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Let the Games Begin

By Lory Hough, on September 25, 2009 11:01 AM
Growing up, Professor David Perkins wasn't especially good at baseball.Yet it was America's national pastime that Perkins turned to when he started writing his recent book, "Making Learning Whole."

david_perkins.jpgGrowing up, Professor David Perkins 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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