John Clemans Flanagan Pioneering Psychologist (1916-1996)

John C. Flanagan’s more than 60 years of leadership and educational research leave an invaluable legacy to behavioral scientists, especially to those who work in organized settings. He laid plans for and successfully carried out several projects of unprecedented magnitude, often employing newly developed methodology and always aimed directly at the improvement of human performance. His careful planning and continuing insistence on quality performance. His careful planning and continuing insistence on quality performance both of himself and his staff resulted in many usable products and provided excellent training for young researchers.

John was born on January 7, 1906, into what became a family of six children. His mother was a teacher and his father a clergyman whose liberal views did not suit conservative congregations which he severed, so the family relocated often.

An early demonstration of John’s powers of persuasion, fueled with his passion to play football, enabled him to get his parents’ approval to stay out of school a year in the hops of growing enough during his senior year to make this high school team. During his freshman year in the School of Engineering at the University of Washington, he made his numerals on the freshman team. Because electrical engineering labs conflicted with football practice, John transferred to the School of Education, majoring in physics and minoring in math. His athletic ambition was finally realized as starting quarterback on the Washington varsity in his senior year.

After receiving his BS degree in 1929, he coached a high school football team and taught math. Nourishing his growing interest in measurement, John attended a seminar at Yale during the summer of 1931, led by prominent figures such as E.L. Thorndike and Truman L. Kelley. On return to Seattle, his MA was awarded in 1932 followed by an offer of an assistantship at Harvard from Kelley, under whom he received his PhD in mental measurement in 1934. John got ajob at the Cooperative Test Service and also worked on a project for the Army Air Corps. As an interviewer on this project, John hired an Air Corps Captain on leave at the time. As OUr entry into the war seemed imminent, the Air Corps began to expand rapidly. John’s former employee, Captain Griffiss, was promoted to major and made head of the research division in the Air Force’s Medical Corps. He recommended Flanagan as the “practical psychologist” the Air Corps needed to develop a new program of selection and classification that would identify trainees capable of learning to fly. John went on active duty on July 15, 1941, assembled a staff, and directed theAviation Psychology program throughout World War II. After the war, five members of his staff later became presidents of the American Psychological Association.

Throughout the program, Colonel Flanagan insisted on careful and comprehensive validation of tests in the classification battery before introduction to the current battery. Most validation used the immediately available criterion: success in training. While such validation studies were routinely made, John himself sought measurable criteria of performance in combat as the ultimate criterion. For this purpose he was allowed to fly several missions over Europe with crews of the Eighth Air Force. Another critical validation effort was made when 1,000 trainees were given the full battery of tests, the scores of which were kept in confidence until the project was over. A clear relationship between “stanine” composite scores and subsequent performance emerged.

The research under Flanagan’s direction spanned almost the full range of psychology. After the war, a total of 19 volumes documenting the program’s work were printed and distributed by the Government Printing Office, providing a rich source of information on this, the largest psychological program undertaken up to that time.

The success of the Aviation Psychology Program led directly to Flanagan’s founding of the American Institutes for Research (AJR) in 1946. He did so with the encouragement and assistance of the University of Pittsburgh, where he had accepted a professorship. He purposefully created AJR as a not-for-profit organization to assure that “… its institutional objectives would not be complicated with the incentive for personal profits.” His objectives were “… to contribute to the science of human behavior and the fuller development and utilization of mankind’s capacities and potential.” The hallmark of his career was the ability to make ambitious plans and carry them out successfully.

The major expansion of air travel immediately following World War IT created a recruiting problem for the airlines. John responded by modifying the procedures used for the Army Air Force to reflect the requirements of the civilian sector and the new aircraft. For more than 20 years afterward, practically all of the major airlines relied on AIR to supply the data essential for the selection of pilots, copilots, and flight engineers.

Beginning in 1915, the National Board of Medical Examiners in Philadelphia had administered, examined to be used in certifying doctors as being qualified to practice medicine. National Board tests were typically administered after the second and fourth years of the medical education program, and a third examination, Part III, was administered after the completion of the first year of residency. In 1959 the Part III examination was based on the observation of each candidate’s performance in examining real patients in hospital settings from coast to coast. The National Board has become dismayed with this test’s unreliability and turned to AIR for assistance. AIR quickly discovered that there was no precise definition of clinical competence and set out to create one by visiting hospitals and gathering from senior physicians several thousand reports of effective and ineffective medical practice, using Flanagan’s critical incident technique. AIR developed specifications for a new test relating test situations to the definition of competence. The National Board has used this model for the development of new Part III examinations since 1960.

In the 1960s, colonialism ended throughout Africa. The new nations had only a few individuals with education sufficient to meet the needs of an independent nation. The United States Agency for International Development established a large number of technical training institutes, but unfortunately, the Agency found that the performance of those selected for training was unsatisfactory. AIR was awarded a contract to solve the problem. The task was to identify- among those individuals who had grown up in a bush environment and could not read or write in any language- those who had the potential to become skilled technicians and possibly climb the ladder to a variety of advanced degrees. AIR’s program was successfully implemented in 19 developing countries.

In 1960 Flanagan initiated Project Talent, a massive survey of more than 400,000 high school students throughout the United States. To follow up on the needs revealed by project Talent, Flanagan developed Project PLAN-Program for Learning in Accordance with Needs, an entire curriculum from grades one through 12 designed to meet the individual needs of all students. This was one of the earliest and most comprehensive individualized computer-assisted learning programs.

Following the PLAN project, Flanagan and his staff used his critical incident method to develop a “Quality of Life” scale that is still used in current research. In fact, the critical incident method has been used be researchers all over the world as a way of getting a sound start on new areas of research.

Among the honors Flanagan received were: Legion of Merit by the Army Air Corps, Raymond F. Longacre Award of the Aero-Medical Association, Edward Lee Thorndike Award of the APA Division of Educational Psychology, 1976 Distinguished Professional Contribution Award of APA, Phi Delta Kappa Award for Outstanding Contributions to Education, Development and Research, ETS Award for Distinguished Service to Measurement; Professional Practice Award of APA’s Division of Industrial/Organizational Psychology.

John Flanagan met the objectives he stated, not only in AIR but in his personal life. He made substantial contributions to the science of human behavior and together with the talented staff he attracted to AIR, he improved the functioning of social institutions so that they could better help individuals achieve their personal goals as well as contribute to society.

Observer Vol.9, No.4 July/August, 1996

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