As learners, Skinner said, “we are automatically reinforced when we successfully control the physical world (ibid:75).” Teaching implies the identification of desired outcomes and precise planning of strategies for facilitating “the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement which expedite learning (Skinner,1959:15).” The educator prepares the students for situations not yet risen by bringing discriminant operants under the control of stimuli expected to occur in those situations. The child is forewarned and forearmed with powerful tools for controlling nature, the very exercise of which provides reinforcement. Because of this, the natural payoffs inherent in the subject matter are the teacher’s chief allies (Hutcheon,1996:413). Skinner maintained that educators who recommend external means of motivating learning have got it all wrong, noting that “the sheer control of nature itself is reinforcing (Skinner, 1959:102).” As he reminded us, “The motives in education are the motives of all human behavior … We appeal to that drive to control the environment that makes a baby continue to crumple a noisy paper and the scientist to continue to press forward with his predictive analysis of nature (Skinner, 1948:124).”
All living things learn in response to their environments. And living things are part of the environment. All living things relate to their environments, even when in the same environments as other living things, uniquely. All living things have enough genetic difference, even when in the same species and born in the same “family”, to have unique responses (developmental and learning) to the world around them.
This is a very simple set up and yet has enough power to cover the bulk of how we all learn. When thinking about what approaches to educating children are more or less effective I evaluate how seriously an approach considers these basic principles. Every environment is a learning environment – it’s a matter of figuring out, and this is complicated, what is learnable in that environment. Each person, even a young child, is a complex mix of genetics, epigenetics and environmental history. Some environments build on this concept and others resist it.
So what is an ideal environment? What is the best “classroom” for a child to learn?
First, it’s important to figure out what it is we want a child to learn. And, of course, this is no easy question. Broadly the goal of any “education” (in the formal school sense) is to provide strategies for survival (and thriving).* Effective strategies for survival is by no means a fixed target. As long as the world changes so will the strategies that best ensure survival. So in some sense what we want a child to learn isn’t one particular strategy but a way to derive strategies in response to a changing environment. We could call that critical thinking, synthesis, and problem solving. In short, we want children to learn how to learn – to be more aware of the world around them, to be able to process information efficiently and effectively and to manipulate the environment as needed.
Is anything else needed to be taught? No, not strictly. There’s no need to preach a particular curriculum as fundamental. Yes for certain paths in life and in our culture knowing a particular skill or piece of information could be beneficial. If mathematicians make more money than other professions and making more money provides better means for survival then it is likely a child taught mathematics should survive and thrive. That is, as long as the child finds mathematics interesting and so forth enough to actually pursue it and develop enough skill. Even in that example one can get to the point of survival without assuming a priori that there’s intrinsic, universal value to mathematics. Everything worth knowing is in relation to the person knowing it and their relation to their changing environment. The essential learning necessary for a person s being able to evaluate quickly enough to matter whether a strategy is effective or not. The strategies themselves should be viewed as experiments – behavior-response experiences to see what is worth doing and knowing.
Based on this the ideal environment is not a singular environment. it’s not a classroom, it’s not a gym, it’s not lecture hall, it’s not a playroom. The ideal environmentS are different for everyone. Some children do very well in a traditional classroom, others do not. Some prefer being alone, others in nature and so on and on. Just as discussed in the what is worth learning, environment staging should be viewed as an experiment – contexts to see what reinforces successful strategies for survival.
Combine strategy testing and environment building and exploration and you get the whole equation of education. For certain children maintaining a steady environment that induces effective exploration of strategies might be best. For other children varying environments may be the key to the building up of strategies.
The goal of education can be refined from above as: increase the repertoire of behavior** in order to identify and execute strategies to survive and thrive.
This probably sounds horribly inefficient. Is possible to educate a family, village, country, and world of children on a completely individual basis? Yes! That’s exactly what happens anyway. It is LESS efficient to make the assumption that this isn’t what is actually happening and so to be unaware how everyone responds differently. To use the same textbooks, same computer programs, same schedule for everyone makes an assumption that it’s “optimal enough” for any given child. Who knows what potentially incredible strategies are going unexplored.
The world has now developed a sufficiently robust set of tools to uniquely educate, without compromise, every child. Tablets and laptops can be obtained for less than $100, be connected to a free wifi at libraries and other community zones, and provided access to millions of free books, free websites, free Ivy League virtual classrooms. Obviously, there is more to it than a computer and the Internet. More and more networks of volunteer organizations, sports, after school programs, book clubs, excited artists, professional musicians are available for almost anyone (in the US) to join/connect with/create. With the social network inter-connectivity of the world with more than a billion people connected, likely by less than 6 degrees of separation, identifying communities to join, people to talk to, and new environments to join has become much more possible.
I’m not suggesting that everything is perfect and that education has been solved! Quite the contrary. The space of possibilities is now MUCH greater than it ever has been. It’s not even more vital to explore this space of educational possibilities in search of better and better strategies. There’s no right or wrong way to go about this. There’s more or less effective strategies for you and your children. And there’s an infinite number of strategies possible and we all have finite energy/resources/means.
I suppose if I had to conclude or provide some closure on my point here it’s that the ideal education is really whatever works for you. And what “works” is a complicated mix of means and goals and values. There are so many options available and yet to be created and that seems to me to be a great thing. Ideal really.
*It’s relatively straight forward to assume that’s the goal of almost any education, formal or not. Though would could say in certain situations we are trying to teach someone to suffer and die, such as in the case of prison
**repertoire of behavior doesn’t imply a broad set of behaviors, it could be the case that become a master in a particular skill set becomes a necessary strategy. That is, experts often demonstrate a very wide and deep set of strategies/abilities within a given discipline.