What a Forgotten Instructional Fad From the ‘60s Reveals About Teaching
Back in the 1960s, an experimental form of teaching made a big splash at colleges. It was called PSI, or the Personalized System of Instruction.
These days the practice is largely forgotten, but it might bring a sense of déjà vu to proponents of personalized online learning systems. PSI involved having students read through material at their own pace rather than go to lectures, and move on to the next part of the material after they had passed a test on the previous section. It was low-tech, but it foreshadowed some of the adaptive learning systems of today.
Its champion was Fred Keller, a friend and grad school classmate of B.F. Skinner, the father of a theory known as behaviorism, which posits that positive rewards (like giving cheese when a rat hits a lever) can incentivize and even condition subjects (including people) to behave in certain ways. So in a way, PSI brought Skinner’s ideas to college instruction.
For a while, PSI was used extensively at colleges across the country, including MIT. The National Science Foundation gave out grants to support it at colleges. Keller even set up a center at Georgetown University devoted to the idea, called the Center for Personalized Instruction.
But almost as quickly as it emerged, the practice faded. Even Keller admitted it was a failure, calling it a “flash in the pan.”
What happened? And what lessons can today’s professors and administrators learn from the story?
Those questions, along with many others, are explored in “The Amateur Hour,” a new book about the history of college teaching by Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Zimmerman talks about the story, and other surprising moments from teaching history, in this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast.
He makes the case that colleges should do more to professionalize teaching, which might help reduce the number of fads that emerge. But he also acknowledges that there are risks. “If you start creating elaborate bureaucracies to measure and judge [teaching], might you actually depersonalize it? Might you take some of the charisma, idiosyncrasy and serendipity out of it?”