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Is Kirkpatrick’s Training Evaluation Model Really Kirkpatrick’s?

There's evidence that Donald Kirkpatrick lifted the basis for his well-known 4-level training evaluation from someone else. Should we care?

A week or so ago, Shannon Tipton posted a link to this article on the Learning Rebels Facebook page: Donald Kirkpatrick was NOT the Originator of the Four-Level Model of Learning Evaluation.

It’s interesting food for thought and I encourage you to read the article in its entirety. The bottom line of the article is that Donald Kirkpatrick based his 4-level training evaluation model on the work of someone else, but save for one article written many, many years ago, he never credited the other individual.

At the end, the article’s author, Will Thalheimer (who does an amazing job debunking common learning myths), asks: Knowing now that this model is not an original thought or work product, what should workplace learning professionals do when referring to this model? What’s ethical?

Personally, I don’t think I’ll change how I talk about the model all that much, but I do wonder what the bigger point of this seemingly academic argument could be.  

After reading through Will Thalheimer’s article, I was struck by two thoughts:

1. Credit should go where credit is due.

On the one hand, it seems pretty unethical that Kirkpatrick would base his model off the work of someone else without offering ongoing credit, or at least giving a shout out from time to time.

On the other hand, Kirkpatrick’s model isn’t a prescriptive, step-by-step process (as the other individual’s work appeared to be) and without Kirkpatrick constantly writing and developing a whole business around his 4-level model, people could be going around to this day thinking that post-training evaluations are the be-all-and-end-all of training measurement.

It’s a fun fact to know there was someone named Raymond Katzell who once wrote about 4 different steps to evaluating the effectiveness of training. And I’m sure there were many others who also found similar ways to evaluate training. As my father once told me when I asked him to borrow a lesson plan he’d written: there are no new ideas, only recycled ones.

All this said, training professionals should take care in how smarmy they get when dropping the name of the person who “originated” the 4-level training model. While Kirkpatrick is the big name associated with it, keep in mind that it was built upon Katzell’s work.

2. Very few people outside of learning and development care who Donald Kirkpatrick is.

Yes I suggested that training professionals can be smarmy. While it is important to give credit where credit is due, I’ve never, ever found anyone in any audience who cared about the name Donald Kirkpatrick (or Malcolm Knowles or Jane Vella or Paulo Freire or Robert Gagne or Benjamin Bloom for that matter).

I certainly appreciate all that these thought leaders have done for the professional development trade, and it’s important that anyone in the learning field is familiar with their work (among many others). We should, however, spend as little time as possible talking about them, and as much time as possible talking about how their work can make real-world differences.

If you really want to have an impact in your training room with the concept of giving credit where credit is due, then be sure to leave space in your next lesson for participants to discuss their own ideas and share their own success stories. Highlight success stories and credit those participants in your training room with examples that illustrate how your content can come to life and lead to amazing things. After all, as Jane Vella wrote in her book Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, “adults have enough life experience to be in dialogue with any teacher about any subject and will learn new knowledge, attitudes, or skills best in relation to that life experience (Knowles, 1970).”

Here’s my question for you: As a training professional, how much learning theory do our participants need, and when does academic name dropping cross the line into nerdy, “inside baseball” type of filler that is just distracting to our participants?


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