by Nick Burkey (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What we’re celebrating today: Robert F. (Bob) Mager, tireless promoter of basing instruction around good behavioral objectives, who was possibly the 20th Century’s most influential evangelist of instructional design.
Here is Bob Mager’s biography in Wikipedia. It’s a nice, brief introduction to someone who accomplished a lot, but it’s not the kind of thing that Bob Mager, the Bob Mager, one of the most influential and successful trainers in history, would ever read or write. Bob’s approach to training (to everything) was to sweat the details, but in order to determine which were the critical ones. His work was often terse, but that’s because it included what. was necessary, and only that. By contrast, a Wikipedia page can contain information you don’t really need, and omit other information that you do.
Bob died in 2020 at a hair shy of 100 years old. If you want an example of the exacting details of his work, try reading his autobiography, Life in the Pinball Machine. In chapters that can run as short as a page, Bob described his life in terms of being bounced by circumstance from one focus to another. But no matter what fell into his lap, he sweated the details. A pivotal instance occurred during the military draft of WWII when, in a possible illustration of the Peter Principle, Bob was promoted to trainer due to his marksmanship. Without being asked and without permission, he completed a training manual, illustrated it, and mimeographed it (if you’re 50+ he Xeroxed it; if you’re an elder millennial, he made copies) with his own money. This was Bob’s first foray into what would later be called instructional design.
From the military, Bob bounced to radio (he studied broadcasting for a time in college), to a rat lab across the hallway from Albert Bandura, to the podium in the college classroom. In 1962, with the programmed instruction movement afoot (Skinner introduced the teaching machine in the late 1950s), Bob published Preparing objectives for programmed instruction (in later editions, Preparing instructional objectives), which established him as a leader in the movement. That book would go through numerous printings and become viewed by many as the premier resource on instructional design. It was written in a branched design – akin to a “choose your own adventure” book, wherein you turned to specific pages to check your answers.
Bob’s approach to instruction placed heavy emphasis on writing behavioral objectives: specifying and task-analyzing the performances that needed to be mastered. Or as Bob might say: what is the learner supposed to DO? As his autobiography illustrates, via spare prose in chapters as short as a page, he applied the same approach he recommended to others to his own experience, at various points teaching himself ventriloquism, to unicycle, to juggle, to tap dance, and to play the banjo, just for the challenge.
The professional society Bob helped to establish (originally the National Society for Programmed Instruction, now the International Society for Performance and Instruction), remains popular with private-sector trainers. Bob published 13 books on instruction that remain in demand in the business world, and most are available on the Internet Archive. Given Bob’s dedication to instructional simplicity, every book is an easy read and under 200 pages. It may be safe to say that with the growth of the practitioner movement in applied behavior analysis, and the attendant growth in concern for training and supervision, Bob’s approach has proven to be rather prescient. For a sense of this, check out the table of contents for Analyzing performance problems. The names of the chapters essentially mirror a portion of the Performance Diagnostic Checklist, even though the book was published years before.
While Bob’s books, and most of his life’s work, were dedicated to simplifying written instruction, he admitted that this process has its limits. After all, Bob’s goal was 90/90 – teach 90% of the learners 90% of the content. Even the best writing can’t teach everything to everyone.
You might guess that Bob’s ideas overlapped with those of other instructional design giants, like Zig Engelmann. Yet Zig, a master of curriculum design, favored the analysis and building of basic skills. For instance, Project Follow Through, his most well-known triumph, provided evidence that when kids master basic skills, their self-esteem increases along with all academic measures. Bob favored the experiential approach. For example, in one project, at-risk kids got a flying lesson where they took over the controls of a plane. Lo and behold, when flight school required they read a map, they learned that. And improved their reading skills to boot. The “basic skills versus experiential learning” debate remains active in education circles, though it’s probably a false dichotomy.
Bob and Zig had different approaches to simplifying instruction, but they agreed on the need for simplified, behavioral instruction. They also aligned on their appraisal of instructional systems as society tends to construct them. Bob believed that those who control existing instructional systems aren’t interested in adopting successful procedures – after all, they paid a lot of money to run failing programs, and iIn fact they may have been promoted based on their role in failing programs. Zig quickly developed a similar fatalistic mindset; one of his books about it is entitled Teaching needy kids in our backward system. Zig never stopped trying to change the education system. Bob, by contrast, saw futility – schools wouldn’t adopt curricula if students mastered material covered in the next grade — and focused instead on training adults.
Arguably, Bob had a greater impact on his chosen area of application than Zig did. Business leaders, who are anchored to accountability measures, love Bob’s pure utilitarian behaviorism (focus on outcomes), and pithy way of making a point, as in, “Colleges could earn more money by replacing the football program with a few dozen slot machines.” Bob’s work is less known in public education circles (for instance, he probably didn’t appeal to high school principals with sayings like, “Changing the education system is like trying to change the temperature of the ocean by pissing in it.” Because behavior analysis is more entrenched in public education than the corporate world, you may not perhaps hear the name “Bob Mager” very often. But it’s a safe bet that many of the best-designed training programs in existence today are the result of some CFO attending a Mager-inspired four-day conference that wrapped up when everyone met some behavioral criterion on Day 2.
Mager, R.F. (2003, 2012). Life in the Pinball Machine: Careening from There to Here … Observations from an Accidental Life in Learning and Human Performance. Carefree, AZ: Mager Associates, Inc.