The Teaching Machine, Socratic Method and Social Constructivism

The Teaching Machine was learning by reinforcement by of right/wrong. It used small steps to build up knowledge about something. It had the advantages of self-paced, individualised learning but could not test higher levels of thinking and did not involve collaboration, discussion or other social aspects. It had the advantage of learning independently and privately, so not exposing to weaker students. The disadvantage is that it assumes there is one right answer to questions, so is limited to its applicability to certain disciplines. The learning also must have been very linear, so does not cater for different approaches to learning.

The Socratic method was about drawing out knowledge rather than cramming it in, which differed from the teaching machine, which was definitely about cramming information into the students. The Socratic method is about questioning and thinking not just reproducing answers, which presumably how the teaching machine worked, as the technology could not have been very sophisticated at that time. The Socratic method is about learning socially through dialogue where as no discussion or social activity took place using the teaching machine. The Socratic method may not suit all students though as those less confident would not feel good about their ideas being pulled apart or questioned. They would feel very exposed. It would also not work well with topics that were totally new to students, as they would have no experience on which to draw or build on.

Social constructivism put the emphasis on the social aspects of learning, so learning with others via dialogue and collaboration, and also on creating things to assist the learning process. The teaching machine does not do either of these things as the learning was very individual, and students work in the same room but no collaboration appears to take place. In addition the students are not using what they have learnt to apply to other contexts or learning higher order skills of critique and evaluation.

In summary the teaching machine probably offered an improvement to education at the time, so rather than learning all together by reciting times-tables etc, the teaching machine offered the students a more individualised learning experience, allowed them to work at their own pace, and I am sure was a novelty at the time, so learning perhaps was more fun than students were used to. The reward of getting something right and moving on is similarly to the badge system which is popular at the moment. Some students who were perhaps slower to learn and not confident would have preferred the teaching machine to the Socratic method, even though questioning techniques can be very effective in some contexts to achieve higher order skills. The teaching machine however does not fit very well under the social constructivist way of learning, as there was not social activity and the students were not really constructing anything new based on the knowledge that they have learnt


About Sue Folley

Academic Developer, interested in effective use of technology in teaching and learning, Web 2.0 and social networking. Just completed an EdD about teaching online.

Posted on April 19, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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