Building Learning Environments without Fragmentation

Lauro Silva / June 02, 2022

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These are my notes from the book Ten Steps to Complex Learning. I explain the difference between two distinct approaches to learning and designing educational resources, the Atomistic Model and the Holistic Model.

Although the book provides a deep understanding of instructional design theory, the following are my notes within the context of creating high-quality learning products for developers.

The Transfer Paradox

You've probably experienced this: binge-watching a web development course and then not being able to apply that knowledge at work, to actual real-life problems that require a deep understanding of additional complexities. That experience is called Low Transfer of Learning.

Low Transfer of Learning is the gap between educational resources and the application of knowledge and complex skills.

How do we bridge the gap between educational resources and real-life application?

That's the essence of Ten Steps to Complex Learning.

One explanation for a low transfer of learning is fragmentation. When teaching problem-solving, reasoning, and decision-making, we simplify complex domains by fragmenting them into small pieces and then into even smaller pieces. Then teaching piece by piece.

We can call this approach the Atomistic Model.

The Atomistic Model

Take learning web development, for example. We tend to break down the discipline into sections, e.g., frontend development, and then we take that section and split it into smaller units, e.g., JavaScript, CSS, HTML, etc. And then we take that and split it up into even smaller pieces, e.g., Syntax and Basic Constructs, DOM Manipulation, etc. the laundry list of concepts goes on and on.

This is basically creating a massive checklist for yourself. Now suppose you've gone through all those concepts individually; after some time, you could say, "now I know everything about this domain because I have checked off each concept." True, you have acquired specific knowledge to perform the familiar aspects of a task, but have not acquired the necessary general or abstract knowledge to deal with the unfamiliar aspects of those tasks. Software development is more then just a laundry list of concepts.

The Atomistic Model is enticing yet ineffective when building cognitive schemas that require you to apply the things you have learned to new complex situations.

This approach works very well if there are few interactions between those elements but often fails when the elements are closely interrelated.

The whole is much more than the sum of its separate parts

That's true in software development as in other disciplines.

The Atomistic Model is one of the reasons why I don't recommend following “road maps” for learning web development or creating educational resources that follow this approach of fragmentation.

The Holistic Model

Any professional developer has highly developed cognitive and technical skills, a deep knowledge of the work domain, a view of the bigger picture, and a good understanding of the software's interconnected pieces and the people who collaborate on the software. In other words, these different aspects of professional competencies cannot be compartmentalized into atomistic domains of learning.

An alternative approach to learning is the Holistic Model. The Holistic Model focuses on the whole. It focuses on the separate pieces, but it also focuses on the relationship between the pieces.

The Holistic Model teaches from simple wholes to complex whole, keeping the real-world complexity as part of the learner experience. This approach yields a higher level of transfer.

You can apply the Holistic Model to learning as well as creating educational resources.

Want to learn web development? Ship end-to-end applications and expose yourself to the full complexity that comes with shipping software.

Want to create high-quality educational resources for developers? Show learners how to build end-to-end software without abstracting away the complexity.