Complex Learning Task

: The Holistic Approaches
The Whole-Task Approach
Our textbook, Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (Reiser & Dempsey, 2007), devotes much of Chapter 8 to holistic instructional design. How does this differ from other design methods? Many instructional design approaches are atomistic, where
?. . . complex contents and tasks are reduced into simpler elements? (p 73). This approach does not naturally lead to transfer of the skill set to the real world. A holistic approach, which takes a whole-task approach to a problem, allows and encourages students to ?. . . learn and transfer professional competences or complex cognitive skills to an increasingly varied set of real-world contexts and settings? (p 73).

Learning tasks that connect to a complex task is scaffolding. Without going back to an atomistic approach, students learn tasks, known as constituent skills, over several lessons. All of these constituent skills ?need to be coordinated and controlled by higher-level strategies from the beginning of the training program? (p 76). By creating learning opportunities for each constituent skill, the teacher will provide the learners with: ?. . . all possible conditions that simplify the performance of the task? (p 76).

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This approach stresses the ?transfer of learning? (p 76). It allows students to experience a ?variability of practice? as well as a ?random sequencing of learning tasks? (p 77). Also, when using this instructional design approach, common testing methods which have ?test items that correspond to objectives? (p 76) are not important.

The Question
Considering the definitions discussed above, application question #2 from Chapter 8 asks: ?Identify a complex learning task. Briefly describe how you might use the whole-task approach, scaffolding, and mathemagenic methods to help students learn to perform that task? (p 80).

The Complex Task
Making Geometry come alive for students is not a problem when they are engaged in my Geometric Cities project. Over a period of six weeks, students worked collaboratively to design, build, decorate, and describe their cities. Created to represent different geometric shapes, the colorful and textured buildings were sited on a plywood base. The buildings were made from geo foam boards or heavy duty cardboard boxes.

During the six weeks, students created a blue print of the city and a blue print of their own individual buildings. After the buildings were constructed, a history of the city had to be written. This complex task definitely had many constituent skills that have transfer value to other academic areas and real-world careers.

The Project
The Geometric Cities project was designed to be a cross-curricular project, using math, science, English, art, and woodworking. Technology was introduced to create the blueprints and research, using AutoCAD and wireless laptops.

Prior to beginning the actual project, the class learned about team building skills. They learned about how to work well in a group, including how to handle conflict, respect one another?s opinions, and focus on completing the task.

The project was designed to be completed using a group of three students, who have specific roles to fulfill. These roles included leader, secretary, and designer. Depending on what task the class was focusing on, the roles changed weekly, which met the ?variability of practice? (p 77) feature of the mathemagenic approach. The groups were formed based on learning styles, mixing different styles together. It was important to include a visual learner along with the other two students in each group, since the final visual impression of the geometric city was important.

To begin the project, the students viewed a video on polygons and how they are used in the real world. Students saw many examples of geometric shapes, such as the Louvre Museum?s new pyramid-shaped entrance and the Golden Gate Bridge.This video represented the knowledge base and the inspiration to approach the task. To determine whether they comprehended this knowledge, they had to design an actual building on paper. After verifying that students understood the nature of designing a building, they could begin constructing their individual buildings. These initial components aligned with scaffolding, since ?learners start their training with the simplest version of the whole task? (p 76).

Students were required to find the formulas that related to determining the surface area of their buildings? shapes. Each building could contain more than one shape, necessitating more than one formula. Additionally, they had to determine how to fit each building on the plywood board based on a scale that they determined. These formulas and scales were included in the final written report. Calculations such as these are part of the holistic, whole-task approach, since they give students the opportunity to ?deal with complexity without losing sight of the relationships among elements? (p 73)
From the blueprint development to the actual construction was about two ? three weeks. Construction included painting, gluing, landscaping, naming the city, buildings, and roads, and determining what kind of setting the city had (rural, industrial, or urban). This phase lasted about two weeks. The final week was for finishing touches and creating their written report.

At the end of week six, students gave a formal presentation of their cities in front of their classmates, parents, and mathematics faculty. Each city was evaluated by a school board member, and awards were given for unique design (individual building), the most accurate design, and the prettiest design.

This project was thoroughly enjoyed by the students, who gained a better understanding of the geometric concepts behind their work. Students liked working together and developed new friendships. To illustrate the transferability of the skills, two of my students decided to pursue careers in architectural design and several went into engineering, all prompted by this high school project.
Designing this type of project and including cross-curricular skills takes a bit of planning, a lot of patience, and a vision for what students can achieve when they are motivated and engaged in learning. The holistic design mirrors many real-world tasks through its constituent skills.

Reiser, R. & Dempsey, J. (2007). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology, (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.


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