Don’t throw BF Skinner’s research out…along with his bath water

I posted two quotes from Skinner on Twitter and Facebook and am surprised at the response. Publicly and privately friends express their hatred of B.F. Skinner. Even Noam Chomsky spent pages (years ago) raging against Skinner.

However,  Skinner’s work may be more valuable today than ever.  He conducted many important studies, and pioneered the field of using machines (computers) as learning tools, so I believe it is worth while looking back with 20/20 hindsight to see what was valuable, insightful, or just his misinterpretation. The notion “consider the source” is a valid consideration, but too often we use our emotions to either glorify or vilify others.

Isn’t it time we begin judging the merit of a message on how well that particular message resonates  and begin to separate message from messenger?

Skinner, I know, has become a euphemism for, ok, an icon of, narrow-minded step-by-step instruction.

However, his big rPrincipal Skinnerevelations:

  • small immediate rewards shape behavior better than punishment,
  • random generous rewards can be a tremendous motivator (slot machines as a case in point)

Skinner had a lot of valid criticisms of modern capitalism and the excesses of over-consumption. He believed that television made representational democracy impossible as small bits of positive reinforcement (a solid hand shake, a positive outlook, a trust worthy expression )swayed voters more than effective policies or complicated solutions.

So, enough of my pro-Skinner ranting for now. I hope these videos of BF’s experiments make you reflect on your behavior half as much as they made me reflect on mine.

Skinner videos:

Pigeon Ping Pong (way better than cat juggling)

Making a pigeon dance

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Ethnographic Research

Paolo Friere, the Brazian educator once told me, “education design is 90% intiution and 10% research, but you have to spend 90% of your time researching to make sure your intuition is correct, because if it’s not, then you miss your mark entirely and accomplish nothing.”

I think that moment with such a great educator articulated my passion. An ideal setting, comming up with ideas and then conducting research to see how they could be improved or improve the user’s life. Ah, that is the life.

I found this beautiful description of ethnographic research
“rather than studying people, enthnography means learning from people”

Microsoft and Intel sponsored a conference last year Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference. The mission statement says,
“By understanding people; what they do, how they do it, and how these change over time, we can create better corporate strategies, processes, and products, as well as enhance and simplify people’s lives.”

My introduction to ethnographic research started by listening to folk singer Pete Segeer. He talked about John and Alan Lomax who were ethnomusicologist. They went around the country recording folk music and catologued it for the Smithsonian.

Later, I was introduced to the work of Margaret Mead. Then in 1980 I Directed the the National Literacy Campaign for Northern Managua. In addition to teaching the workers how to read and write, own mandate was also to learn from them and document as best we could what we learned.