Programmed Instruction: A Brief Overview
Programmed instruction (or PI) is defined in the dictionary as, "instruction through information given in small steps with each requiring a correct response by the learner before going on to the next step." (m-w.com). PI was first seriously studied in the 1960s by B. F. Skinner for use as a behavior modification tool. Today these behavior modification techniques are mostly limited to military use to train soldiers.
PI also has many applications in learning. Educational theorist Robert Gagne wrote a book called The Conditions of Learning, describing how PI can work for teaching as well as behavior modification. His system was based on the simple philosophy of PI: a student needs complete knowledge of subordinate skills before learning superordinate ones. Superordinate skills are broken down into their subordinate skills. For example, Gagne describes how the skills needed to balance a checkbook can be broken all the way down to the level of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Although this idea may seem like common sense, it has almost completely disappeared since the 70s and is currently in use almost nowhere1.
Training, Sorting, Socialization, and Caretaking
These are the four purposes of public schools. Sorting is the process where schools decide whether each student is on the college track or the vocational track. Some students are encouraged to enroll in honors and Advanced Placement courses while others are barred from them. Training is the process of teaching facts and skills, and socialization and caretaking should be self-explanatory. The following is an analysis of why the sorting and training functions of schools are broken and then how PI can fix them.
Normally in schools each course is presented linearly in a textbook and taught chapter by chapter from front to back. This is highly inefficient for several reasons. Firstly, all students are taught at the same rate regardless of how fast they assimilate the material. If you consider this trivial, try convincing that to a student who spent thirteen years in compulsory schools when he was capable of learning the material in nine or a kid so far behind that he was passed from grade to grade until he eventually graduated high school not knowing how to read.
Secondly, every student moves on from one chapter to the next regardless of whether they have mastered material. How can one be expected to fully understand integrals after getting a 64% on the derivatives chapter of a calculus test? Also, lets say that a student wants to learn a specific concept in chapter seven of a textbook. Clearly some of the content from chapters one through six will be required to understand the concept the students wants to learn, although probably not all of it will. This means that for every complex skill one needs to acquire, a large portion of one's time is inefficiently spent learning unnecessary material.
The system of grading used by schools has little correlation with what students actually know. If a student gets a C in high school Latin, what percentage of the curriculum do they know? It is impossible to say because in most classes homework, essays, and class participation are equally important as tests. Grading is done more out of religious faith than practicality; grades take into account both work ethic and knowledge. Students who understand the material without completing their homework are punished. As an example, students who excel in music often get bad grades because even though they are intelligent they spend up to six hours a day practicing their instruments. Consequently they don't have much time for homework and even if they understand the material it is difficult for them to get into top colleges despite having the intelligence and work ethic to succeed. If I want to hire a high school student to do web design and I see he got a B in a web design class, that doesn't tell me anything at all about what that student is capable of or what their work ethic is.
Furthermore, when a student performs poorly on a test what is to say they didn't learn more of the material after the test was given? Even if grades are comprised of only test averages they still don't correlate well with what students actually know under the current grading system.
It is telling that Craig Venter, head of the human genome project, almost failed out of high school and didn't go to college and Bill Bradley got 480 on his verbal SATs but won a Rhodes scholarship and became a senator2.
Although the SATs have been found to have no statistical significance in determining a student's success in college past the first semester of freshman year3, where they are just barely statistically significant, they are one of the most important factors for gaining admission into college. This shows just how meaningless grades really are.
Sorting and Training Using Programmed Instruction
With programmed instruction the situation is very different. The biggest difference is that a student is not allowed to advance to a new lesson until he has mastered the previous one. The calculus student could not move to integrals until he had mastered derivatives. Computers ensure the student does not repeat material he has already mastered while facilitating review to keep old lessons fresh. Adjustable pacing allows each student to learn at their optimally efficient rate.
Since a student wouldn't progress until they had mastered 100% of the material in each lesson, the need for grading would be eliminated. Instead each student would simply build a portfolio of their skills and knowledge. In this way there would now be equality in sorting and the college selection process. However, equity would also be increased since the same software would be used in every school district from the wealthiest to the poorest.
Choice, efficiency, Equity, Equality
These four categories are used to evaluate the quality of schools. Choice refers to how much freedom a student has in choosing the direction of their own education. Efficiency is the speed and cost at which students learn a given amount of material. Equity is how well schools compensate for the innate differences between students, whereas equality is the extent to which all students have access to the same opportunities. Traditionally it has been thought that if you increased choice, efficiency, equity, or equality then the other three would decrease. However with programmed instruction there is a clear gain in each of these four areas.
In a curriculum integrated with PI there would be a set curriculum for students to master, but they could tackle it in any way they wanted as long as they learned subordinate skills before superordinate ones. For example a student in math would start by learning counting, then addition, then subtraction, then multiplication, then division, then fractions. From there they would choose whether to learn proportions, mixed numbers, or long division. This `skill tree' representing the curriculum would branch and merge scores of times, giving students nearly infinite ways to go about learning the material, all equally efficient.
In most schools the only class taught entirely with computers is typing, and so it is no coincidence that most learn-to-type programs involve some form of PI. Think back to when you learned to type: most likely the software you used involved a series of lessons where you had to pass each lesson to go on to the next, with each lesson introducing a few new keys at a time. It is also likely that there were exercises at the end of each lesson where you were evaluated on both your speed and accuracy. Furthermore, each lesson probably started with a brief review of what was learned in previous ones. The students would progress through the levels as quickly as they learned the material, as the program would automatically adjust to the learning rate of each student. Through a PI course you were able to learn a skill as difficult as touch typing with relative ease. Could you imagine learning to type through reading a textbook or listening to lectures and how hard and inefficient it would be?
The role of teachers would shift away from teaching basic facts and skills toward using these facts and skills to stimulate discussion and higher level thinking. This would also ameliorate the severe lack of qualified teachers in many school systems. Of course not all classes would be suitable for this type of instruction, for example PI would be an inappropriate tool for writing seminars, science labs, music, gym, and other forms of hands on instruction. Although PI will never be able to replace all that schools have to offer, it is a highly efficient way of learning certain skills.
Equity and Equality
Equity and equality would also benefit. Equity increases because the poor would have the same level of access to learning as the wealthy. But at the same time there would also be more equality because access to higher education would be based on something more tangible than grades and SATs.
In the sixties and seventies, PI was thought to be the Next Big Thing in education. However, it turned out to be economically impossible to put such a system into place at the time. By and large, PI has been forgotten; however, advances in hardware and software over the last thirty years have now made PI a real possibility.
Economics: Hardware and Software
The first 100 dollar computers will be available in early 20054, and thin clients could be even cheaper. The amount of money necessary to equip a classroom with the needed hardware would be comparable to the cost of textbooks.
A software suite containing everything taught in the K-12 schools would have been prohibitively expensive if not impossible just a few years ago. In fact, it would still be very difficult for any private corporation to create this today (though some are trying) given that it would cost tens of millions of dollars to develop and have no guaranteed market or proven track record in the classroom. However, using the same wiki technology that has been used to successfully create Wikipedia, a professional quality product could be ready for a nominal fee in just a few years using entirely volunteer labor. This would then be translated into every major language and distributed for free to anyone who wished to use it as a tool for learning. Although this article focuses on PI in the classroom, it would be just as useful, if not more so, as a tool for adults to educate themselves at home.
In 1983, the Department of Education published the report A Nation at Risk, which said the American public education system was broken, and that, if a foreign power had imposed the system upon us, we would have considered it an act of war. Furthermore the average seventeen year old minority has the same test scores as the average thirteen year old white student. The solutions to these problems have been argued about with little progress for over thirty years. PI, used sensibly, has the potential to not only eliminate this equity gap but to increase achievement and equality across the board. PI will never be a replacement for schools and teachers and should not be seen as such. However it is another tool that can be added to our repertoire to ensure that every child gets the best education possible.
- PI is commonly used in computer games where it is used to simulate a character's skills and abilities. Examples of this can be found in Diablo II and Civilization III.
- There is one study that suggests SATs are a statistically significant predictor of graduation rates for students with high school GPAs greater or equal to 4.0.
- Steve Ballmer's $100 PC, Sans Windows
The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto
A very enjoyable historical account of the forces that shaped the creation of our school system and the problems with schools today. Written by an award winning teacher with over thirty years teaching experience. Available for free online at JohnTaylorGatto.com. A global history, not just United States centric.
- Equality and Achievement by Cornelius Riordan
A book providing an overview of all major studies about public schools with lots of commentary on them. The author weaves these together into an account of the factors which affect a student's achievement: socioeconomics, differences between schools, differences within each school, and differences between peer groups.
- Education and Social Change: Themes in the History of American Schooling by John L. Rury
A historical account of the history of public schooling in the United States.
- Voices From The Hellmouth
The first in a series of articles by Jon Katz on Slashdot about the reactions of students and schools to the Columbine High School massacre.
- Elearning article on Wikipedia