Q&A: Jim Gee on The Right Role of Digital Games in the Classroom


6.4.13 | James Paul Gee is currently the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. Gee is a faculty affiliate of the Games Learning Society group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a member of the National Academy of Education. He is the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning has changed over time, and where it’s headed. The conversations are being collected for an e-book that will be published by the MacArthur Foundation at the end of 2013. Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Spotlight: How did you get started in Digital Media and Learning?

Jim Gee: I trained as a linguist, but I got involved in digital stuff in 2003 when I started playing video games with my son. Initially I found it quite frustrating and difficult, but eventually it became clear to me that the way you have to learn in a game actually reflected a lot of my own theories about literacy and learning. I wrote my book to carry my message about learning and literacy, but in a way it backfired.

Spotlight: How is that?

JG: People at the time were really looking for an academic to say that games were good. So rather than acting as a virus to carry my literacy work, it actually carried the message that using games for learning and using games in schools is good. The book is not actually about using games in schools; it’s about learning that’s based on doing and experiencing, marrying images to actions and experience to words rather than just using texts. But now the book is constantly cited as evidence that it’s good to use games in schools.

Spotlight: Do you have concerns about this?

JG: I have concerns about games in schools and a lot of other changes that come with digital media. Once you say, “hey, look at this new technology and what it can do for learning,” there are two possibilities. One, you bring it to the schools as schools currently exist today, and you face the very real danger that the school will corrupt any promise the technology had. Or two, you say “let’s bring it to school only once we have changed the existing paradigms of schooling.”

Spotlight: So you’re not saying there’s a problem with using games per se, but rather the way they’re being used?

JG: What I’m interested in is situated learning—that is, learning based on problem solving that is immersed in experiences, good guidance, and good mentoring. And to do that, we should use all the tools available to us. Games are one of those tools. What you get today, though, unfortunately, is people who now want to use games for the whole curriculum. Look, print gave rise to the worst educational tool ever made—the textbook. Why is it so bad? We wanted to standardize learning and bring it to scale. We wanted to use it to teach everything. If we get the same attitude about games, we’ll just be recreating the same problem as we had with the textbook. I want to see the focus on situated learning and using every possible tool we have to focus on that. Delivering your curriculum with one tool in a world with many is just stupid.

Spotlight: When you look back over the last six years, what in your own work or anyone else’s work makes you the most excited? The most hopeful?

JG: I’m a big fan of Dan Schwartz’s work. I think what we did with choice assessment had some really new ideas in it. I think it’s so new people don’t understand it. But really what I have come to see is the mistakes I made—that we all made; and that is focusing on school reform. It’s not working because we have to focus on society. We have the highest levels of inequality we’ve ever had. We have massive environmental problems and massive economic problems, and it’s become ridiculous to try and change the schools without changing society. The rhetoric from the government and Obama is that schools are primarily about jobs. But if you think about it, three-fifths of American jobs are service jobs. The biggest employer in the country is Walmart, which means we’re preparing people for jobs with no unions, no benefits, and decreasing pay with increased productivity. We should have schools that are about learning conceptual understanding, getting kids passionate for production and participating and not just consumption and spectatorship. But we don’t have a society that would accept that.

I think we have a burden to say, “this is what it means to produce a humane, smart person in this society,” and not just talk about school reform.

– Jim Gee

Spotlight: So what should we be doing?

JG: I think we have a burden to say, “this is what it means to produce a humane, smart person in this society,” and not just talk about school reform. But you don’t see this happening because it’s just so much easier to get a grant saying “I’m going to improve learning at PS101” than it is to get a grant saying “I’m going to try and help society from going extinct.”

Spotlight: I was going to ask you what you’re most disappointed by, but it sounds like you’d say this focus on school reform when the focus should have been on society?

JG: It’s disappointing to me. I mean, I’m a little disappointed in the MacArthur work on connected learning, in the sense that’s it’s still, at points, too much like the old progressivism. Real learning happens when people are engaged in proactive problem-solving, but they still need mentorship, and instructors and adults. There is a real problem today that a lot of school districts, principals, superintendents, and politicians see technology as the way to get rid of teachers. They can in turn think they are hearing an organization like MacArthur saying, “well, you know, you can just connect kids’ learning across school and home, and they’re just going to develop and they’re going to do all these things”—well, that’s not necessarily true without good instruction and good mentorship. It really downplays the role of adult mentorship, which we know is pretty crucial. Every privileged family knows that, right? They see their kids around a lot of adults who are experts and who are mentoring them—and if you are taken to be saying that a poor kid will just show up at an afterschool community center and muck around there with his technology with maybe a volunteer there, and that he will catch on, I think that is hogwash. And it’s dangerous right now because it plays into the conservatives’ desire to not pay teachers living wages. So we may need to connect connected learning to a view of 21st-century teaching and instruction a bit more strongly.

Spotlight: What’s the next wave? Who are you watching?

JG: The two next things on the horizon are, one, resilience work, which I think is emerging as a new discipline. It’s based on the idea that we have waited too long to solve many of our problems, from global warming to global economics. Far from solving them, we’ve done nothing. Now it’s too late, and we’re going to pay the cost for that. They say that “sustainability” is too late. Resilience is the idea that people and institutions are going to have to change in ways that allow them to adapt in positive ways to change. It’s really based on the idea that it’s too late for business as usual. It has implications for school, in that what we call school is really a place to produce workers—and they’re being produced for a world in which there is going to be radical change and transformation, some of it quite cataclysmic. Certainly as a parent you’d want your kids to be resilient, capable of moving with change and surviving.

Then, the fab movement, the maker movement. Neil Gershenfeld has a wonderful book called Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop. There’s a lot out there about this now. Think about generalized robots—there’s this prediction that in a very few years the advantage China and India have for low-cost labor will be gone. We will be able to bring manufacturing back because the programmed robots will be able to do the manufacturing. Well, think of a world in which China and India lose their low-cost advantage and in which America doesn’t outsource jobs anymore. This is what I mean by the world is not going to look like what people think it will look like. So the fab movement and the resilience movement are the two things that are on the rise.

Photo courtesy of the Institute of Play.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated to ensure topic relevance and generally will be posted quickly.

Commenting is not available in this section entry.