Reviewed by Mary Tedrow
Disclaimer: I read (incrementally) the entire text of Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education while sitting in front of my 11th-grade students in Reading Workshop, second block of the day. When I read under those circumstances, I find my mind runs on three tracks: A focus on the reading; a jump to what my students will need from me in the next 25 minutes; and, for professional titles like this book, a jump to how what I am reading will affect this particular classroom.
In this particular reading experience, I did not focus very well. I offer this confession because it led me to believe that, as a classroom teacher, I was not the audience David Perkins was looking for. Otherwise, my brain would have been firing more on the third track: making direct application to my classroom work.
That rarely happened.
Making Learning Whole is Perkins’ argument that education is damaged by breaking knowledge down into discrete parts, which he calls elementitis, a phenomenon that leaves students spitting out fractured facts that have little cohesiveness or application to the subject under study.
He advocates designing course instruction around a “junior version” of the ultimate goals in a course so students can learn the subject as a whole concept -- and then returning to aspects of the “game” that prove difficult to master. Perkins calls this working on the hard parts.
His ongoing analogy refers to how he and so many others learned baseball – first in the junior version of Little League. The complexities of the game are revealed over time and the hard parts are the skill drills any athlete will remember from their days of training.
He continues the baseball analogy through seven chapters that present each of his seven principles (my take on each chapter is in parentheses): Play the Whole Game (reduce elementitis); Make the Game Worth Playing (motivation); Work on the Hard Parts (practice, practice, practice); Play Out of Town (show that knowledge transfers); Uncover the Hidden Game (explore the underpinning structure of a subject; in the case of baseball it is the strategies that lead to winning); Learn from the Team (learning as a social rather than individual activity); Learn the Game of Learning (the old chestnut of growing lifelong-learners).
I agree with Dr. Perkins. I think John Dewey would also agree. I think most vocational teachers, or Yearbook, Art or Music teachers – or any number of others who have been lucky enough to teach a course like the Journalism course I taught for years – would agree. We have all worked with students in a junior version of grown-up games and seen the power it has on student achievement. Students learn through the process of doing over and over, working on the hard parts, uncovering – as Perkins would say – the hidden game concealed within the grown-up games.
I think where I’d quibble with Perkins is over his subtitle: How Seven Principles of Teaching can Transform Education. This book offers little practical advice that might help instructors who resist leaving their safe academic curricula to make the uncomfortable leap to teaching the whole game. Little is provided to bridge that gap through visualization or application of his theories. No helping hand is offered to teachers who struggle against a tide of mandates that encourage ever more elementitis, grasping for any means to offer substantive learning experiences for their students.
After explaining his take on what I read as constructivism, Perkins offers a one-pager at the end of each of his seven principle chapters titled “Wonders of Learning.” All of the five or six paragraphs at the end of each chapter begin with “I wonder” as in “I wonder how to develop a good theory of difficulty for what I’m teaching?” Questions, I assume, designed to set readers on the course to transformation.
Frankly, I wondered when I’d have the time to re-think my entire theory of teaching while most of my waking hours are consumed by mandated state tests, data collection, grade reports, increasing student enrollment, committee meetings, grading and responding to student work. I need a little more help to go through my transformation. I suspect those who don’t spend leisurely hours in a think tank environment might as well. The theory is great, but without more step by step assistance, Perkins’ ideas are unlikely to revolutionize the practice of teachers too busy to look beyond next week’s plans.
As I thumb back through this book, I don’t see the usual evidence of my high engagement with a professional title – the highlighting, post-it notes and scribbled plans in the margin. On a couple occasions, however, what Perkins said did lead me into thoughts about my own students and their next 25 minutes.
I like the graphic on page 104. It shows three ways to respond to student confusion. It might be helpful for reaching those teachers who are stuck in “blame the student” mode. I also made note of questions he offered to get students thinking. The ones I wrote down: What’s going on here? What makes you say that? and What makes this hard? I’m always looking for good inquiry questions.
The sports analogy works, the theory is acceptable. But in all honesty, David Perkins did not offer enough to overcome my distraction, and I won’t be recommending this book to my teaching peers. I suspect it will be required reading in his Harvard Graduate School of Education courses.
Mary Tedrow teaches high school English and journalism and co-directs the Northern Virginia Writing Project. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and a former Fellow of the Teacher Leaders Network.