'Good-bye Teacher…' Fred S. Keller (1899-1996)

Frederick Simpson Keller was born in upstate New York and grew up there and in Florida. After serving in Europe with the US Army in WWI, Keller prepared for college at the Goddard Seminary in Vermont on an athletic scholarship. He attended Tufts College in 1921 majoring in English literature, but never graduated. He began selling books in 1924 and in an attempt to improve his salesmanship, he read John Watson’s Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. The book did not improve his selling, but it got him back into school and on to graduate training at Harvard University.

While a student at Harvard, Keller taught comparative Psychology at Tufts, using Margaret Washbum’s text The Animal Mind, and he used Watson’s Behavior to teach introductory psychology. Watson’s emphasis on nonhuman learning and research contributed to Keller’s rejection of subjective internal hypotheses such as “symbolic processes,” and the “mind,” and therefore to his development as a behaviorist.

By the time B.F. Skinner came to Harvard in 1928, Keller was the local authority on behaviorism. The two of them became known as “the lions in debate,” according to Professor Henry Murray. Skinner said that he would say something outrageous in class and then, when he got in trouble he would turn to Keller to rescue with his quiet but compelling arguments. Both had received their PhD in 1931.

When Keller left Harvard to teach at Colgate College, a correspondence began between the two Freds that lasted for 60 years. Keller wrote to Skinner about his double alternation mazes, but when Skinner sent him an operant chamber with a lever, Keller switched apparatus and methods. The operant chamber appeared to Keller as a microcosm of the classroom, and all of the pieces he had been mulling over merged into a student-centered teaching system. Keller’s interest in “learning” as an applied problem evolved from his successful Morse code training program as well as his animal research. Keller had developed a system for teaching Morse code called the “code voice” method. His self-proclaimed history as a failure as a student may also have contributed to his orientation and work. (Contrary to this assessment, in the late 1950s he taught himself Portuguese in order to accept an invitation to teach in Brazil). His success with the “code voice” method led him to design the first personalized student rat-lab at Columbia University, which was the forerunner of the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) developed later.

Keller taught at Colgate for seven years. He accepted a professorship at Columbia University in 1938, the year that Skinner’s Behavior of Organisms was published. Skinner’s book and Keller’s own experiences led him to see clearly how behavior theory and pedagogy came together. He was soon on his way to becoming a great educational innovator.

Fred wrote powerfully, and few could equal his oratory and engaging humor- he captured listeners and readers alike. The good-natured exchanges and theatrics between Skinner and Keller at the annual banquets of the Association for Behavior Analysis were highlights of that organization’s meetings for several years. Nonetheless, Keller led the way in discounting the entertaining lecture as an adequate form of instruction. He knew that learning, like research, should be driven by the actions of the student- the student, not the teacher, is the performer. The professor arranges the contingencies so that the student responds and moves at his own pace by encouragement and corrective prompts until mastery occurs. If the student does not learn, it is up to the teacher to fix it! The Keller Plan, or PSI, acquired a research base that has become a cornerstone to many instructional strategies based on a science of behavior.

Fred was a catalyst for others, just as his system was for learners. By design, students and others who came in contact with him simply received more from him than he allowed them to return. He was teacher, mentor, and a friend who arranged the contingencies for others to shine.

Fred was not Fred alone, however, he was part of a team–Fred and Frances! Frances, his beloved wife, stood with him at Columbia University, the University of Brazilia (where he and his colleagues developed a university-wide application of PSI), George Washington University (which housed the Center for Personalized System of Instruction), Arizona State University, and at Colgate College in the early days.

Fred stood for a science of the behavior of the individual organism and he stood for his students—each one as an individual. In 1986, a preschool devoted to the thoroughgoing application of the science to education and the student as individual was founded as a tribute to him, as an embodiment of his and Skinner’s ideas (The Fred S. Keller School in Yonkers New York). Numerous graduate students from Columbia University Teachers College also learn to provide learner-driven instruction and research at the Fred S. Keller School in the manner Fred advocated. He visited the school in June of 1994 and met with the children, parents, and graduate students. He believed that the work that was going on there provided an exemplary approach to education- an approach that placed the student at the center of a comprehensive behavioral approach to education.

Fred left us many leaders in the field, legions of better prepared students, thousands of happy learners, and a shinning example of what we need to do to be effective teachers. Goodbye beloved teacher, but we shall never say good-bye to what ) you left us. His presence as friend and teacher is greatly apprcciated and he will be missed.

He is survived by his wife Frances Scholl Keller; a daughter,. Anne S. Klein, of Kalamazoo, Michigan; a son, John V.  of Charlotte North Carolma, two children, five grandchildren, a great-grandchild, his science, PSI, and those to whom he gave so much of himself.

Observer Vol.9, No.3 May/June, 1996

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