Sophisticated experiments, public presentations and investigating primary-source documents aren’t projects reserved for university students and field experts. When given developmentally appropriate opportunities to actually do the work instead of learning about it, students are engaged. They are using all their senses. They are ‘playing the whole game’ (Perkins, 2009).
A baseball analogy can be used to explain why students need to immerse themselves in work that’s relevant – work that is a junior version of how professionals in a field engage, create knowledge, and communicate in their discipline:
You don’t learn to play baseball by a year of batting practice, but in learning math, for instance, students are all too often presented with prescribed problems with only one right solution and no clear indication how they connect with the real world. (Perkins, 2009)
A junior version of baseball may involve fewer innings, a smaller diamond, or teams consisting of whatever neighbourhood kids show up in the park on a given day. Yet this version of the game still conveys the essence of baseball – swinging at and hitting a ball and then making your way around the bases while the opposing team scrambles to put you out. Perkins argues that learning the ‘whole game’, whether it’s playing baseball or learning to play a musical instrument, allows one to experience the big picture while fine-tuning aspects of it over time.
All too often, students find themselves laboring over something not because it is meaningful in the moment, but because it’s supposed to be important some time in the future. This ‘learning for later’ style does not aid in student engagement or the retention of knowledge. When playing the whole game, the goal is to build learning out of endeavors experienced as immediately meaningful and worthwhile (Perkins, 2009). This teacher of Grade 1 and 2 students designed a study to inquire into the declining brown bat population in their local community. After gathering information about brown bats which included learning about the disease that was affecting the bats during their hibernation, the impact bats have on humans and their role in the ecosystem. In addition to more conventional sources of information, they invited a Chiropterologist and community members into the classroom. The teacher and students decided to design and build bat houses for the brown bats positioning them around their local community. They also decided to create a public awareness campaign.
Stated another way, Perkins argues that most students have experienced learning in one of two ways: (Perkins, 2009)
- “Elementis” Learning the elements of a subject without putting all these pieces together.
- “Aboutis” Learn about a subject without taking part in the processes that created that knowledge (Perkins, 2009, pp. 3-4).
Typical history instruction involves learning about a particular version of history, with very little critical perspective. The same can be said for science education – students learn someone else’s theories, without the opportunity to expand upon and develop their own.
There is some value in these approaches, but the problem lies in overdoing it. Endless learning about something, in the absence of building from and acting on it, only provides a kind of informational backdrop, rather than an empowering and enlightening body of understanding (Perkins, 2009).
The concept of playing the whole game offers a new perspective on what is considered academic rigour, or the process of imparting more sophisticated information to students.
Playing the whole game is important, but teachers must also make it worth playing in the first place. Engagement and authenticity are keys to learning, so learning tasks and activities must be planned with these in mind. Students want to know about things that have relevance in their lives, so rich, engaging topics make learning worthwhile for students.