What is the essential thinking undergirding the Whole-Part-Whole Learning Model?

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Whole-Part-Whole, or WPW, is a method of instruction proposed mainly for adult learners in the technical, managerial, and sports-based fields. The definition of the model given in The Adult Learner, sixth edition by Knowles, Holton, and Swanson reads

This learning template can be used at both the program design and lesson design levels. From a systems perspective, each of the program segments, whether they are classified as a part or a whole, can then constitute a subsystem.

The basic gist of this method goes as follows:

  • learn about the concept as a whole, in general.
  • break down the concept into sub-parts
  • teach each sub-part as it relates to the concept
  • assess whether the student has mastered each sub-part
  • re-visit the concept as a whole

A very simple example of WPW is dancing. When you learn to dance, you have to see the dance itself completely prior to learning each step. This way you get a clear idea of what is to take place. Then, you learn the dance in multiple steps. At the end, you dance the entire piece again as a whole.

The idea is to replicate the way that we naturally learn to understand any concept: first by looking, then by breaking it down in to parts, and then by putting it all together again. It is no different than a puzzle; you cannot put it together until you see first what it is supposed to look like in the first place.

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