Sunday, July 14, 2013

Making Learning Whole

If you're only going to read one book on education this year, read Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education by David Perkins, professor of education at Harvard. The introduction alone is worth the cost of the book. In just 23 pages, Perkins expertly diagnoses America's education problems and provides a prescription, a coherent set of instructional principles. In the chapters that follow the introduction, Perkins explores the principles in greater depth, with illustrations and evidence.

The Ailments: Elementitis and Aboutitis

Perkins summarizes America's education problems by coining two terms: elementitis and aboutitis.

Elementitis is the tendency to break a whole skill into components taught in isolation. If there were more to the story--if students were required to bring everything together and practice the whole skill in a "real world" context--then this practice wouldn't be a problem. In fact, Richard Mayer has found evidence that pre-training (i.e. teaching the components of a complex process before teaching the process itself) is highly effective. But American students are condemned to perpetually pre-train. They are like athletes who perform drills, but never scrimmage, let alone play in a real game. So it is no surprise that they wonder (often aloud), "What's the point of all this?"

Aboutitis is the tendency to teach about something, but never provide a chance for students to actually do it. The classic example is science instruction. Science is a process of inquiry and experimentation. Science is also the knowledge produced by scientists engaged in this process and ongoing communications with their peers. Unfortunately, in American classrooms, the process that begat the knowledge is neglected. American students study theories and memorize long lists of facts and jargon, but they rarely hypothesize, experiment, and discuss ideas and results. In short, they don't do science.

The Prescription: Seven Principles for Making Learning Whole

Perkins believes (and I happen to agree) that the remedy for these problems is student participation in "junior versions" of authentic human projects. Junior projects provide a simplified, yet realistic context in which students practice whole skills as they pursue meaningful goals. In short, junior projects involve learning by doing. For example, students may learn about nutrition, plant/animal physiology, and agriculture by gardening and preparing a meal--all the while maintaining a journal with their plans, observations, questions, research notes, experiments, etc.

Perkins offers seven instructional principles, and he uses the analogy of sports to increase their memorableness and highlight their connections. Below, I've listed the principles and noted related educational concepts in parentheses.
  1. Play the whole game. (Project/problem/case-based learning)
  2. Make the game worth playing. (Intrinsic motivation)
  3. Work on the hard parts. (Modeling, coaching, scaffolding, and practice)
  4. Play out of town. (Situated learning and transfer)
  5. Uncover the hidden game. (Hidden curriculum and "soft skills")
  6. Learn from the team...and the other teams. (Cooperative learning)
  7. Learn the game of learning. (Metacognition and self-regulated learning)
Most teachers are not accustomed to this style of instruction, and Perkins recommends testing the waters by wading into "teaching by wholes" rather than jumping in head first. Teachers should add a few projects to their course rather than completely overhaul it. And teachers should focus on the first few principles rather than attempt to incorporate them all into a project. (The principles are arranged in order of importance.) Once teachers are comfortable with this new style of teaching, they may expand the projects and incorporate additional principles.

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