Precision Teaching: A Brief History

Precision Teaching has its roots in free-operant conditioning laboratories. Free operant means that "students are free to respond at their own pace without having restraints placed on them by the limits of the materials or the instructional procedures of the teachers" (Lindsley, 1990b, p. 10). During the 1950s, Ogden Lindsley was successfully applying these methods to the behaviors of psychotic children and adults at his Harvard Behavior Research Laboratory. His research was showing "frequency to be 10 to 100 times more sensitive than percentage correct in recording the effects of drugs and different reinforcers" (Lindsley, 1990b, p. 10). He was painfully aware that when researchers applied their methods, even behavioral methods, to academic behaviors of school children, they typically recorded only percentage correct, "the time-honored educational measure." He attempted to change this practice by urging visiting educators to his laboratory to standardize the frequency of response in their classrooms. He recalls:

"I knew the real power of learning enhanced by free-operant conditioning lay in frequency of responding (by allowing the student to be both accurate and fluent) and standard self-recording. When education would not heed my caution and could not see my vision for dramatic learning opportunities, I decided the ethical thing to do was to close my hospital laboratory and devote myself to education." (Lindsley, 1990b, p. 10-11)

In 1965, Lindsley shifted his focus to special education teaching training. His initial aim was to introduce free operant technology into public school classrooms.

"Our first class-wide frequency recording was in a Montessori class for special education children...Elaine Fink showed we could effectively use rate of response with curricula as varied and as difficult to measure as Montessori materials. Clay and Ann Starlin showed an entire first grade class could correct and chart their own academic work on standard celeration charts...Ron Holzschuh with Dorothy Dobbs and Tom Caldwell showed that academic frequencies (rates) recorded 40 times more effects of curricular changes than did percent correct... These and many other studies proved behavior frequencies significantly more sensitive to learning variables in the classrooms than percent correct and percent of time on task." (Lindsley, 1990a, p. 7)

Lindsley goes on to say that he and his colleagues "were successful beyond our dreams." The aim was met within three years. One key development during that time was a standard chart for teacher and student recording. Since then, Lindsley and colleagues have collected data from thousands of these charts, resulting in a number of inductive, counter-intuitive discoveries, some of which will be described later in this module (for a complete summary, see Lindsley, 1990a; 1995; also Binder, 1996).