Article ID: CBB160276347

Bringing Radical Behaviorism to Revolutionary Brazil and Back: Fred Keller's Personalized System of Instruction and Cold War Engineering Education (2017)


This article traces the shifting epistemic commitments of Fred S. Keller and his behaviorist colleagues during their application of Skinnerian radical behaviorism to higher education pedagogy. Building on prior work by Alexandra Rutherford and her focus on the successive adaptation of Skinnerian behaviorism during its successive applications, this study utilizes sociologist of science Karin Knorr Cetina's concept of epistemic cultures to more precisely trace the changes in the epistemic commitments of a group of radical behaviorists as they shifted their focus to applied behavioral analysis. The story revolves around a self-paced system of instruction known as the Personalized System of Instruction, or PSI, which utilized behaviorist principles to accelerate learning within the classroom. Unlike Skinner's entry into education, and his focus on educational technologies, Keller developed a mastery-based approach to instruction that utilized generalized reinforcers to cultivate higher-order learning behaviors. As it happens, the story also unfolds across a rather fantastic political terrain: PSI originated in the context of Brazilian revolutionary history, but circulated widely in the U.S. amidst Cold War concerns about an engineering manpower(sic) crisis. This study also presents us with an opportunity to test Knorr Cetina's conjecture about the possible use of a focus on epistemic cultures in addressing a classic problem in the sociology of science, namely unpacking the relationship between knowledge and its social context. Ultimately, however, this study complements another historical case study in applied behavioral analysis, where a difference in outcome helps to lay out the range of possible shifts in the epistemic commitments of radical behaviorists who entered different domains of application. The case study also has some practical implications for those creating distance learning environments today, which are briefly explored in the conclusion.

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Authors & Contributors
Rutherford, Alexandra
Neto, Marcus Bentes de Carvalho
Saraiva, Fernando Tavares
Simon Torracinta
Cohen-Cole, Jamie
Vagt, Christina
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
History of Psychology
History of the Human Sciences
Revue d'Histoire des Sciences
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
University of Toronto Press
Hill & Wang
University of Pittsburgh
Experimental psychology
Behavioral sciences
Teaching; pedagogy
Research methods
Skinner, Burrhus Frederic
Watson, John Broadus
Chomsky, Noam
Gallup, Gordon
Hockett, Charles Francis (1916-2000)
Miller, George Armitage
Time Periods
20th century
20th century, early
20th century, late
19th century
United States

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