As some of you may know, I have spent a significant amount of my professional life teaching and consulting in southern Africa. During these past few weeks, with the Ebola outbreak threatening the African continent, I’ve become a bit reflective and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take few minutes and reflect on our careers as trainers and teachers.

In my mind, there is no greater career than that of a teacher. We can call ourselves by any label—trainer, professor, or instructor—but whatever label you prefer, we enjoy a privileged professional responsibility: to help shape the lives of the people around us.

So that got me to thinking. What is my goal as a teacher? In fact, what is the single aim of all teaching? After reflecting on this, I believe there is indeed a single best answer to this question. But before revealing my answer, let me give you a bit of context.

I earned my PhD in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and I have had the pleasure of working under a line of psychologists that includes B.F. Skinner, Dick Herrnstein, John Staddon, and Max Brill. Each of these researchers share the belief that learning and human behavior can be studied, it can be understood, and most importantly, it can be improved. I inherited from these scholars the optimism that we can arrange the environment within a family, within a company, or even within an entire society in a way that will motivate people to behave for the common good.

Working in Africa

In the year 2000, I won a Fulbright Fellowship to teach educational technology at the University of Zimbabwe. And in this role, I had the privilege and challenge of trying to apply the educational techniques to the challenge of HIV. As you may know, all of southern Africa is suffering under the modern world’s worst pandemic. Indeed, at its peak, more than 30% of Zimbabwean adults were infected with HIV. 

The early work against HIV in Africa assumed that education would be our greatest weapon. The underlying assumption was that if people know more, if they understand the risk factors, if they can recite the preventative techniques, then their behavior will change and they will be safe from HIV. Unfortunately, this assumption turned out to be untrue. International aid organizations deployed a massive training program and Zimbabwean children quickly could recite more facts about HIV than the average American. But in spite of this “increased knowledge,” the behavior of the Zimbabweans did not change.

This fact should not surprise you. Indeed, education per se has never been the fast-track technique to produce lasting behavior change in anyone. For example, teaching Americans about the risk of cigarette smoking or alcohol consumption has had little measurable effect on rates of consumption.

In a limited sense, our training program in Zimbabwe was successful: people knew a lot more. But in a more important sense it was a failure because people’s behavior had not changed and this had disastrous consequences. Between 2002 and 2006, the population in Zimbabwe decreased by four million people, life expectancy dropped from 61 to 48 years, and more than one million children had been orphaned as a result of parents dying from AIDS.

A new approach to training

Do not get me wrong. Training and education are important parts of a behavior change program. But it is not enough. To produce lasting behavior change, either in a culture or in a corporation, we need a new approach where training is a part of a comprehensive program that also includes assessment, coaching, social learning, and a booster training program that reinforces the messages cognitively, socially, and behaviorally.

In Africa, some of the most exciting and effective programs involve delivering behavior change messages through radio drama. For example the Tanzanian soap opera Twende na Wakati, or Let’s Go with the Times, provides compelling characters, dramatic storylines, and “social proof” messages where popular characters provide role models for designed behaviors.

According to Albert Bandura, this “social proof” is one of the most important factors that determines how people will behave. For example, you are most likely to give money to a street musician if the guy in front of you does so. In essence, he provides the social proof, and your actions follow. One of the best ways to get kids to overcome a fear of dogs is to show them social proof of other children happily interacting with dogs. The best of these social-proof programs are part of a comprehensive program that provides assessment, coaching, and follow-up training.

These programs have shown success. In Zimbabwe, the incidence of HIV declined by 50 percent between 2001 and 2011. Admittedly, this is partly due to depopulation among infected people. But it is also due to the concerted series of intervention programs that were specifically targeted to change critical, risk-laden behaviors.

The goal of all training

My experience in Zimbabwe taught me that there is really only one goal of training and that is behavior change. After hard experience, I finally realized that we did not want people just to know about safe sex, I wanted them to have sex safely. And now that I am back working with US corporations, I continue to believe that the only goal of training is to produce behavior change. After all, we do not want people just to learn about effective leadership, we want them to lead effectively. We do not want them to know about safety procedures, we want them to proceed safely. And finally, we do not want them to know about rules of compliance, we want them to comply with the rules.

Measuring our success

So how do we measure our success as trainers? In too many cases, we are “successful” if our learners like us, if they give our training program a high ranking, and if they score well on the post-training quiz. But this is not enough. As we saw last month, the fact that a learner likes our training does not predict whether or not they have learned anything. The fact that they can answer questions on a post-training quiz does not imply that they will retain anything. Most importantly, as we have seen this month, the fact that people retain information does not mean that their behavior is going to change.

Smiley faces on an evaluation are not enough! If you agree with me that behavior change is the ultimate goal of all training, then I challenge you to create training programs that define objectives in terms of specific behavior changes that you want to produce.

Digging deeper

  • If you would like to have your memory of this article reinforced, send an email to You will automatically receive a series of boosters on this article. The boosters take only seconds to complete, and they will profoundly increase your ability to recall the content of these articles.

  • This article will help you learn more about Zimbabwe’s HIV challenge.

  • If you’d like to know more about Bandura’s radio show, check out the article The Theory Heard ‘Round the World, published by the American Psychological Association. It is inspiring.

  • If you’re interested in a contemporary view of Skinnerian behaviorism, check out John Staddon’s updated The New Behaviorism.