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To Transform Education
on October 24, 2009
Every teacher, school, district, and government searches for the best way to educate the children in their care. If there were one magic way to accomplish this daunting task, we would have implemented it long ago. David Perkins' wonderful Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education addresses the problem of how the whole picture of education, from Kindergarten through University, fits together: how it interacts, connects, and becomes meaningful.
Perkins begins with the basic premise that most formal education in our world approaches ideas, concepts, subjects, and disciplines in a piecemeal approach instead of looking at the big picture. We are subject, in school, to what he calls "elementitis" and "aboutitis," or breaking down learning into discrete, unconnected bits that frequently - usually - never do get connected. It's a fractured curriculum, with a narrow focus on standards which are frequently based on disjointed accumulations of facts. We teach what's relevant to what's going to be tested. Perkins says we go through our years of schooling in this lurching, broken way, "with the whole game nowhere in sight."
So what to do about it? Perkins, along with Howard Gardner, is a co-director of Harvard Graduate School's Project Zero, which aims to investigate education and learning in a holistic way. Project Zero has supported the concept of Teaching for Understanding. Its researchers are in the forefront of studying what education can look like for the 21st century. Perkins proposes that we look at education with an eye for bigger goals than just accumulating disconnected pieces of knowledge, without discounting the need for skills and foundational knowledge.
To do this, he sets out seven principles of teaching that can make significant changes in how a teacher plans and implements a curriculum in any subject area, for any grade level. Suggested classroom practices are included, but more than that, the book is about different ways of thinking, for both teachers and students. Written in Perkins' delightful wry voice, Making Learning Whole is motivating, inspiring, and very accessible. Perkins recognizes past and current research into the process of learning, and cites numerous additional resources in which "visions of meaningful education seem to speak to three basic agendas: enlightenment, empowerment, and responsibility" (p.61).
The seven principles to get started on that vision, a wonderful extended metaphor to the game of baseball, are:
1. Play the Whole Game: Get students started on accessible, authentic ways of learning; get into the game instead of being always stuck at "threshold experiences."
2. Make the Game Worth Playing: Get students started with deep disciplinary thinking and investigating processes. Be able to answer the question, "Why are we studying this?"
3. Work on the Hard Parts: Find ways to support and fine-tune areas where individual students are stuck, without getting mired in "elementitis."
4. Play Out of Town: Stretch learning to new situations and applications, for tomorrow and not just for the test.
5. Uncover the Hidden Game: Pay attention to the deeper principles beneath the obvious.
6. Learn from the Team... and the Other Teams: Learning is social and constructed in communities. Put those learning groups and communities to work in "participation structures" to deepen experience and proficiency.
7. Learn the Game of Learning: Students can develop intellectual dispositions and learning habits of mind to become self-managed learners.
Teachers, you will love this book! It will inspire you to remember that the most important goal of learning is understanding, and the criterion of understanding is performance: whether the learner can "think and act flexibly with what they know" (p. 49). It will help you go beyond the ordinary routines of skill lessons to look at how your teaching and your students' learning can be transformed. Perkins provides a guide for the "choreography of learning, an effort to organize learning for greater timeliness, focus, effectiveness, and efficiency" (p. 17). Educators of any stripe or level, school administrators, district board members - you need this book also. If education is going to be meaningful in significant ways in our time, we need to be playing the whole game all through school!