In which I review ‘Walden Two’ by B. F. Skinner

At the start of November 2014, I wrote a review of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards [1], in which he argues that rewards and punishments are part of a behaviourist system of operant conditioning that reduces students to a set of behaviours that can be reinforced or corrected until a specific stimulus achieves the desired response. As such, for Kohn, behaviourism ‘is by its very nature dehumanizing.’ [2] Instead, Kohn advocates a school environment in which all extrinsic motivators are removed and in which students have autonomy over their choice of what they learn, and when and with whom they learn it, so that all learning is driven entirely by intrinsic motivation. My edition even includes the text of a debate between Kohn and B. F. Skinner, who coined the term ‘operant conditioning’ and to whom Kohn positions himself and his educational philosophy in direct opposition.

It was in this light that I set out to read Walden Two, the utopian novel by B. F. Skinner himself. [3] The novel can be most charitably described as a ‘novel of ideas’, by which I mean it largely consists of expository dialogue between Frazier (the founder of Walden Two, the eponymous utopian community), Burris (the narrator) and Castle (the arch-sceptic, who is determined to prove that Walden Two is a crypto-fascist autocracy) as they go on a tour of the community and discuss the philosophy behind the various aspects of it.

Chapter fifteen is most pertinent here, since this is where the visiting party are taken on a tour of the educational facilities. After reading Kohn’s book, I was expecting a scene rather like this:

Future School

Imagine my surprise, then, to find that the students in Skinner’s utopian school appear to be engaging in something not dissimilar to discovery learning:

‘We visited some of the workshops, laboratories, studies, and reading rooms used in lieu of classrooms. They were occupied, but it was not entirely clear than the children were actually in school… We inspected a well-equipped gymnasium, a small assembly room, and other facilities… The doors and many of the windows stood open, and a fair share of the schoolwork, or whatever it was, took place outside. Children were constantly passing in and out… Everyone seemed to be enjoying extraordinary freedom.’ [4]

As Frazier goes on to explain:

“An educational institution spends most of its time, not in presenting facts or imparting techniques of learning, but in trying to make its students learn. It has to create spurious needs. Have you ever stopped to analyse them?”

Castle replies:

“I suppose they consist of fear of one’s family in the event of low grades or expulsion, the award of grades and honors, the snob value of a cap and gown, the cash value of a diploma,”

and Frazier reveals that, since operant conditioning is based on controlling the environment in order to achieve a desired behavioural outcome, this control can be achieved by removing external stimuli just as much as it can by their introduction:

“our substitute is simply the absence of these devices… We don’t need ‘grades.’ Everyone knows that talents and abilities don’t develop at the same rate in different children. A fourth-grade reader may be a sixth-grade mathematician. The grade is an administrative device which does violence to the nature of the developmental process. Here the child advances as rapidly as he likes in any field. No time is wasted in forcing him to participate in, or be bored by, activities he has outgrown.” [5]

Not only does Skinner (via Frazier) advocate a school environment in which all extrinsic motivators are removed and in which students have autonomy over their choice of what they learn, and when and with whom they learn it, so that all learning is driven entirely by intrinsic motivation, but he also appears to advocate a generic skills-based curriculum:

“Since our children remain happy, energetic, and curious, we don’t need to teach ‘subjects’ at all. We teach only the techniques of learning and thinking. As for geography, literature, the sciences – we give our children opportunity and guidance, and they learn for themselves. In that way we dispense with half the teachers required under the old system, and the education is incomparably better. Our children aren’t neglected, but they’re seldom, if ever, taught anything.” [6]

There is also an emphasis on authentic learning experiences:

“Our laboratories are good because they are real. Our workshops are really small engineering laboratories, any anyone with a genuine bent can go farther in them than the college student. We teach anatomy in the slaughterhouse, botany in the field, genetics in the dairy and poultry house, chemistry in the medical building and in the kitchen and dairy laboratory.”

Furthermore, when Castle suggests that one of the main purposes of education is to:

“provide techniques and abilities which will be valuable later… For example, the study of a language,”

Frazier replies:

“Why ‘late’? Why not acquire a language when it’s valuable? We acquire our own tongue in that way!”

He then comments, on the group of community members (aged between 10 and 50) who are currently learning French from some of the more fluent speakers within Walden Two, that:

“They’ll never get grades or credits, but they’re getting French. Is there really any choice? Either French is worth learning, at the time you learn it, or it’s not.” [7]

In conclusion, it is worth emphasising that Walden Two was first published in 1948, and Skinner based his utopia on the science of human behaviour at the time. Indeed, Skinner (via Frazier) reiterates at several points through the book that the Walden Code would be constantly revised and updated in light of new and better evidence. Despite this, his utopian school does anticipate the research since the 1970s into self-determination theory. That being the case, given more recent research into deliberate practice [8], cognitive load [9] and so on, I wonder – what would an evidence-based utopian school circa 2015 look like?

Notes

[1] C. Phillips (2014) ‘In which I review “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn’, https://forwardsnotbackwards.wordpress.com/2014/11/01/in-which-i-review-punished-by-rewards-by-alfie-kohn/ (post dated 1 November 2014; site accessed 19 February 2015)

[2] A. Kohn (1999) Punished By Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, And Other Bribes (New York, Houghton Mifflin) p.25

[3] B. F. Skinner (2010 [1948, 1972]) Walden Two (Indianapolis / Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Co. [Kindle edition])

[4] Skinner, Walden Two (Kindle edition, no page numbers)

[5] Skinner, Walden Two (Kindle edition, no page numbers)

[6] Skinner, Walden Two (Kindle edition, no page numbers)

[7] Skinner, Walden Two (Kindle edition, no page numbers)

[8] K. Ericsson, R. Krampe and C. Tesch-Romer (1993) ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, in Psychological Review 100 (3) 363-406

[9] P. A. Kirschner, J. Sweller and R. E. Clark (2006) ‘Why Minimal Instruction During Guidance Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching’, in Educational Psychologist 41 (2) 75-86; D. T. Willingham (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works And What It Means For The Classroom (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass)

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About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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