mentioned, as if this were of no significance.

The lack of serious research into the effectiveness of adaptive learning does not lead us to the conclusion that it is ineffective. It is simply too soon to say, and if the examples of motion pictures, radio and television are any guide, it will be a long time before we have any good evidence. By that time, it is reasonable to assume, adaptive learning will be a very different beast from what it is today. Given the recency of this kind of learning, the lack of research is not surprising. For online learning in general, a meta-analysis commissioned by the US Department of Education (Means et al, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practice in Online Learning 2009, p.9) found that there were only a small number of rigorous published studies, and that it was not possible to attribute any gains in learning outcomes to online or blended learning modes. As the authors of this report were aware, there are too many variables (social, cultural and economic) to compare in any direct way the efficacy of one kind of learning with another. This is as true of attempts to compare adaptive online learning with face-to-face instruction as it is with comparisons of different methodological approaches in purely face-to-face teaching. There is, however, an irony in the fact that advocates of adaptive learning (whose interest in analytics leads them to prioritise correlational relationships over causal ones) should choose to make claims about the causal relationship between learning outcomes and adaptive learning.

Perhaps, as Selwyn (Education and Technology 2011, p.87) suggests, attempts to discover the relative learning advantages of adaptive learning are simply asking the wrong question, not least as there cannot be a single straightforward answer. Perhaps a more useful critique would be to look at the contexts in which the claims for adaptive learning are made, and by whom. Selwyn also suggests that useful insights may be gained from taking a historical perspective. It is worth noting that the technicist claims for adaptive learning (that ‘it works’ or that it is ‘effective’) are essentially the same as those that have been made for other education technologies. They take a universalising position and ignore local contexts, forgetting that ‘pedagogical approach is bound up with a web of cultural assumption’ (Wiske, ‘A new culture of teaching for the 21st century’ in Gordon, D.T. (ed.) The Digital Classroom: How Technology is Changing the Way we teach and Learn 2000, p.72). Adaptive learning might just possibly be different from other technologies, but history advises us to be cautious.

[2] These figures are quoted in Learning to Adapt: A Case for Accelerating Adaptive Learning in Higher Education, a booklet produced in March 2013 by Education Growth Advisors, an education consultancy firm. Their research is available at