Inquiry Book Study: Week Three

Our inquiry book study has made it to week three!

Be sure to check out the conversations still happening on weeks one and two.
Thanks to Allison Home for this weeks great blog post – as always – please share your thoughts and comments below!
Chapter Three: Work on the Hard Parts
Allison Hone is a Calgary native (which she continually regrets every winter) and completed her B.A. Honours in History, and B.Ed. from the University of Calgary. After teaching 15 years with the Calgary Board of Education, she decided to embark on a Master’s of Arts in Learning and Technology from Royal Roads University in Victoria. Her thesis on the use of mobile learning to enhance historical thinking skills will hopefully be finished by late 2011 (added emphasis on “hopefully”). Her interest in technology enhanced education is both a blessing and a curse, as it means far too many books read on the iPad, and an astonishing number of apps bought in the hopes of finding that one that will encourage her high school students to develop greater critical thinking skills. The other problem is the fact that she must compete for use of the iPad with her 3 year old son, Silas…

You can read Allison’s blog here and you can find her on twitter here.

A teaching career affords many opportunities for reflection. In fact, it is difficult to think of other careers that provide such opportunity for reflection on a daily basis, as every day is certainly unique for an educator. For some of us, it almost becomes an obsession. I spent many an hour (when I should have been marking) reviewing the latest book on increasing student involvement, or scaffolding for the reluctant reader. My bookshelf grows heavier, and alas, so does my bag of marking.

Making Learning Whole fits my obsession just perfectly. In my limitless quest to find the ultimate resource for the high school Social Studies teacher, I had hoped I had found my educational equivalent of the holy grail. And to this point, it has not disappointed.

Chapter Three is entitled, “Work on the Hard Parts”. Perkins suggests that we are all often guilty of “practicing your mistakes” (Perkins, 2009, p. 79). In the classroom, we know this to be true, as time and time again, we comment on an area for improvement that a student, in the very next assignment, completely ignores. For me, it is a probably most evident in essays. “Remember to include some proof that backs up this statement,” I write in the margins on an essay about the effects of imperialism. Yet on the next essay on economic globalization, the same problem rears its ugly head. Sometimes I have thought to get a number of rubber stamps with comments on them, as I seem to write the same thing over and over again.

Perkins calls this the “hearts and minds theory” – we hope that the student will take our comments to heart, keep it in mind, and make the necessary changes. In doing so, we may be incorrectly assuming that the student’s heart was actually in it in the first place, or that they even understand our often brief feedback. Often the feedback is not that informative, and even when it is informative, there is no guarantee that the student will understand it.

The cognitive psychologist K. Anders Ericsson suggests that truly successful individuals are often not naturally gifted; in fact, talent played a negligible role compared to deliberate practice (Ericsson, 1993). Malcolm Gladwell found similar evidence in his book, Outliers, suggesting that natural talent does not matter as much as hard work and practice. What is interesting in this is that a cognitive psychologist is involved. Cognitivism is a learning theory that focuses on how the brain accepts new information. The brain is often compared to a computer in that it accepts information, processes that information, and then outcomes are generated. Cognitivism suggests that learning occurs best when the content is broken down into smaller chunks. This seems to be the basis of Perkin’s argument as well – practice the hard parts.

But how does one know what the hard parts are? Perkins spends much of Chapter Three discussing assessment, for in assessment we will be able to determine where the hard parts exist, and provide accurate and well timed feedback to students. He suggests several types of assessment – actionable assessment, peer and self-assessment, and implicit assessment. Perkins suggests that the key to working on the hard parts is to isolate and reintegrate these trouble spots – find out what the trouble is through the various assessments, isolate it and provide opportunities to try it again in the setting of the whole game.

But just how do you know when the hard parts will pop up? For every teacher, I think there is an innate ability to anticipate what students will struggle with. Still, I am often surprised to find that what I had considered quite easy is posing a challenge with a class. Perkins suggests that there are different types of knowledge: ritual, inert, foreign, tacit, skilled, and conceptually difficult. For each of these types of knowledge, Perkins has suggestions on how best to attack the difficulty the students are facing (pages 89 – 99). He cautions teachers to avoid the blame game – in which all we do is sigh, shrug our shoulders, drink even more coffee, and carry on the status quo.

His final advice in Chapter Three is to think about creating études – specific exercises that strengthen certain skills and sensitivities. “It’s a holistic mission with a technical agenda” (Perkins, 2009, p. 105).

I am currently midway through a M.A. in Learning and Technology. For me, this book hits some familiar notes, particularly in regards to learning theories and models. But the technology side of me is forever hopeful to find a way to make learning whole that deals with the rapid influx of technology in the educational world. Maybe it will be up to me to make those connections. Perhaps it is time that I work on the hard parts…


Andersson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., and Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Pyschological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: how seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


5 thoughts on “Inquiry Book Study: Week Three

  1. I think practice is where I, perhaps others, fail my students the most. Without a good junior game in which various skill levels can be demonstrated, a student cannot see where practice may lead. In baseball, it's evident that players have different skills–hitting, catching, sliding, anticipating, and so forth.

    Projects, reading circles, reciprocal teaching, and other methods in which students are central are better candidates for facilitating peer and self-assessment and for allowing participants to see skill levels, which may energize them to practice. But teachers, like baseball players, don't hit a home run every time they teach a lesson.


  2. I think we know where the hardparts are based on our redundant feedback to students. The other question is how important are the hard parts. So it is a job of the teacher to recognize the really important things – and then notice the hard parts – perhaps spelling here and hear wrong all of the time is only so important – skipping ahead some of the skills in learning how to think – and look at the hard parts in the process of thinking is more worthy….


  3. Allison,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. This was a challenging chapter for me – because it's an area that I feel weak in. I'm naturally drawn to the 'whole game' – I love planning big, rich, authentic projects – but I'm realizing as my teaching practice develops that I need to think carefully about where projects are going, and why we're doing them.

    I like the idea of starting with the hard parts, or the misconceptions. I recently saw this in an expert way with a math project I was part of. The teachers knew grade 6 math misconceptions so well, the whole math question was strategically designed to uncover them, and then have students work on the hard parts. It was amazing to see very thoughtful educators consider not just what would engage students (which is how I think) but also consider how to deepen students understanding.

    You asked about finding the hard parts – but I think we often know them. You mentioned comments that you write repeatedly on students work – these should be the starting point for the work. If including proof in writing is the problem – design the game around it. Teach it, assess it, assess it again.. whatever it takes.

    From the chapter, I really liked Perkins idea of the Etude. I saw this as designing a smaller game narrowly focused on the problem areas. This reminds me that working on the hard parts does necessarily have to be drill and kill – we can make the hard parts a 'game' as well – or least find a context where these skills are authentically embedded.


  4. Alison, you make a good point about “practising our mistakes” in the margins of student work. Early on, I found it to be a challenge to design rich tasks to mitigate its negative effects because I know that I, too, often ignored teacher comments in my own learning. Attitude may have had something to do with it. So anticipating both the hard parts and attitude issues became a focus of mine to foster student self-concept.

    The issue of “practicing the hard parts” highlights the importance, for me, of embedding the metacognitive piece into the work. As each new significant task draws to a close, I feel that it is essential to create a reflective opportunity for students to internalize their thinking around their efforts, through self-assessment and peer feedback, where appropriate. I have found this to be a gradual and graduated approach as I can only move students forward from where they are. Over time, students have come to expect the practice as it helps everyone avoid complacency that defines “the blame game”.

    Love the idea of the etudes. They directly address what is getting in the way of the learning, encouraging creativity, and attending to task commitment. One would have to work pretty hard at avoiding metacognitive reflection when working on the hard parts through etudes. It's as good for the “affect” as well as the “effect” it has on the learning.


  5. Allison, thank you for your post. I think as teachers we are constantly struggling with the “hard parts”.

    I really feel that understanding the hard parts … and equally important, knowing what to do with them … stems from deep content knowledge. That's not to say that you need to know everything (who does?). Neil's example of math teachers who really understood student misconceptions was critical, then combined with pedagogical content knowledge, they were able to provide opportunities to identify the hard parts and engage students in learning.

    The piano example that Perkins provides really hit home for me. I learned to play the piano as a child … but from a very technical point of view. I always did well on the exams, because of that. I learned how to play that game … do what you're told to do and get good marks. Too bad I never really loved it. So the whole game eluded me.

    Now I watch my 14 y.o. son play – he's quite talented. But his approach is totally different. He loves to play, but he doesn't want to do the hard parts, and he wants to play it his way, not necessarily the way the composer meant it to be played. He's interested in the sound and feeling, not the technicalities. And he loves it. (Did I say that already? Hmmm – loving it is pretty important) He's playing his whole game and exploring his creativity too (I think Sir Ken would say leave him alone and let him enjoy the art).

    My small victory is that now that he is writing his own music, he appreciates the hours of theory and practice that came before … becuase he wants to achieve a sound that others can reproduce. Ah-ha! The whole game … the hard parts are now important to him!

    So I, like others in the this forum, am a huge supporter of the etude approach. Make the hard parts integral to a bigger, more beautiful sounding whole. The benefits may show up later …


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