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.