Sense and Nonsense in HPT – According to Brethower

From a valuable colleague from NSPI/ISPI:

MARCH 2004 Performance Improvement • Volume 43 • Number 3
Sense and Nonsense in HPT
by Dale Brethower, PhD

Foremost among these (non-sensible) statements is the: “Instruction improves performance” item.

I bought into that nonsense back in the early 1960s.

It simply did not occur to me that the statement is as nonsensical
as the statement “Hammering builds houses.”

Putting fasteners into material is a necessary part of building
a house, but the notion that it is enough all by itself is
ludicrous. But I was a hammerer (instructional developer)
and figured that when the builder (manager) said hammering
(instruction) was the thing to do, I hammered. I succeeded
quite well in doing instruction that sometimes
added little or no value. But 90% of the students learned
90% of the material!

Evaluation expert Michael Scriven observed the same phenomenon
often enough to write about the distinction
between merit and worth (Scriven, 1978). The 90%-90%
criterion is a standard of merit. Instruction achieving that
standard has the merit of being effective. How can we say
that instruction is good if most of the students fail to learn the
material? The standard was a rallying cry for what we hoped
would be a revolution in education: Instruct effectively!

But Scriven pointed out that such criteria do not tell the
whole story about the quality of instruction. We should also
consider worth. This involves inquiring into whether learning
all that material worth anything to anyone? And does
acquiring the knowledge and skill help the learner accomplish
something of value?

ISPI member Tom Gilbert made a distinction that is functionally
equivalent to Scriven’s: acquirement (acquiring
knowledge) versus accomplishment (accomplishing something
of value). Gilbert’s distinction and Scriven’s distinction
between merit and worth relate readily to levels of

Levels I (satisfaction) and II (learning) are
roughly equivalent to standards of merit. Level III is a merit
criterion for those interested in transfer of training.
Organizational benefit, Level IV (and Level V, societal
impact, if we use five levels) is where standards of worth are
to be found.


Dale M. Brethower is the 2007 recipient of ISPI’s “Thomas F. Gilbert Distinguished Professional Achievement Award. ”

After decades of distinguished work in the field of Human Performance Technology, Dale M. Brethower, PhD, is receiving this year’s Gilbert Award, one that recognizes outstanding and significant contributions to the knowledge base of HPT.

Having first observed the fundamental concepts of general systems theory on the family farm, Dale later studied with B. F. Skinner, where he learned that there is a science of behavior that can be applied in natural settings. Dale has brought many of these applications to light as he helped to create the foundations of human performance technology.

Recognized as one of the founders of HPT, Dale has already received ISPI’s highest award, that of Honorary Member for Life in 2004. He is a past president of the Society and has been a member since 1963. In addition to his outstanding work in ISPI, Dale has been recognized by the Organizational Behavior Management Network of the International Association for Behavior Analysis (ABA) for his outstanding contributions to the field.

In the course of his work and while participating in professional organizations, the list of those Dale has mentored is long and varied. It includes students from Western Michigan, Boise State, and the Sonora Institute of Technology, as well as many he’s met through ISPI, ABA, and his consulting practice. Dale has published seven books and contributed more than 50 publications and presentations. He is well respected by those who look up to him as a pioneer in the field and by those who are also HPT pioneers.

Dale is a professor emeritus of psychology at Western Michigan University. In 1994, he was a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan . He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Performance Systems Analysis area of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Dale has a master’s degree in experimental psychology from Harvard University and a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Michigan.


I served as a Director on Dale’s ISPI Board (1999) and really got to know him much better. And we, Dale, myself and Dale’s wife Karolyn Smalley, worked on a ISPI pre-conference workshop one winter weekend in 2001 and I spent the night with them both at their place in Michigan.

Dale is a long-time friend and colleague of Geary Rummler; they were at Michigan together in the early 1960s and became good friends and collaborators. They are still friends and collaborators today.

From Rummler’s web site: The genesis of our performance consulting practice is found in the pioneering work done by Geary Rummler and Dale Brethower at the University of Michigan in the 1960’s. The first Performance Consulting Department was formed by Ed Feeney at Emery Freight who was a graduate of the earliest version of our Serious Performance Consulting workshop taught by Geary and Dale at Michigan. In the 1970’s Rummler developed the consulting methodology and toolset for Xerox. In 1982, Rummler built the first management system for a Performance Consulting function at Motorola. Geary’s latest book, Serious Performance Consulting According to Rummler, documents our state of the art approach to performance consulting. Today, Dr. Rummler and the PDL partners continue to refine the models and develop practical tools for the performance consultant.

Dale’s published books include one with wife Karolyn:

Performance-based Instruction.

And he has also co-written: High Impact Learning with Robert O. Brinkerhoff; and Anne M. Apking

Dale Brethower is just another one of the brilliant, wonderful, sharing HPT professionals you find at ISPI! Thanks Dale!!!

For more about ISPI go to –

2 comments on “Sense and Nonsense in HPT – According to Brethower

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday Dale Brethower! – HPT Treasures – for Evidence Based Performance Improvement

  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday Dale Brethower! | EPPIC - Pursuing Performance

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