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Evaluation: How to turn training dreams into reality

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DreamsTraining only becomes training when it is applied and the evidence is clear that it is working. Everything else is just wishful thinking, says Paul Kearns.








'I'm happy for my teenage son (or daughter) to receive sex education but I don't want him (or her) having sex training!' It's an oldie but a goodie and one of the pithiest ways to illustrate the distinction between two of the most confused words in the learning lexicon. Unfortunately the dark humour is in danger of hiding some other fundamental truths though, particularly around the vexed question of evaluation.

For example, if sex education teachers were asked to evaluate their work, using Kirkpatrick's outmoded four-level model (reaction, learning, behaviour, impact) they would probably get good happy sheet scores, if only for sheer entertainment value (if my own distant memories of sex education in an all-boys grammar school is anything to go by). A level two check (getting pupils to put a condom on a banana - no comment) might then be sufficient validation for the Local Education Authority because they are unlikely to want to go to level three – the practical application in a real life situation! In effect levels one and two in training should be viewed as educational play-acting, while the real thing starts to happen at level three: a crucial point that should be taken on board by all trainers wanting to know how effective they are.

Photo of Paul Kearns"Evaluation demands that we should always have crystal clear, measurable, organisational objectives right at the beginning of any training activity.

Then we come to level four – impact – which demands that we establish whether the training has achieved what it set out to achieve. However, instead of waiting until after the training has finished to ask this question a Baseline, right back at the beginning, should have clearly established what the original objectives were. So what are the original objectives behind sex education in schools these days? Let us look at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DfCSF) guidance on the matter.

"The objective of sex and relationship education is to help and support young people through their physical, emotional and moral development. A successful programme, firmly embedded in PSHE (personal, social and health education) will help young people learn to respect themselves and others and move with confidence from childhood through adolescence into adulthood." (Sex and Relationship Education guidance DfEE 0116/2000)

The goal of helping young people to mature all makes sense and further reading of this document spells out what it means but there is definitely something missing here, something that stops education becoming training, and that is the misuse of this word 'objective'. The DfCSF's 'objective' could more accurately be described as an aim - and 'training' without clear, measurable objectives is unlikely to achieve any objectives at all. This is still a very common problem in training today and only an evaluation model that puts clear objectives at the very heart of learning is likely to have the desired effect.

One such 'desired effect' of the UK government is a reduction in teenage pregnancies and one would think that sex education might play a part in this. However, policy makers and trainers should always resist any temptation to jump to conclusions. Even though teenage pregnancy has little to recommend it (the disadvantageous outcomes are well documented) it would be wrong to condemn all such pregnancies out of hand or dismiss them as avoidable accidents. Some teenagers make a conscious decision to become pregnant and can turn out to be good parents, despite getting off to a poor start. So perhaps sex education should learn one of the key lessons of evaluation, which is to identify those who need the training most and then tailor provision to their specific needs? Certainly the latest statistics (seven years after the DfEE guidance was published) show that the UK still has the undesirable reputation of the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe (Population Action International, October 2007) so can there be any harm in trying new approaches?

"Some things will always happen by chance, or even by accident, but training should endeavour to make things happen by design."

Of course, we all know that training is often just one part of a very complex equation. When teenagers come home from their sex and relationship education they switch on the TV or read a magazine that sends out some very seductive and conflicting signals about 'normal' sexual behaviour. Their peers, family, neighbourhood and a multitude of other factors all influence their thinking.

So what are the general principles that evaluation should encourage all trainers to follow in order to make training as effective as possible? Here are a few of the key lessons:

  • Evaluation demands that we should always have crystal clear, measurable, organisational objectives right at the beginning of any training activity
  • Despite being tempted to see all 'trainees' as homogeneous we should view everyone as a unique 'trainee'
  • There is little point running training programmes that are detached from all of the other extraneous factors that influence behaviour
  • Some things will always happen by chance, or even by accident, but training should endeavour to make things happen by design
  • Whether you are training in customer service, management development, interpersonal skills or whatever, 'training' only becomes training when it is applied and the evidence is clear that it is working. Everything else is just wishful thinking.

    Paul Kearns is the author of the CIPD's best selling 'Evaluating the ROI from Learning'. Visit www.paulkearns.co.uk

    Click on the title to read Paul Kearn's feature Real evaluation transforms organisations

    To read Paul Kearns series The 21st Century learning professional, click on the titles below:

    A serious case of mis-diagnosis?

    It's the system, stupid

    Being strategic

    Training isn't learning

    Putting evidence in the dock

    Let battle commence

    You can also join Paul Kearn's by signing up to the training professional's Oath


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