Spiral Learning

🧑‍🎨 Creator(s)
🗓️ Publish Date
February 10, 2005
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Spirals show up everywhere from fractals to nautilus shells. Software developers know the spiral as iterative development--a model in stark (positive) contrast to the old linear waterfall model.

One huge problem with the waterfall model is that in its traditional form, it's not based in reality. It assumes that it's entirely possible for each stage to be done perfectly (and permanently) and then thrown over the fence (or cubicle wall) to the next group in the system. Nice theory, that. The guys doing the requirements finish their job and then, hey, they might as well all go on vacation. Their work is done. And so on down the line until the product is delivered to the users. The name itself (waterfall) describes the key limiting characteristic of the waterfall model--it's one way onlyWater doesn't go back up.

User experience designers (especially with games) often use a spiral model to keep cycling the user through stages of interest/motivation, engagement, and payoff (I described the user experience spiral here.

But where software developers and game designers use the spiral model, learning designers (teachers, instructional designers, tech book authors) often don't. Yet a spiral model most closely matches how learning really happens.

The typical training course or technical book takes a linear approach to the topic, teaching each topic completely before moving on to the next. Each topic/phase in the course depends on having mastered the previous topic/chapter. ("OK, that's done... now we can move to the next one.") This is usually wrong on so many levels...

By teaching a topic completely in one section/chapter, there's probably way too much cognitive overload. When learning a new programming language, for example, do I really need to learn every possible way to write a loop before I can move on to, say, object interaction? If you teach me only a for loop, for example, I can just move on to what I really want to do... repeat something (or iterate over something).By taking the "now we're on loops, so let's look at ALL the details of EVERY kind of loop syntax..." you've just postponed (delayed gratification) what I really want to do-- use a loop to do something interesting.

A spiral model lets you do what our editor Mike Loukides refers to as:

Give them the minimum new knowledge and skills needed to be creative.

Learning should work just like a game. The spiral looks like this:

1) Get me interested (make the case for why I should be motivated to learn this).

2) Give me a challenging and engaging activity (learning this new thing).

3) Give me the payoff/reward for having learned this (let me apply what I just learned to something interesting and meaningful, or at least fun).

4) Repeat with new thing that builds on what I now know.

By taking an iterative--rather than linear--approach to each topic, the learner gets to do more interesting things more quickly. If you force me to do each topic to death before moving on, I might have to wait until the frickin' end of the book or course before I can actually do anything really cool. And that's a motivation killer for sure. And without motivation, learning suffers dramatically. How many of us have left a course knowing that we were exposed to a lot of content, but we still can't actually do anything?

Another benefit of the iterative/spiral model for learning is that the spiral approach is much more forgiving. If the linear model relys on "we're only going to do this topic once, so you better pay attention!" and assumes that I've completely learned that topic before moving on (made less likely by the fact that I'm given too many details about the topic), then if I really didn't nail it, I'm screwed moving forward.

But by iterating through the topic, I get another chance--potentially many more chances--to revisit the topic. So if I'm still a little fuzzy on the details the first time through that topic, then when it comes up again in a later iteration of the course/book, I get another chance to get or reinforce more clarity. Maybe I didn't quite get it the first time, even though I was able to use it, but perhaps the new things I've done since the last time I saw this topic have given me a better perspective. So the second time we come back to it, I'm in a better place to ask the right questions and see this topic in a broader context.

Learning should use the spiral experience model just as a game does. Each new thing I learn should be a chance to help me "get to the next level." Iterating through the topics means revisiting the same topic in multiple places (if needed). So each iteration through a topic gives me just what I need and no more to do something creative with what that new skill/knowledge. If I need to learn more before the course or book is done, then come back to it later... when it's needed for something new.

Obviously I'm not talking about a reference book, but a reference book and a learning experience are wildly different beasts. They have completely different goals. The problem is that most books aren't really sure whether they're for learning or reference, or worse--they try to be BOTH. Reference books should be designed in a linear model. Learning experiences should be spiral. That's a dramatic difference, and you can't shoehorn a spiral experience into a linear format without weakening both.

[Disclaimer: We (Head First authors) suffer from a little too much linearity in our certification study guides, because the exam tests people on details that go way past what they need to actually use the topic. So we've tended to do a much better job of topic iteration in our non-certification books than our exam prep books, but really, there's no good excuse for why we haven't done more to iterate even through the you-must-know-everything cert topics. We promise to do better with our cert books in the future.]

When you're communicating new knowledge to your users:

What's the minimum you can give them that'll let them be creative?

Iterating through topics lets them do more interesting things more quickly. If they need more on a topic, they'll either get it later--on another trip through the spiral--or you can simply point them to a reference where they can learn the rest of the details when they need them. The point is, get them having fun and doing interesting things as quickly as possible!