James Paul Gee

I recently came across James Paul Gee through David Smith. He is exactly what I was looking for: an eloquent champion of the beneficial role of computer games in learning.

You can see him in two great talks here and here. Wikipedia entry here.

Three points that resonated:

  • “School is all manual and no game.” A Professor of linguistics before becoming interested in gaming, JPG argues for the existence of “situated meaning”. Anything we read, he says, makes much more sense if we can relate it to an experience, image, idea, action or argument we’ve already had. (His comparison is with computer game manuals – they only become useful after you’ve played the game for a bit). Most children do not connect with textbooks not because they can’t make sense of the phonics [aside: I had the enriching pleasure to see Margaret Snowling talk about phonics last week] but because the books’ specialist language doesn’t connect with anything out of which children can make meaning.
  • Assessment. As JPG says, you don’t need to test a player who has completed the most difficult level of Halo on his Halo-playing skills: the assessment is built into the game. His argument is that there must be some means of mimicking this design when designing, for instance, algebra-learning courses. Would it not be possible for students to only qualify for a more challenging level once they defeated the last, in a way that was built into the whole learning process – and without the endless annual trauma of exams.
  • Problem-solving. In just a few comments, JPG brings a breath of fresh air to the turgid knowledge vs. skills debate currently boring the UK. Facts about Science/ French vocab items/ History dates are putting so many children off because, despite teachers’ vigorous assertions to the contrary, they can’t see them as tools. In well-designed games, knowledge is realized as tools. To quote JPG more fully:

“School is locked into content-fetish. It’s all about facts. Biology is the 1200 facts somebody in Biology discovered. Memorise 1100 and get ’em on paper – you pass Biology. [But] Biology, Physics, Chemistry ARE NOT FACTS; they are problems to be solved. And Biologists, Chemists and Physicists use facts as tools to solve these problems, and once they’ve used them again and again, they can’t be forgotten.”

I have one criticism so far:

  • This is a little unfair, as I have only got about fifty pages through it, but I can’t understand JPG’s unbridled support for Marc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom I’m Learning. The splurge of exclamation marks (+15 per page in some parts) is off-putting; the lack of footnotes unsettling. The hysterically partisan style (chapters are titled with scammy phrases like “But Wait – What About All That Bad Stuff I Hear About In The Press”) is what really put me off, though. Once I’ve finished the book, I hope to post more, but I get the feeling that this stuff is only going to convince the massively-sceptical wider population if its approach is cautious and substantiated with sound, academic arguments.