ASK: How Benjamin Bloom Got It Backwards

Friday, June 20, 2014

In the late 1950s, educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom led the creation of a learning taxonomy that formed the foundation of what we do as trainers and learning professionals. His three domains of learning—cognitive, psychomotor, and affective—in later years, became popularized as knowledge, skill, and attitude (KSA).

Understanding KSA

The KSA model is nearly universal among trainers, and is at the heart of our developmental work. Indeed, KSA is not only a helpful acronym that reminds us of the focus of our efforts, it is also the way most of us have historically (mis)prioritized our activities.

But we’ve focused efforts too much on knowledge acquisition, not enough on skill development, and far, far less on addressing attitude. Indeed, we all know that when it comes to making an impact on organizational performance, skill development trumps knowledge accumulation.

While Sir Francis Bacon may have said that "knowledge is power," knowledge is useless when it's not used. And, while there is truth that knowledge empowers decision making, it is the skilled decision making that matters.

Attitude, on the other hand, is often the forgotten factor of learning. We can easily measure at least short-term knowledge gains through pre- and post-testing. And we can validate skill development through behavior change on the job.

But, how do we measure changes in attitude? It's a much more complex process and as such, is largely overlooked under the guise of expediency.

Enter neuroscience

Recent discoveries in the neurosciences have revealed that attitude is of critical importance to learning and performance. Without the proper mindset for learning or skill-building, neither will occur. Our learners cannot develop new knowledge or skills without clearing an attitudinal pathway in their brains first.

Whether it is stimulated by an individual learner's intrinsic motivation to learn, the atmosphere of the learning environment, the compelling nature of the content or learning interactions, or the engaging facilitation of a trainer, the limbic system—the emotional center of the brain—is the gatekeeper of both memory and higher-order thinking.


And the amygdala, at its very center, is the regulator of our initial response to incoming stimuli, motivating us to either take action or tune out.

Pivoting to ASK

Now, if skill is more important than knowledge, and attitude is more important than skill, why do we continue to short-hand what we do as KSA? Why do we continue to peddle a model of learning that, by order of sequence, if not priority, gives knowledge (aka content) primacy and leaves Attitude a mere afterthought?

Perhaps, it's time to make a simple switcheroo in the language of what we do and shift attitude from training afterthought to learning asset.

By simply pivoting KSA 180-degrees, our outdated acronym becomes a real word with multiple layers of meaning. Our new acronym—ASK—more accurately describes what we, as training professionals, should be doing, in the order in which we need to do it, during training design and delivery.

With attitude in the top spot, we are forced to consider our learners' motivations and the emotional baggage that they might be bringing with them to the learning experience. And while you might not be able to train them a new brain and change their hearts through content alone, with a few simple tweaks to your approach, you absolutely can get them to pay attention, take an interest, open up, and get involved—as long as you begin with the brain in mind when you design.

ASK outcomes

As you deliver, strive hard to embrace a more facilitative and inclusive style of instruction. In fact, starting your sessions with challenging questions, engaging stories, or shocking but non-threatening facts, rather than with an overview of objectives and the ubiquitous agenda review, you'll help learners drop their defenses and engage with the content while reconnecting with prior experiences. This will strengthen neural pathways and increase long-term retention and speed of recognition and recall.

By engaging the participants in a thought-provoking, supportive, and conversational way, you will create a culture of trust in the classroom where they will feel much more comfortable opening their minds and sharing their ideas with each other, thus enabling you to engage them with a more learner-centered and self-directed style.

Rather than fight through the emotional baggage they brought to class with them, your training, while seemingly starting slower (because you're not jumping right to the content anymore), will actually proceed with much less resistance, allowing you to get results much more quickly!

More than merely an updated and re-prioritized acronym, ASK actually means something. It reminds us as facilitators of learning that we should be doing less talking and more listening and asking questions—and giving adult learners more control of the training outcomes.

About the Author
John Kissinger is the manager of franchise training for Domino’s Pizza. He has been at the forefront of the design and delivery of operations and leadership training programs at Domino’s for more 16 years, and a passionate advocate for the critical role that attitude, engagement, and emotion play in user adoption, learner retention, stakeholder alignment, and performance improvement throughout his career. John also is an American Business Award-winning trainer, and a graduate student in Instructional Technology at Wayne State University.
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