John Messer, MAPCASE:cctd

Training often is not driven by purpose, even when we want it to be. We conduct training, or have people undergo it. We ought to be intending that our trainees become able to perform activities of work, or play, or war. A pervasive mind-set, a hypnotizing un-thought paradigm, cripples purposefulness. The mind on subject matter draws inside, to a curricular place. We act as if the business of training is finished when we have purveyed some content. This fixation can cause sincere people, on occasions when they try to talk or think about the world outside–shop, office, street, forest, field–to succeed only in talking or thinking about school and the classes they present. But work and play and war-fighting are extra-curricular activities.

I had an astonishing experience, a shock at the time but now a familiar concept failure. A longtime instructor brought me his homework, which was a list of things for a clerk to do in a battalion headquarters. He had included, as a workplace performance, “prepare a simulated position description for a new hire.” This was a direct lift from his existing lesson plans. He was never able to lift his eyes from them, or even to understand why he should.

Instruction–Not the Point
Think of a dog, a hairy animal with four legs. He may bark, cock a leg, kill a rat, and find what is lost or hidden. Some dogs do things with their tails. Some have no tail. Dogs that have tails wag them. Tails do not wag dogs.

From the standpoint of the revolution in performance science–40 years along and still revolutionary–instruction is tail, not dog. The emperor has no dog. Someone deceived the emperor, sold him a disembodied tail. The emperor’s blind wise men groom their assigned pieces of the tail, imagining they are dog handlers. The blind men are capable and dedicated instructors; but if you try to talk to one about whole dogs, it can be a difficult sell. Our pre-revolutionary converts-not-yet reflexively cherish a bushy perfect tail. The blind wise men generate “course evaluation” instruments. Even in 2013 these ask about instructor behaviors. Sometimes, but not always, they ask about learning. Student trainees praise the course offering and the instructor’s polished performance. Do not blame them; they may never have had a dog either. Evaluation instruments hardly ever ask about newly enabled things to do in the shop or office.

When you identify some capability you want to implant, you can devise a test that will reveal if your trainee has got it or not. With test in hand, the trainer can see how big a tail this dog needs. When test equals purpose, instruction can serve that purpose frugally and economically.

However, when the uncritical intent is to expound content for itself, there is no outward-looking purpose. Proposing to write the tests first is dissonant. A tail groomer expects to present “the material,” then “test the material.” He supposes he cannot formulate tests until course content is decided. Lessons fill up with what “the students need to know.” Inconsequential information can nudge out substance. Testing becomes a low-effort afterthought. An assistant works up questions to sample learning, formatted for machine scoring. Test secrecy is vital. Principal instructor re-refines the elegant handouts. What they end up with is just school.

Windowless room
The mind on subject matter draws inside–to a curricular room without windows. Try looking outside from a school desk. You peer into mirrors. Try to select objectives of training by direct consideration. You find thoughts of instructional activities.

Did you catch the ambiguity? My phrase “objectives of training” ought to mean particular performance capabilities for shop and field and forest–non-curricular achievables for which we would spend money and time in conducting training. The mind-set victim hears me as speaking of certain structured verbal formulas at the beginning of lesson plans. In that blinder-ed sense, a “training objective” sets an instructional activity, not something to do in a workplace or play place.

News flash: You can have purposeful purpose-achieving training with rotten instructional process. You can produce a “class” equipped with a desired skill set without conducting any instruction at all. (I have no specific agenda of breaking rice bowls, but the latter assertion would lift neck hairs and shiver hearts down at the Amalgamated Federation of Curriculum Writers, Process Polishers, and Murder Boards.) You can give a test without prior instruction. It will look like a pretest. We do a version of this when we run a job search against a position description. Just because search outcomes are sometimes disappointing does not mean it is a bad idea. Even if you do not follow up the (pre)test with instructional activities, your population might include both sheep and goats. Identify and separate them. Hire the sheep; send the goats home. If your target population includes good sheep–candidates who already have what the job requires, maybe from prior experience–it is logically possible you will not have to expend any training resources.

JMesserAbout the Author
John Messer, MAPCASE:cctd — consultancy in cost-constrained training design Counter-terrorism, New Mexico Tech and LSU. Education: AB 1965, MA, PhD-semantics, Army War College. Military Tng & TD: US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Training Developments Institute. Director of Training, Natl Guard Professional Education Center. Army ROTC. Faculty, US Army Command & General Staff College. Prof Educ Center again. Retired from military 1994. Email John: