Friday, 6 April 2007

Level 10 - Why and how the modern school system *could try harder*

A common theme from Gee's (2003) 'What video games have to teach us...' is the notion that modern day schools systems are failing to inspire good learning as well as a well-designed videogame might. Here I want to assess these arguments and look at how schools might adapt their practices to accommodate Gee's theories of what constitutes good learning and teaching.

One of his ongoing proposals is that VGs stimulate *critical* learning, or learning that is highly reflexive. But do schools not teach critical learning already? As far as I can tell, many are at least trying. There is currently some enthusiasm in mainstream schooling for what is generally termed 'Critical skills', also known as 'Thinking Skills', and these skills encapsulate a whole host of advanced cognitive processes, such as making inferences, bridging with other subject areas and considering one's own thinking processes (or metacognition). The history of this direction of thinking about learning is very interesting, and is generally attributed to three main sources. Firstly the work of Reuven Feuerstein, who while testing the IQs of recently arrived immigrants to Israel post-WW2 found that the tests were woefully inadequate at assessing their true cognitive capacities. He went on to develop other tests that better assessed their ability to think and reason. Secondly, the work of Matthew Lipman, the founder of 'Philosophy for Children', who as a college professor, found that many of his undergraduate students failed to articulate basic concepts. On further examination of the primary and secondary school system he realised that schools were completely failing to encourage reflective thinking, so went on to design a whole series of lesson ideas that might encourage more articulated thinking and discussion. And thirdly the work of Edward de Bono, who has developed a whole host of 'thinking tools' , including brain-based learning (which always makes me smile, as I have no idea how else someone learns). The very fact that schools are considering the integration of these ideas is I suppose a step in the right direction. However the impression I get from teachers is that encouraging these skills in lessons sounds great in theory, but often gets set aside by the need to impart curriculum-based knowledge; the results-driven exam system of assessment makes it very difficult to stray from the current norm. Which is a shame - as in my view learning *how to think* should be one of the main priorities of schooling. I actually asked Ted Wragg at a conference whether he thought there might be a time when critical skills might be assessed, and he said he hoped not, using the amusing analogy that being assessed on a sex education class would take the fun out of it. While I don't dare differ with the highly-esteemed Mr. Wragg, I fear that without some form of assessment of these skills, teachers will never be motivated enough to include thinking development in lessons.

From this current conception of critical thinking, I feel that Gee's concept l takes this direction a step further. In his view, critical thinking 'involves learning to think of semiotic domains as design spaces that manipulate us in certain ways and that we can manipulate in certain ways'. There are two key points here. In terms of design spaces, Gee recognises that a semiotic domain is simply a subject that has been created by others, and is still in the process of being designed. With reference to games, but could also be said of any subject, he writes about the value in 'thinking about the (internal) design of the game, about the game as a complex system of interrelated parts meant to engage and even manipulate the player in certain ways. This is metalevel thinking, thinking about the game as a system and a designed space, and not just playing within the game moment by moment'. The second key point here is the recognition that design spaces affect and are affected by their users. In other words, he takes the idea that reflecting on a given subject is good for learning, but also includes the consideration that learners are themselves *changed* by this new understanding (they literally *identify* with the subject), and are also empowered to affect this domain with their own contributions. This is a significant development for critical thinking in my opinion, as instead of the learner encouraged just to objectively criticise a given subject, the learner is also encouraged to be personally involved with other like-minded people (the affinity group) who serve to assess, contribute and design the future direction of the domain.

An additional feature of good learning that Gee describes is the value of *active* learning, where the learner actively experiences the application of what they are learning. Experiential learning is something that VGs do very well to encourage, as it is potentially possible for a player character to experience anything that one can experience in non-virtual life, and more besides. Using Civilisation iv as an example, I can learn how best to manage the resources of a country by actually simulating the management of a country; reading a book on the subject would be nowhere near as close to the real practice of running a country. Where possible however, schools already do try to give learners practical experience of a subject, particularly in vocational subjects, but will claim (perhaps rightly) that there are practical limitations on how much direct experience can be offered. Gee is I feel a little unfair on schools when he writes that 'one thing that designers of video games realize, but that many schools seem not to, is that learning for human beings is, in large part, a practice effect.' I think its fair to say that teachers do recognise the value of experiential learning, but might attest that it's neither possible nor necessary to offer learning from direct experience all the time. So does it matter that learning is not always experiential?

Gee argues it *does*, explaining that one of the key values of experiential learning is the scope for fully situated meaning. He suggests that a school's failure to provide experiential embodied learning makes it very hard for students to arrive at a meaningful understanding of a subject. 'Purely verbal meanings, meanings that a person has no ability to customize for specific situations and that offer the person no invitations for embodied actions in different situations, are useless (save for passing tests in school).' He uses this example: 'if you can't use "democracy" in a situation-specific way..., then the word does not make sense to you, no matter how well you can repeat a dictionary definition for the word.' This is fairly damning stuff, and applies to tertiary education as much as primary and secondary. If what Gee suggests is true, then learning something out of a personally relevant context literally makes no sense. As he mentions, ''one good way to make people look stupid is to ask them to learn and think in terms of words and abstractions that they cannot connect in any useful way to images or situations in their embodied experiences in the world. Unfortunately, we regulartly do this in schools... In school, words and meanings usually float free of material conditions and embodied actions. They take on only general, so-called decontextualized meanings. Their meanings just amount to spelling out a word or phrase in terms of still other words and phrases, themselves with only general meanings.' So words to explain more words to explain more words doesn't do much to help students achieve a meaningful understanding of a subject. But given the budget and logistical limitations that schools have, how can situated meaning and experiential learning be further fostered in lessons? One clear solution is to employ immersive VG simulations that will at least offer greater similarity to true experience than traditional 'chalk and talk' teaching.

I feel slightly bad at this stage for giving schools such a hard time, as I'm sure there are great inroads already being made in these areas. However one area I'm particularly concerned about is schools' universal drive towards knowledge acquisition and retention, over knowledge application. Plato recognised the futility of this tenet and is quoted as saying 'Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind'. This still holds true today. As Gee once again points out, '[students] are learning to store discrete facts and elements of knowledge, not deeper patterns... if people have a pattern in their mind, however, when they are faced with a new situation, they can reflect on how this pattern can be revised to cover the new situation.' So while knowledge accumulation can be easily evaluated, it is mainly the capacity of a student's memory that is being tested, rather than their ability to piece together items of knowledge in meaningful ways. Gee calls terms this learning to *use* knowledge effectively, *pattern thinking*, where 'you are, in reality learning how to situate the meaning of the word or concept... to fit different situations, including situations you may not have seen before. Lists require no such thinking and learning. Patterns are experiential theories... that we change with more experience, more probing and reprobing of the world.' So instead of focusing so intently on *how much* knowledge a student can accumulate, school evaluation systems would do well to look a little more at how well a student is able to make sense of the little knowledge they might have.

But to use Gee's reference to cultural models, the current view on evaluation asserts that "exams prove whether a student is clever and/or works hards". Another one might be that "exams show how much the student has learned and are good at categorizing students as better or worse". Yet another might be, "exams results show how successful the teacher has been at imparting the subject". But these are all dangerous assumptions to make. As someone who has 'played' and 'won' many examinations to get to this academic stage, I can be thankful that I've a good enough short term memory to get here. But on reflection, such short-term memorisation to pass exams barely constitutes understanding of a subject (just try asking me to write an essay on philosophy - my undergraduate subject - now. I fear it would be woefully inadequate.) So I feel that part of the change to accommodate all of Gee's theories about good learning must involve a change in the evaluative process a the end. This is I suppose already occurring, with a move towards more and more coursework, but things still have some way to go. [Some progressive and forward-thinking courses now require no examinations at all - their designers must truly be innovative and enlightened educational pioneers ;-)]

The final consideration of Gee's that I want to address here is his proposal that 'learning... is very much a matter of being situated in a material, social, and cultural world'. In other words, learning cannot and should not be isolated from other people. For as Gee points out, 'the patterns... in our heads, ... become meaningful ("right" or "wrong") only from the perspective of the workings of social groups that "enforce" certain patterns as ideal norms toward which everyone in that group should orient.' Thus we rely on other people's verification of our thoughts to indicate whether they are meaningful or not. For example, scientific pioneers such as Einstein and Newton only really become 'right', when enough experienced people validate their work. Without the assistance of a group, no thinker has any way to test wether their theories are veridical. But as Gee suggests, schools regularly segregate students from social corroboration. He writes that 'schools still isolate children form such powerful networks - for example, a network built around some branch of science- and test and assess them as isolated individuals, apart from other people and apart from tools and technologies that they could leverage to powerful ends.' So although steps toward co-operative and group learning *are* being made in schools [], this enforced individualism does little to make use of the potential for networked learning.

By networked learning here, I mean making use of the potential that a myriad of connected networks has for helping store and a disseminate knowledge and ideas. The internet has really made this opportunity for mass communication of ideas possible, and we as teachers and learners should make full use of it. Already it is being used for research purposes on a large scale, much like people might use a library, but currently its capacity to interconnect *people* is being underused in traditional learning environments (see Web 2.0 usage study). And as Gee suggests, the ability to make use of such networks will be an important skill for future generations. 'The power of distribution - of storing knowledge in other people, texts, tools, and technologies - is really in the way in which all these things are networked together. The really important knowledge is in the network... not in any one "node", but in the network as a whole. Does the network store lots of powerful knowledge? Does it ensure that this knowledge moves quickly and well to the parts of the system that need it now? Does it adapt to changed condtions by learning new things quickly and well? These are the most crucial knowledge questions we can ask in the modern world. They are hardly reflected at all in how we organize schooling and assessment in schooling'. So (without blowing our e-horn here) when you compare the highly adaptive network of knowledge, people and skills created for and by students of this course, with a traditional single desk classroom structure, one can clearly see the greater scope for knowledge distribution, peer learning and learning that adapts quickly to the requirements of the teacher, students and the subject area as a whole. Within such a networked learning framework, a competitive ethos where students compete against each other by hoarding knowledge, makes the network as a whole suffer. However, when students compete to become a more *active* 'node' in the system (such as during the Second Life tasks in this module), the individual and collective learning that takes place increases.

This direction towards networked learning is not just important from a learning perspective, but it will also be important for preparing students for a networked society and the so-called knowledge economy. It is estimated that by the year 2020 the greatest employer will be the *self*, for every 100 full-time jobs there will be 2000 part-time jobs, and peoples' working life will involve on average seven complete careers changes (Negroponte, 2000). So students must learn now how to manage multiple tasks and to constantly learn new skills to adapt to rapidly changing work environments. But in teaching only knowledge items, and not how to make best use of networks for storing and disseminating knowledge, schools are ill-preparing students for skills they'll need in the workplace. As Gee writes, 'if we want to know how good students are in science - or how good employees are in a modern knowledge-centered workplace - we should ask all of the following (and not just the first): What is in their heads? How well can they leverage knowledge in other people and in various tools and technologies (including their environment)? How are they positioned within a network that connects them in rich ways to other people and various tools and technologies?'. He then goes on to highlight that, 'schools tend to care only about what is inside students' heads ..., isolated from others, from tools and technologies, and from rich environments that help make them powerful nodes in networks. Good workplaces in our science- and technology-driven "new capitalism" don't play this game. Schools that do are, in my view, DOA in our current world - and kids who play videogames know it'. Thus schools could do better to encouraging uses of networking tools for learning, which at present, young people are already better than their teachers at using.

So part of helping schools to apply Gee's theories on literacy and learning will come from a greater integration of digital thinking and collaboration tools in the classroom. I don't mean to say that increased use of technology is the *only* way forward, but simply that it provides some of the answers. I was recently speaking to a young boy who had just been grounded by his parents, and had had his computer and his mobile phone taken away from him. He didn't like it - yet this is what schools do to kids all the time. As Gee mentions, 'in school we test people without their thinking tools... we want to know what they can do all by themselves. But in the modern world - and this is certainly true of many modern high-teck workplaces- it is equally or more important to know what people can think and do with others and with various tools and technologies.' While there is some argument for encouraging abilities such as handwriting and mental arithmetic without assistance, there are also plenty of reasons for testing just how well students get on *with* computerised tools. A carpenter may come with something of value with a pocket knife - but imagine what she could do with full access to her workshop. As David Shaffer, author of 'How video games help children learn', expains at a conference entitled 'Do video games help kids learn?', allowing computers to substitute some of our basic cognition helps us to do more. Like the invention of paper and writing before enabled humans to share and store knowledge, computers take care of basic (and complex) thinking processes so we can do other things. Networked learning and society doesn't necessarily entail that individuals then become insignificant nodes of a collective beast. Rather both the individual and the network become enriched by the value that each brings to the other.

So in conclusion, there is much that Gee has to say that highlights current inadequacies in mainstream education. But this not to say that current schools systems are shockingly bad, or that teachers are failing pupils on a massive scale. It is just that the potential for computer and network technology is making traditional whiteboard-and-pen teaching seem insufficient. And the good news is that younger generations (or digital natives) are already becoming highly proficient at making use of these new tools, partly because they recognise the value in their potential. As Gee writes about video games, which are really just one product of this digital revolution: 'They situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design on imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships and identitiies in the modern world. ... And people get wildly entertained to boot.' If only regular lessons could start to get even close inspiring similar engagement. The earlier that teachers and schools start recognising and utilising the value of these digital thinking tools the better.

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