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Needs Assessment Information
(Wants determine needs)

March 19, 2014

Dr. Bob Kizlik

Although the 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, let’s 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

http://nnlm.gov/ner/nesl/9410/tol.html
http://www.ed.gov/pubs/Idea_Planning/Step_2.html
http://mime1.marc.gatech.edu/MM_Tools/NAM.html
http://eric-web.tc.columbia.edu/admin_finance/strategic/ch2.html
http://www.joe.org/joe/2002august/a4.shtml
http://www.mtsu.edu/~itconf/proceed98/rstewart.html
http://www.coshrc.org/webproject/framework.htm
http://www.drtomkelly.com/sys_chg.htm

I will add additional links and resources to this page on ADPRIMA and ADPRIMAX as appropriate.

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Robert Kizlik & Associates

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