It all starts with Literacy.

Video games and learning: A conversation with James Gee



Why will kids be bored and restless all day in school — but then go home to play video games, rooting themselves in front of the screen hour after hour, no matter how difficult or frustrating the game may be?

James Paul Gee has been pondering this question for some time. A noted linguist and a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, he’s the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007), as well as the recently published  The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning (2013).

The 63-year-old Gee became intrigued by watching his young son grapple with fantasy-world games that he found “fairly long and pretty challenging, even for an adult.” He writes:

I found myself asking the following question: ‘How, in heaven’s name, do they sell so many of these games when they are so long and hard?’ …

[Moreover], you cannot play a game if you cannot learn it. If no one plays a game, it does not sell and the company that made it goes broke. Of course, companies could make the games shorter and simpler. That’s often what schools do with their curriculums. But gamers won’t accept short or easy games. So game designers keep making long and challenging games and still manage to get them learned. How?

His answer is complex, as you’d expect from a professor of linguistics. But boiled down to its essence, Gee put his finger on the element that he believes makes video games so spellbinding. It’s their  capacity to create environments that allow players to explore on their own, to fumble around, to be confused and “pleasantly frustrated,” and to discover the keys to advancement on their own. The cost of failure is low, so it pays to keep experimenting.

It’s when the players hit a snag and need guidance that they finally consult a manual or ask a friend.

This is what educational theorists call “situated learning,” Gee told Innovations for Learning recently.

“The analogy is, when we give people a science text — but they don’t have a real context,” Gee said. “It’s like giving them a rule book without the game. But it’s the game that gives meaning to the manual.

“Think about it: If you try to read the game’s manual without playing the game, it’s dry and technical, and you don’t know what it’s talking about. But if you play the game for a while, you start to live in that world and you understand how it operates.  So when you go to the manual the things it’s talking about make sense to you.

“It’s the same with science. The text is the manual on how you play the game of biology. You need to muck around with the world of biology for awhile, so you know what the text is talking about.

“But the way we do it in school, we give the language [the textbook chapters, the teacher’s lectures] in large chunks, and do that first. The kids can’t apply it to anything. They’re not ready for it. It’s just a big book.”

If Gee were redesigning a school curriculum, he would use technology — video game-like simulations, augmented reality, computerized graphing tools — to put students in worlds where they could explore new concepts. Teachers and texts would be on hand to answer questions and supply information “just in time, when the students can use it to help them solve problems.”

Adults tend to do the opposite of this. They read the instructions first, then try to attack the problem. “We’re reminded of this when we read a manual for putting together a bike and get totally frustrated,” Gee said. “So we sit there and scream and bang objects.”

Kids, on the other hand, lean the other way: they want to try to figure out the problem on their own and read about it later, when they have to. “And they are right,” Gee said.

Technology is going to make this kind of learning more accessible, Gee said. The cost of sophisticated tools is forever dropping. You can make a professional-looking movie on a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment; you don’t need a bankroll of thousands. With the ready availability of game engines, almost any teen who wants to can create his own video game, Gee said.

And the future of the economy is going to make this kind of learning more important. “It’s pretty clear that all of today’s kids are going to be living in a very transformative, fast-changing, high-risk environment,” Gee said. “We need kids to be able to be very adaptable, to be able to transform their skills, be able to change.”

In other words, kids are going to have to learn to be problem-solvers and to think about complex systems — not just pass tests to show they’ve attained a certain reading or math level. “You need a lot more than the basics,” Gee said. “In the 21st century, it doesn’t do any good to read if you’re not reading to solve a problem.”

We should also be gearing our schools toward collective problem-solving, Gee said. “If you apply for a high-tech job, they’ll bring you into a room with a bunch of people and put a problem on the table, and ask the group to solve it,” he said. “And if anyone tries to solve it himself, he doesn’t get hired.”

Each team member is supposed to be a specialist — but that specialist must know how to work in concert with everyone else. “That’s the motif of modern work,” Gee said.

Schools cannot be truly improved, Gee said, without reckoning with the world of rapid change that is upon us. He pointed out that three-fifths of all workers are in service industries; Walmart is our largest employer. But robots may soon eliminate even those jobs (and low-wage jobs in China and India, too).

Already, economic inequality in America is “greater than the Robber Baron Era in the 1880s,” he said, “and it correlates with social malaise and poor health on everybody’s part because of the stress.”

But other trends are emerging as well: The balance between consumption and production is changing. “Sophisticated tools are available to everyday people—young and old—to produce their own media, news, art, science, and even products,” Gee said. Schools should respond by teaching all students to be productive and innovative with new technologies — for example, to think critically about the design of the new media they’re using.

With many present forms of jobs disappearing, fewer people will be able to get “ego satisfaction, status and a sense of urgency in their jobs,” Gee said.

Therefore, “we need schools to prepare all students to be able to find interests and passions at least ‘off market.’ where they can gain mastery and feel a sense of satisfaction and a sense of counting in society.”

“Look, we can have two school systems: one for the basics, and one for the more privileged kids to prepare them for the jobs that pay well and offer satisfaction,” he said, “or we can have a system that teaches everyone to innovate. Those are two different visions, and that’s a choice for society.”


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