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Critical Learning in a Digital Era

Book Review


What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

James Paul Gee

PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, New York, N.Y.

As our society pushes the limits of technological capabilities, we find ourselves in a dire need for an educational upgrade. Commonly practiced teaching methodologies such as rote memorization, drilling, “the 5 paragraph essay,” text based reading, etc. is not cutting it anymore (if they ever really were). Beginner students are coming into a classroom with mastery level skills of navigating a global network of information at the swipe or touch of a finger, communicating to a relative via a screen and a webcam, and yes, even the ability to overcome challenges via a video game. Yet why are we not utilizing these already formed mastery skills? Why do we insist on the “read, write, arithmetic, repeat” educational structure, instead of one the enables students to critically think about why these ideologies and practices matter?  James Paul Gee seeks to present possible solutions to these questions in his analysis of the practices that we see players engaging in during gaming.

DISCLAIMER: To throw some caution to the wind, Gee clearly states that his analysis is not a means of answering the controversial dialogues that revolve around gaming, especially those associated with violence and gender (10). If you have picked up this review in search for these answers, I suggest you stop reading here and seek other resources.

To help us better navigate the many areas of gaming that Gee discusses in this text, I will narrow it down to three main categories: Identity, Massively Multiplayer Social Constructs, and Critical Learning.

IDENTITY

In what I will refer to as “present –world” learning (meaning the learning practices that we currently see students undergoing in K-12 education), we see the identity of the student as a linear concept. However, Gee argues that video games provide students with a multidimensional conceptualization of identity, which he breaks down into the virtual identity, real-world identity (49), and projective identity (50).  These three identities interconnect in that the real-world identity (e.g. Amanda Haydon) creates and controls the virtual identity (e.g. her World of Warcraft Healer Shaman Gunhgu), who embodies a “virtual identity in a virtual world” (49), and thus can create a projective identity (e.g. Amanda as Gunhgu) where the real-world identity “’projects one’s values and desires onto the virtual identity’” (50) and embodies the successes and failures of the virtual identity as the successes and failures of the real-world identity. The sheer metacognition that gaming offers to players allows them to engage in practices of critical learning.

Gee’s account of the importance of identity in relation to critical learning practices clearly illustrates a need for such structures within our present day academic institutions. In his book, he gives real world context to the  notion of identity by relating it to that of a student in a science classroom. If students were only encouraged to put on lab coats and embody the practices of a scientist, then they would, in an ideal world, be able to engage in the practices and adopt the metalanguage of a scientist. However, what the author fails to bring to light is how instructors can create real world excitement around the creation of these alter-identities. In a game,the player can fully dive into the story and virtual identities. However, in the real-world, in what ways can instructors ‘normify’ projecting a real world identity with a real world virtual identity in order to form a real world projected identity? What structures must be put in place? In order to make this a possible practice, would we have to re-think cultural social norms surrounding identity in the classroom?

MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS

With the emergence of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) gaming, we can see the potential and importance of what Gee refers to as “distributed knowledge” (196). Through the analysis of one player’s experience (Adrian), Gee illustrates the “centrally social nature of game play” (183) by exemplifying the “affinity group” (27) that one builds in these massively multiplayer worlds.  Adrian’s testimony (found on pages 183-187) outlines that “play…is inherently social” (187) and involves communication and the placement of digital trust in both the real world players and virtual characters. Adrian also exemplifies that “knowledge and skills are not only distributed across himself…” (187), but that objects and tools within the game are also part of building a cognitive understanding of the multifaceted complexities and challenges within the game. With the tools for social, distributed, and networked practices, it feels easy to get on board with Gee’s overarching question as to why schools do not place a higher level of importance on social learning practices.

CRITICAL LEARNING

So what do projected identities and social constructs have to do with critical learning? EVERYTHING. At some point in our lives, it becomes uncool for us to play doctor with our peers. Why? Because we socially construct our children to believe that playing “dress up” past a certain age is just plain weird. So what do we do instead? We play video games that allow us to pretend with our friends that we are some fantasy creature who can overcome any obstacle. We are able to develop what Gee refers to as an “appreciative system” or “the sorts of goals, desires, feelings, and values that ‘insiders’ in that domain recognize as the sorts members of that domain (the affinity group associated with that domain) typically have” (92-93). What this means is that through social interaction and projected identities, we are able to build situated meaning and context for “the thing” that we are trying to accomplish.

Video games also allow players to explore and engage in what Gee refers to as the “four-stage probe/hypothesize/reprobe/rethink process” (93). Students are engaged in a rhetorical, metacognitive process where they must strategize and analyze how a certain choice could affect the entire affinity group, as well as the “tri-identities”.  This is critical learning. The ability to explore without restrictions, become the identity, form a metalanguage socially, distribute knowledge, rhetorically process how decisions will affect others, engage in multimodal texts, and create situated meaning within a semiotic domain or subdomain all play into the practices needed to critically learn, and are found in what Gee declares as “good games” (38). “Good games” set the stage for potential “good classrooms” where students can actually identify with the discourse they are engaging in while developing cognition socially.

Gee’s elaborate and captivating depiction of how video games engage players in critical literacy and learning practices leaves the reader asking how can we incorporate these needed components into academia? While Gee offers multiple suggestions, a common pattern seems to come into the readers full view. First, we, as a society, must revisit the conceptualization that we must “learn to play” instead of “playing to learn”. As Gee shows, the traditional in-classroom ‘read, write, memorize’ repetition does not align with how we develop cognitive critical learning practices. Second, critical learning involves “becoming” that which you are trying to learn. Students should be encouraged to seek outside resources in order to develop the metalanguage needed to fully understand and create situated meaning of the domain in which they are engaging in. And last, critical learning is not and individualistic affair, but one that requires the social dependency of distributed knowledge brought to the table by other learners. As Sir Ken Robinson states, it is not a reform that our educational institutions need, but a revolution. Why not kick start the revolution by pressing the “start” button?

Linking Literacy and Linguistics

Street’s article “The New Literacy Studies” “[challenges] the great divide in favour of an oral/literate ‘mix'” through an autonomous “ideological” model of literacy (436). Street defines this new ideology as “the role of literacy practices in reproducing or challenging structures of power and domination” (434). He also notes that a crucial part of literacy that has been overlooked in previous articles is that literacy is not a singular, definable concept, but is instead a collection of different literacies that are mixed together and used in various contexts. Similar to other articles that we have read thus far, Street re-emphasizes that when analyzing the ideological model and “cognitive aspects of reading and writing” one must understand that “they are encapsulated within cultural wholes and within structures of power” (435).

When reading this article, there were two key points that really struck me. The first was the fact that Street actually sought to abandon the notion of the great divide by acknowledging the multitude of literacies that go into literacy, while also connecting linguistic theory with literacy theory. As someone who has dabbled in linguistics, I have found it frustrating that previous authors have mentioned the social, cultural, economic, etc. factors that play into literacy practices and theory, but haven’t connected this with the cognitive developments of language acquisition, especially when looking at second language learners. Street clearly states that “I would like to argue that the analysis of the relationship between orality and literacy requires attention to the ‘wider parameters’ of ‘context’ largely underemphasised in Anglo-American linguistics” (440). Culture, social perceptions, privilege, power structures, economics, etc. all play a crucial role in how one acquires language. However, all of these separate contexts hold within them literacies that must be understood in order for one to build a cognitive understanding of how to use language. This is such an important idea. Other, let’s say “social literacies”, play a huge role in our “institutional/professional/academic/whatever literacies”. And this does not exclude oral practices.

For me, Street has shifted the priority of “defining literacy” with what are the factors that play into literacy practices. How do we cognitively interpret or develop these practices? What defines the context in which we utilize these practices? Is it really language that builds literacy? Or do literacy practices ripple into one another to create other literacies?

Modes of Literacy

While reading through the readings this week, I found myself gravitating towards the Sylvia Scribner article and it’s ability to show the messiness that is literacy. The function of literacy and literacy practices not only depends on the social norms of a given culture, but also embodies various power structures and stages of “intellectual development” (21). However, as I was sifting through these ideas, I couldn’t help but questioning how these concepts could be reflected into the classroom. Based on our reedings, where the majority of my questions stem from is finding the differentiation between “institutional literacy” (meaning the basic literacy skills and need to know practices that will help our students advance academically and professionally) and “social literacy” (meaning all of the other literacy practices that allow our students to develop socially and culturally). In my mind, it’s becoming more and more difficult to envision a perfect union between these two ideas, especially in the classroom. I keep asking question like: how would this curriculum be made to suit the needs of the community and society overall? Would personalized classroom curriculum need to be created for each community? How would that work demographically? As our schools become more and more diverse, how do we support the cultures of all of our students? Is there a way for teachers to embody the cultural and social importance of literacy while still giving them the “how to” skills that they will need when applying for a job? Should we even have “literacy standards” that students need to meet every year? Should teachers go through K-12 with the same group of students to build that community of practice?

The more and more I read and observe, the more questions I have. My biggest internal struggle is finding a balance between the needs of the student and the needs of society. Since literacy is social, then how do we help the individual?

However, as I start to look into my thesis and explore the notion of digital literacy, I can’t help but wonder how important the platform in which literacy is shown through is? As our generation pushes further and further into the digital age, and technologies like pen and paper are used less and less, and people are expected to be able to navigate a multitude of digital platforms at a high functioning level, how is this evolving our literary needs/practices/functionality? I’m of course thinking about gaming when I ask these questions. In a virtual world that utilizes visual, written, and spoken literacy techniques, while also engaging players in critical thinking scenarios that embody social and cultural interpretations and identity projection (meaning you are taking on the role of yourself and an ‘other’) while still having the ability to interact in real time with other players, is this method the balance that we are searching for? Could this be a link between “institutional literacy” and “social literacy”?

Marked Literacy

“For literacy, as I hope to demonstrate, is the emblem that links racial alienation with economic alienation” (Gates, 6).

While reading the article”Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes” by Henry Louis Gates Jr., I found myself captivated by this sentence. I had never thought of literacy as a tool of oppression. However, I found myself agreeing with Gates’ analysis of how Western colonization and it’s influence on literary infrastructures and practices (even those exposed to these practices) perpetuated oppressive societal norms towards African-American’s. Not only this, but when Black writers did start emerging into the literary sphere, they were pushing against a societal ideology that essentially stripped African-American’s of their humanity. Gates states that “Blacks were ‘reasonable,’ and hence ‘men,’ if –and only if–they demonstrated mastery of ‘the arts and sciences,’ the eighteenth century’s formula for writing. So, while the Enlightenment is characterized by its foundation on man’s ability to reason, it simultaneously used the absences and presence of reason to delimit and circumscribe the very humanity of the cultures and people of color which Europeans had been ‘discovering’ since the Renaissance” (8).  Literacy had become a tool to determine who held the ability to ‘reason’, and thus could be considered a human being.

As I continue to work through these articles each week, I find myself appreciating more and more the idea that we can not focus on literacy as just the ability to “read and write”, as this definition excludes so many important external factors (such as cultural, socioeconomic, religious, etc.) that play into our everyday literary practices. I have also found myself thinking about how we still use literacy within social hierarchies, power structures, class systems, and essentially to determine who “know’s” more. Will we ever be able to move past this idea that “if you can’t ‘read and write’ you can’t excel in life”? Is literacy the true culprit of the ever growing economic gap? How do we, as future educators, create new literary infrastructures that both inform our students of the past, but also prepares them for the future?

The Gift of the Gab

Olson’s article “Writing and the Mind” looks at the importance of language acquisition and its relation to traditional ideologies of literacy. Olson’s statement of “rather than writing providing a cipher on speech, writing serves as a model for speech” could hold more true (106). Writing provides us with the capability to convey information to others, but it lacks the ability to portray intonation, stress, etc. In fact, writing structures, and in this case I’m specifically referring to alphabetic structures, offer challenges in interpreting text too literally and in a manner that was not intended by the original author (121-122). For example, if one were to write “Who are you?”, one could read the sentence literally as a question, or they could interpret the question in a sarcastic tone, thus changing the meaning of the rest of the text.

For me, this was one of the most important findings in the text as I think it’s something that future educators need to take into account when thinking of how to teach literacy to students, especially students of other cultures or English is not their first language. Students who are learning English as a second language may have greater difficulty due to the writing structures implemented in their first language. The fact that logographic structures not only provide information such as subject-object-verb, but can also infer politeness can prove challenging when learning the pronouns and subject-verb-object sentence structure of English. I also believe that teachers have to take cultural and socioeconomic factors into account when teaching writing, or rather how students process words. For example, a student who has been raised to place importance on family, and who may come from a lower socioeconomic standing could interpret a sentence that involves two people deciding how to evenly split a piece of pie, differently from someone who may not have these factors at play in their life. If you ask whether a student would prefer the majority of the cake or just a small sliver of cake may provoke different answers depending on the student. I’m not sure if this makes sense right now, but my point is that interpreting words and sentences can vary depending a students cultural understanding of the sentence.

The other area of this article that I found extremely relevant was it focus on the importance of speech. While writing provides and opportunity to document information and thoughts, I think that our culture has shifted to where we place more importance on “writing” and not enough importance on speaking. As previously stated, speech allows for a variation in formality, politeness, intonation, stress, etc. As stated towards the end of the article, writing lacks a certain complexity that one can only find in speech in the sense that “it does not provide much of a model for what the speaker meaning by it or, more precisely, how the speaker or writer indented the sentence to be taken” (122).

Author’s note: I’m sorry if none of this makes sense. I’ve been drinking Thermaflu and I think my thoughts are not coming out very clear.

Academia

I’m Never Wrong

For this blog post, I’m going to do a bit of recapping on Unit 5 and Unit 6. During the third class webinar of Unit 5, I very much so appreciated all of the input given by the panelists in regards to how we, as educators, can “autonomize” the classroom structure and learning practices. As a mentor, advisor, student, and professional, it never ceases to amaze me how students that take ownership over their learning exceed the given expectation. There have been times when I have worked with students who “were never that great at writing” and, over the course of a semester, transformed into creating literary works that were nothing short of poetic masterpieces. And they did it all because they were given the tools and creative space to research and make a “thing” that they were proud of. What amazes me even more is the sense of professionalism and poise that students show when they are presenting work to their fellow peers.

However, through this amazement, I can’t help but be mindful of the questions and concerns that lurk towards the back of my mind. How much structure do we, as teachers, give our students in a classroom setting? Is there a limit to the “openness” that one can use in a open classroom structure? At what point does a teacher’s role become diminished within this setting? Is there a balance between structure and autonomous learning?

To answer the last question that I presented, I absolutely believe that there is a balance. Perhaps where my concern lies is what happens when the line between the two forces is crossed. However, this leads me to something that my colleague Jeremy said during the Unit 6 webinar that was streamed earlier today. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that even though this idea of hybrid “connected courses” is daunting, especially to those who fear submerging themselves into the sea of digital platforms, that you can’t let that fear hold you back from giving something more to your students. As Jeremy quoted from Howard, “If you don’t feel like you’re falling, you’re probably not on the edge”. I believe that it is motivations like this one that should drive us, as educators, to create these connected courses. I believe that these fears that we cultivate come from a social fear of being “wrong”. Sir Ken Robinson says it the best in his TED talk about our current educational institutions. As we move through life, we develop a fear of being “wrong”, which then hinders us from coming up with anything original or outside the norm. We teach this fear to our students, which hinders them from, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of life…taking a chance. Having an idea, nourishing it, showing it, and bringing it back if it needs some fine tuning.

What if growing this idea that connected courses has presented to us was a step in the right direction towards eliminating the “wrong”. What if one day, students went through their academic and educational careers never feeling wrong, but instead feeling evolved. Like they transformed with their learning. Instead of this notion of learning to “play school”, students could feel like they could go to school and play to learn. This is what we should be striving for. Letting go of what makes us feel comfortable and meeting our students on a playing field where they can explore and exceed any and all expectations that we set before them. I am writing this to all of you as someone who learned at a very young age how to “play school”, and who could do it very well. It wasn’t until I was in my last two years of my undergraduate career that I thought “wow, maybe this school thing is cooler than I thought”. I don’t want our students to have to wait that long to have that “ah ha” moment. And I believe that connected courses like the ones we have engaged in over the past semester are a huge step towards a better educational platform.