literacy and learning in the digital age

It’s been an insanely busy week at work and it’s only Tuesday! Part of the insanity involved rushing through planning for a grant opportunity that we’re working on to improve and update our services for students, which led to my boss handing me a stack of books by James Paul Gee on gaming and learning. I don’t often post on the sort of reading I do as a professional, but I’ve been tumbling quotes from these books like mad and thought I’d share some thoughts.

Over the last two days, I sped-read my way through Gee’s Language and Learning in the Digital Age (2011), Good Video Games + Good Learning (2007), and Women and Gaming (2010). All three discuss how learning is changing and how video games can serve as learning models for instruction, skills development, and the creation of what he terms “passionate affinity spaces”–think maker spaces and gamer groups where people gather to talk shop about whatever they are interested in. Each of the books makes for great reading on the subject of gaming and digital literacy, but Language and Learning was by far the best of the three in my opinion.

gee1In one chapter, Gee discusses the kind of literacy that students encounter in school and why this fails to provide students with the kind of knowledge they need for the real world.

He identifies these as follows:

essayist literacy – the kind of literacy that involves writing essays and other formulaic written assignments. A literacy that is not encountered outside of school. When was the last time you wrote a 5 paragraph essay?

school content literacy – What is taught within a discipline as the knowledge of that subject area. Facts that are not often translatable to real life situations and are not practical/applicable forms of learning. Gee proposes that games can serve as a model for practical knowledge application (ie – Sims player learns about graphic design by playing with their avatar’s appearance), and suggests the need for a move away from content knowledge to knowledge based on problem-solving.

“School abstracts the content from the problems and we get students who can pass tests, but not solve problems” (Gee, 2011, p. 67).
“People need to be more adept at learning new things than storing old, oversimplified, sometimes false ‘facts’” (Gee, 2011, p. 67).

test literacy –The kind of literacy most students encounter today. Learning based on rote memorization and test-taking skills that are not applicable after high school. “Today’s tests often lead to knowledge and practices that are used nowhere else than in school” (p. 67). He notes, “too often we get students who have only (temporarily) retained a good deal of content in order to pass a test” (p. 68).

Gee also explores the idea of Passionate Affinity Spaces in detail and describes it as a new, out-of-school learning space where learning is part of popular culture. According to Gee, “Passionate affinity-based learning occurs when people organize themselves in the real world and/or via the Internet (or a virtual world) to learn something connected to a shared endeavor, interest, or passion” (p. 69).

People engage in the space in different ways and through varying degrees of engagement. No “professional” credentials are necessary, only interest in the subject and activity-based experience. Everyone can produce knowledge in the space and the groups are led through a system of flexible leadership and mentoring. Knowledge is shared by all and everyone contributes what they know.

As he described them, “affinity spaces are about sharing a common endeavor where people learn things, produce things or knowledge, and can, if they wish, become experts” (p. 71). These spaces, thereby lead to “‘systems thinking’ – being able to think about and work with others to deal with complexity and complex systems” (p.73).

gee2However, one of my favorite quotes comes from one of Gee’s other books, Good Video Games and Good Learning (2007), wherein he writes:

Beyond the traditional literacy gap–the literacy divide between rich and poor–there is another gap in education, one that implicated even the understandings of more privileged children in school. This is the gap between passing tests and really understanding. Lots of research has shown, for years now, that, in areas like science, a good many students, even those with good grades and passing test scores, cannot actually use their knowledge to solve problems. (p. 143)

Students are being taught to take tests. They are not learning the skills to make them competitive. They are entering college with poor literacy skills–they can’t write, articulate their thoughts into coherent, logical statements, or analyze information. I see this every day and can see the negative effect of the push for students to memorize and regurgitate “facts” over independent thinking. It has to change and Gee’s ideas serve as a thought-provoking introduction for anyone interested in taking part in that change.