Public history

Soviet psychologist turned American educational entrepreneur: Lev Landa and “the repatriation” of the theory of programmed learning

The theory of programmed instruction (PI), developed by a Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner and heavily invested into in the spur of the Sputnik shock, became the toast of educational world during the decade of 1960s (Spaulding, 1967). Surprisingly for this peak decade of the Cold War, it also reached the Soviet Union: More than that, PI’s Soviet promoters did everything in order to secure place for research on programmed learning: PI was legitimated in front of thorough Communist Party ideologists who didn’t allow for any “Western import”, it was protected by the former military-turned-educational scientists, and established in the Institute of Cybernetics (Berg, 1961). During this time, PI was translated through and connected to a body of work and the network of psychological concepts that the discipline in the Soviet Union operated (Leontiev, 1959). Specifically, among others, educational psychologist and a devoted promoter of PI in the Soviet Union, Lev Landa, has developed the theory of algo-heuristic instruction and generically connected it to the theory of programmed learning (Landa, 1962).
Soon in 1970s, Lev Landa expatriated to the United States and brought this Soviet version of programmed instruction back to its “homeland”. He established his company Landamatics in the heart of New York and started providing other companies’ middle management with educational services. His training constituted of a set of algorithms, units of information in a logically assembled and coherent way, very much like Skinner's conception of programmed learning decades ago. But this time, the algorithm became a certain externalized idealized structure of thought - that should be learnt and practised. Technically, Landa's enterprise represented the general and, to a large extent, shared belief of the time that is sometimes called the "Cold War rationality", the reinvention of the ideals of Enlightenment during the Cold War. The unique loop that programmed instruction travelled allows for a more profound understanding of the reinvention, the constant morphing of educational ideas in space and time.

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