Instructional objectives have some practical use and come from a process known as “needs analysis”.

ListeningInstructional objectives have some practical use and come from a process known as “needs analysis”. That is the last of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

I have devoted a good deal of energy to persuading people that instructional objectives have some practical use. I strongly believe that they are not a tick-in-the box requirement, an unnecessary chore or a lucky charm. I regard them as the most fundamental part of specifying learning from which all other considerations must issue. The process of analysis is not one thing but many, each of which can influence instruction and testing, and so frame and shape a learning experience.

I see measurable or observable objectives as the bridge between what a learner takes from the content of a course and what has to be tested. Without them there is bound to be a large amount of irrelevant course material and learners will lack the sense of priority that will enable them to focus their efforts.

I don’t include detailed lists of objectives in what the learner sees, but I always make them explicit because I feel sure that when learners know the general purpose of a task and the standard they need to attain in completing it, their confidence improves and anxiety decreases.

It may be useful to include formal objectives to help to explain very complex learning materials, but not for simple, assignments that are easy to understand and follow.

It is certainly easier to write precise objectives for concrete, observable tasks than for abstract or academic content or for activity that aims to manipulate attitudes and emotions, but nowhere can I find the suggestion that objectives are more useful in one domain than another.

A widely-recognised behavioural model for framing objectives is Mager and Pipe’s performance – conditions – standard, although many do not associate it with that source.  I find it works well to simplify it a little in plain English using the template “You’re going to do this… so you’ll need this… and here is how we’ll know you’ve done it.”

So let me conclude this journey around the truisms I’ve encountered over the past several years by setting a final set of 9 straw man statements for you to craft into a permanent figure or blow into dust.

  1. Course objectives come from analysis
  2. Analysis takes many forms – goal analysis, performance-gap analysis, stakeholder analysis, audience analysis, feasibility analysis, organisational analysis (readiness to adopt and support), content analysis, job analysis, task analysis
  3. In combination these forms of analysis provide objectives that form the basis for designing, developing and implementing instruction and assessment, and for quantifying and valuing the results they deliver. The effectiveness, fitness and efficiency of a learning strategy, materials or course rely upon this.
  4. The quality of a learning program is in direct proportion to the adequacy of its objectives. It is barely possible to develop a relevant course and adequately test its users without a proper analysis of needs.
  5. It is quite common to find courses and learning materials where the content does not match the stated objectives.
  6. Some trainers and designers misuse objectives by displaying them as a kind of decoration, makeweight or rubber-stamping of course design.
  7. Course with unclear objectives usually contain irrelevant information or omit vital information.
  8. Without clear objectives you cannot create valid and reliable assessments.
  9. Every objective in a programme of learning should be assessed in some way.

Thank you for staying with me during this journey through my 12 truisms. When you are ready for the next dozen, please let me know.


You can lead a horse to water and you can make it drink

It is possible to interest people in taking up new methods and media in learning. That is the eleventh of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

The whole industry of eLearning and online learning is predicated on the belief that it is possible to interest people in taking up new methods and media in learning, but is that a safe assumption? Managers, training providers and learners themselves can all influence the rate at which a sponsoring organisation might adopt new and innovative materials and programs. From the very first hint that an instructional project is under development, suppliers and buyers should be working out how to encourage users and all relevant stakeholders to advocate and work with the new materials.

A pessimistic view shows people often reject ideas and resources that have been put together outside the immediate ambit – a kind of “not invented here” complex. Another cliché is that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. An antidote to resistance and rejection is to involve all influential stakeholders, and that includes potential users, in the analysis and design phases of distinctive new items and approaches.

It is prudent to treat an innovation in learning as you would any other change in the normal procedures of an organisation, with a Change Management Plan and Process and a suitable person to lead it. That Change Champion has to fully empathise with the organisation that is facing the change and needs to demonstrate the following 7 things beyond question:

  1. That the new approach, materials or equipment are better than any old ones they might replace
  2. That they add extra value to those that remain and they fit easily amongst them
  3. research and evaluation shows the innovation will bring advantages
  4. there is a clear and logical plan for implementation and adoption
  5. the innovation satisfies a recognised need of the prospective user
  6. it is intended to be a long term solution and not merely a short-term whim
  7. users have the skills necessary to work with the innovation or can easily acquire those skills.

It is vital to focus on users and their needs rather than on the innovative solution itself. Managers must know at least as much about what’s going to happen as they do, must explain and perhaps justify it to users and show it can be shaped to their particular needs.

A Change Management process must move users progressively from one state to another, first by raising their awareness, then by arousing curiosity, helping them to a clear and accurate vision of what the change will look like, giving them opportunity to practise and finally providing support and feedback as they use it.

So if all of these initiatives are in place, it is safe to assume that you can make your horses drink. Do you think that is true or is it a flight of fancy? Please use the form below to contribute your views and experiences.

There’s no effin’ white cabbage at Tesco

The decline in basic standards of literacy and numeracy has been much mourned by employers. This morning I went to my local Tesco to buy the missing ingredient for my Minestrone. “Do you have any hard white cabbage?” I enquired of the young man who was stacking shelves nearby. “No”, he muttered, “but we do have savoury cabbage.” “Savoury cabbage?” I speculated, “I’ll just reduce the seasoning and it ought to do in soup.”

Arriving at the produce, this fine young man triumphantly directed me to the Savoy cabbage. “But there is no R in Savoy”, I almost began to say, then thought better of it. There is no “R” in “Savoy” and there is no “F” in “white cabbage” at Tesco. I went to Sainsburys instead.    
By pgstips

This StreetLife is full of noises

dustbingateIn days gone by, when neighbours met by the parish pump, by the school gate, in the pub or at the local community centre it was the custom to exchange information on items of common interest.  It might be to build grand plans to benefit the whole community, but more typically it would be to gossip and to pass on recommendations and sometimes to air and resolve grievances. When Street Life dropped leaflets through doors in my village, many saw the advantages of a local, user-led example of social media and joined in the fun. At first it was a model of rectitude – warm, sociable and community-spirited people directed others towards the florists, plumbers and hairdressers whom they had found to be most reliable. Lonely or needy people reached out to a network of caring people that previously had been invisible behind closed doors. 

Then for a while it became Exchange and Mart – the daily newsfeed was a list of items to sell. In the parish pump model people had a different place, the market square, in which to buy, sell and exchange goods and services. I doubt that schools would tolerate the setting out of market stalls in front of the building and I was reminded of the story of Christ and the merchants in the temple.
But the tipping point for our own village’s flirtation with social media came when a discussion appeared to comment upon the fitness of the local Health Centre and the GPs who operate it. Take care, I thought, because once you begin to comment on the performance of professionals in an unmoderated, public space, there are implications for all concerned. Happily everyone seemed to have nothing but praise for their doctors and so nothing controversial emerged.


Even so, a change had taken place – people were being named and their competence and character were being evaluated without their consent and probably without their knowledge. The lid had come off Pandora’s Box, and that left space for the Furies to fly out. And fly out, they did when along came “Dustbingate”. It was a very windy Monday. Some neighbours had left their wheelie bins for collection the night before as usual, and then had  departed for work. The end result was that the bins were blown over and the neighbours who were still at home had virtuously taken it upon themselves to clear up the litter. Later they put finger to keyboard and blogged asking who were the “idiots” who had left their bins out?
I could see how, with a little more attention to the weather forecast, one might have decided not to put out the bin. It had not occurred to me that placing the bin so that its opening faced downwind might reduce the risk of rubbish being blown out. I welcomed the suggestion, although it was no remedy for the bin actually blowing over, as so many had done in very uncommon weather conditions. But I knew who had left out his bin and that meant I had to accept that I was one of the idiots, perhaps I was THE idiot.
You might think it was a fairly trivial matter, and “idiot” is a low-level insult in the general scheme of things, but it is an insult and that meant the rules had changed. It was now acceptable to define a person with a label or a value judgment and not just report on an event associated with that person. It reminded me of a school playground scenario, where someone tells tales – “Billy stamped on my conkers”. If the person reporting the event refers to Billy as a “bully” or a “swine” or an “idiot”, then the matter goes beyond mere reporting of fact. Now it is a personal insult and as sure as eggs are eggs, conflict will ensue.

Am I nice or nasty?

In our newsgroup, one or two people mildly commented that it was not very nice to make personal insults. Others took an opposing view – “nice” was not nice! To be nice was to invite censorship, to gag free speakers and one should be less sensitive and let people have complete freedom to say what they like. In a moment the community had polarised so that one found oneself in one of two groups – either one of the “idiots” (who don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and would suppress freedom of speech) or one of the virtuous (still very caring people who have the courage to speak their minds).  So a wonderful idea has shown the potential to grow into a destructive force, and our village is on the horns of a dilemma in how to shape its future as a community in a digital world. Should we embrace the new media, leave it completely unmoderated and accept the consequences whatever they might be? Should we introduce some form of regulation – a code of conduct, a set of rules? What sanctions should we apply to those who disregard them? A knock on the door? Suspension? Expulsion?
Or should we return to a system of closed doors, take it all offline and return to a scenario in which people for the most part know only the neighbours adjacent and immediately opposite? To quote The Tempest, “This Isle is full of noises.”


I should add as a postscript that Street Life removed the “offending” discussion. I now wait for someone to quote George Orwell.
By pgstips

Learners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation.

Problem solving man and womanLearners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation. That’s number 10 of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

You could fill a library with words that have been written about social and collaborative learning in the past decade. Common practice is based on a belief that learners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation.  Peer co-operation may assume a number of different forms: discussion groups, seminars, syndicate and “breakout” groups; social media; proctoring and mentoring – where learners help, supervise or assess other less able learners; self-directed, moderated and un-moderated study groups. I believe that pairing and grouping people to study, discover and practise together improves their results in assessment. But is it true? Where are the unchallengeable authorities, where is the incontrovertible evidence and the body of proof to support my belief? Here are some questions on which I’d like to ask you to ponder:

  1. Is it true that social learning makes learners feel more confident in their own and one another’s talents and capabilities, and gives them a more positive attitude towards the process of learning?
  2. Does group work enable learners to observe, copy and learn from one another?
  3. Does it prevent them for straying away from the task?
  4. Will it encourage individuals to share and celebrate their own and others’ accomplishments?
  5. Won’t it lead inevitably to a minority of learners dominating proceedings so that they inhibit the opportunity of others to learn?
  6. Can peer interaction in small groups help slower and underachieving students to learn and succeed in their learning?
  7. Do peer coaches really benefit through learning more about a subject by preparing and giving lessons to others?
  8. Does this approach only work in academia and in courses that involve extended periods of drill and practice?
  9. Is it necessary for partners in a learning task to be physically in the same place? When they connect through a computer or phone, don’t they do at least as well and often better than when they work alone? Is it sensible to believe that online learners can connect with one another more frequently and with more regularity than they can do face-to-face?
  10. Is the collective wisdom of learners as valuable as the specialist knowledge of experts? Learners possess a wealth of life experiences that you can acknowledge, tap and exploit so everyone can learn through co-operative study with peers they trust and respect.
  11. Will their attitude toward themselves, towards the course content and towards the other party improve when a learner is partnered with another?

I have at least as many questions as I have answers on this theme.

As for peer-coaching (or any form of coaching) I believe it will not add very much to a course in which testing and assessment is very frequently used, but that if you use a valid and reliable pre-test coaching will bring big benefits – far more than if you leave assessment to the end.

I do not favour competition except in the case of groups where the culture and spirit is already highly competitive. People learn to avoid the things that hurt them and so competition might provoke them to strive for success or to keep out of the way of failure. I feel sure that co-operation makes learners productive and successful, whereas competition makes them focus on grades and beating others to win extrinsic rewards rather than on understanding learning material and working well within a team.

Just putting people together to work on a learning task does not guarantee that they will co-operate. They also need some structure and a process to raise the chance of their really sharing the work in a way that contributes to the learning of both.

So there you have it, but are the views I’ve shared here just blind faith, or can they be substantiated?

What do you think and what do you know?