We know what works? James Gee at Illinois

This is a review/ summary of the linked event from the perspective of a non-academic. I do some work in education, interact with students and educators frequently but do not hold a degree or a job in education nor in academia: I thought it was a great event!


This conference initially sounded like something “someone else” might be interested in, and was actually a full-on discussion of educational reform. Unfortunately, instead of it being held in Foellinger auditorium and open to the community (with educators even recruited to come), the room had forty-odd speech-language professionals (it was sponsored by SHS) and some technology people among other interested observers. Not that there is anything wrong with the audience members, just wish it could have been a larger, wider group.

Mary Kalantzis spoke to open the day and was very interesting. It was a recap of sorts on “The New London Group” which began theorizing about education and technology 19 years ago. They are published in the Harvard Education Review and have several books as well. Though I’m not sure it was designed to be, it served as an interesting introduction to communicating in multi-modalities and away from traditional conceptions of text. She also spoke of diversity in a re-imagined way, doing away with gross demographics and reconceptualising student (human) diversity as less rigid in category and more individualistic than statistical, e.g. diversity of life experience. Interestingly, given the conversation about Central High School, she mentioned architecture as many as five times by my count. In private conversation with her afterwards, I spoke of Central High School and architecture and her reference to buildings. She critiqued the brand new business building on campus with seats that are nailed down and is amazed that they build more lecture space with amphitheater seating. Certainly she should be tapped to talk about what the new school should look like, sooner rather than later, but I don’t have a strong connection to her to “make that happen”. She has obvious and informed views that are based on her research, theorizing and experience (that from what I can tell) are well respected in the field. (That said, there are lots of buildings built based on new theories and cutting edge ideas that don’t stand the test of time, so I’m at least aware of that, though I don’t know what to do with it.)

When James Gee spoke, he came at education in a way that questions our underlying assumptions about how humans learn. He has undoubtedly given this talk before, but spoke authoritatively and commands the literature. He contextualised his comments using Chomsky’s division of problems into Plato’s problem and Orwell’s problem and then spent the rest of the time talking about how we have all the evidence we need about educating kids and continue to ignore it. The correlates to success are nothing like what we expect or use in our educational efforts. Without going deep into his research, as an example I’ll just say that according to him, the ability to delay gratification is a better predictor of success than IQ (which he didn’t take the time to critique as a concept though he mentioned the issues with IQ). The top two correlates for kids under five (almost all pre-literate children), that correlate with success in school is ORAL vocabulary. He cites studies from both psychology and linguistics that he ties together as the most influential single thing children can “get” is nurturing parenting. He asserts that extended conversation with adults (any adult, not bookish, academic adults) is enough to set kids on an upward trajectory. He had praise for “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough and sees the skills mentioned in that book (like persistence, confidence and grit) to be inversely proportional to the amount of stress in the child’s environment. I don’t know how robust this is, but he also repeatedly stated that if we are able to remove the stress, that kids will gain these skills almost effortlessly.

He wasn’t really looking to tweak or reform anything but wants to blow up the current system and suggests that our mania for learning words is misplaced. We use words to understand our world, not as an end in itself; that is to understand other words. Looking up definitions and understanding each individual word, doesn’t guarantee that a reader will understand the meaning of a text. He gave several powerful examples, like trying to learn a video game by reading the manual. It is how he began (at age 55) to enter that world and it proved utterly incomprehensible. After some significant effort, he tossed the manual aside and just played the game. After playing the game (badly) for a couple hours he returned to the manual and could not recreate the sense of bewilderment he felt from before he played. Everything now made sense and it wasn’t from gaining a better understanding of the words, but of participating in the (alternative) world. He gave several additional examples, including comparing advanced text from a textbook on physical science to the technically specific language on a Yougoi (sp?) card. He argues there is nothing more difficult about the game card (and redefining standard words makes it actually more difficult). But the passion that kids bring to accomplish their goal (defined as the desire to engage in repeated attempts in order to obtain mastery, in other words “practice”) along with participating in the Yougoi world before (or at least along with) their attempts at understanding the text. He  calls this situated learning.

I stayed for the afternoon session where he spent a great deal of time presenting the idea that any alternate world (one example is a video game) is more than the game itself because it creates affinity groups. People get online and look for help, share their joy, participate in a community because of their passion for the game. This creates a whole different experience wherein people become not merely users of knowledge and information but producers as well. He used an example in fan fiction where there was a 15 year old girl who articipated in a vampire-romance group because of her affinity for the genre and started contributing her own writing. It was awful but the mentoring she received in the group, the standards they voluntarily held her to, including plagiarism issues and editing help, have grown her into a better writer than the original author she was a fan of. In addition, she has developed a huge following and is so famous, she declined to be interviewed for his work.

There was much made of the affinity groups that so often become part of the experience for “gamers” and the additional expertise they can develop like modifying the game itself. He cited the example of a group challenging itself to play The Sims following the model of Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed. The game gives you something like a wishing lamp and is obviously designed to not include poverty as a gaming experience and so they created a ninety page guide to playing based on an alternative simulation, essentially changing the rules and creating a new game. All this then, becomes an example of distributed knowledge and collaborative knowledge production. When he turns into a soothsayer, he predicts that the world’s problems are too complex for a single mind and that the only way to survive is to work together. To put legs on it, he called Alan Greenspan “the last expert”. Greenspan knew a lot of stuff and we essentially gave over the economy to him. Obviously that didn’t end well because nothing prepared him for a different set of economic rules. Had he also known human psychology, he would have been able to predict that golden parachutes result in sabotaging your own company, etc. (non-rational/ untraditional economic decisions). I asked about creating affinity groups off–line and the main issue for him is two things: the elimination of status and full participation. If ideas are just shared without someone having more influence because of credentials and everyone is free to share their ideas (no self-censorship) without thinking they don’t matter then it could work. It almost sounds like a Utopia – sharing ideas without politics, sharing/ accomplishing a goal without concern for who gets credit, etc. On the other hand, while the elimination of credentials sounds appealing to me who has none, the anonymity and oft-times illusory nature of the “relationship” doesn’t.

In the end, he says we have known what works for forty years. There are hundreds of places where what works is indeed working. I haven’t heard this said before, I thought we were still looking for what works and casting about for positive models and bemoaning that we can’t recreate the hugely expensive Harlem Children’s Zone, etc.

What are the action steps coming out of this?

Read more, understand more. (wait, this is action?!)

Figure out how to access Kalantzis as a resource in the building project.

Find a way to present these ideas to a wider audience (like the BOE).

There was a video taken of the day by the college of education so I am seeing if I can get access to that. I’ll let you know.


2 Responses to “We know what works? James Gee at Illinois”

  1. pattsi Says:

    Thank you for this posting.

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    I started to read James Gee’s “What video games can teach us about learning and literarcy”, and as he starts to describe these things called “semiotic domains”, “situated learning” and a host of other phrases that are otherwise foreign to me, I realize that on a meta level, I have entered into Dr. Gee’s own semiotic domain and must gain some mastery over it if I am to understand his point. Almost like a matryoshka story.

    I have played my fair share of video games, so in a sense I can relate to his observations about how games in general incentivize learning, sometimes addictively so. Take a look at Angry Birds – I mean, it’s simple, straight-forward (at least on the surface) and hard to be satisfied with just one star. 🙂 I appreciate that the author is not saying that playing games equals learning, but rather that playing games provides a framework for learning that can be (and should be?) applied in other learning situations. You think I am being fancy with words?

    It comes down to how one adapts, how one learns the rules of the situation. The faster one can acquire an appreciation for the working rules, not only to the extent of being able to regurgitate them (which is what modern education does a really good job at, for better or worse), but taking it to the next level such that one can manipulate the rules and create! To explore.

    This is where my exploration with eToys has taken me with Unit 4. eToys is an amazing environment, but in some ways, it has a really steep entry curve for adults (and some children). For one, it is an extremely open platform; the adage “you can do whatever you want” is often too scary for people that want to see what it can do for them. I imagine that it is much like “Seward’s Folly” – buying 3.6 million acres?!? What do you do with that?!? In my mind, eToys is an excellent working example of Gee’s “semiotic domain”. As you progress through levels of understanding of the technology, your mastery and ability to manipulate the environment becomes much more practical and purposeful. The word “grit” is used above, which reminded me of “TED talks ED” with Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth – those that have a strong sense of perseverance will succeed.

    Thus it seems our job is to instill, foster, nurture, encourage and/or build up, by any means necessary, that particular quality of “grit.” To some it comes easily, so let us make such an environment that all have the opportunity to allow “grit” to bloom.

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