Book Review: Making Learning Whole

Making Learning WholeIn Making Learning Whole, David Perkins provides a highly accessible, comprehensive summary of curriculum design principles that encourage thinking, engagement, and mastery. Perkins frames the discussion within a sports metaphor, comparing the way that young people play a “junior version” of professional sports to how students might master the fundamental concepts and skills of an academic discipline such as English or science. The concepts themselves are commonly expressed in the technical language of education theorists — zone of proximal development, experiential learning, and so on. Perkins wraps these ideas within an overarching framework of accessible, common language that is friendly and approachable.  It helps if you have heard these terms before, but Perkins helpfully summarizes each concept in case you have not.

Perkins addresses one of the most significant but not well-publicized core problems with education in the United States today: the epidemic of student disengagement with school learning. American schooling has become a chore that the great majority of students suffer through. Content is dry, disconnected from real life, and overly procedural. Although many students learn to play the game of school and find success, most leave so much engagement and learning potential on the table, and an alarming number fail outright. Some find their passion for learning outside of the core school program, either in co-curricular activities or through personal hobbies. Schools, not students, are the problem. Perkins would like to see teachers “make the game worth playing.”

Unlike some education books, Perkins does not limit the text to one education concept. Each of the seven principles of “making learning whole” includes within it several curriculum design principles gleaned from education research. For example, “work on the hard parts” encompasses practice activities, formative assessment, peer- and self-assessment, isolation/reintegration, six forms of knowledge, and instructive exercises. This makes the text a rich resource for learning the practice of curriculum design, whether one is relatively new to the field or a seasoned educator.

Perkins takes the sensible route between competing ideologies. While firmly constructivist, Perkins acknowledges the importance of basic skills acquisition and other hallmarks of traditional education. He thus avoids the pitfalls of binary education debates and emphasizes a holistic view of education. For example, when exploring “playing the whole game,” Perkins includes “project-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, community action initiatives, role-playing scenarios, formal debate, and studio learning.” Each of these learning forms has its books and proponents. Perkins skillfully emphasizes principles shared among these while acknowledging differences, an approach friendly to education practitioners.

The chapter on “the hidden game” is particularly powerful, as it treats fundamental flaws in thinking processes that pervade student (and teacher) work. Deficits in self-management, causal thinking, depth of explanation, and complexification affect not only learning but full participation in society. Perkins badly wants students to become logical, critical thinkers who achieve a depth of understanding that prepares them to more fully understand big, sometimes contentious ideas of our time: evolution, climate change, global conflict.

In contrast to some education experts, Perkins believes that quality curriculum is more important than quality pedagogy. Noting that students forget most of what they learn in school, one might think that the process of learning wad more important. Perkins is unwilling to throw in the towel on content, rather suggesting that reorganized content has a chance to stick.

The education profession badly needs more books like Making Learning Whole, which presents a wide range of teaching practices within a highly accessible, overarching frame. All too often, problems in education are reduced to simple forms that writers purport to solve with simple solutions. Perkins embraces complexity but also provides an opening for the everyday teacher, parent, or student to understand it. Perkins’ contribution may help the general public understand that education is a complex profession in which well-trained professionals should be supported and empowered to deepen their practice and give all kids the quality education that they deserve.