Complex learning (coffee on the side)

This entry is part 2 of 21 in the series Ten Steps to Complex Learning (the book).

Ten Steps to Complex Learning says that plans for such learning should always include the learning tasks, supportive information (for skills you apply differently from problem to problem), procedural information (for skills you apply the same way each time), and part-task practice for skills that demand a high level of automaticity.

Components: how you put complex learning together

The components work to integrate rather than compartmentalize skills, to coordinate the application of skills with associated knowledge and attitudes, and to differentiate between the methods that help people learn different kinds of tasks.

In his comment on the previous post in this series, Dave Wilkins talked about call center workers who could either use the software well, or connect well with customers, but not both–because their training never integrated the two.

That doesn’t mean you try to teach everything at once.  You can, and should, present realistic problems that start by presenting a simplified version of everything at once… a whole task with a great deal of scaffolding (as Van Merriënboer and Kirschner call it).

Coffee maker: procedural information; books: supportive information.“Whole task,” to me, doesn’t mean the entire job (Amtrak ticket agent, trauma center nurse, Starbuck’s store manager).  It’s a flexible term, like “relatives,”  and it makes sense in context. Even if, like me, you’ve never worked at a Starbuck’s, you can imagine some high-level whole tasks for the store manager:

  • Keep the store equipped and supplied.
  • Keep the store staffed.
  • Comply with company policies and procedures.
  • Serve customers.

Where to begin?  In one sense, it doesn’t matter. The Ten Steps model is systematic (there are inputs, processes, outputs; the outputs from one area become inputs to another) and systemic (activity in one part influences another).

Manage learning so they learn to manage

Here’s one way I see this in action: let’s say you begin with “keep the store staffed” tasks for that Starbuck’s manager-to-be.  Constituent tasks might include hiring, scheduling, training, and coaching.

(You’ve already noticed that training and coaching have connections to that “serve customers” cluster of tasks, and probably to the “comply with policies and procedures” one, haven’t you?)

I’m not going to do a whole store-manager analysis (unless Starbuck’s is dazzled by my insight); I’ve just chosen this as a complex learning problem. You can picture specifics in the “staff the store” area: identify staffing needs, recruit candidates, interview candidates, hire employees, train employees, schedule employees.  (Task analysis, by the way, is a prerequisite but lies outside the Ten Steps framework.  Can’t teach tasks if you don’t know what they are.)

How do staffing problems vary?

Simple learning problem with lots of scaffolding: “Carla is sick; she won’t be here at 2.” “Okay, let me check her shift and see who’s off today.”  Carla: 2 – 6.  Roster: Tomas, Junelle, and Van are off; Ben came in at 10 and leaves at 3; Paula comes in at 4.

That could be the beginning of a full case study (on paper, in video, whatever) about which the learner would answer questions or make judgments.  You add richness by pointing out that Carla is a barista, but Paula hasn’t yet learned to make all the drinks–so Paula can’t fill in for Carla.

A variation might include information about the skills of other people scheduled to work.  “Irene can make the drinks, and I’ll put Paula at the register.”

The most-difficult case is what vM&K call a conventional task: a situation and an outcome to reach, period.  Like, “The new store opens on the 15th.  Staff it.”

Example of supportive information: principles for asking (or telling) people to work overtime; guidance for offering extra hours.  You’d make these appropriate to what vM&K call the task class (a group of equivalent learning tasks with roughly the same level of difficulty).  You’d also present the supportive information ahead of time, because it interferes with on-the-job performance.

By contrast, procedural information is helpful when it’s just-in-time.  One definition of a job aid is “an on-the-job guide that tells you what to do and when to do it.”  Imagine a scheduling tool that displays hours per day and per week for each employee, so the manager could see at a glance that Jeff’s got too many hours to be a substitute for the ailing Carla.

As for part-task practice, you might want to strengthen the new manager’s ability to quickly and accurately track hours in the store’s scheduling and payrolls systems. That’s because applying rule-based procedures successfully strengthens the use of those procedures.

(Please don’t mistake these speculations as actual advice for training managers of coffee shops.  They’re hypothetical examples—like metaphors, but you can charge more.)

Meanwhile, back on the job…

Van Merriënboer and Kirschner say that the fundamental problem of instructional design is the failure to transfer learning to job performance.  The Ten Steps approach tries to avoid that failure in several ways:

  • Whole-task learning helps integrate skill, knowledge, and attitude, which means you’re more likely to connect a new situation to things you already know.
  • A progression from easy to difficult tasks builds your ability to coordinate the various skills, knowledge, and attitudes in context.  In the olden days, we talked about “increasing approximations of on-the-job behavior.”
  • Combining rule-based information (for skills you perform the same way each time) and schema-based information (for skills you apply in different ways each time) has a double effect:
    • Automaticity frees up cognitive resources.  You’re not analyzing individual letters or grammar structure as you read this post because your reading-text skills are automated.
    • A mental model  (a schema) helps you interpret new situations in terms of the structures you already know.

I can see myself doing that.Another benefit of using a schema: you learn to monitor and adjust your own performance.  When I was trying to learn CSS, time and again I’d try one of the problems in Head First HMTL (which, in case I haven’t said so this month, is a fantastic example of complex learning in action) only to have my solution fail.

But I’d made enough progress that I could study the problem and my code.  Eventually, I’d say “Ohh!” with a combination of insight and exasperation.  I saw what the mistake was, and I  connected the situation (what I wanted to do) with the solution.

Next time, I promise, I’ll start talking about the ten steps.  Be warned, though: vM&K fibbed in the title.

Though there are–theoretically–ten steps which could be followed in a specific order, in real-life instructional design projects, switches between those activities are common, yielding zigzag design behaviors.

To compensate, you’ll get a bonus learning theory at no extra cost.

CC-licensed “coffee learner” photo by Earl – What I Saw 2.0.
CC-licensed “self-awareness” photo by jasoneppink.

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4 thoughts on “Complex learning (coffee on the side)

  1. Dave;
    I like the twofold challenge you’ve taken on. First, to read van Merrienboer (no small task in itself!) and then to demystify him. I’m a big fan of his approach but he doesn’t make it easy on the reader. Thanks for the examples (the book could use a few more of those) The example task running through the book (literature search) was a little light, but i do return to the overview in the appendix often. Separating procedural and supportive information and designing around whole tasks are the best takeaways for me

    btw… my CSTD Canadian Learning Journal cam ein the mail today. Nice article. Thanks for the nod!

  2. Tom: regarding the difficulty of the book, I’ve never before had to insert my own commas into printed text in order to make sense of a ludicrously long sentence. (That’s not the only problem, but it’s a silly one to have to grapple with.)

    As you’ll see with the third post in the series, I need to make those examples; they’re my own “imitation task.”

    (My pace is pretty slow and unlikely to pick up. I have to accept that it’s the pace I have. When I asked someone about post length, she encouraged me to break longer ones in two if it made sense. I’m also not going to try to keep to a schedule for the schedule’s sake.)

    I think Ten Steps is a healthy counter to the myth that there’s no place for design in learning. I also think it’s a reminder that complex stuff is complex. You can simplify some things but you can’t make them simple.

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