Master Teacher David Perkins: On the Game of Learning

In “Making Learning Whole” author David Perkins identifies seven principles of teaching that he thinks can truly transform our system of education.

He claims that the “serious learning of anything has to be something of a campaign”. Recognizing that some learning is easy (like getting oriented in a shopping mall) he notes that other learning is quite complicated (like algebra). All formal education must somehow approach the problem of complexity.

We have two ways to deal with complexity. One involves breaking a subject into elements, teach them to be learned and then putting them together again for the whole picture. A second way is to learn something about the subject to start with rather than really doing it.

David Perkins thinks we can and should do better.

Using his learning of baseball as a metaphor he introduces the notion of teaching a “junior version” of the whole complex baseball game. He states that most games – checkers, chess, backgammon are learned as wholes. This is also done in learning to paint whole landscapes or learning to compose (or perform) whole songs, whole pieces – from the very beginning.

“In the spirit of learning the whole game we can call this broad view “learning by wholes” and divide it into seven principles:
1. Play the whole game
2. Make the game worth playing
3. Work on the hard parts
4. Play out of town
5. Uncover the hidden game
6. Learn from the team.. and the other teams
7. Learn the game of learning.”

Notice that when we teach #7 to learn the game of learning we empower students to become pro-active learners. The following is but a minor adaptation of the author’s treatment of this. We have simply posed meaningful questions to be considered by the student.

It is in teaching first to ask the right questions – while requesting thought for the answer – that students will then learn to learn.

When students understand the whole game to be learned they will become motivated, pro-active learners.

1. Focus on the Whole Subject to be Learned

– How do i get a sense of the whole subject if not given it?
– Once I learn the whole subject what will I be trying to do?
– How will I go about it?
– If not ready to tackle the whole, how can I deal with just a part?
– How can I take on a smaller version of the whole subject?
– How can I break up the subject into elements?
– How can I start by just learning a bit about the subject?
– How do I explore defining the “whole subject”?

2. Make Learning Worth-While
– What can I do to increase my commitment, interest in learning?
– What level of challenge is best – neither too boring or discouraging?
– Can I find a “junior version” of the whole subject for me to consider?
– How do I motivate myself to become more autonomous?

3. Work on the Hard Parts
– How do I isolate the parts I need to work on most?
– How can I break things down myself – not waiting for the teacher?
– What are my sticking points as a learner?
– Where am I confused?
– Where am I poorly skilled/
– How can I set up the time to work on the hard parts?
– How can I integrate my improved skills for learning the whole subject?
– How can I establish critical regimens of deliberate practice?

4. Focus on New Applications and Connections
– What are my next best steps?
– What assignments can I give myself before being given them?
– What would be a new variation on the next level of challenge?
– If there are different approaches when should I try them out?
– If there are questions how do I make sense of the issues?
– If there are critics what do they say? How are they answered?
– How can I make connections to better integrate the learning?
– How can I best connect to transfer knowledge and skills?

5. Uncover Hidden Issues
– What are the surface & deeper versions of the learning process?
– How will I lookout for the hidden issues in what I’m learning?
– Ask: how do we really know this? Why this works?
– How can I look out to find and solve the relevant problems?
– What counts as evidence, counter-evidence and pitfalls?
– What are endeavors of inquiry and of application?

6. Learn to Collaborate
– How can I work with fellow students as study partners?
– Can I best use lab or competitive team activities?
– How to best engage with teachers, tutors, parents?
– Can I find mentors who could help me?
– Whom can I teach what I just learned – so I can learn even better?

7. Learn How to Learn
– Have I investigated learning practices that really work?
– What learning practices work for me? What don’t?
– How can I best ask for information, advice encouragement?