Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Unstated and Implicit Learning Goals

A long-established principle within instructional systems design is to be complete and clear in analyzing learning needs and transforming those needs into learning goals and objectives (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2009). It can and does happen, however, that a careful needs assessment can fail to uncover unstated goals. I recall an effort involving the development of a computer-based lesson for Air Force electronics training. Such training for newly recruited enlisted personnel took place at a Technical Training Center where senior enlisted personnel (non-commissioned officers; NCOs) led face-to-face lessons. The needs assessment was motivated by the lack of available of senior NCOs. The requirement then became to replace some of the instructor-led lessons with computer-based lessons. For the targeted subject matter, this was relatively easy as the things to be learned were primarily concepts pertaining to electronics along with some simple procedures to perform diagnostic tests. When a first prototype of a representative lesson had been constructed, the training commander rejected it because it did not include any of the behaviors and demeanor of senior NCOs. The designer’s natural question was “What does that have to do with electronics?” The commander replied that one goal of basic electronics training was to show recently recruited personnel how enlisted personnel were expected to behave. Fortunately, the change to include modeling NCO behavior was easily incorporated into the computer-based lessons using video clips.

What is happening in public schools in this era of high stakes testing and accountability? The needs assessments and content analyses have supposedly been conducted and specific learning objectives developed. Test items are allegedly linked to those learning objectives. Schools and teachers are evaluated based on how well the children do on standardized tests. I am wondering how this emphasis on high stakes testing is transforming our educational system. Objectives should also be linked to overall goals and not simply linked to the analysis of content. What are the goals that we expect of an educational system? Would we not like children who spend twelve or more years in school to develop certain behaviors that might be associated with responsible citizenship? Might there be a parallel in public school settings with the situation in technical training? Might we want children to see responsible adult behavior and have them begin to act accordingly just as the training commander wanted new recruits to see exemplary military behavior and to begin to act accordingly? What is not being tested and, as a consequence, not being rewarded in this era of high stakes testing? Do we test how well a child gets along with others? Do we test how collaborative a child is? Do we test a child’s ability to think critically and act ethically? Would we like such things to be part of a child’s education? If so, why are they not tested or emphasized in the same way that reading skills are tested? The notion of a progressive education that emphasized critical thinking, inquiry, and social responsibility (Dewey, 1938) seems to be altogether missing in the current environment of high stakes testing.

My small thought on this subject is just this: be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. The No Child Left Behind Act (http://ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml) and the associated incentives seem designed to bring about an educational system in which children do learn to read and solve standard mathematical problems. Is such a system designed to foster life-long reading and encourage careers in complex and challenging areas such as quantum mechanics or astrophysics? That remains to be seen but the early evidence suggests that high school graduates in the USA are still not seeking higher education and careers in critical areas of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Moreover, the high-school drop-out rate is alarmingly high (AEA, 2009) as is the juvenile crime rate (http://www.ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/). Is this not troubling?

I am not suggesting that we ought to reward teachers whose students complete bachelors degrees in STEM subjects and do not commit crimes. This may not be such a bad idea, but it is certainly not simple to implement and it would surely introduce other disparities into an already complex educational system. What I am suggesting is that military commanders did trust their NCOs to model exemplary behavior and instill high standards of demeanor in recruits. Perhaps we should trust out teachers to model socially responsible behavior and instill high standards of demeanor in their students. Perhaps we could also trust our teachers to instill a sense of inquiry and other desirable habits of the mind. Maybe we ought to trust our teachers rather than treat them like servers in a cafeteria.


AEA (Alliance for Excellent Education) (2009). High school dropouts in America. Washington, DC: Allilance for Excellent Education. Retrieved from http://www.all4ed.org/files/GraduationRates_FactSheet.pdf April 20, 2010

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. O, (2009). The systematic design of instruction (7th ed.). Columbus, OH: Allyn & Bacon.


  1. This is great information – its encouraging to see online education is becoming
    more widely accepted and the benefits are backed up by a range of studies.

  2. This is a good analogy that demonstrates well (in two different contexts) the unfortunate and all too frequent disparity between a) what we use to represent/measure achievement of learning objectives and b) what we actually want to see in our graduates.

    Perhaps you would agree that neither a) nor b) is sufficient in itself. Both are needed for true success. Thus, an intervention that "breaks even" on (a) but excels at (b) is probably more valuable than one that excels on (a) but fails miserably on (b)...and vice versa.

    Perhaps it is encouraging to note that there are alternative assessments (that are "worth teaching to") being developed for use nationally (e.g., CWRA) and by schools that have embraced a youth development mission (e.g., the Hope Study). There are efforts by states to make it easier to track the progress of K-12 graduates into higher education (e.g., WestEd/NWREL report). Each of these might, in a small way, help address your concerns.



    Hope Study:

    WestEd/NWREL Report:

    p.s. Not sure how far trusting teachers gets us given the current reward structures. Shouldn't we try to verify and reward them (and their schools) for achieving more meaningful teaching and learning outcomes?

  3. Thanks, Jason. I do agree that both are needed and will have a look at the Hope study ... perhaps there is hope ... mike

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  6. This may not be such a bad idea, but it is certainly not simple to implement and it would surely introduce other disparities into an already complex educational system.