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Nolan Bushnell and educational flimflam

On Friday, Nolan Bushnell gave a talk at UMass and participated in an extended discussion with people from the Information Technology program. He's an interesting guy. His current project is to create a model to replace public schools with for-profit high schools using a strongly behaviorist model of programmed instruction. Unfortunately, he doesn't really know anything about pedagogy or behaviorism. I found it rather sickening to watch someone with more money than sense set about ignoring history for the sake of repeating it. What's worse is that with the current measures being used for education, a behaviorist model might actually get you farther: like an amputation weight-loss program.

He began with a critique of existing public education, which was entirely reasonable. He talked about the competing demands for children's interest and how children find schoolwork unworthy of their attention. But then he sailed off into crazy land, laying out the framework for a reductive, behaviorist cubefarm, with children isolated and slaved to computers.

One of his most absurd ideas is a "mind inventory". Instead of just "testing" a subset of knowledge that children are supposed to know, he wants to create a full list of everything that people know. Then, he argues, you can tell exactly what children have learned and what they haven't. Anyone who's read much knows that this is a failed philosophical endeavor: people have tried to do this since Aristotle and have run into what a tangled web human knowledge is.

Underlying the entire structure is a set of rewards and punishments for children and a network of surveillance to monitor student behavior truly Orwellian in scope. Children that play along will receive "zetas" that they can use to buy treats from vending machines or receive other privileges in the school. If you wonder whether he recognizes the punitive nature of this regime, one such treat would be temporary freedom from surveillance.

His solution for curriculum is to create an "app store" for teaching modules that could be assessed to see how well students "learn". His goal is to create a market where curriculum developers would compete to sell teaching software modules.

He has no theory of learning, beyond accretion of facts, no theory of teaching beyond communication of facts, and no model of student behavior beyond rewards and punishments.

Unfortunately, most of his listeners were unable to see his program for what it would be. They heard and agreed with the critique and then uncritically accepted his flimflam as a serious educational program.

I tried to think of questions I could ask that wouldn't be mere insults regarding the entire enterprise. I asked if he saw learning as anything beyond accumulation of facts. Well, maybe, but you still had to learn all those facts first. I asked how he hoped to foster any kind of creativity with a curriculum based on canned questions. He said there would be other parts of the curriculum that weren't canned. I finally lost it and asked if wives and subordinates should also be subject to the same kind of Orwellian surveillance he pictured for children.

He is willing to admit that he's wrong about half of the things he thinks. I think he's wrong about way more than half. Regardless, he still thinks he can make a lot of money doing this, which he defends as a good thing. During his talk, I realized that I mostly don't agree with making money: I think that the primary way that people make money is dishonest: it comes about when someone recognizes that people are ignorant about the relative value of something. Someone who was honest would help people learn what the value actually was, rather than exploiting their ignorance to make a lot of money.