Teaching the Whole


In his book, Making Learning Whole, David Perkins uses the game of baseball as an analogy to discuss the concept of teaching whole concepts in education.

An article in  Ed., the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s online magazine, includes an interview with David Perkins.

““From the beginning I built up a feel for the whole game. I knew what hitting the ball or missing the ball got you. I knew about scoring runs and keeping score. I knew what I had to do to do well, even though I only pulled it off part of the time,” he writes in the book. And then, the epiphany: “I saw how it fit together.” Why not apply this same logic to teaching, Perkins thought, especially in subject areas like math and history, where students often struggle to make connections?

Read more: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2009/09/let-the-games-begin/#ixzz2aLz3IwIH

We teach the ‘whole’ beautifully in reading and the arts, where students see complete models and get to practice being a reader, an artist, a dancer.  

Why not other areas in school?  From the Ed article

“Partly it’s because learning bits and pieces now and putting them together later simplifies the classroom routine: it’s easier to work on isolated pieces. Partly because when kids make mistakes, the most obvious mistakes concern the pieces — arithmetic errors, misspellings, facts not remembered. Partly it’s a failure of imagination, a failure to figure out what small-scale accessible meaningful versions of mathematical modeling or building historical interpretations would look like for children.

Read more: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2009/09/let-the-games-begin/#ixzz2aM6YMKHv

Elementitis and Aboutitis

The first plague of education:

We educators always face the challenge of helping our students approach complex skills and ideas. So what to do? The two most familiar strategies are learning by elements and learning about. In the elements approach, we break down the topic or skill into elements and teach them separately, putting off the whole game until later — often much later. So students end up practicing meaningless pieces to score well on quizzes without developing a sense of the whole game, like the kids . . .who can do the computations but don’t know what operations to use when. This is a persistent plague of education, so to have a little fun I call it ‘elementitis.’ “

The second plague of education:

In the learning about approach, instead of teaching how to do the thing in question, we teach about it. For instance, we teach information about key science concepts rather than teaching students how to look at and think about the world around them with those concepts, which supposedly comes later. But again, the information tends to be meaningless without a context of use, and often “later” never happens. This is another plague of education, so to have some more fun I call it ‘aboutitis’. “

So, how do we avoid this?

Perkins summarizes the “Seven Principles of Teaching”:

1.    Play the whole game.

2.    Make the game worth playing. Motivation and relevance are key.

3.    Work on the hard parts. While he advocates the whole game, he clarifies that he doesn’t mean “just” the whole game.

4.    Play out of town.  In Red Sox Nation, it’s a resonant sports metaphor, but it also refers to the transfer of knowledge from one context to another. 

5.    Play the hidden game.  A stats view of baseball is one of baseball’s “hidden games.” In baseball, algebra, or anything else we learn, there are richer, more layered aspects than show up on the surface…drawing “learners into the game of inquiry.”

6.    Learn from the team.  Perkins notes the importance of social learning, and he urges students to learn from teammates and from other “teams”–other students in different roles.

7.    Learn the game of learning.  Perkins suggests that teachers allow students to be  in charge of their own learning by putting them in the driver’s seat and letting them take control–rather than having them sit in the passenger seat and watch their education
roll by.

Finding the sweet spot where we teach the “elements”; we teach “about” in the context of a meaningful whole,  is how we engage students in deep understanding and meaningful learning.

Learning to bat is virtually meaningless if you never get to “play ball”.  


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