PC is to Piaget as WWW is to Vygotsky

Delivered at SIGGRAPH '95, Los Angeles


Robert Edgar


Copyright 1995 Robert Edgar




The development of educational pedagogy has interesting parallels with the development of personal computer technology. Centralized and autocratic, mainframe technology (and, in the public schools, similarly architected Instructional Learning Systems) distributed a CAI (computer-assisted instruction) approach to education which was strictly content-based and driven by behavioral objectives. With the onslaught of personal computers came the popularity of constructivist approaches to educational technology, where open-ended environments provided individual students with tools to experiment and build their own learning constructs. In the last few years, as the internet and World Wide Web have matured; the social aspects of learning as described by Vygotsky have become useful for those looking to design educational projects involving a distributed but intercommunicating audience.

Having said this, the rest of this presentation gives specific examples of these correspondences between learning pedagogies and dominant computer platforms.


Skinner : Mainframes
Educational Pedagogy Computer Architecture
Content Centered Centralized
Behavioral Precedural Languages
Preprogrammed Preprogrammed


Here is an example of a technique used by Skinner to teach a student to memorize a poem. .
--R.B.E.

"A simple technique used in programming material at the high-school or college level...is exemplified in teaching a student to recite a poem. The first line is presented with several unimportant letters omitted. the student must read the line "meaningfully" and supply the missing letters. The second, third, and fourth frames present succeeding lines in the same way. In the fifth frame the first line reappears with other letters also missing. Since the student has recently read the line, he can complete it correctly. He does the same for the second, third, and fourth lines. Subsequent frames are increasingly incomplete, and eventually--say, after 20 or 24 frames--the student reproduces all four lines without external help, and quite possibly without having made a wrong response. the technique is similar to that used in teaching spelling: responses are first controlled by a text, but this is slowly reduced (colloquially, 'vanished') until the responses can be emitted without a text, each member in a series of responses being now under the 'intraverbal' control of their members."
--B.F. Skinner, The Technology of Teaching, p.42



Skinner : Mainframes
Educational Environment Computer Environment
Isolated Learners Isolated Workers
Limited Access Limited Access


Major providers of behaviorally-based educational curricula made the majority of their money by selling centralized ILS (integrated learning systems) using CAI (computer-assisted instruction) to school systems that placed the hardware in learning labs isolated from the student's classrooms. The average student access to machines in the labs ran about 15-20 minutes per day. Here Skinner speaks to the availability of instructional resources.
--R.B.E.

"At four or six frames per word, four grades of spelling may require 20,000 or 25,000 frames, and three or four grades of arithmetic, as many again. If these figures seem large, it is only because we are thinking of the normal contact between teacher and pupil. Admittedly, a teacher cannot supervise 10,000 or 15,000 responses made by each pupil per year. But the pupil's time is not so limited. In any case, surprisingly little time is needed. Fifteen minutes per day on a machine should suffice for each of these programs, the machines being free for other students for the rest of each day. (It is probably because traditional methods are so inefficient that we have been led to suppose that education requires such a prodigious part of a young person's day)."
--B.F. Skinner, The Technology of Teaching, P. 41



Skinner : Mainframes
Curriculum Data
Single Curriculum Centralized Databases
Developed and Managed by Teacher Programmed and Managed by MIS


Here is Skinner on the relationships among teacher, student and software."
--R.B.E

"The important features of the device are these: reinforcement for the right answer is immediate. The mere manipulation of the device will probably be reinforcing enough to keep the average pupil at work for a suitable period each day, provide traces of earlier aversive control can be wiped out. A teacher may supervise an entire class at work on such devices at the same time, yet each child may progress at his own rate, completing as many problems as possible within the class period. If forced to be away from school, he may return to pick up where he left off. The gifted child will advance rapidly, but can be kept from getting too far ahead either by being excuse from arithmetic for a time or by being given special sets of problems with take him into some of the interesting bypaths of mathematics.
"The device makes it possible to present carefully designed material in which one problem can depend upon the answer to the preceding problem and where, therefore, the most efficient progress to an eventually complex repertoire can be made. Provision has been made for recording the commonest mistakes so that the tapes can be modified as experience dictates. Additional steps can be inserted where pupils tend to have trouble, and ultimately the material will reach a point at which the answers of the average child will almost always be right."
--B.F. Skinner, The Technology of Teaching



Piaget : PCs
Educational Pedagogy Computer Architecture
Student Centered Decentralized
Student can program the computer Individual can program the computer

Psychologist Jean Piaget comments on hehaviorist instructional strategies.
--R.B.E

"The role assigned to conditioning, particularly under the influence of Skinner, has led to the ideal of programmed instruction through progressive associations mechanically arranged ('teaching machines'), and the enthusiasm for this approach in some circles is well known, although it is moderated by the cost of the apparatus required. Its fundamental defect is that it is based on a most inadequate psychology, which as the distinguished linguist N. Chomsky has conclusively shown, is unable rationally to account for the learning of languages. programmed instruction is indeed conductive to learning, but by no means to inventing, unless, following S. Papert's experiment, the child is made to do the programming himself."
--Piaget, To Understand is to Invent, p.7



Piaget : PCs
Educational Environment Computing Environment
Localized Student Groups The Desktop (Office as Well as Home)


Newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, viewed in 1948, present a formal and one-way communication on international events, which is sampled and discussed locally. Written in the late 1940's, here Piaget imagines how a group might use media for examining international topics."
--R.B.E.

"For example, one could conceive of a group of secondary students trying to establish (without engaging the responsibility of the teacher, and with a free exchange of ideas) through a comparison of newspaper articles or of radio broadcasts what are the multiplicity of points of view on the same event and what are the difficulties of an objective history. It is not impossible that the day when the pupils learn to think and to read newspapers (or listen to the radio) in such a spirit of discernment and criticism, peoples themselves will hesitate to allow themselves to be led exactly like schoolchildren..."
--Piaget, To Understand is to Invent



Piaget : PCs
Curriculum Data
Constructivism frees student to structure and perform experimentation as subject PC affordability allows people to apply computing to new cultural areas


Here Piaget explains the role of personal experimentation as subject.
--R.B.E.

"...The incredible failing of traditional schools till very recently has been to have almost systematically neglected to train pupils in experimentation. It is not the experiments the teacher may demonstrate before them, or those they carry out themselves according to a pre-established procedure, that will teach students the general rules of scientific experimentation--such as the variation of one factor when the others have been neutralized (ceteris paribus), or the dissociation of fortuitous fluctuations and regular variations. In this context more than in any other, the methods of the future will have to give more and more scope to the activity and the groupings of students as well as to the spontaneous handling of devices intended to confirm or refute the hypothesis they have formed to explain a given elementary phenonenon. In other words, if there is any area in which active methods will probably become imperative in the full sense of the term, it is that in which experimental procedures are learned, for an experiment not carried out by the individual himself with all freedom of initiative is by definition not an experiment but mere drill with no educational value: the details of the successive steps are not adequately understood."
--Piaget, To Understand is to Invent



Vygotsky : WWW
Educational Pedagogy Computer Architecture
Irreducability of the Social Indivisability of the Web
Individual Language Begins in a Social Space The Web Introduces a Post-Spatial Experience


Here Vygotsky comments on Piaget.
--R.B.E.

"In Piaget's view, the development of the child's thinking moves from autism to socialized speech, from illusory imagination to logical relations. As Piaget would express it, he strives to observe the process through which the psychological substance of the child assimilates (i.e., deforms) the social influences originating in the speech and thinking of the adults who interact with him...Our hypothesis obligates us to represent the overall process of development in the following way. The initial function of speech is social, that of social interaction or social linkage. Speech effects those in the immediate environment and may be initiated by either the adult or the child. The first form of speech in the child, then, is purely social. The notion that speech is socialized is incorrect in that this implies that speech was originally non-social, that it becomes social only through development and change."
Vygotsky,Thought and Language



Vygotsky : WWW
Educational Environment Computing Environment
Each Student Will Be Ready for a Subject at a Certain Time The Web Provides all Subjects Through a Single Hookup


"One of Vygotsky's more popular themes is that of the zone of proximal development, which he desicibes here--without naming it."
--R.B.E.

"For each subject of instruction, there is a period when its influence is most fruitful because the child is most receptive to it. It has been called the sensitive period by Montessori and other educators. The term is used also in biology, for the periods in ontogenetic development when the organism is particularly responsive to influences of certain kinds. During that period an influence that has little effect earlier or later may radically affect the course of development. But the existence of an optimal time for instruction in a given subject cannot be explained in purely biological terms, at least not for such complex processes as written speech. Our investigation demonstrated the social and cultural nature of the development of the higher functions during these periods, i.e., its dependence on cooperation with adults and on instruction."
--Vygotsky, Thought and Language, p. 186



Vygotsky : WWW
Curriculum Data
All Learning is Inherently Contextualized and Cross-Curricular The Web is Comprised of Hyperlinks


Perhaps the basic unit of the web is the hyperlink. Here is an interesting text from Vygotsky describing relationships among subjects from the perspective of the learners.
--R.B.E.

"The psychological prerequisits for instruction in different school subjcts are to a large extent the same; instruction in a given subject influences the development of the higher functions from beyond the confines of that particular subject; the main psychic functions involved in studying various subjects are interdependent--their common bases are consciousness and deliberate mastery, the principal contributions of the school years. It follows from these findings that all the basic school subjects act as formal discipline, each facilitating the learning of the others; the pschological functins stimulated by them develop in one complex process."
--Vygotsky,Thought and Language, p. 186



...Quoted in Vygotsky's Thought and Language
Text of the Play Parallel Motives
"Well, let's suppose it is so. Thrice blessed who believes. Believing warms the heart." Let us stop this conversation etc.