Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Learning by Wholes

David Perkins is a senior professor of education at Harvard who has done a lot of super-applicable, general-audience writing. I just finished his book Make Learning Whole, and am eager to try applying each of the seven principles he outlines within. Here are some ideas of how I think each could apply to my own work, along with an explanation of the principles themselves.


Play the Whole Game

"We can ask ourselves when we begin to learn anything, do we engage some accessible version of the whole game early and often? When we do, we get what might be called a 'threshold experience,' a learning experience that gets us past the initial disorientation and into the game. From there it's easier to move forward in a meaningful motivated way."

By game, Perkins means a domain, a field, an area of learning. The point is to not to just talk about the game, not to pick away at learning just elements that are part of the game, but to actually do it and participate in it. Sure, you might have to play a junior version, probably with lots of scaffolding to support you at first, but that's still far superior to being promised you'll (maybe kinda sorta) get to the real thing later.

As a computing educator, it is tempting to say that playing the whole game comes for free since you start writing code pretty much right away. But the whole game isn't always present, at least not until later. There are oh-so-many examples of introductory programming learning experiences that go through a laundry list of concepts, using toy examples for each one before eventually getting to look at any sort of interesting, realistic problem. I avoided this with my CS1 design. It is structured around a series of demo programs in Processing. Each module is devoted to modelling how to create one demo, introducing computing concepts as they are needed. I want to make sure I continue to keep the whole game in mind for all my learning experiences. If my learners aren't doing something resembling the real thing, I need to fix that.

Make the Game Worth Playing

Motivation is always a tricky thing, especially in contexts where the reason for learning something is because a teacher said you have to. So how do we make the game worth playing? By playing the whole game, for a start. Look for intrinsic motivators. Connect to practical applications, personal insights, to other areas of the curriculum. Focus instruction on generative topics ("topics that figure centrally in the discipline or practice under study, resonate with the learner's interests and concerns, and, importantly, resonate with the teacher's also"). Teach in a way that highlights "understandings of wide scope, with enlightenment, empowerment, and responsibility in the foreground." Build a tone of enticement into the beginning of lessons. Teach for understanding. Foster a growth mindset. Provide a pleasantly frustrating challenge, seeking flow.

I've done a lot of thinking on game-like learning, and have led and contributed to development of a few game-like and even game-based learning experiences. I think that a lot of the ideas behind making the game worth playing connect well with game-like learning. I recently delivered a course to employees at work and struggled a bit with engagement. In my next experiment, I'm thinking of using game elements to increase engagement and retention.

Work on the Hard Parts

"The hard parts have an annoying characteristic: They do not always get better just through playing the whole game. Real improvement depends on deconstructing the game, singling out the hard parts for special attention, practicing them on the side, developing strategies to deal with them better, and reintegrating them soon into the whole game." Actionable assessment and communicative feedback are important aspects. To anticipate the hard parts, watch out for certain kinds of knowledge: ritual, inert, foreign, tacit, skilled, and conceptually difficult.

I've fully adopted backward course design, and have gotten pretty good at writing learning outcomes. In my next designs, I'd like to identify the 'hard parts' among the learning outcomes, and double check that I am isolating, practising, and reintegrating them. I think I am doing this in my aforementioned CS1, where I get learners to practice the newly introduced computing concept before reintegrating it back into the development of the module's demo.

Play Out of Town

We want our learners to be able to transfer their learning: "People learn something in one context, and this informs how well they learn and perform in another context. ... In other words, transfer is a matter of 'playing out of town,' applying the games we learn to bits and pieces of those games not just in their original contexts but elsewhere, in some other setting where they might be helpful." Think about "what is supposed to transfer, to where is it supposed to transfer, and how is the transfer accomplished." Fostering transfer means including "some of the connection making that we hope learners will do later on."

One of the big goals I had when starting our curriculum-aligned work-integrated learning program a few years ago was to help our students see computer science more holistically while making deliberate, explicit connections between academic theory and the industry work they do. Although I don't work on that program directly anymore, I'm always brainstorming ways to do this and making suggestions to the team. My hope is that the result will be better transfer of academic knowledge to the workplace. I'm also hoping to look for more ways to incorporate reflective abstraction and diverse applications into individual learning experiences.

Uncover the Hidden Game

"Any complicated and challenging activity always has multiple layers beneath the obvious. ... The hidden games are not only interesting but often important to doing well at the surface game. ... A great deal of learning proceeds as if there were no hidden games. But there always are. They need attention or the learners will always just be skating on the surface." A few example types of hidden games include the hidden games of strategy, causal thinking, inquiry, and power. Games hide under the rug of simplicity, within the margins of good enough, inside the cloak of the tacit, and beyond the horizon of readiness.

The next time I create a learning experience for developers who want to learn a different language or tech framework, I want to use my subject-matter experts to help me uncover the hidden game of what they do. I think a short lesson on the ideas from the book might help them know what I'm going after, and I can use my own expertise as a practitioner to dig further. I want to make sure the hidden game surfaces in the learning outcomes and therefore the rest of the learning experience.

Learn from the Team

So much of formal education has the expectation of learning solo. Learning from the team means engaging with richer participation structures (how activities are organized through roles and responsibilities) that are more social and collaborative. Effective participation structures include pair problem solving, studio learning, communities of practice, cross-age tutoring, and extreme team learning.

We've used a few of these, some more directly than others. For example, our work-integrated learning students are asked to pair program very early on in their industry-based education paths. As I work on my CS1 course to be delivered to employees, I'm planning on incorporating learning teams, each one assigned its own mentor. I also want to encourage pair or group problem solving and more meaningful peer evaluation opportunities.

Learn the Game of Learning

"Learning to learn has to do with many things: directing one's attention, choosing time and place, relating new ideas and skills to what you already know. Indeed, it has a lot to do with the previous six principles." To uncover the hidden game of learning, learners need to move from the passenger seat into the driver's seat. Skills ranging from problem-solving strategies to time management should be taught explicitly, either as a standalone course or incorporated throughout curriculum.

Our work-integrated learning program already has workshops that help our students learn the game of learning, such as a growth mindset workshop I led. As I continue to read books on how learning works, I'm hoping to compile the fundamentals into an easily-digestible format and potentially a workshop as well. The former could be shared with learners in my courses for employees as well.

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