Ends and means

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once imagined a spreadsheet with a difference — you put in the answer you wanted, and the software manipulated your input to make it fit the result.

Coturnix at A Blog around the Clock links to news that the Alaska state legislature apparently takes Adams seriously. According to the Anchorage Daily News,

The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon — researchers just have to fill in the science part.

A $2 million program funded with little debate by the Legislature last month calls for using state money to fund an “academic based” conference that highlights contrarian scientific research on global warming.

…But the point is not to seek some non-biased measure of scientific truth. The point, said [Speaker of the House John] Harris, is to provide a forum for scientists whose views back Alaska’s interests.

“You know as well as I do that scientists are like lawyers,” Harris said.

For some reason, this reminds me of debates within large organizations about the role of training, as well as the role of training versus learning.

A few of the above?At some level, we know that contact hours don’t always have much to do with learning — more often, they measure nothing more than time spent sitting. At the same time we know that people need to spend time working with new information in order to integrate it and apply it.

In the world of what gets counted, counts, it’s easy to turn toward familiar concepts and measurements we recognize. Hence the overwhelming sway of multiple-guess questions, when outside of the driver’s license exams, so little day-to-day work involves A, B, C, D, all of the above, or none of the above.

I think it’s helpful to think of measurement and assessment, related but distinct concepts. What we measure should related to what’s important for the result we seek. That’s part of Thomas Gilbert’s framework: we measure in terms of quality, quantity, or cost.

Measurement is nonjudgmental: you measure your weight in pounds or kilograms. Assessment is the comparison of the result of measurement to some standard: you weigh 230 pounds, and for your height of 5 foot 2, you’re seriously overweight.

Angus MacAskill weighed 425 pounds (a measurement), which sounds pretty heavy (an assessment) until you recall he was 7 foot 9 inches tall (leading to a revised assessment).

I’ve believed for a long time that any effective learning starts with some idea of the result you want to achieve (e.g., a particular skill you want to acquire), which then guides how you select ways to achieve that skills and processes you can use to deetermine your progress toward your goal. This is a different frame of mind from “let’s have a bunch of courses.” The ends don’t justify the means, but they help you make rational choices about them.

Multiple-choice photo by Leia Schofield.