Have you ever heard of “whole-to-parts” or “parts-to-whole” learning? These are two different methods of teaching. They occur in math, language arts, science, and other curriculums. However, programs often don’t advertise which method they use. And the truth is, your child may learn better with one method than the other. 

Parts-to-Whole

Parts-to-whole is the method of teaching something broken down into the smallest steps you need to know, and eventually putting them together. This method often starts with working on what the lessons consider to be small manageable parts. You don’t tell the student too much upfront, as you don’t want to overwhelm them. You don’t worry them with the “big picture” or why you are learning these things.

Language arts is often broken into parts of the whole. We learn separately spelling, grammar, handwriting, and comprehension. Later, we put all of those skills together to write sentences.

In a parts-to-whole writing program, the older student may be taught to write all the parts of a good essay before putting them together. They would not be shown an essay at the start. The goal would be to just build the best paragraphs which would lead to a complete essay. 

Science programs that follow a parts-to-whole methodology teach animal cells vs. plant cells and evolution, before teaching about modern animals and plants. 

Whole-to-Parts

Whole-to-parts learning is when you show your students the bigger picture first, then examine the smaller parts. This method works well for many neurodivergent students, especially those with ADHD. You start the lesson with the macro pieces and learn more about them until you learn the smallest parts. This learning method often requires you to allow students to learn through mistakes instead of creating success at every step. 

A whole-to-parts essay program would have students first read an essay. They would understand first why we write essays and what a good one looks like. Then they would then use the whole essay to learn about how essays are put together and what the important parts of an essay actually are. They may even read several essays. Then students would be assigned to write their own essay. This essay would then be examined to see if it had the necessary parts, like an introduction and conclusion. Students would correct the entire essay based on the feedback on how it all worked together instead of only writing an introductory paragraph, for example. 

A science program that is whole to parts, would start with modern animal and plant life and then examine it.  They would look at the cells that make up the different organisms as parts of the whole. Students would explore how the modern animals evolved from other animals after they fully understood the modern animals. Seeing what modern animals have in common would be viewed as a gateway into exploring deeper questions. 

Which one is best for your student? 

Let’s say you were studying geography and your student needed to use a map of highways to plan a trip from New York to California. Would your student do better understanding the end goal and having the whole map to start with? Or would they do better if given a map of each state and just told to find a road that crosses it from east to west?  Would your child be mad if those smaller maps didn’t actually match up perfectly? 

If your child would rather do the small parts with the smaller maps, they do well with parts-to-whole learning. If your child would be angry about the fact they couldn’t see the end goal with the entire map, they are a whole-to-parts learner. 

But this doesn’t mean the whole-to-parts learner doesn’t need the task broken down into smaller parts, it just means they need to break it down after they see the goal. In this case, that might mean having a huge map, but folding it up so they only deal with crossing one state at a time. But they have the whole map, so they can make one continuous path. Neurodivergent students often get mad if their work isn’t “real.” This means that the smaller maps, where they may start and stop on different roads in each state if only finding a way from east to west, would upset them.

Parts-to-whole learners may understand that for a learning task, just finding a path across was “good enough.” ADHD and autistic students often find this attitude infuriating. They want to do the task “right” or not at all.  This can make some curriculums extremely frustrating for both teacher and student. 

Looking at Curriculums

It can be very difficult to tell which type of program a curriculum is without trying out the lessons. Even more confusing, some programs, like math, may not exactly align with either method. Math programs often have their own methods that have to be tested out. If you can figure out how your child learns best, look for curriculums that match their needs. While you can adapt programs, it is easier to work with ones that meet your child’s needs. 

The Five Senses Literature Lessons curriculums generally work in a whole to parts way. The student is presented with the big picture, and then they explore details and dig deeper. Giving children this bigger picture first, allows them to ask more questions and explore more ideas than if we taught the details first. Explore our curriculums to learn more.

About the Author

Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

2 thoughts on “The Difference Between Parts-to-Whole and Whole-to-parts Learning”

  1. I am most definitely a whole-to-part learner. Laura, I know your blog is primarily geared towards parents of homeschoolers– but I have learned so much about myself through your posts. I feel seen. It’s validating to have a name for some of my ‘quirks.’ Thank you for blogging!

    1. Laura Sowdon

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Sloane!

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