By Joe Holley Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 27, 2006
John Gilmour Sherman, 75, a behavioral psychologist and former chairman of the Psychology Department at Georgetown
University, died of cancer May 24 at St. Anne's Hospital in Fall River, Mass. A resident of the District during his years at
Georgetown, he divided his time between Key West, Fla., and Westport, Mass.
Dr. Sherman, who studied with renowned behaviorist B.F. Skinner, was one of the creators of PSI, or personalized system of
instruction. He first put the learning approach into practice in 1964 while working with psychologist Fred S. Keller as a Fulbright
professor in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He and Keller were helping to establish the psychology department at the fledgling University of
The personalized system of instruction, sometimes called the Keller plan, calls for a well-defined set of objectives and courses
of instruction divided into discrete units that students master at their own pace with the help of tutors.
Most teaching focuses primarily, often exclusively, on presenting information, Dr. Sherman said in a 2001 talk honoring Keller.
But telling is not teaching. It neglects what the student does, if anything, and what feedback is provided, if any.
In 1981, he served on a panel of advisers to the D.C. school system as it prepared to adopt a competency-based curriculum
intended to ensure that students could read and write before graduating from high school. He reminded the Washington
educators that students learn best under personalized and individualized instruction. He also encouraged teachers to relinquish
some of their power and control in the classroom and to allow students who had mastered the required work to help those who
Dr. Sherman -- known as Jack or Gil -- was born in Fall River and graduated from Central High School in 1949. He received a
bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College in Maine and did graduate work in psychology at the University of Edinburgh in
Scotland. He received a dual master's degree and a doctorate in experimental psychology in 1959 from Columbia University.
He taught at Barnard College and Arizona State University before joining the Georgetown faculty in 1969. He was a visiting
professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of Brasilia. The author of seven
books and dozens of professional articles, he was the director of the Center for Personalized Instruction at Georgetown
While teaching at Georgetown, he got interested in the fact that stroke victims who couldn't speak could communicate with sign
language. He taught himself American Sign Language and taught part time at Gallaudet University. He also taught sign
language at Georgetown. He retired in 1990.
Dr. Sherman was a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of
Science and received several teaching awards. He also was a member of the National Humanities Faculty and the Registry of
the Interpreters for the Deaf.
He loved to party, and he loved to travel, said a cousin, Mary Elizabeth Roulon. He also was an avid sailor who often sailed from
Key West to Providence, R.I.
There are no immediate survivors.