Back to the Future?

A world of difference exists between the instructional practices of today

and those in vogue just two short decades ago. Information was presented

almost exclusively by lecture, and actual practice of material to be learned was

rare or nonexistent. Instructors told trainees what they thought trainees ought

to know, often providing content that was completely irrelevant to job performance.

Instruction was based largely on remediation: When people couldn’t

or wouldn’t perform as desired, instruction was the remedy prescribed. If

employees seemed listless or unmotivated, they were sent to a variety of

motivational sessions. If they seemed motivated but were still unable to

perform, instruction was again the remedy prescribed. It didn’t matter why

they couldn’t perform; instruction was assumed to be the cure. And the very

best cure was the one involving a single student per instructor; it didn’t seem

to matter that bad medicine didn’t improve merely because it was administered

to one patient” at a time rather than to many.

 

Training was instructor-oriented. The instructor decided what people

needed to know, selected the content, wrote the lesson plans, and then served

as the chief purveyor of the information. The instructor was the focus of the

instruction. The instructor performed, and the students listened and observed.

Instructors were selected from practitioners of the craft whose substance

was to be taught. A tap on the shoulder, a “You are now a trainer,” and voila! An

instructor was born. Ironically, though instruction was seen as the prime

intervention for facilitating performance, the training department was also

seen as a “safe place” to dump the boss’s incompetent nephew or poor old Joe

who had lost a finger in the press and was too young to retire.

Instructional development, such as there was, was subject-matter oriented.

 

The content and the instructor provided the basis for the definition of

“logical sequence”; nobody much cared what sequence was logical from the

students’ point of view. The object seemed to be to teach as much of the topic

as possible in the time allotted. And time allotment was always the first training

decision. ‘We need a three-day course,” was the way assignments were given

to the trainers. Notice, too, that they were called trainers, clearly implying that

instruction was the remedy of choice.

 

When training was evaluated at all, it was assessed by means of a “happiness

sheet,” handed to students at the end of a course, which asked how

students felt about various aspects of the instruction. The happiness sheet was

used for fine-tuning whatever it was that the instructors were doing. Never was

training evaluated in terms of its outcomes or in terms of how well it served its

purpose.

 

The training enterprise was attached to the personnel department. The

dubious logic of this must have gone like this: “Gee, trainers deal with people,

and the personnel department deals with people, so let’s attach the trainers to

personnel.” This decision shielded the trainers from those who had a real stake

in whether or not the training worked, and made it even less likely that the

trainers’ feet would be held to the fire of accountability.

 

Instruction in the public domain of schools, colleges, and universities,

though populated by professional instructors, fared no better. Though schoolteachers

were required to obtain a teaching credential attesting to their skills,

their curriculums consisted almost entirely of history, theory, and methods

courses that did little to develop their actual teaching skills. Only one semester

of practice teaching was required, a semester during which some student

teachers were used as “gofers” by their teaching supervisor and others received

only marginal practice and almost random feedback regarding their progress.

At the college and university levels, candidates for faculty positions have

never been required to demonstrate their teaching skills. When I once asked

the dean to sit in my classroom to evaluate my work, he replied, “If I didn’t

think you were a good teacher, I wouldn’t have hired you.” Evaluation of

instructional skill consisted mainly of counting publications.

 

There was no pretense of doing an analysis to determine what students

needed to know or what circumstances might be preventing them from performing

as desired. Whatever the weaknesses of the instruction, it was always

the student who got the grade. Worse, there was a conspiracy that made it

impossible for every student to be successful: The “normal curve” was applied

to evaluate student performance, which consisted largely of responses to

multiple-choice questions. Thus, the conspiracy required that, no matter how

well students performed, at least some of them would have to consider themselves

inferior. Those faculty members who dared to violate the conspiracy of

the normal curve and who issued a “disproportionate” number of As or Bs

were not held up as models of good practice nor heralded as heroes. Rather,

they were vilified by their colleagues as the purveyors of “Mickey Mouse”

courses. Thus, instructional success was often punished and instructional

clumsiness, rewarded.

 

Here, too, as in the training domain, the instruction was instructor-oriented

and instructor-dominated. The instructor selected the content, prepared and delivered

the lectures, wrote the test items, scored the tests, and assigned the grades.

It wasn’t that trainers, teachers, and faculty were not motivated to serve

their students with the highest respect for ethical practice. On the contrary, the

instructional craft has always enjoyed a high proportion of dedicated practitioners.

It was simply that tradition, instead of demanding that existing knowledge be translated

into techniques aimed at maximizing the effectiveness of the instructors’ efforts,

frequently punished them if those efforts proved to be too successful, to the surrounding

establishment.

 

Largely as a result of the work of contributors to this book, the state of

affairs described thus far no longer prevails. It still exists and even flourishes in

many locations, but it no longer prevails as the only choice. As a result of

performance and instructional technologies-techniques and procedures that

have been developed, it is possible to improve the effectiveness and the

efficiency of instruction by orders of magnitude Over the instruction it replaces.

 

Better than that, by applying analysis techniques, it is possible to

determine when instruction might be an appropriate remedy for a problem in

human performance and when some other procedure is indicated. We have

been enlightened by the knowledge that the inability to perform as desired is

one of the less likely reasons that people do not perform as expected, and we

have expanded the repertoire of remedies to include several that eliminate the

need for instruction altogether.

 

In addition, it is possible to prescribe desired outcomes with enough

precision to allow selection of the most appropriate means for their achievement.

It is possible to prescribe development procedures that will result in a

minimum of irrelevant content and pointless activity. It is possible to design

implementation environments and practices that match the instruction to the

past experiences and available skills of each learner, thereby improving the

perceived relevance of the instruction and, at the same time, improving its

efficiency and effectiveness. And it is possible to assess the outcomes of these

remedies; that is, it is possible to determine whether the outcomes were

achieved and whether the outcomes were worth achieving.

 

In short, the authors in this book, many of whom are practitioners who

regularly verify the efficacy of these technologies through application to real

problems, have made a major contribution to the development of practices

that truly transcend the old “If it moves, instruct it” approach to the facilitation

of human performance.

 

These performance and instructional technologies have not yet been

minimally applied in colleges and universities, even in departments professing

to teach their techniques, but this situation nullifies neither their existence

nor their value. The technologies have profoundly influenced the business,

industrial, and military sectors, settings where the con sequences of good and

poor performance are immediately significant. In those sectors, examples

abound that demonstrate vast improvements in human performance through

application of one or more aspects of the state of the art.

 

The components of these technologies constitute the substance of this

book. The chapters may display different points of view, but the differences are

mainly in the strategies of execution, in terminology, and in style, rather than

in the principles or theoretical orientation to be applied. For each contributor,

the goal is the same: to facilitate human performance in as efficient and

humane a manner as the state of the art will allow.

Robert F. Mager

Carefree, Arizona

Foreword – Introduction to Performance Technology

– November 1986

An NSPI/ISPI Publication.        http://www.ispi.org

*** *** *** *** ***

Guy W. Wallace took the liberty of titling Bob Mager’s Foreword from this 1986 publication.

His bad.

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