What Does the "A" in KSA Really Mean?


Bela Banathy uses attitudes in his book, Instructional Systems (1968, pp. 24-26). He writes, "We can say that the purpose of education is to impart specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes -- in other words, the purpose around which the system is to grow is instruction. On the other hand, we can propose that the purpose of education is to ensure the attainment of specified knowledge, skills, and attitudes -- thus, learning, is the purpose around which the system is to grow." He then goes on to propose that learning is the nucleus of a training or educational system rather than instruction. In the Department of Defense Handbook, Instructional System Development/ System Approach to Training and Education (part 2 of 5), (MIL-HDBK-29613-2A, 31 Oct 1988, pp. 50-52), knowledge, skills, and attitude are used. They even list the learning levels for attitude: Receiving, Responding, Valuing (Judgment), Competence, and Innovation (p. 52). Knowledge, skills, and attitudes relate directly to Bloom's Taxonomy: Cognitive, Affective, Psychomotor. See Approaches to Training and Development by Dugan Laird (1985, p. 107). The first taxonomy, cognitive, appeared in 1956 (Bloom). The second, affective, appeared in 1974 (Krathwohl). While the third, psychomotor, was published in 1972 (Harrow). In that same year, Robert Gagne ("Domains of Learning," Interchange 3, 1972, 1-8) developed five categories of learning: verbal information, intellectual skill, cognitive strategy, attitude, and motor skill. He argued that the mental processing required for the first three was different enough that there should be five, rather than three categories. Notice the intellectual skill in his five categories -- I will refer to this shortly as "intelligence." However, perhaps the first mention of tying the three (KSA) together is in Robert Gagne and others book, Psychological Principles in System Development, (1962). In chapter nine, "Concepts of Training", Meredith Crawford describes how the course objectives are dependent upon the accuracy of the determination of knowledge and skills. And as the training progresses, the learner forms attitudes about: 1. The training program 2. The knowledge and skills she is expected to acquire 3. The parent organization


I have several older books on learning and ISD as I am interested in their origins, while I only have a couple older books on performance. Robert Manger and Peter Pipe's book, Analyzing Performance Problems (1970) and Thomas Gilbert's Human Competence (1978), both considered classics by training and performance professionals, do not mention KSAs (or at least not that I could find). The reason I bring this up is that I believe attitude comes more from the learning side of our profession, while ability comes more from the performance side (more on this shortly). The Department of Energy handbook, A System Approach to Training, (DOE-HDBK-1078-94, Aug 1994), uses Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities. In Human Resource Development (2002), the Authors, Randy Desimone, Jon Werner, and David Harris, use "abilities" (p. 61-62). They define abilities as general capacities related to the performance of a set of tasks. They develop over time through the interaction of heredity and experience. While "skills" are similar to abilities but differ in that they combine abilities with capabilities that are developed as a result of training and experience. They go on to define knowledge as an understanding of factors or principles related to a particular subject. It seems to me that abilities are really the "informal" version of 'skills" -- sort of like informal learning and formal learning. So if we follow this line of reasoning, then rather than having just three, perhaps we should have four: knowledge (formal), intelligence (informal), abilities (informal), and skills (formal); or for short -- KIAS. In addition, the authors write (p. 60) that it is KSAs, attitudes, and motivation that influence employee behavior. Thus if we take the above one step further, then perhaps it should be knowledge (formal cognitive), intelligence (informal cognitive), abilities (informal psychomotor), skills (formal psychomotor), attitudes (formal affective), and motivation (informal affective); or for short -- KIASAM.

Attitude vs. Ability

In Training for a Rapidly Changing Workforce (1997), by Miguel Quinones and Addie Ehrenstein, they use "ability." However, they point out a distinction that should help us with our understanding of why the acronym has two different meanings. They distinguish between instructional objective and learning outcomes. (pp. 155-157). Instructional objectives act a link between the results of a needs assessment and the design of training. They describe the job performance required by the learners, thus perhaps ability, rather than attitude, makes more sense when used in this context. On the other hand, learning outcomes link the design of training to the selection of instructional strategies. They reflect the educational and training goals of the designers and are derived from the learning objectives. And when formulating instructional or learning strategies, you normally have refer to a taxonomy, such as Bloom, Krathwohl, and Harrow's Cognitive, Psychomotor, and Affective domains. Thus, attitude starts to make more sense when used in this context.


From my understanding, it seems that the "A" in KSA originally meant "attitude." It then became politically correct to use "ability" rather than "attitude" as it was deemed incorrect to change someone's attitude if they "behaved" correctly. While our profession was at one time almost completely dominated with "behaviorism," we now have far greater perspectives to draw from, thus we need to look beyond just behavior. For example, a present correct behavior does not always equal a correct future behavior, e.g. when speaking of safety, it is just as important to have the correct attitude as it is to have the correct knowledge and skills. That is, when I go to work in a warehouse full of heavy equipment, I want my fellow partners to display not only the correct behavior, but to also have an attitude towards safety. My ability to come home in one piece depends upon it! When viewing the "A" from the performance side of training, then perhaps "abilities" makes more sense. However, when viewing the "A" from the strategy side, then perhaps "attitude' works better.

1 comment:

jay said...

Yes, the point of the exercise is getting the job done. A specialist who looks at the strategy side or the learning side or any side without seeing the whole picture is not solving problems.

This will horrify the ISPI faithful, but I think Tom Gilbert's work set back our profession. People don't operate like rats or pigeons, so his behaviorist formulas simply do not apply.

Have a Merry Christmas, Don.