We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any state of development.” - Jerome Bruner
Recently, I have had a number of conversations about learning, hard work, and boredom. People are wrestling with the traditional notion that hard work, rigor, repetition and often boring types of activities are what make successful people… no pain, no gain… just suck it up, it will pay off dividends down the line when you are older and get a job.
I don’t disagree at all with the notion that learning can and should involve hard work. I also don’t disagree that sometimes the steps we need to take to get us to where we want to be are not always fun, exciting, or engaging. The problem with students lies in the fact that “that place” that we assume that they want to be is far too distant. The payoff isn’t anywhere in the near future.
I was reminded of this as I was digging a hole in our yard to replace a shrub that hadn’t survived the winter. Digging the hole wasn’t fun. I really didn’t enjoy it at all. However, the incentive is that I am doing something relevant, something useful, something that will bring me joy and gratification as soon as I plant that new shrub. The end result will continue to bring me satisfaction all summer long as I care for it and watch it grow.
This also reminded me of David Perkins’ book, Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. In it, he discusses this very notion, often relating it to the game of baseball. Yes, we do drills and repetition – but there is a satisfying payoff not far down the line… getting to play a scrimmage. Getting to play the game. In the book, he writes about elementitis:
Students study elements of arithmetic such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, with the promise that eventually they will have a chance to put them together to solve meaningful problems. Students study the elements of grammar with the idea that they knowledge will later coalesce into comprehensive, compelling, and of course correct written and oral communication. The problem is that elements don’t make much sense in the absence of the whole game, and the whole game only shows up much later if at all” (p. 4). If there is no problem finding in sight, you can’t be sure that the learners are not playing the whole game (p. 27).
Perkins then goes into depth on the following principles of learning by wholes:
- Play the whole game.
- Make the game worth playing.
- Work on the hard parts.
- Play out of town.
- Uncover the hidden game.
- Learn from the team… and the other teams.
- Learn the game of learning.
If you haven’t read his book, I highly suggest it as summer reading. It just makes sense and I have found it to be personally challenging with its words continually coming back to me, convicting me, challenging me,… Once more this book came back to mind for me when the whole Jeff Bliss controversy emerged last week. In the captured video, he laments the absence of meaning, relevance,… any payoff or understanding that the hard parts are worth it in order to play the game – or even parts of the game. My own son has come home for the past two weeks lamenting the fact that if they are not preparing for tests, they are taking tests. In his own words, “It seems like the end of the year already. We’re not doing any learning. We’re either preparing for a test or taking a test.” In all actuality, this is largely what learning has looked like for the entire year. There have been a few pockets of “game”, but far and few between.
In an age where we have more tools and more opportunities than we could possibly ever use to embed skills, practice, repetition, hard work, critical thinking, and yes,… even a few “boring parts” in the pursuit of playing the “whole game”, it is shameful that we seldom take students there. If the “game” is simply reduced to becoming “college ready”, getting a college degree and generating an income, we have indeed failed our youth.
Surely we can make learning look a little more like this…
… and a little less like this…