20 August 2011

On teaching objects, tools, and frames

This post is prompted by interesting points made by Bruno Setola in a substantial post on his blog Gamification.nu, which is well worth reading (and I'm not just saying that because he makes some kind remarks about my sites). The relevant piece is headed "Levelling Up".

His post is packed with ideas and efforts to synthesise them into an approach to teaching Cross-Media Communication, amongst which he finds Threshold Concepts to be a very useful tool. When I first read his thoughts, though, I thought he hadn't really got the idea; he was emphasising the acquisition of a frame of reference rather than the actual content of the concepts.

However, in the course of the discussion he refers to a keynote at the Third Biennial Threshold Concepts Symposium in Sydney last year, given by David Perkins. Unfortunately I couldn't get to that meeting, but that made me even keener to watch the video, below. (Note that it is almost an hour long, but well worth the time. You might find it helpful to have the .pdf file of the full set of slides open so that you can switch to them, because the camera does not dwell on the screen.)

In essence, Perkins is now talking about threshold experiences rather than concepts, and explores the epistemic shifts which take place as they develop from object to tool to frame. (Hence the shift of emphasis in Bruno's account.)

Selectively, because there's a lot in the address, my attention was drawn to Perkins' thoughts about what is involved in managing these shifts and teaching material to serve as a tool rather than an object. (For more detail on the content of the tables, do watch the video; these notes are only about the gist of some parts which strike me on the basis of current interests.)

I was reminded of a couple of pretty poor classes I've observed this year, commented on here and here. In both cases the problem was not really with the actual teaching, but with the syllabus, and the way in which it treats each item of learning as a gobbet of what Perkins elsewhere calls "inert knowledge". Each item was to be stored in the students' brains, to be taken out and shown when called for, but there was no sense of doing anything with it. The academic level Perkins was talking about was higher than the classes I had observed, but he discussed how using the approaches in the left hand column of the table below tend to promote learning of material as a set of concepts, rather than tools to work with.

Object role Tool role
Key features, 'toy' applications Fully developed applications
Rival academic concepts Rival tacit operative concepts
Comparison and critique Select among several and apply

(Do not be tempted, incidentally, to see "Object" as merely equivalent to the lower levels of Bloom in the cognitive domain, and "Tool" as signifying applying the material. It is possible to teach at a very advanced level, still working with objects--and indeed as Perkins notes, that is often entirely appropriate, when the material is a "destination" rather than a "route"*, an end in itself or object of scholarship rather than something which earns its keep by serving as a tool.)

Tool role Frame role
Several concepts One concept
Somewhat closed problems Somewhat open problems
Abundant time Low-stress real time
Solo or large group Small group, rapid turns

Tools have specific tasks, and need to be selected appropriately, and although they may become "extensions of the body" in practical tasks, they are nevertheless also objects which can be studied and refined (Setola discusses the "extensions" point in his post).

The third way in which ideas/knowledge/concepts etc. may be used is as a frame. A frame is an idea through which one sees stuff; a tool is an idea with which one works; an object is an idea one knows about. The critical difference is that by default a frame is part of oneself. It is not experienced as something other; indeed it may be very difficult to step outside one's habitual way of seeing things and take "my habitual way of seeing things" as an object of study.

Frames are what reveal the "inner game" of topics of study, for better or for worse, as Perkins (2009: ch.5) discusses. It needs to be emphasised that frames are not "superior" forms of knowledge (or skill, or values) to tools or objects. As Perkins' use of the term "role" suggests, it is a matter of what job you want this knowledge to do, and so how you teach it.

Bruno's concern is principally about how these transitions might be managed and "taught". Scaffolding, for example, with its implications of incremental development, no longer works when one reaches a discontinuity, such as this kind of epistemic shift between object, tool, and frame.

In short, I'm not sure it can reliably be managed. That is the nature of a threshold experience--the liminality, uncertainty, and indeed risk (although I don't want to over-dramatise) of how experience is re-organised by a new idea.

On the other hand, does it need to be managed? Does trying to manage it make it more likely to happen? Or is it wasted effort? But that's a question which might actually succumb to ingenious empirical research...

I'm reminded of Gestalt shifts in perception. But also of Ramsey (1967). I remember, almost 45 years ago, listening to Ian Ramsey delivering a guest lecture at Sussex on religious language--he must have been speaking about work in progress, because this was before 1967. He spoke about parallelisms in the psalms (I'm not going to digress that far) and the analogy of the polygon and the circle. Start with the simplest regular polygon--an equilateral triangle. Add a side = a square. Go on and on and the figure gets more and more circular, until at some point it is indistinguishable from a circle, and so it is a circle***.

And I hazily remember some basic physics from even longer ago! I seem to remember that phase transitions (such as ice melting, or water boiling) require an energy premium (not the correct phrase, I know)... A catalyst may help, chemically, but the basic transition is the product of "more of the same". It's just that in teaching, the "more of the same" needs to be about the epistemic status one is aiming at, not that which one is emerging from.

These properties are emergent...

This kind of thinking underpins Perkins (2009), where he is concerned about developing appropriate approaches to teaching to promote learning for understanding. (It's a term he is quite comfortable with, and discusses at some length on p.48 ff.)

The book is to a certain extent a reflection on his experience of learning to play baseball as a child; he found it easy, he argues, because he was exposed to the whole game. He practiced the components, of course, but he knew where they all fitted in and he saw them in context.

In formal education, on the other hand, there is in many cases no overall introduction to the whole game of a subject or discipline. Instead, each element of the knowledge base and skill set is likely to be introduced separately, and in isolation. Clearly this inhibits understanding of how it fits together; he calls this unfortunate curriculum strategy "elementitis".

And even if the whole is introduced, it is often discussed at a distance. In baseball (or other sport, or music, or language learning) newcomers get to play, from very early on. In education, the subject is described rather than participated in; he calls this aboutitis. (Perkins does address the question how the "whole game" can be introduced when it is enormous--such as mathematics, or science. He argues that just as baseball is introduced through a simplified form--simpler even than Little League--it is possible to develop an appropriate "junior" form of the game which students, of whatever age, can grasp.)

Back to practice. The sessions I observed were--inappropriately--focused on learning objects rather than tools, still less frames. But that was what the syllabus required. The mechanistic fragmentation of the whole into learning units and outcomes and assessment criteria effectively precluded any other approach. Moreover, the "whole game" was almost inconceivable. As the Wolf report suggests--although one could have wished for more detail--the arbitrary assemblage of  "competences" into courses, does not make for coherent and teachable programmes.

I may be critical of my students' application and implementation of their learning, but seen through this frame (or "lens" as Brookfield puts it) it is not clear how they can get better. Bottom line: if you are forced to teach a whole which does not make sense, the parts can't make sense either.

So that is what I did on my holidays.

7/10. You need to get out more.


  • I agreed with practically all of Perkins' book. I also found it highly readable, in part because does not let his references interrupt his flow--the evidence is there, but it is in the very accessible notes at the end.
  • Indeed, I recognise much of his approach in mine, although he is more rigorous than me on "working on the hard parts" (ch.3), which is my failing. I would promise to do better next time, but at my age, there may not be a next time!
  • His chapter on the "inner game" is a classic (ch.5), particularly on the hidden curriculum embodied in the physical and logistical elements of the classroom**.
  • I'm being presumptuous here, but he does divide the basic idea, of concentrating on the whole, into seven principles, each of which has several aspects, each of which can in turn generate several strategies or exercises... Of course, if you approach the material as a tool-kit or even a frame, that's good. But, although I say it myself, I'm very good at that. I try to employ it all the time, but I did find I could not sustain the necessary frame all the way through the book. Perodically, I did lapse into thinking, "Do I have to learn all these particular techniques?" (Object orientation)
  • P. writes in a US context. Syllabi in the UK (particularly in vocational, professional and further education), are much more prescribed and regulated. Frequently very badly. With very little understanding on the part of awarding and validating bodies about what it is like to study on their programmes. (See here on who writes syllabi, if you've not been there already.
* my terms rather than Perkins'.

** This excerpt concerns the explication or deconstruction of the chair desk (chair with flap-over writing surface) based on Luttrell (2004) (full source on Perkins p.238; author referred to here as "Wendy")
A chair and a desk are fused into the same convenient unit, the desk component a rather small platform upon which the student can rest a book or a notepad. Books usually can be stored under the seat. Wendy provokes people to realize that this very ordinary instrument of education embodies numerous tacit assumptions and expectations that deserve a second thought. [...]

[...][T]he conventional chair-desk favors right-handed stu­dents; the writing platform is almost always to the right. The work­ing surface is not very large, so apparently students are not expected to coordinate multiple sources of written information or develop complex representations. Also, the chair-desk gets in the way of students forming working circles and deprives them of common desk space, as when five or six pupils sit around a table. Learners work alone! Normally chair-desks come in one size for a classroom. One-size-fits-all!
And there is more...

*** (Update 29 August) I now discover that this idea originates from Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). See here for a brief but more detailed exposition than mine, and a discussion of how he attempts to use it as a proof of the existence of God, but the writer claims eventually proves exactly the opposite.


Perkins D N (2009) Making Learning Whole; how seven principles of teaching can transform education San Francisco; Jossey-Bass

Ramsey I T (1967) Religious Language London: Macmillan

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