There’s nothing like an attention grabbing headline to get people reading, which – of course- is why people write them. (I plead guilty too, although perhaps not in this case.) Charles Jennings’ post at the Training Zone website, Who needs learning objectives? (which you’ll need to complete a free subscription to read in full), certainly qualifies, but – like some of his commenters – I’m not sure I agree. What’s more, I think he may have missed his own point. Let me see if I can explain it clearly without first listing what you’ll understand in a few paragraphs time.

Jennings argues that learning objectives do little at best, and harm at worst, for the learner. As you’ll see from his opening paragraph, he does so with wit: 

  1. At the end of this course you will be able to tie your shoelaces in a double bow
  2. At the end of this course you will be able to use a blender to make a tasty fish milkshake
  3. At the end of this course you will be able to make gold out of base metal
  4. and so on…

Apart from being some of the most de-motivating writing any of us have ever read, lists of learning objectives are the worst possible way to create an environment for learning. In fact, they are often the first barrier to real learning.”

Less amusingly, he goes on to argue that this learning objective model is out-dated, and that objectives are useful only to training designers in that they provide a ‘helpful framework’. Perhaps this is wilful contention as, during the course of the article, he makes a number of excellent points but seems to have overlooked ways of joining some of his own dots.

In terms of improving workplace performance, we would certainly agree that there is a vital need for “training and development managers and instructional designers to engage with business managers and agree on strategies for measuring the impact of the learning before the learning design phase”, that improvements take time to be fully revealed and that the involvement of business managers in monitoring and encouraging them is fundamentally necessary.

As Harold Jarche wrote on his own blog in commenting on Jenning’s article:

Getting involved in the way work is done and understanding issues is what’s necessary to be of service as a learning/training professional. I still remember the case of a nurse clinician in charge of the performance and training for all nursing staff in a hospital. I asked to do an on-site performance analysis over several days and of course had to be accompanied. After two years on the job, it was her first time on the wards.”

But there are larger issues here. While he recognises its artificiality as an environment, Jennings makes no reference to any learning outside the classroom: his model seems still to see ‘learning’ as an event one attends – surely a model that deserves to be called outmoded. There is no reference to preparatory work for an event that not only involves the organisation and the line manager, but puts the learner in a position to better understand not only what they will learn, but why they will learn it and why it matters that they do. Nor is there any implication that ‘business managers’ – who he otherwise seems laudably keen to involve – have role to play in ensuring that the environment supports the application of learning, while accepting in passing that environment is an important factor.

Worse, he omits any reference to any role that line managers can – and should – play in supporting, encouraging and rewarding changed behaviour and improved performance once the learner is back in the workplace and – we all hope – doing their best to apply what they have learned.

Rather he seems to identified an illness – the failure of much conventional training to deliver measurable improvements in workplace performance – and then picked one bystander (learning objectives) to label as the culprit. But isn’t this grasping a small point while missing the larger one?

One reason so much conventional training fails to deliver on its promise is that the learning objectives have been decoupled from the business outcomes: unless this link is firmly in place, any learning not only starts on the wrong foot but sets off in the wrong direction. If you don’t know why you need people to learn something, stop designing the learning until you do, surely? And designing the learning objectives is the responsibility of the training designers – the people that Jennings argues that benefit from them.

And whether they are presented as a list, as continuous prose, in pictures, or transmitted in smoke from a staff barbecue, properly constructed learning objectives that are presented in appropriate language do give the learner motivation and a sense of not only direction but also purpose: if you don’t start off thinking ‘where’s all this leading then?’, the chances are you’re not really paying a lot of attention anyway. Certainly, marketing – buyers buy training with clearly stated objectives – has a case to argue, but as one of those commenting on Jenning’s original article points out:

If I, as a trainer try to sell to HR, something which has no clear framework by way of overall guiding objectives, then I ain’t going to sell much.” 

The problem with learning objectives isn’t their existence per se, it’s that they’re often the wrong objectives – or simply rather meaningless ones. But they’re not the only problem. Training fails for other reasons too:

  • Failure to invest in activities that would support transfer and application
  • Trainers who see their job as “over” at the end of the course or workshop
  • Training buyers who reward trainers for providing inputs rather than delivering outcomes
  • Organisations that leave learners returning to a workplace lacking a support infrastructure that will keep training objectives mind, provide further learning opportunities, and monitor their progress
  • Line managers who fail to support their colleagues
  • Training evaluation that measures the wrong things.

Training definitely has a performance gap to overcome in terms of what it so often ultimately delivers, but Jennings seem to want to place the blame on one doorstep. If we look at why learning fails, it’s not just the designers and deliverers who could raise their game: buyers, line managers and senior executives have a few personal learning outcomes to achieve too.

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