The horse, apparently seeing the river for the first time, hesitates.

The rider dismounts and leads the horse to the water’s edge. The horse approaches, curious, then turns and repeats. Nearly a minute into the video the rider puts a foot in the water and splashes it in the river. The horse almost almost takes a drink, even appearing to lick the water. The rider wades out into the river. Finally, knee deep with his rider, the horse … splashes the water with his hoof. Again and again—and again. And some more. And still more. And then with both hooves. At least the drenched rider had a sense of humor about it all. I posted this video on Facebook with a heading about “learning” and someone commented, “But the horse didn’t drink the water.” 

To which I said: “The rider may have intended to teach the horse to drink. But she was really effective at teaching him to splash.”

This took me back to maybe the best lesson I ever learned about performance objectives, and the need to be very, very clear about what it is you’re trying to teach.

One summer afternoon my friend Jo left her son, five-year-old Max, in the care of his grandmother. While Max was napping Grandma found a dead rattlesnake in the yard and thought to herself, “This is a good time to teach Max about snakes.”

Her objective: “Max will understand about snakes.”

So when Max awoke from his nap Grandma took him outside and said: “See, Max, this is a rattlesnake. Some snakes are very dangerous so you must be careful if you are ever near one. They can be hard to see.” Grandma used a hoe to move the snake into some weeds and led a discussion about places snakes can hide. She then moved the snake onto a bed of pine straw, to show Max how the snake’s colors tended to blend with the setting. There ensued a conversation about how many animals have natural camouflage. Grandma talked about being careful when running around outside barefoot. She told Max about not bothering or teasing snakes, and she walked him around the yard discussing the need to take care when playing near places snakes might be found, like under fallen logs or on warm rocks.

At the end of Grandma’s lesson she said: “So, Max, do you understand about snakes?”

And Max looked up at her and said, “Oh, yes, Grandma. I love snakes.”

This wasn’t the outcome Grandma had in mind, but it is exactly what she taught Max: Snakes are interesting and snakes are mysterious and snakes spend their days sunning on warm rocks and snakes are excellent at hiding. What could be more appealing to a five-year-old boy? And Max? He’s an adult now—and he still loves snakes.

So: It seems so obvious and easy to avoid, but it’s a mistake that happens all the time. We lose sight of the objective and add in interesting bits, extraneous fun, nice-to-know. Or we spend time teaching the wrong skill. Or we get caught up in our own needs and interests and forget about the learner. Or sometimes, when a learner exhibits an unexpected skill or interest, we are dismayed because it’s not the thing we intended them to be skilled in or interested about.

Moral? Don’t be surprised when people (or horses) do what you teach them to do. “Understand,” as Max’s grandma learned, is not a very precise term. Adding interesting but extraneous information can take learners down a path you never intended. When you’re talking about designing performance solutions, be sure to ask yourself: When you lead the horse to water, do you want it to drink—or splash? 

Note: The “Max and the Snake” anecdote—which I promise is true—was first published in my book From Analysis to Evaluation (Wiley, 2008).