Novel approaches to sequences of learning

Liberating learners by breaking with tradition

Learners do not want disconnected information; they do not want mindless tasks; and they do not want to feel stupid.

They want excitement, challenge and satisfaction.

They are happy to work hard for the reward of achieving new goals, provided that the process motivates them.

For far too long, training courses have taken learners on boring journeys which require self-motivation, considerable stamina, and some suspension of disbelief.

Why? What have they done to deserve this drudgery? Where does the cause lie?

Course design

In many cases, the root cause lies in the design of the training course

Let’s be clear that we are not using the term “design” here in its frequently limited sense of visual or graphic design; we mean the design of the training process. The design of the course includes: the combination of information, tasks and feedback; the granularity of the content; and the environment, materials and tools provided for the learner.

In our view, the most important aspect of the design of a training course is the “disclosure sequence”: the sequence in which the topics of the subject are disclosed to the learner. This is the central issue on which all other aspects of the course design depend.

We believe that by exploring innovative disclosure sequences, the effectiveness of training can be dramatically improved.

Sequence: no choice?

So what is wrong with conventional sequences and what can we do about them?

Far too often, during the design of a training course, although some thought is given to the disclosure sequence, it is far too little. It is frequently assumed that the sequence is dictated by some prescribed characteristics of the subject area and is the only one available.

For example, if a course is teaching a process; frequently it is designed to teach the process from the beginning to the end. This might seem to be obviously a good idea; personally I disagree, as I will explain!

Another example is where a subject, technology or discipline has developed over time in a particular sequence, then that historical sequence is chosen for the course. Again, this might seem obvious and has the distinct advantage that it is almost guaranteed to “work” in the sense that it meets one of the common criteria: that learners cannot be expected to rely on something which they do not yet know. In this case, in principle at least, no sub-topic can depend on something which was invented after it; so this makes the course design easier.

Another common characteristic is that the sequence tries to avoid repetition, because that is assumed (incorrectly in my view) to result in boredom. This can manifest itself in attempts to gather together all occurences of a particular feature and to expect them all to be learnt at once. This usually makes unnecessary demands on learners, especially when they see no association between the cases in which the feature is used. The course can feel like trying to learn from a reference manual.

In general, a more effective guide to designing a disclosure sequence is to choose a path through the goals which the learner already has, beginning with those which can be achieved simply and progressing to those which are more complex to achieve. It is evidently not always easy to find these; but if such a path can be found, then the requirement to motivate learners along the way tends to be easier because they are achieving parts of the objective along the way, while building on what they already know.

Let’s deal with some of the common assumptions.

Learning repetitively

Firstly, let’s consider the repetition aspect. Have you ever watched a child learning to play a video game? Do they need to be self-motivated or is the game motivating them? Are they watching the clock to see when they can walk away or are they losing track of time as they are drawn into the game? And are they required to hope or believe that there will be some pay-off for playing it or are they are being challenged and satisfied all the time? In each case, it is the latter. Is it repetitive? Extremely. So is the repetition boring and demotivating? It seems not. If you still think so, then you might like to take up playing golf; it is challenging, frustrating, sometimes very satisfying, almost never boring … and (you guessed it) very repetitive!

Repetition is necessary for simple tasks to become automatic so that they can be relied on when used for more complex tasks.

Learning historically

Secondly, there is the choice of a historical sequence. Just because the subject matter has been laid down in some layered way, like some kind of geological formation, does not mean that this sequence is the best way to learn the subject.

Knowing what we now know, it is highly likely that a better choice can be found.

Just because old aircraft had a tail wheel and most modern ones have a nose wheel, does not mean that it is easier to learn to fly a tail wheel aircraft first. In fact, it is more difficult. There are several reasons why a tail wheel aircraft is a poorer design, and it might be better to ignore it altogether!

When learning to program in the C++ language, there are features which were added later in the development of the language, such as “exception handling”. Their late addition does not automatically mean that they are more advanced features. These can be learnt much earlier than many course designers seem to believe.

Learning a process

Finally, there is the teaching of a process from beginning to end; this is often among the worst choices of sequence. In most cases, it is the most difficult choice for the learner. Often it is also harder for the trainer; although it may be among the easiest for the course designer.

The learner is told that there is a straightforward route by which they can achieve their goal, and it will require the whole course (possibly lasting hours or days) to reach it.

They are probably given a starting point that they are familiar with, and are taught the first step. This involves doing something new and unfamiliar, and it generates a result which is also unfamiliar. But they are expected to understand and feel satisfied that they are on the road towards their ultimate goal.

With that first step mastered, they are then taught the second step; this picks up where the first step left off, using the output of the first step as its input.

Now they have taken something unfamiliar, done something else which is new and unfamiliar with it, and generated yet another unfamiliar result. But, everything is fine: look how far we have come; and surely you can see that we are getting closer to our goal!!

Well, it is clearly feasible that learners can be convinced of this, because many people have been taught this way for years; but it is hard work.

They are more likely to be left thinking: “if I had known that that was what we were going to do in the second step, then I would have understood why I was doing the first step and might have done it differently. And, of course, I now feel the same about the, as yet unknown, third step.”

The whole sequence requires continued maintenance of belief that this unknown path will eventually lead to the goal!

Have you ever tried to teach a child to tie their shoe laces this way? It is difficult, which is probably the reason that parents buy shoes with Velcro fasteners!

The opposite sequence

But there is a way in which it can be done more easily. It is to teach the process in reverse. That is, you can teach the last step first, then the step before the last, and so on backwards through the process.

There is a clue to the advantage of this backwards approach in what the learner was thinking above and in what consequently and frequently happens during training courses of this type. After the second step has been described and partially learnt, the purpose of the first step becomes somewhat clearer. It is still not obvious that it is a useful step to have taken, because it is not clear that the second step is useful; but at least the quality of the output of the first step can be assessed based on its usefulness as an input to the second step. So the learner can now go back and improve their performance of the first step using this assessment as feedback.

Applying this to teaching a child to tie laces results in a sequence which many a parent has probably arrived at in the end.

At first, while the child is unable to tie the laces, the parent ties them; of course, the child sees them being tied which serves as a useful demonstration.

The next stage is for the parent to tie the laces except for the last step (probably pulling the loops tight), and allowing the child to perform that final step.

For a while, this can be repeated every time the laces are tied; the child becomes proficient at performing the last step including, crucially, getting the satisfaction of completing the tying of the laces.

If you have not seen this before then you are, by now, probably getting the idea! The next stage is for the parent to tie the laces but to stop before the previous step (probably passing the second loop around the first loop) and allowing the child to perform this second to last step as well, of course, as the last step which is already known.

In this way, the child is learning one step at a time, is always running into known territory and is getting the satisfaction of completing the process everytime.

When the training is complete, the child is able to start at the beginning and to complete the entire process. Hey presto!

I believe that many professional musicians use the same technique in learning a piece of music: they learn to play the last few bars first, then the previous few bars, and so on! There is the story of someone remarking to a musician: “You must have practised a lot to be able to play that right!” ; to which the musician responded: “It takes much more practise that than, so that I am not able to play it wrong!”

I have heard of a flying instructor who allowed a student pilot to land an aircraft solo, before he allowed him to take off solo; but that is left as a story for another day … and as a riddle for the reader!

So what?

We have seen that the designer of the training course need not be resigned to a disclosure sequence which appears to be dictated by the subject domain. We have seen examples of avoiding repetition, pandering to history, and following a process. These are all approaches which seem to make sense to someone who is passively reading, listening to or watching descriptions of a subject.

But people learn to do something by doing it, and it helps to practise repeatedly with some measure of success and some feedback. As soon as repetition is allowed, other opportunities are opened up.

We have the opportunity to reduce the need for external motivation provided by the learner or the trainer, by designing disclosure sequences which challenge and reward learners in ways which generate the motivation internally through the interaction between the learner and the course itself.


17 responses to “Novel approaches to sequences of learning”

  1. Learning sequences « John W Lewis Avatar

    […] There are many ways in which we can fail to organise the sequence in which we learn. However we cannot even begin to take control of the sequence if we do not believe that have control of it! So one of the first issues that we need to overcome is the tendency to assume that the sequence is dictated for us by influences outside our control. I’ve tried to describe this in an article on Novel approaches to sequences of learning. […]

  2. svec Avatar

    Sounds like a great idea, especially for process-oriented training. It’s refreshing to step back and look at how teaching is sequenced.

    How do you think this could be used to teach C++ programming? Start with a fully functional program, strip away some small part and have the student finish just that part?

  3. johnwlewis Avatar

    Thank you for your comment, Christopher.

    Yes, it can be really useful to pull together concepts that span a wider range of issues than we normally consider. Sequence is probably the most important issue in any training/learning.

    However, it is worth pointing out that this concept is not new, nor is it presented here as an abstract invention. Rather, it is, in a sense, an attempt to reason about quite a few iterations of experience, conflict, disagreement, resolution and “aha” moments, including going through the same mistakes (I mean, of course, “lessons”) more than once and in more than one field. As with any innovation, it is a much messier business than most people are prepared to admit!

    It is not easy to provide a straightforward answer to your question about C++. The simplistic answer is “yes” because, until people are very experienced (and perhaps not even then), all tasks are carried out either on a small program or on a small part of a larger program. More realistically, there are many factors which initially can be divided into two categories: “what are they expected to be able to do after the course?” and “what are they able to do before the course?”.

    It is particularly interesting that you ask about C++ programming because that happens to be where it all started for me.

    Thanks again.

  4. svec Avatar


    > all tasks are carried out either on a small program or on a small part of a larger program.

    Good point!

    How about the beginning C++ programmer – say a college freshman who’s never even thought about programming before?

    What are they able to do before the course? Type. Think somewhat logically. Do basic math. Basic problem solving skills.

    What are they expected to be able to do after the course? Use an editor to write simple programs that take input from the user or a file, do calculations/computation on that input, and produce output. Analyze real-world problems and figure out how to express those problems and solutions as a program.

    How can we connect those two endpoints with students using the “opposite sequence” you describe? I would love to hear how you (and others) may have actually done this in a real class setting.

    I taught data structures & algorithms in C back in grad school, and I was guilty of “teaching it like it was taught to me” – a new algorithm a day, basically.


  5. johnwlewis Avatar


    It looks as though you might have described part of the answer. Would it help to think of your “after” outcome as being in two parts?

    Is “Analyze real-world problems and figure out how to express those problems and solutions as a program.” describing “what” is to be done?

    And is “Use an editor to write simple programs that take input from the user or a file, do calculations/computation on that input, and produce output.” describing “how” it is to be done?

    If so, then you might be able to do the rest yourself. You might be able to select which real-world (that is in their “real-world”) problems you would like them to learn from, and which process you would like to be used to express, analyze and solve them during course, using the techniques that you describe.

    Then you might tackle them yourself, identify the elements to be learnt and explore different sequences in which those elements might be disclosed to people learning this for the first time.

    As has been said: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is!”


  6. ederandres Avatar

    Hello John,

    I’m from Colombia. You’re in the right path. Last year, while I’m looking for books to learn C# in the professional way, I founded some books from Apress. These books are well suited to acquire well enterprise knowledge about any programming, database and any other topic (Microsoft .NET in my case “Pro C# and the .NET Framework 3.5).

    I was motivated to read this book… very motivated because it’s written in plain text. Yes, plain text: from left to right, however it is an excellent book.

    I was interested in learn design patterns but no C# book existed yet. After various days of examination in the web I found one, the only one that changed all my life, the way I’m learning: Head First Design Patterns. It uses the metacognition process as a learning experience. No more plain text.

    Conversational tone, graphics, cartoons, humor and the unexpected can increase the interest and motivation of students. You’re talking about new news of teaching/learning: Head First series is a GOOD approach, the best I’ve seen.

    Personally, I composed a guide for my classmates (who come from Java) in a mix of Spanish-English. Not “Spanglish”, but some paragraphs in Spanish, some explanation in English.
    My guide explains beginner’s topic, like variables, data types, data formatting, calculations, Boolean expressions…,mmmmm I’ve make a terrible error: I started with the famous “Hello World” and everything ended in the beginning. Only one classmate presents to me all the subsequent 6 activities. I don’t think I produce a dummy guide, but as you mentionated my classmates didn’t feel that simple console applications were important for them.

    So, I understand it and I can state: when preparing a book or a training course, it can be necessary do not touch the “classic way” console, variables, etc… and wait a long time for classes, and more important the OO technology (see Head First Object Analysis and Design).

    You’re able to teach a real-world application solving a real-world problem maybe without the use of method overloading or discovering the secrets or integer or real division. The concept of classes and objects doesn’t need the concept of variable scope.

    (Too bad, my audition… good luck in 2010).

    I won’t teach C++ to beginners in programming. Start with Java, C# or VB. It is confusing managing a h. file and a .ccp files to make a class, and it is better to reach quickly the polymorphism concept.

  7. Controlling the sequence of learning « John W Lewis Avatar

    […] the sequence of learning By johnwlewis Among the reactions to the article on sequences of learning is a post from Brett McLaughlin on the O’Reilly Radar blog, that poses questions about the […]

  8. […] John Lewis – через 3х лиц до меня дошло сообщение о его статье, посвященной новым подходам к подаче материала при […]

  9. […] Novel approaches to sequences of learning « John W Lewis – John Lewis with a thoughtful proposal: "We believe that by exploring innovative disclosure sequences, the effectiveness of training can be dramatically improved." I tend to agree – there have been many times when I have re-ordered the design of past-developed courses and found them to be much more effective. […]

  10. […] Novel approaches to sequences of learning and the follow-up Controlling the Sequence of Learning […]

  11. Johnathan Wilson Lewis – another thinker. « Learning from Dogs Avatar

    […] an extract from that essay: Let’s deal with some of the common […]

  12. […] that are mostly subtle, but not always! As you may know, this is consistent with my belief that the sequence is the foundation of learning […]

  13. Luke Daly Avatar

    I find this interesting. I’d like to try to apply the tenets to my writing composition class.

  14. John W Lewis Avatar

    Thank you, Luke, for your comment.

    I’m interested to hear what you have in mind, and what you learn through applying it.

  15. Natasha Coleman Crestani Avatar

    WOW! From my years of teaching and facilitating with adult learners I have always known they are happy to work hard for the reward of achieving new goals, provided that the process motivates them. I’ve always incorporated the conversational tone, graphics, cartoons, humour and the unexpected to increase the interest and motivation of students. When the evaluations come out, I gain a consistent “gold star” for interaction and engagement. However, Disclosure Sequence in reverse is something I hadn’t considered. I have been doing it in a kind of “hit and miss” way quite accidentally in some of my course areas. Upon reflection, it has worked well with my learners. I haven’t ever pondered this consciously previously. I love your analogy with teaching a child to tie their shoelaces. With my impatient 7 year-old daughter, I can see how that process would have worked better with less frustration. I too am like my daughter in that the global picture helps me stay motivated to learn and reach goals. Can’t believe I didn’t recognise that trait in my daughter in that way! Many thanks 🙂

  16. John W Lewis Avatar

    You make some important points, Natasha. You are evidently excelling with your interaction and engagement. And you’ve picked up on the superb comment earlier by @ederandres who identified the elements of that.

    Two of your points stand out for me. One is that different disclosure sequences can be explored almost independently from the interaction and engagement by the teacher/facilitator/trainer/instructor, and the two aspects complement each other. And, in a sense, my main point is that the more effective the disclosure sequence in connecting with the overall purpose, the less need there is for external input to maintain motivation.

    The other is that it is very beneficial to maintain a connection to the global picture as a basis for motivation, if the outcome is to have long term relevance. This may be especially true for adults, who already have a wide range of experience.

    For people with prior experience, it is common to introduce new approaches in the context of old approaches which are expected to be dropped and replaced. However, it is usually more effective to place new approaches in a much wider context which includes areas which have longer term stability and are not changing, and to ignore the areas which are being replaced so that they are quietly forgotten.

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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