Friday, January 16, 2009

Education is about playing the whole game .

David Perkins is professor of Education at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. A highly respected authority in his field he is well known for his research and insight into the deep understanding of teaching and learning. His latest highly creative and easy to read book ( published 2009) summarizes years of observations, reflections and research. He 'makes visible' what creative and insightful teachers do. He also provides a framework of seven practical principles for all teachers to transform their teaching. A must read for 2009.

'Making Learning Whole', written by David Perkins, is hot off the press - published in 2009. All schools ought to acquire a copy because it will certainty help them focus their teaching and ensure all their students are equipped with the dispositions to thrive in an unknown future.

It is certainly aligned with the intent of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum and provides practical ideas to implement it.


Perkins believes that there are too many research ideas that merit attention that make selection difficult. His book, developed around a metaphor of playing a game aims to provides a simple metaphor/framework to base teaching on. He outlines seven principles that make sense of the 'game of learning'- each providing very practical guidelines.

He succeeds.

His point is that formal learning rarely gives students a chance to learn to 'play a whole game'. All too often learning by teaching isolated 'elements' first or students are required to 'learn about' things because of distant future need. In both cases ( one resulting in a 'piecemeal' curriculum the other lacking personal relevance) students struggle to see the point of learning. Perkins contrasts this 'mindlessness' to learning a new game.

Education , Perkins writes, 'aims to help people learn what they cannot pick as they go along' unlike, he say, learning ones first language.

Perkins seven general principles, if applied, would make the 'learning game' more like playing a 'real' game. His principles, he believes ( and I fully agree), are able to be applied to any learning.

To gain all the practical suggestion ( nicely summarised at the end of each principle) requires the full reading of the book but creative teachers will recognise the principle in their current teaching and be reassured. I certainly was if I am allowed to put myself in their company.

The seven principles are:

1 'Play the whole game'.

When young people first learn a new games they play it at what Perkins calls a 'junior level'. Such a game is fun and makes immediate sense to them; with success, experience and skill they begin to appreciate greater complexity. Some might even become professionals but all learn to understand the basic game.

Schooling is short on what he calls 'threshold experiences' that are able to challenge student current thinking. All too often for students school feels like a jig saw puzzle without even a picture to focus their thinking.

The key to involving students to make the learning 'whole' by playing, at first, a 'junior version' of the game. An experience that students can see the point of doing. In the sports world this done well to first attract and then involve students.

2 'Make the game worth playing'.

Now and then, Perkins writes, pushy students ask , 'why are we doing this?' To make the game worth playing play a whole game not just 'bits and pieces' that make no sense to the learner. The secret is to find a 'junior games' ( or learning challenges) to suit the developmental level of the students.

3 'Work on the hard parts'.

Just playing a 'game' will not mean you will get any better . Perkin's introduces the important idea of the need to work on the 'hard parts'. Real improvement requires singling out the 'hard parts' for special attention, practicing them on the side, developing strategies and then reintegrating them into the whole game. This immediate reintroduction is vital. Practicing the 'hard parts' is what all good learners do. Practice and effort are more vital than innate talent in many cases.

4 'Play out of town'.

By this Perkins is talking about the problem of applying or transferring learning. Applying learning to new situations is a mark of deep understanding. New settings ( away from the home crowd or school) challenges student's to stretch and adapt their skills and insights. Perkins provides ideas to achieve this transfer. The whole point of learning is to prepare students for other times and places and not just to get better in the classroom.

5'Uncover the hidden game'.

Any activity always has hidden dimensions -underlying principles or strategies that beginners are not aware of. Often things are not as simple as they seem. Take for example the game of chess.

6 'Learn from the team.. and other teams'.

At school, all too often, students are encouraged to do their own work but in contrast hardly anything in real life is done solo. In life people are required to work in teams or to co-ordinate with other people in complex ways. Learning from others involves learning from teachers, peers, and all other information sources. Students will need explicit skills to be able to do this but any such skill need to be re-integrated back into a whole task. How often do teachers develop information seeking and expressive skills in their literacy programmes that integrate such learning directly to the current study ( the main 'learning game' of any class)? Reading many 'shallow' student project reports not too often - or if done, they ate are not applied. This disjoint is the point of Perkin's book.

7 'Learn the game of learning'.

It is only when you learn a second language that you learn important ideas about language learning. All too often students are so busy 'learning' content that they are unaware of 'how' they learn. A self managing learner makes a point of becoming aware of and practicing the hard parts. They are able to connect, or transfer, what they have learnt to other situations.

Perkin's writes that there is nothing more worth learning than acquiring the disposition ( 'key competencies') of learning how to learn. In this he would be joined by such people as John Hattie, Art Costa, Guy Claxton, Benjamin Bloom and Howard Gardner. It also resonates with the intent of the NZ Curriculum with its vision of 'connected, confident, life long learners, students able to 'seek use and create' their own knowledge.

Not only has Perkin's developed a powerful integrating metaphor for learning he has also provided , for each principle, a summary page of excellent practical ideas of how to develop each principle.

As for order of the principles play the 'whole game' first ( a suitable 'junior version'). Learning the 'game of learning' comes only when all is in place. Following Perkin's advice would solve the problem of 'shallow' or fragmented learning and would result in in depth understanding, an awareness of the inquiry process and the development of the dispositions ( 'competencies') required for life long learning.

'Learning by wholes' incorporates various learning theories.

It is an integrative approach but can be a unifying cross curriculum study or be used within a subject disciple. It shares with behaviourism the idea that things get better when feedback is immediate and informative but it also encourages that students develop their own creativity and style. It is very constructivist embracing the idea that learners construct in some sense their own meanings from experience. Discovery and inquiry learning can be understood as particular spins on constructivism.

However, 'learning by wholes' Perkin's explains, 'does not say all learning should be aggressively discovery orientated'. 'There are many times when the best way to get started is to explain and demonstrate, to ask learners to try and try it again, and to coach them through a process of improvement'. Well designed 'learning by wholes also accommodates different levels of readiness within the same group. Perkin's makes it clear that attention the 'hard parts, are most necessary to ensure growth but that such practice must be immediately applied to the 'game' in hand.

Perkins model sits comfortably with the approach of many creative New Zealand teachers as well as contemporary ideas about learning.

Forgetting the whole game metaphor, Perkins writes, it all might sound something like the below:

1 Engage in some version of holistic activity.
2 Make the activity worth learning.
3 Work on the 'hard parts'.
4 Explore different versions and settings for the activity.

Although achieving excellence is an ideal aim Perkins explains that many people will remain 'mediocre' at whatever 'game' they are playing. This is not a problem, he writes, because by playing the 'game' certain values and understandings are gained and a general sense of participation with whatever they are experiencing. An ecological study, for example, might develop in some students a life long interest while other gain an a sense of ecology responsibility. Both aspects, he writes, do 'substantial good'.

All in all an excellent read - made more enjoyable by Perkin's easy style of writing.

As I began - a must read for 2009.

For a negative take on the 'game of learning' read Robert Fried

3 comments:

Bruce said...

Ooops missed point 6! Will fix it up! There was so much more I could have included about the book. Another blog perhaps? Anybody read it?

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for bringing this book to my attention. The 'game of learning' should be felt worthwhile for all students. Since it is an evolutionary disposition how come so many students don't want to 'play the game'? Perkins book seems to provide the answers.

Bruce said...

Perkins is great - and easy to read. Have you read his earlier book 'Smart Schools'? And, you are right, Perkin's book provides practical answers to try out.