Fred Simmons Keller was born on January 2, 1899 on a farm near Rural Grove, New York. He left high school to become a Western Union Telegrapher. At the age of nineteen, he enlisted in the U.S. army, served overseas during World War I with the American Expeditionary Force on a ammunition train, and attained the rank of sergeant.
Keller graduated from Tufts College in 1926, with psychology as his major interest. He received his M.A. in 1928 and his Ph.D. in 1931, both at Harvard University. For the next seven years he was employed as an instructor at Colgate University. During this period he wrote a book on psychological history and systems called The Definition of Psychology; this paved the way for another instructorship at Columbia University, where he remained until retiring in 1964. He was named assistant professor in 1942, associate professor in 1946, and professor of psychology in 1950. He was chairman of the department from 1959 to 1962 and became professor emeritus of psychology upon retirement.
In the late 1940s Keller and his colleague, W.N. Shoenfeld, were instrumental in two educational innovations, which according to Michael (1996), "changed the course of behavior analysis history" (p. 3). First, in 1947 they introduced a laboratory component to their introductory psychology course at Columbia University that required students to demonstrate behavioral principles using a live rat. A number of prominent psychologists have cited their laboratory experience in this course as having attracted them into the field (e.g., Hearst, 1997; Sidman 1996; see also Dinsmoor, 1990). The "rat lab" was to become a standard requirement in numerous other undergraduate experimental psychology courses across the country. The second innovation was the Keller & Schoenfeld book, Principles of Psychology, published in 1950. Michael (1996) writes:
In 1963 Keller was asked to set up a Department of Psychology at the University of Brasilia. With "carta blanche" guaranteed for every aspect of the project, Keller developed what is now known as a Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) or the Keller Plan. After leaving Brazil and retiring from Columbia in 1964, he joined the faculty at Arizona State University, where he remained for three years, refining his teaching method in collaboration with his colleague, J. G. Sherman. From this emerged Keller's best known paper on the topic, Good-bye teacher... and national recognition. PSI has since been employed in hundreds of college courses with a wide range of subject matters. The data suggest that it is more effective than traditional teaching and that students like it better (Kulik, Kulik, & Cohen, 1979; Taveggia, 1976).
Keller was later to become a visiting professor at Western Michigan University (1968-1973), and a consultant to the Center for Personalized Instruction at Georgetown University (1974-1976). After 1980, he remained affiliated with the Psychology Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an Adjunct Research Professor of Psychology until his death in 1996.
Throughout his productive academic career, Keller authored or co-authored several books and over 80 articles in his field. He received numerous awards, including the Certificate of Merit from President Truman in 1948 for his World War II research (developing the "code-voice" behavioral method of teaching Morse code to radio operators), a Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Psychological Foundation, a Distinguished Contribution for Applications of Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association, and a Pioneer Psychologist Medal from Brazil. He was a life-long friend of B. F. Skinner, who dedicated two of his books (Science and Human Behavior; The Shaping of a Behaviorist) to him. Keller modestly noted that he was "primarily a teacher and a research catalyst." Michael (1996) puts this into better perspective, when he writes:
Keller acknowledged "his great satisfaction from their [his students'] achievements in basic and applied research, and counts himself extremely fortunate in the affection which they bear for him" (Keller, 1996, p. 8). The life and times of Fred Keller, the educator, is wonderfully described in his own words in the book, Pedagogue's Progress.