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How 7 Principles Of Baseball Can Help Transform How Teachers Teach

CJ Westerberg, July 16, 2013 2:58 PM


A TDR Classic post -

"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.

-David Perkins

How to Teach So Kids Can Learn to Understand

by C.J. Westerberg

Harvard School of Education Professor David Perkins claims he was never very good at sports.

Yet he uses the baseball metaphor throughout his new book, Making Learning Whole:  How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education, because he believes too many teachers teach "with the whole game nowhere in sight" which lead to two major plagues in education: elementitus and aboutitus.  Plus he knows most of us are suckers for sport analogies.

As Perkins admits in a recent Ed. The Magazine for the Harvard School 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.' "

He continues to the second plague of teaching:

"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'. "

Perkins has impressive credentials (except in the sports arena):   senior professor at Harvard School of Education, co-director of Project Zero, Harvard's Teaching for Understanding initiative, and and author of several books, including Smart Schools and The Eureka Effect.  As an MIT undergrad majoring in Math, Perkins argument extends to Math education with some interesting first-hand flashbacks to his own experiences, yet always circling back to how we can teach kids today to "learn more effectively" in all subjects: 

"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."

"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.

"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."

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.

Perkins cites a school that, in this era of high-stakes testing, has emphasized diagnostic testing as a tool for individual students to understand their progress and 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."

Making Learning Whole makes a significant case for utilizing "problem finding" in teaching, as distinguished from problem solving.  

The Problem with Math Instruction
During the time he spent as an MIT student, Perkins deftly elaborates how he noticed that while learning Math, all the problems came from a text or instructor, not from a project or an open-ended investigation.  At the time, he wondered why Math learning wasn't more like the Humanities, where problem finding is routine.  

He explored this question more deeply.  Problem solving is the art and craft of finding the solution to a problem that is clear.  Problem finding is figuring out what the problem is and even redefining it.  As with the Humanities, one asks "what questions are worth pursuing?"  One must then assemble a great argument, learn where to find the relevant resources to make the case, bundle it together for a compelling statement.  Why not with Math?

Perkins also refers to the work of teacher Kenna Barger of Elkins, West Va., recipient of the Disney 2001 American Teacher Award, which inspired the M-PACT program at the University of Arizona.  This program is "learning Math with a purpose, application, context and technology".
He continues to elaborate why these programs have the earmarks of whole game learning and teaching:   

"In settings of learning a whole game is generally some kind of inquiry or performance in a broad sense.  It involves problem solving, explanation, argument, evidence, strategy, skill, craft.  Often something gets created - a solution, an image, a story, an essay, a model.

It's never just about content. 
Learners are trying to get better at doing something. 

It's never just routine. 
It requires thinking with what you know and pushing further.
Rather than just standard routine problems, it involves open-ended or ill-structured problems.  All of these endeavors asked the learners to go beyond what they already knew and extrapolate to novel and puzzling situations.

It's never just problem solving. 
It involves problem finding.

It's not just about right answers. 
It involves explanation and justification.

It's not emotionally flat. 
It involves curiosity, discovery, creativity, camaraderie."


Previously published by both Ed Magazine from Harvard School of Education
and The Daily Riff January 2010

To purchase Making Learning Whole from Amazon, click here.

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