Madeline Hunter’s Teaching Machine

By Richard A. Gibboney

Editor’s note: Recently in Milwaukee’, as across the country, there has been renewed interest in Marline Hunter’s techniques. In hopes that it will spark debate, the following was reprinted and edited with permission from the author and Teaching and Learning. (Winter 1986 Vol.l, No.2)

The news from California is good. Science has unlocked the complex cause and effect relationship between teaching and learning. Dr. Madeline Hunter, architect of the teaching machine based on these scientific findings is about to speak.

Hunter looks impressive in her white laboratory coat as she addresses thousands of admiring school administrators in the stadium. One can single out the few teachers present by their apprehensive demeanor.

Hunter begins her address. ‘Teaching (is) one of the last professions to emerge from…witch doctoring to become a profession based on the science of human learning, a science that becomes the launching pad for the art of teaching. Only recently…has long-established research in learning been translated into cause-effect relationships of use to teachers. Only recently, have teachers acquired the skills of…using these relationships to accelerate learning. (Hunter, p. 169,1984).

“My model is equally effective in elementary, secondary, and university teaching. (l)t applies to every human interaction that is conducted for the purpose of learning. (F)aculty meetings…Rotary Club board meetings…are all improved by (the) application of the principles of human learning”(Hunter, p.59, 1985).

Hunter describes the elements of lesson planning based on the principles of learning. The seven elements she says, “…(are) helpful in interpreting the effectiveness…of direct teaching and in identifying what is needed should lessons be ineffective”(Hunter, 1984, p.l75). The audience stirs at this statement because seven of anything in something as complex as teaching reverberates with the sweet ring of practicality. Hunter, in response, throws out some cautions: Simple techniques of teaching have limitations; principles of learning are not absolutes; real-life teaching has a way of blurring the neat distinctions of laboratory theory (Hunter, p.60,1985).

The Seven Key Elements

I repeat the seven elements here from notes taken that day. 

Anticipatory set: something the teacher does to get the student focused on the lesson to be taught; Objective and purpose: students know what the^ are to be learning and why; teach to specific objectives; Input: the objective is task-analyzed to identify the knowledge and skills to be learned; Modeling’: “seeing” what the end product of learning will look like when the objective is achieved: Checking for understanding; Guided practice: students practice their new knowledge or skill under direct teacher supervision; Independent practice: given only after there are no serious errors in the new learning (Hunter, 1984 and Brandt, 1985).

Hunter states that the seven elements of lesson planning provide the base for her approach to teacher supervision. She explains the learning theory on which her model is based citing Pavlov in an example and recalls a finding of Wundt’s that the beginning and end of any series are easiest to learn (Brandt, p.61, 1985). “The knowledge has been around for years, but it was in terms of pigeons and rats, or in terms of the psychological laboratory…” (Brandt, p.61, 1985). She reviews key topics in her learning theory such as positive and negative reinforcement, massed and distributed practice, closure to sum up student learning, and task analysis to break learning into step-by-step procedure (Brandt, p.62,1985); (Hunter, p. 102, 1982); (Hunter, undated, p.4); (mimeographed training materials).

Hunter ends her talk 20 minutes later. The ambiguities of teaching melt away. The invocation of science and the clarity of the speech carry the day. The administrators rush to Hunter’s fragile podium on the 50-yard line in a euphoric mood. There is a frenzy of videotape buying and signing up of trainers. I thought it best to retreat to try to understand the strange things going on in the land.

The Hunter Craze

There are strange things going on in the land. Consider only two. School districts that have never had more than a speech for their two inservice days each year are now allocating three to five days each year for inservice training and spending $300,000 or more to train teachers and administrators in the Hunter teaching and supervision model. Whole states, such as Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Arkansas have been heavily exposed to the Hunter approach. I understand that it is highly visible in Michigan and Illinois and other states as well. Administrators ignore the fundamental ideas in Dewey’s (1916) comprehensive theory of learning and teaching, for example, in their uncritical embrace of the Hunter model. Administrators ignore, too, fundamental criticisms of learning and teaching made by contemporary writers such as Goodlad, Sizer and Eisnef. In accepting Hunter, might we not be buying simplicity and a false clarity about teaching that displaces a more fundamental concern about learning? Might we not be buying a subjectively based model of teaching in the guise of science.

I offer here an examination of the scientific claims made for the Hunter model followed by a philosophical critique of the model itself.

Hunter’s System; Just How Scientific?

Hunter claims that her model will improve learning because it is based on research and that she has unraveled the connections between learning theory and the teacher behaviors that result in better learning.

Hunter has not, however, produced the research evidence to support her claim for improved learning. I do not find evidence in publications where it might reasonably be expected to appear. In her chapter titled “Knowing, Teaching, and Supervising” in the ASCD publication Using What We Know About Teaching (Hunter, 1984), no supporting research citations are given (There is no bibliography for this chapter). I find no research to support her claims for improved learning in her book Mastery Teaching (1982). No research evidence is given to support her claims for higher achievement in her book Teach More-Faster (1969).

One would think that in the 15 years since Teach More—Faster was published. Hunter or others would have produced a series of studies across the twelve grade levels in a representative sample of subjects that would cast some light on her claim. Without a pattern of such studies on important cognitive and affective learning outcomes (not merely some limited time-task relationship), it is difficult to see the science in her model.

Others have not found a pattern of research evidence to support the learning claims made for the Hunter model. McGreal reports that he and Rosenshine were unable to find any empirical research in scholarly journals that addressed the effectiveness of the model.  

The lack of any pattern of research to support Hunter’s claim for improved learning

also confounds Hunter’s starting point—“scientific” learning theory. Hunter’s model starts with learning theory, moves to prescriptions for teaching and, finally, to claims for increased student achievement. Ignoring the fact that her learning theory is based in part on research with lower animals that lack both the capacity for higher cognitive functions and culture, her view is inconsistent with at least one major theorist who embraced a generalized view of science. John Dewey held that a finding might be “scientific” in psychology or in sociology, for example, but it is not scientific in education until it has been tested in educational practice. 

I used scientific criteria to critique the Hunter model only because she herself invoked them. But merely to apply scientific criteria to this or to any other model of teaching and learning (or supervision) misses important substantive educational questions. Even if Hunter’s model were proven “effective”, we might ask: effective at what? Before we rush to apply Hunter’s system or any educational model, we need to examine the ideas and values it implies and how these will shape educational practice.

Critique of the Hunter Method from a Deweyan Perspective

The primary purpose of instruction is to develop thought (Dewey, 1916, p.l52).The content of the Hunter Model is silent on thinking; the process of the training sessions discourages thinking. The seven elements of teaching are presented by “trainers” through a didactic, piece-meal process.

Teaching Teachers

The training sessions for teachers require no sustained reading; no sustained discussion, probing or debate. Instead, Hunter’s training sessions offer methodically-covered, prepackaged prescriptions for teaching rather than opportunities for informed and mature professional dialogue.

Hunter is eloquent on the proper use of the chalkboard, and virtually silent on the use of the mind. She speaks directly to lesson “closure,” rarely to open inquiry (Hunter, 1982, pp.39-42; mimeographed training materials).

The Hunter learning process for teachers is a-intellectual on its face and reveals an implicit belief that teachers are merely technicians. It is true that a Hunter training session is a good model for overly-controlled teaching. These sessions model a poor form of didactic teaching and encourage docile acceptance by teachers of Hunter’s teaching prescriptions. We too often forget that we teach a great deal indirectly through the way we teach and the learning processes we encourage or discourage.

Hunter undervalues the insight and intelligence of teachers. Contrast her idea of teachers with this idea of Dewey’s: “…the method of teaching is the method of an art. of action intelligently directed by ends.” Or contrast Hunter’s view with the assertion that methods are good or bad, in part, depending on whether or not they make a teacher’s reaction more intelligent and encourage teachers to exercise their own judgement [italics added] (Dewey, 1916, pp.170,172). Would one value intelligence and develop a model whose learning process for teachers denies it entry?

Hunter focuses relentlessly on lesson planning and on the teacher. Her emphasis on the short instructional exposure of a single lesson is atomistic and causes her to ignore other important influences* on. educational quality such as the worth of the content taught, the limitations of most textbooks, the impact of testing programs, the cumulative effect and “flow” of a curriculum over weeks and months, labeling of students, and the influence of a school’s climate on teaching and learning.

A Too Simple Model

Hunter’s educational reach is very short. She does not speak, for example, to the general lack of intellectual vitality, to the emotional flatness of learning, or to any other significant issue that Goodlad (1984) raises in his monumental study of 38 schools.

There is nothing in the pattern of the Hunter model to encourage sustained inquiry and effort across lessons in pursuit I of a problem or an integrative theme; there is nothing about the power of small group work to motivate and energize intelligence  through reading, writing, or critical discussion about problematic issues; there is nothing about students defining problems to pursue; there is nothing to suggest that meaning emerges from wrestling with ambiguity, from trying things out, from mind/hand work in the studio, and from reading some real books once in a while.

‘Task analysis” is a term more properly used in the manufacture of rockets. It speaks to the standardization of the factory. It speaks to nothing that is of fundamental importance to artful teaching.

Hunter’s bias is implicit in the title of her programmed book Teach More-Faster (1969) Teach more of what? Over-concern with content coverage and speed, canons of the school-as-factory/mind-as-a-sponge model, are certain ways to drain the intellectual and aesthetic qualities from any subject at any level.

If Dewey or Piaget were to address this topic, their title would be less marketable but more fundamental: “Teach Less—Better.”

Hunter’s method, taken as a whole, places a premium on inert facts and information removed from their purpose in thinking. Thinking requires knowledge and generates knowledge. Knowledge and thinking go together, but thinking is primary. To pile up information removed from thinking clutters the mind and inhibits thought.

The sole direct path to better method is to create the conditions that exact and promote thinking. Thinking is the method of intelligent learning (Dewey, 1916, p.l53).

Some users of the Hunter model sense its mechanical and a-intellectual qualities and try to compensate by adding to it or modifying it in some way. This may help a bit, but as long as the seven lesson elements constitute the framework for teaching and supervision their functional effects are severely limiting.

Hunter’s focus on discrete lessons chops learning into pieces; her seven elements are mechanistic and therefore too weak to hold anything solid—such as sustained problem solving or the development of a conceptual structure in a subject.

The Hunter model shares the same intellectual and mechanistic bias that characterize other programs with similar philosophical views: behavioral objectives, programmed instruction, the now defunct Chicago mastery learning program in reading, curriculum mapping, process- product research on teacher effectiveness (Garrison and Macmillan, 1984; Fenstermach, 1978); and “competency” based teacher education. All of these programs marched forth under the banner of efficiency or science or both. Whose “efficiency”? Whose “science”?

The Hunter-type approach to teaching and learning is doomed to fail as a practical effort to improve learning because it takes a-intellectualism and mechanism, the two worst characteristics of American education, and makes them worse — the very characteristics that a more conceptually informed improvement effort would try to modify.

Neither Hunter nor others have shown a pattern of evidence to warrant her claims that the model is scientific. Evidence of its effectiveness to improve learning in desirable directions is lacking.

When the model is viewed through the lens of Dewey’s theory of learning and teaching, the Hunter-model appears to be mechanistic rather that intellectual, to value teaching over learning, to view teachers as technical decision-makers rather than as intelligent practitioners of a complex art, to be accepting of the educational status quo, and to offer a destructively incomplete rather than a more comprehensive account of the dynamics of learning and teaching.

One appeal of the Hunter model is its simplicity in content and process. It is a package in the same way that a textbook is a curriculum package. The Hunter program not only tells administrators how to shapeup teachers in three days of direct instructions, but how to keep them shaped-up through its accompanying supervision model. And it espouses nothing that is fundamental to learning or challenges nothing that is deficient in the present school system.

Another appeal of the model is that it says that the teachers (read workers) in the school system (factory) know little and must be told by those who do know (foreman) how to process the students (iron ore) so that they will meet pre-set “objective” specification. The subtle message, happily not shared by all administrators, is that nothing is wrong with the system that fixing the teachers can’t fix.

Fundamental reform must begin with idea not technique. Practice always follows idea. This means that principals and teachers must make explicit the implicit ideas and assumptions that energize practice. They must read, think, talk and test ideas in practice. This talk should address one fundamental question: What must we know and value and act on in this school to cultivate the intelligence and sensitivities of teachers, students and administrators?

No short time lines. No product deliverable. No behavioral objectives. No rockets.

Richard A. Gibboney is Associate Professor of Education, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. 3700 Walnut Street. Philadelphia, PA. 19104.