Teaching Profession Opinion

The Whole Game in Microcosm: A Powerful Approach to Teacher Learning

By Jal Mehta — June 20, 2018 7 min read
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I have written in the past about David Perkins’s idea of “the whole game at the junior level” as an apt way to think about powerful learning experiences for students. Perkins’s idea is that in school we often break up learning into lots of component parts, but lose sight of the “whole game” that those parts comprise. Kids don’t learn to play baseball by spending a year throwing, a year fielding, and a year batting; 6-year-olds “play the whole game” at the junior level. Whole game learning engenders motivation by linking specific activities to larger purposes, and also develops understanding by showing students how the parts relate to the whole.

Less discussed, but equally important, is that similar principles can apply to teacher learning. The usual way that teacher learning goes is that the principal or instructional lead gets excited about an idea - such as higher order questioning or socio-emotional learning -- and then that becomes the topic for the year. Teachers are asked to fold these important but discrete elements into what they are already doing, with the hopes of achieving the benefits that “research” has shown is attached to the relevant idea.

The problem is that powerful learning, and by implication powerful teaching, is not composed of discrete elements but rather is the product of carefully crafted wholes. Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year, tells the story in her forthcoming book, Think Like Socrates, of the power that she had found in her own teaching of asking for students’ questions about the world. Peeples began by sharing with students her own burning questions, like “Why do bad things happen to good people? And why is there suffering in the world?” as a way of modeling the process. When a colleague asked her for advice, she suggested the process, starting with the teacher sharing her own questions. But when the teacher tried it, beginning by sharing a deeply personal story, she was mocked and laughed at by her students. “I did what you said and it was awful,” she said to Peeples. “I’ll never do anything like that again.”

What went wrong? The problem wasn’t the sharing of the story or the well-intentioned effort to elicit students’ questions. The problem was that this process was put into a classroom which hadn’t built the needed culture and trust in which it could thrive. While this is an extreme example, you can imagine something similar with the well-intentioned idea of “asking higher-order questions.” If students don’t know how to read for inference or interpretation, if “higher-order” questions aren’t connected with writing or performing tasks that are similarly higher order, if students aren’t reading things which are meaningful to them, then they will fall flat. Much as Peeples’ colleague concluded that she would “never do anything like that again” teachers will conclude that students aren’t able to answer such questions and revert to normal practice.

At the same time, you can see why PD often focuses on particular slices. If the goal were to take a traditional teacher and help her “teach like Socrates” it would mean revisiting virtually every decision over the course of an entire year. Such a lift would seem overwhelming for both the teacher and whomever was supporting the professional learning. Hence the focus on slices. But slices have the problems discussed above.

The idea of the “whole game at the junior level” or, perhaps more precisely for teachers, “the whole game in microcosm,” provides a different way out of this dilemma. Rather than working on strands that cut across, teachers can work on smaller pieces of practice, but work on all of the different parts of those smaller pieces simultaneously. Two examples will illustrate.

One is the “teaching for understanding” framework developed by some of my colleagues here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (including, not coincidentally, David Perkins). Here the focus is on developing one unit. The goal is to start by developing an essential question or generative topic that connects to core disciplinary, real world, or personal concerns. From there, teachers think through what kinds of performances of understanding students would engage in to demonstrate understanding of the topic, and what modes of ongoing assessment they could use to see whether students are progressing from superficial to deeper understandings. In this process, we can see both the microcosm and the whole game: by working on only one unit, teachers can focus and concentrate their energies, but by thinking through what sorts of questions will grab students, what sort of activities will deepen understanding, what sorts of products will demonstrate understanding, and what form of assessment is aligned with the previous, they are playing the “whole game” of powerful teaching.

A second example is the development of what is being called “core practices” in teacher education. Led by such veteran teacher-educators as Magdalene Lampert, Deborah Ball, and Pamela Grossman, the goal here is to engage novice teachers in complex and ambitious tasks of teaching, such as orchestrating whole class discussions, modeling historical thinking skills, and helping students think and act scientifically. As people charged with training new teachers, they are well-aware of how much new teachers have to learn. But they have chosen to break down this larger learning agenda into complex core practices, which creates an anchor around which to organize learning, but at the same time maintains the holistic range of tasks that must be managed for powerful teaching.

Whole game teacher learning has many of the same advantages as whole game student learning. Teachers get a clear sense of what they are trying to produce from the beginning, which provides motivation and purpose for the work. Since whether a lesson flies or sinks is based on a range of different but inter-related factors, it legitimizes working on whichever part of the equation seems to be most in need of help. So, for example, if a teacher chooses a generative topic (say, “how is the world going to come to an end?) and discovers that as students are working on their research for the topic that they need help in understanding the difference between scientific evidence and advocacy, she can then work on how to help them make those distinctions. If she chooses a topic that requires significant vulnerability and sharing of personal stories but finds that the class hasn’t built enough trust to support that kind of exchange, she can work on strengthening the classroom community. Thus working on the whole game does not preclude focusing on particular parts that need extra attention.

Another advantage of a whole game focus over the slice or strand approach is that the latter approach leaves the task of integration entirely to the individual teacher. In other words, it is on the teacher to figure out how to incorporate higher-order questions or social-emotional learning into all that she has already designed. The whole game approach socializes this problem of integration and makes it the topic of collective professional learning. Particularly if embedded in ongoing spirals of inquiry that are conducted with colleagues, it brings to bear everyone’s expertise on the whole game of teaching.

Finally, focusing on the whole game foregrounds the critical questions that need to be asked of the structure as a whole. If the district has a scope and sequence that favors breadth over depth and an end-of-year exam that does the same, efforts to incorporate “higher-order questioning” aren’t aligned with the goals and structures of the broader institution. Under the old paradigm, if a teacher came to a PD on higher-order questioning but did not incorporate it into their practice, they are the one that is at fault. But if we make the whole game the subject of everyone’s inquiry, it becomes easy to see that for higher-order questioning to work, then the textbook may need to be replaced or abandoned, the scope and sequence may need to change, the mode of assessment may need to shift, and so forth. All of a sudden everyone is responsible, and everyone has a role to play in supporting a new set of arrangements.

Once everyone has experienced some success in developing just one new or different unit, it shows what is possible, generates momentum for change, and, by comparison, shows the problems with existing practices and structures. The whole game in microcosm is not just a way to improve teacher learning; it is an inside-out strategy to change the system.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.