ED. Magazine

Let the Games Begin


david_perkins.jpgGrowing up, Professor wasn’t especially good at baseball. In fact, he says he didn’t show much talent for sports at all. Yet it was America’s national pastime that Perkins turned to when he started writing his recent book, Making Learning Whole. Although the results of playing baseball weren’t great, he says the process was. “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? Just after the book was released, Perkins spoke to Ed. about knowing the whole game, “elementitis,” and why we love sport metaphors.

Your basic argument is that school learning is often like learning to bat without knowing the whole game of baseball. Can you give me an example?
When kids learn math in a conventional way, they practice the computational skills but often don’t develop a very good sense of what math is for or how to use it. We know this because many youngsters have a hard time picking out what operation to use — is this a “plus” situation, a “minus” situation, a “times” situation? They’ve been practicing their batting without developing a sense of the whole math game.

Do we ever use the whole learning approach in schools to teach?

We do sometimes teach the whole game, particularly around subjects often — and unfortunately in my view — considered more marginal: athletics, music, the arts. Also, ideally children first learn about reading by being read to a lot, so they have a sense of the whole game, and as they develop their decoding skills they soon practice on simple small-scale texts that nonetheless try to be interesting and meaningful.

Why not for math, science, and history? Is it because that’s how teachers themselves learned?
There are several reasons. Partly, yes, it’s a matter of the way teachers themselves learned. 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.

Explain the terms “elementitis” and “aboutitis” used in the book.
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 mentioned above 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.”

And “aboutitis”?
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.”

Elementitis and aboutitis are devil’s bargains. They make learning superficially easier today, but young learners find it dull and also don’t develop the active understandings we really want.

Why do you think people respond well to sports metaphors?
Most people have an early sports learning experience they enjoyed and can relate to, and it always involves learning the whole game at some level. Of course, a lot of people aren’t deeply into sports, but like me have fond memories of casual sports. My sports examples aren’t about the baseball or football star but about very everyday backyard versions. Also, once people get the idea, some people prefer other kinds of examples — learning games or crafts or arts — and these work just as well.

Do you still play baseball? Maybe throw the ball around on a Sunday afternoon?
It would be cool to say yes, but I don’t think I’ve swung a bat for more than a minute since the casual games I used to play with my own kids when they were growing up. Once in a while I play tennis with my wife, and that’s my sports life. I was never a dedicated sports person, but sports were more of a presence in my life years ago than they are now. Realistically, most of my time these days goes enthusiastically into research and writing and teaching around education, learning, understanding, and critical and creative thinking. That’s my whole game!

photo by Mark Morelli

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  • Alfred Devaprasad Sumithran

    Very interesting concept. Sports thrills and its flavor spread to any menu that uses it. Much needed spice for otherwise a rather drab menu in Education. Back here in India a similar game ‘Cricket’ is very popular and employs a concept called ‘Hit Wicket’-where too defensive a stance can cost a batsman his wicket.Suggest this be explored to promote controlled aggression leading to a risk taking Entrepreneurship Zeal.Congratulations to Professor David Perkins on this innovative concept that aims to facilitate holistic learning.

  • Saemah Rahman

    Using analogy is a great idea in teaching as it connects people with their existing knowledge especially if we use things that are familiar with them. I like your idea about”elemenitis” and “aboutitis”. What about extend it to “howitis” that deals with the prosedural aspect of learning the content. The importance of making learning process visible will should be stress too…

  • Michael Clarke

    I have been struggling with this issue particularly around the teaching of Math in a complete, comprehensive, and coherent way. In addition to the reasons given above for the way math is currently taught I would like to add that how math is tested on high stakes tests here in America also has a significant impact. I am sure that many people are aware of the math wars, the debate about whether algorithmic mastery or conceptual understanding is the true goal of math instruction. Many math teachers will point out that a student who is proficient at ‘plugging and chugging’ the quadratic formula is more apt to get a typical standardized test multiple choice item correct in less time than a student who might understand the underlying concept but make an anticipated arithmetic mistake that leads to a distracter rather than the key. As teachers are evaluated on high stakes test scores is it a wonder that teachers think it more beneficial to invest in algorithmic drills than quests for understanding? Consequently no thought is given to developing the whole picture and we fall into the pit of elementitis. This is a book that I should read.

  • Meilin HU

    It is a very innovative concept and Professor David Perkins, personally speaking, just hits the nail on the head about the education in China. We have got the same problem in Math teaching. Most students can practice the computational skills but often don’t develop a very good sense of what math is for or how to use it. As a result, they have learnt nothing on Math at all. Because what they knew about Math would be forgetten as soon as they do not use it. I should say many other subjects’ teaching and learning share the same or similar awkward situation. Students who are proficient at quizzes or what Professor David Perkins called “elementitis”, usually couldn’t do well in applying the relevent knowledge in practice. I think the concept Professor David Perkins puts forward would be a good suggestion in improving our education.

  • Laura Reese

    In the classroom, I deal on a daily basis with the balance between content, context and true understanding. Concepts such as “Backward Design” (UBD) are a step in the right direction, forcing educators to question in advance what students will ultimately understand vis-a-vis the subject matter. “Big picture” classes are a must for the future of our country! I would like to see Prof. Perkins’ ideas at work in the classroom, especially in the areas of history/social studies and math. Is theoretical math a must for every student? Why have today’s adults, ie former STUDENTS not learned from the historical mistakes of the past? If we can develop thinking strategists from an earlier age, I believe the trickle-down affect will be an astounding boon for our world, and one that will once again give us the ‘edge’ we need to maintain a healthy democracy!

  • Stephanie J Brown

    I enjoyed the introduction to Making Learning Whole by Perkins; the analogy was very useful and symbolic to my beginning of studying cognitive science in my masters program since it was representational. I am a person who needs to “Play the whole game” (Perkins, 2009) or at least see the whole game first. I am a top down learner. My analogy would have been football, but that is just preference. Seeing how the players interact, their relationship to each other and the game and what the goal (no pun) is of the game lets me understand it. Then I am able to dissect the parts and analyze individual qualities. In my Futures class, I wrote about what I felt the dynamics of systems were. A system is a group of related parts that interact with each other with the key being the interaction. Each individual component has characteristics, but when characteristics interact, new emergent properties appear. This makes the whole truly greater than just the sum of its parts. Learning the whole game is different than just learning the elements one by one. The coined term “Elementitis” (Perkins, 2009, p. 4) is symbolic as a disease process where something is lacking or wrong. The elements together are not the whole learning; it must include the interactions of the system.
    I can relate this principle to a recent learning experience. Very rarely am I frustrated, but this experience in fact did raise my frustration level and I believe limited my learning experience related to it. I am referring to the 2006-2016 Map of Future Forces Affecting Education. I was unable to view the entire map at once and could only access one part at a time. It didn’t come together for me as I would have liked it to. It is the playing of the whole game approach that “Make[s] the game worth playing” for me. (Perkins, 2009, p. 8) If I am unable to see the logic and purpose within a system functioning as a whole, my interest level wanes and the pure enjoyment of learning dissipates.

  • Seetha Murty

    I feel very elated that we use a similar language in our school. we renamed the tests as matches and encourage them to focus on the essential just like they focus on the ball or bat or net in sports. Carpenter’s law- measure twice cut once- we repeat like a gospel to them. I am a great believer in this idealogy that professor Perkins is developing. The myopic teaching practices need cures from elementitis and aboutitis !

  • sarnath

    I am curious to know if there is a more “organized” body of knowledge that lists all the “whole” approaches etc.
    (perhaps a taxonomy of sorts)

  • Anonymous

    i am sure Prof Perkins’ views will resonate with every thinking educator. The lack of focus on the Big picture is what makes our learners lose interest and motivation. It is essential for us to make the learning in class congruent with their larger needs and goals. Only then can we expect to have a real buy in from them. I really wish there was more understaanding of this amongst policy makers, educators and other stake holders.

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