Sense and Nonsense in HPT

The late Dale Brethower, Ph.D. – A Classic from 2004

We can write and deliver instruction so that 90% of learners master 90% of the material,” asserted National Society for Programmed Instruction (NSPI) members in the early days of programmed instruction.

“Nonsense,” said most of the educators and trainers that I talked to. As it turned out, “they” were wrong, and “we” were right.

International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) members are often right when we claim we can achieve results in systemic, systematic, and replicable ways. On the other hand, I find too much nonsense in magazines, journals, and conferences related to human performance
technology (HPT).

Separating sense from nonsense is especially difficult because nonsense often makes sense from at least one perspective. Were that not true, discriminating between sense and nonsense would be much easier but also much less important. Separating sense from nonsense takes more than
shouting, “Nonsense!” Purveyors of nonsense do not often believe that what they are putting forth is nonsense.

Disagreement about sense and nonsense is good. It should occur more often and more openly. Why is open confrontation a good thing? Because separating sense from nonsense is important in any field. Such confrontation is one of the things that people who care about a field do. That is why papers presented in scientific journals are peer-reviewed. That is why scientists argue with one another a lot, much to the bewilderment of everyone else.

Please understand that the confrontation I advocate is a confrontation about facts and evidence, not about personal ideology or unsupported personal opinions. My hope is that respectfully confronting and discussing examples of purported nonsense will help us to clarify or develop shared standards.

Please understand also that nonsense is like a daisy: It can be a weed or a flower, depending on context. A daisy is a weed in a bean patch, but it is a flower in its proper place in a flower garden. Nonsense is often misplaced or misused sense, a misplaced flower.

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For the rest of this as a 7 page PDF, please go here.

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Dale Brethower learned fundamental concepts of general systems theory while growing up on the family farm in Kansas. Three years at the University of Kansas yielded a degree and the conviction that there is both sense and nonsense in academia. Earning a masters degree at Harvard enabled Dale to learn that there is a science of behavior and showed him how to apply it in natural settings. While studying with B.F. Skinner, Dale learned that many intelligent people believe utter nonsense about behaviorism, such as the ridiculous idea that behavior principles cannot be applied to cognition and emotion. He earned a PhD from the University of Michigan while learning additional system principles and the names and nuances of the general systems concepts he had learned back on the farm. Dale applied general systems and behavioral psychology principles successfully in a not-for-profit agency as Chief of the Reading Service. He has also consulted with schools and private businesses and been active in ISPI for about 40 years. A professor emeritus of psychology (Western Michigan University), Dale writes, publishes, operates three small businesses, and continues to learn from Carl Semmelroth, Geary Rummler,
Karolyn Smalley, and dozens of former students and ISPI colleagues.


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