phrase somehow doesn't make sense, needs assessment is a process that has
been, and continues to be used throughout education, government,
and the private sector as a way of generating information that can be useful for
solving some problem. The idea of needs assessment is hardly new; it has been
used, under different names, for millennia as part of the planning process.
Certainly, in the past 50 years or so, needs assessment has been, and continues
to be, a cornerstone of educational planning at all levels. Personally, I think
a better way to state this is to say something like "educational needs
description," or perhaps "educational needs definition." I don't think
in terms of the way assessment is described on my site (click
here for the page), that the vast amount of information regarding this
process and that is available on the Internet is assessment at all.
A recent search for information on "needs assessment" using Google as a
search engine, yielded some 413,000 references. Many of the sites offer very
detailed descriptions of what needs assessment "is" and the steps required to
undertake one. The purpose of this page on ADPRIMA is to distill much of this
into a practical, straightforward description of the fundamental ideas of needs
assessment. With that in mind, letís begin.
Needs vs. Wants
It seems reasonable to assert that wants trump needs. This is an opinion, but
I think it is fundamental to the entire process. I suppose it comes down to a
way of perceiving how meaning is derived from our choice and use of words and
phrases. Here is how I see it.
We "need" things because of our wants. The things we need are comprised of
physical objects such as food and shelter, as well as processes, such as root
canals and haircuts. We also have come to "need" information such as the percent
of students scoring at a particular level, or the total of charitable deductions
for income tax purposes. As human beings, we also have emotional and
psychological needs. Regardless of what we deem to be needs, they are all
incontrovertibly linked directly to our wants. We need things either to happen
or not happen because of what we want. We need certain conditions because of our
wants. Abraham Maslow, (1908-1970) described the hierarchy of needs (being and
deficit) that all humans strive to satisfy or to ameliorate. Regardless, the
position here is that based on our wants, if something is "needed," it means we
must have it, must get it, must obtain it. It is not a difficult concept. In
some cases, such as the deficit needs described by Maslow, in order to obtain
what we want, we may actually "need" less of something.
Wants are sort of a priori transactions. We want one thing or one condition
or another simply because we do. Our wants do not necessarily have to be
justified. I want a red car, because I like red. I want to finish a report
because it is important. Regardless of what our wants are, and they can be, to
an outside observer, quite irrelevant or very important, our wants provide the
criteria for determining what we need in order to satisfy them.
Wants are Like Goals
We want what we want, and yet there are many things or conditions we want
that are beyond our ability to have. In the early 1960s, then President John
Kennedy proclaimed that the United States was committed, before the end of the
decade, to "sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
What he was describing was a want, not a need. What was needed to accomplish
that goal involved an enormous commitment of human and capital resources over a
period from 1961 to 1969 when Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11
splashed down in the ocean. Our goal had been reached, and what was needed to
reach it was documented, refined, and improved, whether these needs were
physical, human, or the development and implementation of procedures.
However, if President Kennedy has said that the goal was to send a man to
Mars and return him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade, the goal would
have been by no small stretch of the imagination, impossible.
PERT is not Necessarily Shampoo
The Polaris submarine program that was developed in the 1950s presented such
enormous coordination and scheduling problems that a whole new way of operating
in such a complex environment had to be invented. One of the inventions that
resulted from this program was PERT, or Program Review and Evaluation Technique.
PERT became a popular and highly effective way to manage complex projects, but
at its core is the idea of determining what is "needed" in order to accomplish a
particular project or purpose. At one time I conducted workshops for educators
in how to use PERT and CPM (Critical Path Method) techniques for educational
planning. In essence what I was doing was helping teachers and administrators in
the workshop to do sophisticated needs assessments. PERT is not for everyone,
but I will say that the structural demands and analytical thinking involved are
excellent for any type of formal or even informal "needs assessments" as are
typically done by thousands of educators and committees each year.
Needs Assessment Internet Resources
Below are links to sites that I think have useful information on needs
assessment. As you will see, there is a fair amount of discord in the
descriptions of what to do. That is not necessarily a bad thing.
Just remember, any needs assessment is really nothing more than an organized,
systematic way to gather information relative to some goal. It is the quality
and attainability of the goal that sets the stage for everything. If you have
any questions, please let me know. Email