Questioning Stimulus, Environment, and Action in Schiro’s “Social Efficiency Ideology”

As I read Michael Shiro’s “Social Efficiency Ideology” (2013), in which Shiro, as his chapter title suggests, outlines the ideological principles of Social Efficiency educators, I was initially struck with Ralph Tyler’s assertion that “learning takes places through the experiences which the learner has; that is, through the reactions he makes to the environment which he is placed” (59). Tyler continues: “it is the reactions of the learner[s] [themselves] that determines what is learned.” These words made me pause, mainly because I thought them, in part, to be true. Agency SHOULD be attributed to the learner, I thought. Not a terrible thing, and perhaps what I was reading was even a precursor to a less top-down, transmission- focused learning system.

I came into this article with a shopping bag full of assumptions, knowing full well that an “efficiency” model of education, in which students equate to raw material uniformly molded in a factory-like school system, was to be abhorred. Not for me, thanks. I should note that I definitely left the article with most of these assumptions upheld, wheeling a weighty shopping cart full of reasons to oppose such a model. And yet the thought posited here by Tyler (father of evaluation and official torch-bearer of the Social Efficiency movement) didn’t seem so bad. Tyler’s point gets significantly murkier, however, as he proceeds to state that learning experiences are controlled by an educator’s “manipulation [my italics] of the environment in such a way as to set up stimulating situations – situations that will evoke the kind of behavior desired.” The term “manipulate” seemed to realign Tyler’s ideology with the Efficiency Movement as I understood it, uncomfortably positioning students once again as a product to be molded, the carefully manicured school environment simply a means of producing a singular desired set of beheaviours. Teacher (or rather system) knows best, presumes Tyler, hence his understanding that education’s role is “changing the behavior of people” (58), an objective that misguidedly disregards the valid and diverse experiences that students bring into their education. Here lies a troubling limitation of Tyler’s ideology: it refuses to account for students’ diverse sets of experiences, talents, and unique personalities, all of which an educator, in my mind, should make their duty to recognize and nurture. (What a roller-coaster ride, two pages into the article.)

And yet I’m still left wondering: is there something positive to be unearthed from Tyler’s foreboading ideas? I’m drawn repeatedly to the importance he places on the student’s “environment.” While I’m hardly supportive of his position on “manipulating” an environment to obtain a set of singular behavioral results, I’m still left wondering: doesn’t environment matter to a student’s learning experience? Moreover, isn’t it up to the teacher to foster an environment conducive to a student’s actual enjoyment of learning? Enjoyment, here, is key, and harkens back to the troubling focus the Social Efficiency movement, and behavioral engineering generally, pays to stimulus. I’m uncomfortable with the “stimulus-response” type of learning we saw embodied in the Type to Learn computer program (used in this article as an example of Efficiency Movement education). The typing program offered games as a reward for progressing through atomistic stages. (Anyone else do All the Right Type? My own elementary school encounter with a behaviour engineered typing program.) Type to Learn’s system of reward strikes me as pavlovian, discounting the agency and human complexity of the students: the students are seen as something to be acted upon (a steel rail “manufactured into a desirable form”) as opposed to human beings with agency of their own, to be nurtured. But the fact remains: shouldn’t learning be stimulating?

As I saw in this article how Social Efficency stresses environment and stimulus, I couldn’t help be reminded of a particular Canadian literature course I took in my early years of university. The class was late at night and in a relatively small classroom. Intimate. The professor, meanwhile, certainly guided the class through the works, prompting discussion when necessary, but mostly left the floor open to the students, who were eventually emboldened to speak candidly and comfortably about the studied works. When the professor did speak, it was never to contradict a student. It was clear, however, that the professor had a deep reverence for the works, and for literature itself. This was definitely not a course styled after Social Efficiency, and yet here was an occasion where the learning environment was distinctly felt: through the professor’s reverential and often inspired tone of voice, through the felt sense of community fostered in the classroom, through the occasional pregnant silence that befell us, and maybe most of all through the heady spell that the written words themselves would cast. Could not all of this be summed up as stimulus? It was distinctly felt, after all. Here was an environment where the literary works and the diverse perspectives of the students studying them came to the fore. Such an environment definitely fostered in me a lasting love for literature and guided me to pursue further education in the field. The professor’s presence was felt, but mostly through an unspoken conveyance that this work mattered to him deeply, that it excited him, and this was tacit encouragement that maybe it could excite us students, too.

I’m left wondering, though, and this is an honest question, was I in some way manipulated? If I was, it was subtler than the dog-treat training inherent to Social Efficiency education. I’ll admit I certainly got my fair share of dog-treat dopamine hits in school, scoring a high-words-per minute on Home Row, or seeing a high test grade written in pen, to say nothing of stickers… This was fun, and probably often reinforced my sense of worth as a child. I ask you this, though, and I come by this consideration both earnest and troubled: if learning should be stimulating, and a learning environment inviting, at what point does the act of teaching become manipulation?

A final thought, though: If I were to contrast my learning experience in this Can Lit course, which I deem a positive learning experience, to Social Efficiency methods of education, I would perhaps firstly point to Social Efficiency’s obsession with “action”: “In his activity he lives and realizes the ends of his existence,” states Franklin Bobbitt, Social Efficiency ideologue (69). Torchbearer Tyler agrees: “learning takes places through the active behavior of the student,” he states. What was so wonderful (to me) about my Can Lit course, though, was that learning did not stop in the classroom, and certainly not within a sanctioned time demarcated by bells. Rather, the learning would continue latently. I was inspired in class, and this inspiration would stay with me as I left the class, and even when I was partaking in activities definitely not Can-Lit related. As a result, thoughts inspired by the course would occur to me in quiet times: doing laundry, in the shower, etc. For me, one major shortcoming of Social Efficiency education, and there are many, is that in stressing action within a sanctioned classroom environment, it fails to acknowledge that learning also occurs during inaction. Silence is also important, as is having space and time to explore one’s thoughts. I keep coming back, in my mind, to those pregnant, affecting silences in late-night Can Lit.


The Problem of Common Sense (Kumashiro)

Prior to reading Kevin Kumashiro’s article, the definition of common sense seemed, well… common sense. Self-evident. Hardly deserving of a definition, even. Isn’t common sense simply what everyone knows to be true? Moreover, doesn’t everyone know what common sense really is? The irony. These assumptions, as Kumashiro’s article demonstrates, is exactly why common sense can be so problematic: the term acts as a glib, and often harmful, deflection of close analysis and critique. Ironically, Kumashiro’s article valiantly offers the type of thoughtful critique of “common sense” that the term itself attempts to eschew: while the article positions the author’s early understanding of “common sense” as “facets of life” that “everyone should know” (Kumashiro XXIX), this definition is soon complicated by the revelation that these normalized facets of life are, in fact, contingent upon the unique social environments from which they stem.  Moreover, the deceptive everydayness of “common sense” knowledge, the article suggests, is often cemented through biased traditions constructed by, and favouring, privileged and politically influential classes of people. Kumashiro would remind us that knowledge is political, and the path knowledge takes to being deemed self-evident is a path often marred by a privileged class’ oppressive tendencies. (I am reminded, here, of the historical rise of public education during the industrial revolution: common schooling features such as bells and corporal punishment were normalized, with the intent of molding the working classes into ideal factory workers. Many of these industrial features are common in classrooms today, their very prevalence keeping them out of sight.)

Common sense, then, is not as inclusive as previously thought. It is not necessarily what “everyone should know,” but rather a constructed tradition of the normalized practices and beliefs of a dominant (and privileged) portion of society. At its worst, “common sense” is exclusionary by nature: the establishment of a set of norms and practices deemed self-evident in one culture has the potential to exclude norms and practices of other cultures, casting them off as “nonsensical” by comparison, when they are in fact perfectly ordinary in their own cultural setting. Kumashiro’s article thus offers teachers necessary perspective on fostering an inclusive learning environment. Furthermore, Kumashiro warns teachers to beware the bias of “common sense” as an obstruction to critical analysis. It is, after all, a teacher’s duty to equip students with the critical tools to analyze and critique the world in which they live.

In closing, I offer you this: the bias of “common sense” hides subjects worthy of critique from view like a white sheet hides a creepy antique puppet collection in your basement. “Why do you keep that creepy puppet collection there?” asks a friend. “It’s just always been there,” you reply, indignant in your embarrassment. You don’t disturb the puppet collection, you think, aghast: It’s common sense. Later, though, your friend’s innocent question prompts you to sell the antique puppets, which were always subtly creeping you out, and you are able to repurpose the basement space into a nice guest bedroom. Cool. What was once a space reserved and arranged for old relics becomes a welcoming room for real, living, present-day guests.

Your friend’s fresh eyes helped you make a positive change. Moreover, your friend was able to identify that creepy puppet collection probably because they didn’t have one in their own home. We should all welcome these fresh perspectives.