Education at Bat: Seven Principles for Educators

Professor David Perkins utilizes his childhood baseball experiences to develop a set of core principles and concepts for teachers

January 1, 2009
child swinging a bat

When Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor David Perkins looked back at his childhood little league and "backyard baseball" experiences, he found the perfect metaphor for the set of teaching concepts presented in his 2008 book, Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.

Asked in an interview with Usable Knowledge to describe how he would like educators to work with his ideas, Perkins says, “They should get a rough sense of the ideas and start using them…. They needn't read the whole book — they can just start with the first chapter.” Making Learning Whole, he says, “is a spiral process that front-loads action and then loops back to reflection and more learning — which is what the core principles recommend for learning anywhere.”

Seven Principles of Teaching

Why think about little league? Perkins says that in baseball, as in playing an instrument, one learns what it is to play the whole game first, and then to fine tune aspects of it over time. To elaborate on this concept of “learning by wholes,” Perkins details practical principles.

1. Play the whole game

Perkins identifies two unfortunate tendencies in education: One is what he calls “elementitis” — learning the components of a subject without ever putting them together. The other is the tendency to foster “learning about” something at the expense of actually learning it. “You don't learn to play baseball by a year of batting practice,” he says, but in learning math, for instance, students are all too often presented with prescribed problems with only one right solution and no clear indication how they connect with the real world.

The way to let young learners play the whole game is to find or construct a junior version of it. A junior version of baseball may involve fewer innings, a diamond that is smaller than standard, or teams consisting of whatever neighborhood kids show up in the park on a given day. Yet the junior version conveys the essence of baseball — swinging at and hitting a ball and then making your way around bases while the opposing team scrambles to put you out.

In teaching math, drilling children in multiplication or long division or even giving them “word problems” is likely to lapse into “elementitis.” But giving a child some money and asking her to calculate whether it's enough to buy the items in her shopping basket is a “junior version” of the way math skills are used in the real world.

2. Make the game worth playing

Perkins cites research showing that intrinsic motivation for learning academic subjects falls steadily from third to eighth grade. Students will want to learn, however, about things that they think have value and relevance in their lives. Perkins advises teachers to use “generative topics” — rich, engaging topics that encompass a wide scope — to make learning worthwhile for students. For example, a generative topic that could interest students might include a series of questions — “What is a living thing? Are viruses alive? What about computer viruses?” — and would help foster a discussion that creates conceptual knowledge.

3. Work on the hard parts

Again Perkins draws on personal experience for a metaphor: He observed that despite all their years of playing bridge, his parents really weren't getting better at it over time. He realized that they played for reasons of sociability, not competition. But if they had been trying to improve, they would have needed “deliberate practice” — a term Perkins borrowed from K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist who focuses on the study of elite skill. Ericsson found that elite golfers, for instance, will go through the drudgery of endless “bunker” drills to improve their sand shots, and such practice matters more in the end than raw talent.

In Perkins' view, a learner needs both a sense of the whole game and a focus on specific trouble spots. “When I advocate playing the whole game, I don't mean doing nothing but that.”

4. Play out of town

Perkins refers to the challenge of taking one's game up a notch to play without the home-field advantage. In Red Sox Nation, it's a resonant sports metaphor, but it also refers to the transfer of knowledge from one context to another. Some information transfers are more easily made than others. For example, once you know how to drive a car you are easily able to transfer that knowledge to driving a truck, but it is much more of a stretch to relate the Civil War to the current tensions in Iraq. These examples illustrate the distinction between “near transfer” (car/truck) and “far transfer” (Civil War/Iraq). Educators can look for transfer to assess whether or not students thoroughly understand the topic they have been taught.

5. Play the hidden game

Again, a lesson from baseball: Perkins knew the concept of batting average, then he discovered the concept of “runs created,” a measure of how many runs a batter generates for each time at bat (on average) — an index more important than just getting hits. 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 what show up on the surface.

Perkins suggests two questions to help children learn to uncover the hidden game and do interpretative analysis: “What do you see going on? What do you see that makes you think so?” These questions can spark discussion about a work of art, but also about a scientific demonstration, a political speech, or any of a number of other kinds of presentations, and can draw “learners into the game of inquiry.”

6. Learn from the team

Perkins stands by this principle even with reference to activities that are not obviously team sports. He points out that the ethos of “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” is deeply ingrained in schools, even though they are natural centers of group learning. 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.

In this era of high-stakes testing, Perkins cites a school that has emphasized diagnostic testing as a tool for individual students to understand their progress and to determine what to focus on next. “What particularly struck me,” Perkins writes, was that with a little help “the students, not the teachers, took stock of their own progress. The tests were framed emphatically as tools to provide information, not appraisals of worth.”

Putting it all together

To implement these ideas in the classroom, Perkins suggests that educators start with a junior version of the seven principles — picking and choosing what's most right for their own classrooms, while paying particular attention to “playing the whole game” and “making the game worth playing.” If educators use these principles, Perkins says, they will improve their students' understanding of the game and their ability to play it successfully.

See More In
Learning and Teaching

Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.