Public history

Johnny and Ivan learning in a programmed way: The reinvention of one American technology

In the heated times of the Cold War, two hypothetical schoolboys – Johnny in the United States and Ivan in the Soviet Union (USSR) – were both promised a school where they would learn in a new way. This new way – the technology of programmed instruction – was developed by the American behavioral psychologist Burrhus F. Skinner. It became popular globally over the 1960s and was promoted passionately in the United States and the USSR alike. The aim of this article is to explore this shared sentiment, with the specific intention of explaining how, during the Cold War, an American innovation was able to become a hit in Soviet education under reform. Un­ derstanding educational transfer as translation rather than transportation, the article unveils the ways in which the idea of programmed learning became embedded and reconceptualized through the specific Soviet political, historical, and cultural lens of the time. The case of programmed instruction not only demonstrates that ideas become global only through their local reinvention but also illustrates that assumed scientific­ hence ­universal educational innovations or programs are never such.