Complex learning, step by step

This entry is part 1 of 21 in the series Ten Steps to Complex Learning (the book).

I’ve been (slowly) reading Ten Steps to Complex Learning, by Jeroen J. G. van Merriënboer and Paul A. Kirschner.  The subtitle explains why: A Systematic Approach to Four-Component Instructional Design.

I read a lot about the death of instructional design, the end of training, and the New Jerusalem of learning that’s due any day.  Certainly a lot of superstition and nonsense gets daubed with the label “instructional design,” like a kind of cognitive Clearasil.  Still, I can’t help think that few people are going to learn to manage power-generation stations, conduct clinical trials, sell aircraft engines, or produce FEMA-acceptable flood elevation certificates solely through self-guided learning.

So I decided to plow through this book, which I’ve described with a bit of humor as being written in a language very much like English: the prose is dense, and very academic.  So far it’s worth the effort, and I’m going to summarize key parts here.

(Key part: something I pay enough attention to that I make a note on paper as I’m reading.  This is an ancient custom among my people.)

Van Merriënboer and Kirschner aren’t shy:

The fundamental problem facing the field of instructional design these days is the inability of education and training to achieve transfer of learning.

Which is something like AIG not being able to actually insure anything, isn’t it?

One point the authors make is that most complex skills require the learner to coordinate from a range of “qualitatively different constituent skills.”  That last phrase is important to them: not only is the whole of a complex task more than its parts, but the constituent skills are not parts of the larger task but aspects of it.  They’re not sub-skills, which you add together to make up the Big Skill.

Which, they argue, makes the analytic approach of many traditional instructional design approaches counter-productive.  For example, what they call the transfer paradox comes into play: the instructional methods that work best for isolated objectives often work poorly for integrated objectives.

To make that plainer: we spend too much time fiddling around with nice, clear, low-level objectives.  Then we lack time and money (and, perhaps, the will) to develop integrated learning.  Then we wonder why the training/learning function has such a dismal reputation.

But those isolated ones are what we tend to grab onto, because it’s easier to design around them, easier to create test items, and easier to cram them into an LMS (“Lessons Mean Simplicity”).

Learning to use the Amtrak reservation system is a complicated task, but maybe not all that complex.  Learning to act on traveler’s questions is also complicated.  Developing training for either set of skills is inherently less difficult than developing holistic training for an effective Amtrak reservation agent–but that’s what Amtrak’s really looking for.

The usual answer to the problem often seems to be “watchful waiting.” The performers go from training to the job, and we hope that their random encounters with reality end up filling the gaps.

Van Merriënboer and Kirschner want to grapple directly with such complex learning problems.  The model they advocate sees four main components to a learning blueprint:

  • The learning tasks that someone needs to master.  (Strictly speaking, I’d say these are the on-the-job tasks which the person currently doesn’t know how to do, but it’s not my model.)
  • The supportive information that comes into play when you’re working with skills that are performed differently from problem to problem.  These skills, which they call schema-based, benefit from things like mental models of the overall domain (e.g., pharma research) and cognitive strategies for working in that domain.
  • The procedural information that guides those skills that are performed the same way from problem to problem.  This is the how-to knowledge (e.g., using the clinical trials database) that’s a routine part of the overall task.
  • Part-task practice to strengthen and automate certain “recurrent constituent skills.”

Van Merriënboer and Kirschner argue that people can only perform certain constituent skills (which are aspects of the larger task, remember) if those people have a certain level of knowledge about the larger domain.  “Select an appropriate database,” as they point out, doesn’t make any sense if you don’t know what makes databases appropriate to the search you’d like to perform.

To foster integration and avoid compartmentalization, their model includes an emphasis on inductive learning: you as the learner work with specific problems so you build and improve mental models for the principles behind those specific problems.

…all learning tasks [should] differ from each other on all dimensions that also differ in the real world, such as the context…in which the task is performed, the way in which the task is presented, the saliency of the defining characteristics, and so forth.  This allows the learners to abstract more general information from the details of each single task.

That’s how we learn a great deal of what we know.  And, yes, a good deal of that happens informally, though I don’t see that as an argument for not trying to create learning situations when the informal can happen more predictably and more rapidly.

Related to this idea, the authors advocate always having learners work with whole tasks.  That might mean starting with simple cases or examples.  Other approaches include providing support (say, a process overview for the clinical-trial system) and guidance (a job aid for forming database queries).  They also make use of task classes, by which they mean categories of tasks.  In their ongoing database-query example, one task class has to do with performing searches when the concepts are clear, the keywords are in a specific database, when the search involves few terms, and where the result includes only a limited number of articles.

I’d call that the “clear, simple search” class.

You can imagine the other extreme: a poorly phrased request involving unclear concepts, with little knowledge of the appropriate databases, calling for complex search queries and producing large numbers of relevant articles which require further analysis.

How many task classes do you need?  That seems to depend on the range of variation between the Clear Simple Search class and the Nightmare Search class.

There’s a lot more going on; without intending to, I guess I’m starting another series.



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33 thoughts on “Complex learning, step by step

  1. “We hope that their random encounters with reality end up filling the gaps.”

    This may be where we need to consider creating richer contexts. More of a case-study approach using actual cases.

    For instance – instead of just training the reservation system – put the reservation system in the context of an actual encounter. Incorporate customer service questions + the nuts and bolts of using the application.

    So much application training is “here’s how you click the buttons.” But there are processes and resources and people things surrounding the use of the tool.

    Providing that context makes the tool make more sense during the training – and may help fill in some of the gap.

    Though we will never fully replace the effectiveness of reality.

  2. Wendy, we’re on the same page. One point van Merriënboer and Kirschner make (I may start calling them vM & K) is that a lot of instructional design has tended to break down complex tasks into a cluster of subtasks, then focus on the subtasks. One thing that gets lost is context.

    Your reservation examples are good, and they could incorporate even the essential practice elements for rule-based skills. For example, passengers often ask about the schedule from point A to point B. One way to vary the input (help strengthen the schema) is to phrase the request in different ways: “How long does it take?…I’d like to go… Is there a train?… What time can I leave for…?” One way to build the skill of reading the system display (a rule-based skill) is to include origin/destination pairs that involve one or more connections, or more than one train on a route without connections.

    (“How long does it take to go from Boston to Seattle?” involves at least two connections; “Is there a train from Philadelphia to New York that will get me there by 2?” involves several possible trains without any connection.)

    Another point–one I want to come back to in a future post–is that the instructional strategies for rule-based skills are different from those for schema-based skills. So the immersive environment by itself isn’t going to address those rule-based skills well; you’ve got to make that happen It’s like learning a foreign language: you need to spend time using it in rich contexts (talking with native speakers, reading in that language, watching movies); you also need to study grammar, because it’s a lot harder to derive the forms of verbs just from context.

  3. Dave – great conversation starter! I struggle with this type of training for complex management tasks in our retail environment every day. I am looking forward to a great series from you on this topic.

    I agree with Wendy that perhaps we should be focusing our energy on designing the range of classes from Clear Simple Search to Nightmare Search. I have been leaning toward short, powerful context-based situational experiences for the learners. Many of these have been role-based, but we are not restricted to such role plays. My thought at this time is to put the supportive and procedural information as links to books, articles, videos, etc. that explain the management theory and practice and to focus my efforts on designing the “classes” probably starting with the Clear Simple Search first.

    Any feedback on this approach would be helpful! Thanks again for starting a GREAT conversation!

    John “Zed” Zurovchak

  4. John: I’d read an earlier, syntactically dense paper by vM & B; I had to make notes as I went along, because I kept getting lost. This book is a significant improvement, though it wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of a beach read. I hope I can do it justice.

    I’m still not sure I understand how constituent skills are “aspects” of the larger task rather than “subtasks,” except for the central idea that the subtasks on their own don’t simply add up to the larger task. I was stuck on task classes, too, until I understood the Clear Simple Search and Nightmare Search as the extremes of a spectrum. vM&K seem to imply that you look at that spectrum and make some judgments about what would be intermediate points of sufficient importance to justify another task class (and thus more exercises, activities, etc.).

    It also seems clear to me, though I haven’t said so, that I don’t see all this stuff happening in formal, classroom-style environments. I wouldn’t rule those out, mind you, but here on earth you’ll have to consider costs and benefits. vM & K view the Ten Steps as an instructional design model that you’d typically use “to develop training programs of substantial duration…several weeks to several years.”

    “Several weeks” is enough to make some people blanch–but you’re not going to have the basic ability to use Amtrak’s reservation system without 20 – 30 hours of hands-on instruction plus additional, on-the-job practice. When you combine those essentially rule-based computer interactions with knowledge of routes, customer service skills, accounting requirements, and so on, then, yes, you do have several weeks. People just aren’t spending those weeks in a classroom setting, and the challenge to instructional designers (and to management) is to provide people with the best tools and the best learning opportunities so they can acquire the integrated skills as efficiently as possible.

  5. Awesome stuff Dave. Two thoughts immediately came to mind:

    John Carroll — so much of this reminds me of his research on software tasks: moving from the specific to the general, having a variety of cases, and helping students see the forest for the trees by giving them the big picture.

    Siebel Call Center Training — in a former life, I was an expert in Siebel and PeopleSoft and consequently built a lot CBT, WBT, simulations, and the like to support these sort of initiatives. One time I was doing a consulting gig for a large company and was asked to review their existing training which wasn’t working.

    The basic gist was that they were giving folks all sorts of time with systems training, and a decent chunk of time with phone skills and conversation trees and all that, but (and it’s a big ‘ol but), they never put them together. So the first time that the new hire was actually trying to use the system *while* having a conversation was live with a customer. Talk about trial by fire.

    What they wanted were compassionate, efficient, and knowledgeable call center reps. What they developed were call center reps who could use software well *or* have a cordial and fluid conversation. When employees tried to marry these skills on the job, it was a mess.

    This seems like it goes to the heart of the argument you raise about “integrated learning.” They trained the pieces parts perfectly. They had nice clean objectives, but in the end no one could do the work, because they assumed integration of these skills would happen on their own (magic? fairy dust?). Once they started training integration skills and giving people time to practice these skills, overall performance shot up. Shocking, I know.

    Needless to say, I think the book you are reading is spot on. Thanks for sharing and for the Cliff Notes version.

  6. Dave, you could probably start a very successful consultancy with pixie dust, as long as you called it something very contemporary like “Open Source Learning 2.0.”

    I have no doubt there is something of “art” in all complex skills, by which I mean that some people seem to integrate the elements more readily. But that’s a lot like Philip Henslowe (the historical character played by Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love) saying, “It all comes together. Nobody knows how.” Henslowe didn’t mean you could throw just any gang of people together and come up with Romeo and Juliet — or even Ethel, the Pirate King’s Daughter.

    This could be a long haul — I’ve read about 1/10 of the book, and had to prune my comments or no one would read them.

  7. Dave, you are providing a valuable service to ISD here. I started reading about 4CID many years ago and found it interesting but was never able to integrate it into my work. You’d think that vM&K would be able to find a better editor, in order to get their point across.

  8. Looking forward to the other 9/10s, Dave. Like Harold, I struggled with 4CID, and ultimately chose to look at patterns design and language (Christopher Alexander etc.) instead as a way to cope with complex learning. I’m glad you are offering a chance to revisit.

  9. Dave, great stuff. I’ve not read the book, but a paper and a presentation, and I cite Van Merrienboer in my book. (And reading academic prose builds character, as if you aren’t enough of one.)

    I agree it’s not for designing the formal classroom, in fact I think it argues strongly for games, er, immersive learning simulations (hence, the cite). My simplified version of their work is my focus on ‘decisions’ that people need to be able to make, not the knowledge. And that bit you quote about changing contexts is very much a point I make (e.g. my recent Broken ID series), covering all corners of the transfer ‘space’.

    As with others, I greatly appreciate you doing this!

  10. Harold: I don’t know either author, other than an article on 4C/ID that van M published in a 2002 issue of Educational Technology Research and Development (vol. 50, number 2). I’m finding Ten Steps both more thoroughly developed and clearer.

    I had a lot of downtime today, waiting with a relative at various medical facilities, so finished the three chapters. This slow pace of my own is helping me follow the overall argument.

    Shanta: the bulk of the book devotes one chapter to each of the ten steps, but there’s a useful organizing structure that will probably be my next post in this series. I found lots of stuff clicking into place. (For the 34 pages I’ve read, I have 13 pages of handwritten notes.)

    Clark: you’re right about the decisions, not the knowledge, I think. One statement I noted verbatim:

    “Learners should not invest all their cognitive resources in performing the task [meaning, while learning], but should also invest sufficient mental efforts in genuine learning, that is, schema construction and rule automation.”

    Why? Because those things are required for transfer to occur. In other words, they’re arguing that for the complex tasks that the Ten Steps address, transfer to the job won’t happen if people don’t build mental models for the domain in question and don’t develop fluency with using rule-based skills.

    To all who have commented:
    I’m genuinely surprised and a little nonplussed by your enthusiasm. Reading the book was something I chose to do; writing about it was one way for me to work at understanding it. I had no idea anyone would be half as interested as you have been.

  11. I can’t help relating your discussion of complex learning to what I did for much of my career. I taught writing to students who weren’t in college to learn to write. Some teachers, especially those who were poor writers themselves, wanted me to teach grammar – to students who had been thoroughly taught that they couldn’t write during their previous 12 years of schooling.

    Instead, I tried to get the students to write something they cared about, did triage in figuring out what most interfered with their communicating by writing, and dealt with one or two most significant problems. Then I got them to share their writing with each other, because the worst reader is the person (usually a teacher)who already knows the content and is just looking for mistakes. Anyone learning to dance (or to write) in front of a critical audience is only performing, not communicating, and will, almost inevitable, stumble.

    Even weak grammar and poor spelling rarely prevents messages from getting through, (though it offends some who care more about perfection than communication). Not knowing what an audience needs to know first really blocks communication.

    You don’t get a much more complex learning task than writing, and piecemeal teaching only works with those who are already highly skilled.

  12. Joan, this is a great example. Writing’s a very complex task, and the average adult has integrated it so well — overlearned at least the basics — that the nuances have completely disappeared.

    A perfect example of the curse of knowledge.

    You can be brought back to earth quickly by trying too learn to write in another language, where the structures and patterns of your first language almost certainly get in the way.

    It seems to me that you focused on the whole task–writing a complete piece, whatever it was–and found simple instances of it to use.

    Anybody who thinks grammar rules are obvious should try explaining when to use articles, and when not (“my son is in college; my cousin’s in the hospital”).

  13. I find everyone complicating training, transfer of knowledge and practice. Is it really that difficult to achieve or are we trying to reinvent the wheel instead of building on best practices.

  14. Samina, I think helping people learn complex skills is complicated. Van Merriënboer and Kirschner mention jobs like controlling air traffic, conducting sophisticated research, diagnosing and repairing electronic equipment, and surgery.

    And my experience over decades of corporate and organization learning is that we’re not particularly good at:

    • Seeing the larger performance picture
    • Providing robust support
    • Committing to practices that actually support transfer

    Instead, I often see people committed to classroom-based, lecture-driven, event-focused “learning” that’s a workplace simulacrum of the dullest aspects of formal schooling.

  15. Dave, thanks for reminding me on LinkedIn of this great series. It will help clarify my thinking as I (slowly!) read the book. I’ve been taking notes using my voice recorder and now, at page 40, have several recordings ranging from “Great idea here where they say…” to “Good grief, what an unnecessarily complicated graphic.”

    So far, they haven’t addressed attitudes–it’s cognition all the way, something that gives me pause. But I’ve been a little obsessed with attitudes these days, because I’m designing activities for people who (often reluctantly) have to navigate tricky cross-cultural situations.

  16. Cathy:

    I appreciate your feedback. Your audio notes sound similar to my handwritten ones: I spent a lot of time trying to follow the main path, and that included wandering down several side roads.

    I did find an earlier version of vM&K’s graphic, but I thought it was far too abstract for my series. My hunch is that it means a lot to them, as a blueprint does to an architect or engineer. I settled for making a simplified one simply to put the steps in relation to each other:

    Offhand I don’t recall a lot about attitudes. As a Reform Behaviorist, I say that I do think attitudes exist; I just don’t know how to work with them directly. In a corporate or organizational setting, my first thought (formed as I write this) is that I’d focus on observable behavior and likely interpretations. “In situations like X, if you do Y, many Z-ians will think ‘ABC.’ “

  17. It’s clear that vM&K put a lot of thought into the graphic, and it began to make more sense as they broke down its many elements.

    Our concern with attitudes is more about how they drive the learners’ behavior (or lack of behavior!). As we analyze the capabilities needed for the job, we’re noticing how factors like rigidity and stereotyping impede performance. Whether these factors are stubborn personality traits or malleable attitudes isn’t totally clear. We also have to make learners aware of the beliefs that their own culture has put in their brains and recognize how those beliefs can affect how they feel about another culture and therefore affect their performance.

    So our training is aimed at challenging attitudes and self-talk as well as improving observable skills. We do this mostly by putting our scenario characters in challenging situations and having learners discuss how they got there and how they could get out. It involves lots of discussion & lots of going down the wrong branch and back again, but in its very stripped-down form it has a vague relation to vM&K’s model: We give them the concepts and big picture, give them a realistic challenge, & during or after the challenge point out the decisions taken and why they worked or didn’t work, with a fair amount of emphasis on how cultural beliefs and attitudes influenced the decisions. Rinse and repeat with less support.

  18. Cathy and Dave, a number of years ago I looked at attitudinal change (there’s a chapter in the L&D handbook. Putting different sources together, I came up with the following necessary steps:

    * One has to be made aware of one’s own values
    * Alternate value sets need to be presented, with an exploration of their consequent costs and benefits
    * The learner needs to commit to one
    * Finally, the learner needs to be supported in adopting any value change

    (My shorthand notes). I do believe that we can’t ignore attitudinal change (as well as ‘incentives’): people can actually know how to do what you need them to, but may not believe it’s right/worthwhile, etc.

  19. Cathy: yes, the detail in the vM&K graphic can make sense–in fact, they call their diagram a blueprint. I recall a similar graphic in their 4C/ID article some years back. They didn’t take the time to explain the graphic, and I wasn’t convinced it added all that much. It’s sort of like knowing the concepts behind the numbering of the interstate highway system: yeah, yeah, a 3-digit number beginning with an odd number goes into a city, not around it. That’s not all that useful when you’re on I-395 heading north from the Pentagon and wondering what lane you should be in if you want to go to Union Station.

    My Reform Behaviorist stance is a bit tongue in cheek. I absolutely agree that to the extent an attitude can hamper performance, the learner needs to experience situations in which that’s (likely to be) the case. The key word is experience, not “listen to sermons about.”

  20. Clark, no real disagreement from me.

    I do recall a customer service module, years ago, with a stated goal of people having “a positive attitude” toward the customer. In the long run, I suppose that’s the ideal. I think many people resist the implication that (a) they lack a positive attitude or that (b) they’ve got to adopt some mindset or they won’t be able to do a job.

    Maybe there’s some kind of analogy here. I could identify a cluster of external behaviors (greets customer, repeats/clarifies order, explains choices, provides correct product/service, answers questions) which could equate to a journeyman level of customer service. It’s not quite fake-it-till-you-make-it; it’s more a set of examples that say “here’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.”

    Most of the time, I suppose, the mastery level does involve a person’s adopting and internalizing certain values. I just tend to dial up my own resistance when someone’s telling me what I should believe.

  21. Dave, as far telling people what they should believe, I agree that won’t work. Which is why I want to expose them to what they *do* believe (people can be very unconscious of their attitudes and beliefs), then show them alternatives and the relative tradeoffs (good *and* bad) implicit, and have them choose what and how they want to be. (Then, of course, support them through the change, as commitment can not be enough in strong contextual cues for the old behavior.)

    If you do that right, you probably can get them to understand what behavior would be best for them to adopt ;). I think that, too often, we think they’ll do it the way we tell them, however, without thinking about their intentions and motivations.

    I reckon, as a deliberately provocative statement, that you could have a lot better outcomes by helping people understand what the organization believes rather than try to train them to do it in a particular way. If they get what is important and why, they probably can figure out how to do it in accordance. If you just try to tell them how to do it, even with best design, they can’t adapt it in accordance with the overarching principles (and most of what we need people to do is adapt under changing constraints).

    Great discussion!

  22. I can’t argue with any of that, Clark.

    At a neighborhood grocery in Paris, on vacation, I started to pick out a pear. The woman running the shop told me “Non, non!” then asked if I’d be eating it that day or the next. Then she picked out the pear.

    That’s the way it worked, at least at that shop, disconcerting as it might be for a pick-it-yourself American.

    In a different context, here’s how a former boss handled the usually-dreadful “diversity training” at GE:

    We’re in a tough competitive world. We need all the top talent we can find. So as a company we don’t want to discourage anyone from working for us because they don’t feel accepted due to things that don’t matter to us as a company.

    So we’re going to talk about certain workplace behaviors. Some of them are illegal, and people who engage in this behavior are breaking the law.

    Other behaviors that aren’t illegal are still contrary to our company policy. So we’ll talk about what the policies are and give examples of how certain behaviors can violate that policy.

    …Without saying so exactly, the approach was “if you act as though women shouldn’t be in certain jobs at GE, you’re hindering our ability to hire and retain the best people–and we have a problem with that.”

  23. This discussion about attitudes is fascinating. I’m working on a project for the Army right now in which some problematic cultural attitudes are enforced by the emotionally challenging situations that soldiers encounter on deployment.

    Like Clark and Dave, we’re not trying to tell people what they should believe. We’re just trying to get them to recognize what they believe, understand how it was influenced by their culture, and see how it’s contributing to their current emotional reaction. We want them to identify and manage it. Kind of hard to do when you’re 20 and getting shot at but it’s worth a try.

  24. “Recognize what they believe, understand how it was influenced by their culture.”

    I can’t help recalling a couple of lines from the Unitarian Jihad:

    Just because you believe it’s true doesn’t make it true.
    Just because your motives are pure doesn’t mean you are not doing harm.

  25. I admitt I haven’t read the book only the articles on 4C/ID and that I look forward to going through this whole site. What I have read so far, however, intuitively appears to be something that I can model a manufacturing training program after. I am however having difficulty relaying much of the jargon and verbage to the manufacturing environment. Being in the developmental stages of the training program intuitively I understand that our training environment will be simulator-based and that much of the training will have to be compartmentalized and what attracted me intitially was the part-task component on this model. Dave, can this model serve as the basis for designing an “on-boarding” program for new employees that integrates them fully into the company culture while training them in complex entry-level production jobs?

  26. Rey:

    That’s a good question. “Onboarding” has such a broad range that you may have to answer it within the context of your particular organization.

    Offhand, one component of onboarding is “how do I find out who’s where and which group does what?” Offhand I’d say that’s fairly straightforward, even if the answer shifts over time. A larger question is, “What do we make, for whom, and why?” There you might be able to apply the whole-task approach, at various levels of details, to help a new individual understand the company in terms of the needs of some of its current customers.

    There’s also the non-manufacturing part of the manufacturing organization. What I have in mind here is the kind of thing we had at GE: somebody’s building the turbines or the plastics or whatever, somebody’s out marketing them, somebody’s working to understand the needs of clients and communicate those to developers.

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