Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Playing the Whole Game

I've mentioned this book before, but Making Learning Whole by David Perkins really helped clarify my thinking on assessment. The key idea of the book is to Play The Whole Game.

The need to play the whole game is something that we intuitively understand. In basketball, we don't spend all day just working on dribbling or shooting, eventually, we go out and play an actual game. When painting, we don't just work on our shading, we paint pictures. We don't just work certain chords on a guitar, we play full songs.

Rhett Allain over at Dot Physics argues that grades are a shadow of the real thing. Very true and in fact, I plan to steal that analogy between 10 and 32,000 times over the next year. However, he doesn't go far enough.

School is a shadow of the real thing.

We spend our time working on skills in isolation under idealized conditions. There are exceptions, but most of the time, students are just doing shadows of the real thing.

And that's ok. Our students aren't going to get LHC access or write a novel or create new historical knowledge.

Instead, we focus on creating mini-games. I think Perkins might call them scrimmages, but I could be making that up. Sometimes you don't have uniforms and a ref so you go and play 3 on 3 in the park. That's a mini-game.1

This is an assessment blog though so I'm not going to focus on creating mini-games (sorry).

In a whole game, you are rarely ever told what skill to use. Most often, the opportunity arises, you identify the need to use a certain skill, and perform the skill.

This is all a roundabout way of saying I like topics over skill lists.2

Skill lists fall short here and we are in danger of falling into the trap of reductionism. In a skills list, you are usually asked to just use the tool, not to pick the right one and definitely not asked to modify it to fit our needs.

Yes, I break down the game into separate skills. Yes, I individually assess those skills. But eventually, I'd like to see those skills in action. My topic scores tell me how they do at playing the whole game. I fully admit that Motion is a vague name for a topic score. But what I really want them to be able to do is measure the motion of something. So they need some vocab and some measuring skills and some formulas and they definitely spend a lot of time practicing the math (Perkins says to work on the hard parts without getting stuck in "elementitis.") In the end though, I want to be able to tell them, "Figure out how much faster you'd get to the mall if you skateboarded instead of walked" and see that they know how to put all those pieces together.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Kate's modeling project. Yes, Kate wants her students to be able to do all sorts of different mathy stuff. But really what she wants her students to do is gather some data, pick a function, justify why they picked it, explain what they're looking at qualitatively and quantitatively, and draw some conclusions (or something like that).

It seems if you include a water tank, you're golden. What's happening here? What skills do I need to pull out of the hat? How is this different from the frictionless, no air resistance, problems we usually deal with?

Note: Even though I'm using "real world" examples, they don't have to be.

Can you create a skills lists for the whole game? Sure. But not nearly as well. You end up in this troubling pattern of having some skills being worth more than others and you'll probably do some strange weighting system that nobody gets. You lose the mental picture a topic creates that "this skill" will help me in "this game." You're also far more likely to include the one-offs with skill lists.3

Anticipated objections:

I can't assess every standard during a single mini-game. 
Well yeah. Chris Sharma doesn't need to dyno (30 seconds in) every hold, but should the need arise, he uses it appropriately. That's what's important; not that students are forcing the round skill into the square test because they know they need to to use that skill and are being directly tested on it.

If it's a crucial skill, most of us are deft enough at creating the conditions that the need for that skill will present itself. If it doesn't ever, that should tell you something about the skill itself.

Topics don't give me detailed information for remediation.
I think that's a legitimate argument. There's an extra step involved in drilling down to the standard. I've tried to fix that by adding traffic lighting of my individual standards to my tracking sheets. But look at the other way around. Doing and assessing the whole game gives information that's meaningful and beyond basic regurgitation. It's good to perform the skill, but now you can see if they know when to use it and if they can break from the algorithm if the situation demands it.

It gives information to the student as well. He or she can see how this fits into the bigger picture and how this skill is used in the whole game. Anyone can move their hand up and down and dribble a basketball. It's not until you're actually playing a game when you realize that there's more to it than that.

Everyone who's played a sport knows this. You practice what you can. You go out and play. You watch film to break down your jump shot. Or more likely, while playing you realized your left hand is still weak and you need to practice.You practice. Then you play again.

My state has the most random set of standards.
It's really hard to find the whole game in the state standards miasma. The state of California gives me a list of slightly less than 60 things to teach. Some of the standards, like this one
Students know the appearance, general composition, relative position and size, and motion of objects in the solar system, including planets, planetary satellites, comets, and asteroids. 
end up lumping a few standards together. Once unpacked I end up with 80ish.  Some of you have more than 100.

This is stupid.

You've got two choices. Race through and spend 1.8 days on each standard. Or focus on playing the whole game. Pick 3-5 Whole Games a quarter. Do something with those isolated skills. Assess it. Remediate the hard parts. Replicate the successes. Repeat.4

Play the whole game. Assess the whole game.

1:If you click on the Amazon link, the first review gives a quick rundown of the seven points David Perkins gives. If you're a UbD or PBL/PBL fan, you are likely doing a pretty good job with the mini-games.
2: It also creates a learning progression.
3: Standards that don't go anywhere should be mentioned, not assessed, but that's a different issue.
4: It doesn't have to be a project. You can get at the whole game with a standard written test. It'll just be a lot more open-ended than any skill test you're used to making.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'd agree with you completely if we were talking about developing a skill list and never asking kids to synthesize or apply them. I see things in terms of whole-part-whole. Introduce the topic as a whole, break it down and assess the parts and finally put it back together and see what they can do with the whole.

  3. Yeah, sorry David, that's exactly what I meant. My only argument is that topics do that better. If you can directly assess the whole (topic), then break it down into skills, then back to whole, that's ideal. The danger of skills lists is it usually is just the parts. You can fix that in different ways but you have to do weird stuff like making skills worth different weights or doing 80% of your grade for skills and 20% for whole stuff.

  4. Jason---I think that you just took care of my biggest concern about SBG. I was concerned about missing the "whole game," but you have now given me a way around that. This post helped me a lot.

  5. Eh, don't apologize. You articulated just fine, but it gets tough to make sense while commenting on my phone one handed.

  6. My favorite statement out of this wonderful post: "If it's a crucial skill, most of us are deft enough at creating the conditions that the need for that skill will present itself. If it doesn't ever, that should tell you something about the skill itself."

    I KNEW there was a good reason to trash factoring trinomials!

    -- Tim Erickson

  7. Hi Jason,
    Been reading around the SBG blogroll, and giving it a try this year. I love your idea of "playing the whole game", but as a HS Physics teacher I kinda want the fine-grain standards to help kids target their weak areas too. I'm thinking of dividing the main topics (the Modeling Physics models) into 5-10 standards each, each graded 1-3 in isolation. Then that all gets wrapped into a topic score which goes 1-4, the 4 being able to handle a comprehensive problem bringing together the various details for the whole model.