Appreciating What the World Says Back to Us

Filed by James Paul Gee

I have said that in today's schools we have a "fact fetish." We see domains like biology or civics as a body of facts or information, when, in reality, they are composed of actions (i.e., ways to look at and intervene in the world) that use these facts as tools for problem solving. There is an interesting thing about action in any domain, whether this domain be biology, gardening, or Yu-Gi-Oh: A question always arises as to how to go on--what to do next--after one has taken an action in a domain. So, say, I have a goal and I do something in any domain. I do it and get a result (I have probed the world and the world has responded). Now what? I have to ask myself a question like "Was the result good/appropriate/adequate for achieving my goal?" This means I have to assess or evaluate or "appreciate" the response from the world, the answer to my probe, in a certain way. If I have no opinion whatsoever, then I have no idea how to go on, what to do next. 

Such evaluations or judgments are made by my "appreciative system" (taking a term from Donald Schon). And where did I get that? How did I develop it? In most cases, of course, I did not invent it all by myself. I learned how to appreciate the results of my action by participating with people who knew the domain better than me--and who mentored, resourced, modeled, or otherwise helped me. This is as true of doing biology as it is of playing Yu-Gi-Oh. The best "tests," then, about where I am in my development of domain knowledge are: a) do I know how to "go on"--what to do next--based on a good appreciative system and b) am I a participant in a "community" whose appreciative system I am learning and hopefully eventually contributing to? 

These two tests--the best we can imagine, in my view, if we care about real learning--are rarely part of today's official tests. It is little wonder that today's students can often pass tests, but cannot apply their knowledge--they have no idea really how to go on, how to "appreciate" what the world has said back to them (and, of course, we are finding out that failing to listen to the world's response or appreciate its significance is dangerous).

Editor's Note: See Gee's additional posts in this series here and here.



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