Teaching Machines

Teaching Machines

The History of Personalized Learning

By Audrey Watters

How ed tech was born: Twentieth-century teaching machines—from Sidney Pressey's mechanized test-giver to B. F. Skinner's behaviorist bell-ringing box.





How ed tech was born: Twentieth-century teaching machines—from Sidney Pressey's mechanized test-giver to B. F. Skinner's behaviorist bell-ringing box.

Contrary to popular belief, ed tech did not begin with videos on the internet. The idea of technology that would allow students to “go at their own pace” did not originate in Silicon Valley. In Teaching Machines, education writer Audrey Watters offers a lively history of predigital educational technology, from Sidney Pressey's mechanized positive-reinforcement provider to B. F. Skinner's behaviorist bell-ringing box. Watters shows that these machines and the pedagogy that accompanied them sprang from ideas—bite-sized content, individualized instruction—that had legs and were later picked up by textbook publishers and early advocates for computerized learning.

Watters pays particular attention to the role of the media—newspapers, magazines, television, and film—in shaping people's perceptions of teaching machines as well as the psychological theories underpinning them. She considers these machines in the context of education reform, the political reverberations of Sputnik, and the rise of the testing and textbook industries. She chronicles Skinner's attempts to bring his teaching machines to market, culminating in the famous behaviorist's efforts to launch Didak 101, the “pre-verbal” machine that taught spelling. (Alternate names proposed by Skinner include “Autodidak,” “Instructomat,” and “Autostructor.”) Telling these somewhat cautionary tales, Watters challenges what she calls “the teleology of ed tech”—the idea that not only is computerized education inevitable, but technological progress is the sole driver of events.


$34.95 T ISBN: 9780262045698 328 pp. | 5.25 in x 8 in


$24.95 T ISBN: 9780262546065 328 pp. | 5.25 in x 8 in


  • "A thoroughly researched book...The book is fascinating and very readable, loaded with well-chosen details. Reading this story, one suspects it might be fair to say that it is ed tech, not public education, that has not made a significant step forward in the last 100 years."


  • “This is a landmark book.”

    Inside Higher Ed

  • "...fascinating history."

    Education Next

  • "Long before the advent of personal computers, inventors and researchers created what they called “teaching machines” in hopes of revolutionizing education. Some of these creations date back to the 1920s, and were made from wood and brass. Yet today's edtech leaders often ignore or choose to forget this history, argues Audrey Watters, a longtime critical observer of edtech...Watters traces the history of these pre-computer-age gadgets in her new book, Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning."


  • "Watters' much-anticipated and long-in-the- making book fills a gaping hole in our understanding of the origin and implementation of education technology...This major piece of work will establish her as the foremost public intellectual and independent scholar in the field."


  • "For generations, important men (like B.F. Skinner) have been promising that technology will take the place of teachers. Watters deep history examines the forces that view teaching, teachers, and students as problems to be solved, rather than humans to be engaged."

    Chicago Tribune

  • "Watters's central thesis is a powerful one, and TEACHING MACHINES  provides a breath-taking array of examples to back it up."

    Schools Week


  • Teaching Machines is a vital cultural history of our desire for a technical solution to the fundamentally social problem of how to make education work for all families. Watters has written the rare book that is necessary, important, and readable.”

    Tressie McMillan Cottom

    Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; author of Thick: And Other Essays

  • “Audrey Watters is a singular, indispensable voice in the past, present, and future of education technology. This new volume unveils how the ideas animating the first mechanical teaching machines are still present in today's learning technologies.”

    Justin Reich

    Assistant Professor, MIT, and Director, MIT Teaching Systems Lab; author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education

  • Teaching Machines weaves together a riveting set of histories that offer a careful look at the past, but also an insightful and prescient examination of the present and future of ed tech. Watters is an incisive writer and an insistent scholar, always asking hard questions of technology. This book will change the way we talk about education.”

    Jesse Stommel

    Associate Professor, Athabasca University; Executive Director, Hybrid Pedagogy

  • “Audrey Watters proves that there is very little that is groundbreaking or innovative about the 'new' technologies of the 2020s. She provokes us to ask why ed tech learns so little from its past failures. A much-needed book!”

    Neil Selwyn

    Distinguished Research Professor, Monash University