Problems in education, as solved by James Paul Gee

A few weeks ago, James Gee visited Indiana University and gave a talk on the foundering education system—with its failing standards and increasing disjointedness with most society—and proposed deferring to the natural state of knowledge in this new digital age: online, organic, and open. Read about his argument below, then visit this story’s companion piece - Gee, what a future -  for an analytical critique.

Background (known in academia as “answering the ‘Who cares?’ question”)

According to Gee, traditional education has a “content fetish” that fails to teach problem-solving skills necessary to transform facts into understanding and abstract definitions into practical ability. It is not that content is unimportant, but that discrete disciplines are a disservice to students. Research is interdisciplinary, but lessons are split into silos. If only there was some network that could be accessed by anyone in any subject… you know, like the internet.

The “solution” is to just deliver the content online: “not a good solution,” Gee said, “but it makes sense and is going to happen anyway.” So, what’s changed that makes the standard disciplinary divisions too cumbersome? “There are too many variables,” he said. “The world is increasingly complex.” As technology changes, so do standards of intelligence. Memorization of quotes and facts used to be essential—but, while it may still be impressive, Google and its ilk have devalued the relative usefulness. It is no longer sensible to teach this or that canon; people need breadth and that can’t happen if students are stuck in one field.

Gee thinks that the concept of the “expert,” exemplified by people like Alan Greenspan—who are essentially walking corpuses of literature—are part of a dying breed.  “Experts are dangerous because they undervalue what they don’t know,” Gee said. Students taught through a super-specialized lens become myopic practitioners, forcing static models onto dynamic situations. Other vestiges of the decaying system are evidenced by the symbols of achievement. The last paper to earn the Nobel Prize has over twenty authors, but only three people can actually receive the award. Even though collaboration is a prevalent trend in research, we exist in a system defined by individualism.

Learning through embodied experience

Game design is the key to successful teaching, mostly because games cater to how we naturally function. Universities are storied and entrenched institutional forces that see little need to change. As long as people need degrees, colleges will—in some form—continue to exist. Students adapt to the system; rarely is it the other way around. However, video games are commercial entertainment. If they do not appeal to consumers, they simply don’t sell. User preference dominates and developers are forced to make systems that enthrall on a fundamental level.

First, all gameplay is predicated intrinsic motivation. The difference between happy level-grinding and slavish gold farming is voluntary participation—and, when it comes to deep understanding, play trumps work every time. Lessons learned through rote have a half-life of just a couple of years, but self-motivated learning really sticks. “People can’t learn when there’s nothing at stake,” Gee said. Real learning is personal and relevant.

Second, in games, people learn by doing—actions and terms are learned in tandem, removing the awkward transfer from abstract to concrete. This concept goes by many terms: situated meaning, embodied learning, and extended-mind learning. As most gamers know, instruction booklets have largely been replaced by in-game tutorials; Gee says this is indicative of a shift in learning. Reading a textbook is a lot like reading a video game manual: none of the complex systems make complete sense until you experience them. Human beings remember through association. The more information can be wrapped around a core, the better our minds can store and retrieve the information. The most natural way we structure our thoughts is a chronological, experiential framework: basic lived experience. The closer something is to what we did as primitive people, the more appealing it becomes.

Games are about systems, not content. They are “problem-based media” that require solutions. Memorizing facts doesn’t require students to learn problem-solving skills—but if you teach problem solving, the content will follow. Ever go back to a frustratingly complex game manual after playing for a few hours?  When Gee did that, he “couldn’t even figure out why it had been too difficult to read the first time. It all just made sense.” We think through experiences, not abstractions. It was easier to understand because there were visuals, sounds, actions, and interactions with which to associate and recall those abstract terms and concepts. Problem-solving is natural; it used to be a requirement for survival. Now, it’s not even a standard in undergraduate education. In our daily lives, we replace experiences with words. In school, we fill in words—with other words. “School is a pile of manuals with no games,” Gee said.

Collective intelligence and “affinity spaces”

Gee made the distinction between games and “capital-‘G’” Games, the latter being his way of defining video games in a larger context. New systems of knowledge will hinge on the aggregate, on what Gee calls “collective intelligence.” This creates “groups that are smarter than any individual expert,” which exist naturally in what he terms “affinity spaces”—you may know them better as online communities. (Gee dislikes the connotation of “community,” since it implies a space created expressly for interaction between the people of which it is comprised. Instead, people meet in an affinity space for the primary purpose of the subject matter being explored.) Many popular titles have wikis, forums, fan sites, modding tools, and other online, community-fueled venues where committed players can learn and collaborate. Lower-case “games” are the immersive, embodied introduction, priming players for future learning—but not requiring it. Those who only read, watch, or download vastly eclipse the minority of people who produce content. They form the backbone of a given space; everyone does not do the same amount of work. The “long tail” is the approximately 80-90% of people who exhibit minimal levels of knowledge or participation and, while traditional institutional systems have no place for them, these amateurs are essential. They may not help in the day-to-day construction and maintenance of spaces, but they offer diversity and creativity, often solving “linchpin issues.” Gee insisted that affinity spaces are not the “gamification” of knowledge, and this imbalance of contribution is a significant point of divergence.

Gamification is generally considered to be the application of game-like systems on top of otherwise mundane activities—a window-dressing process of adding points and achievements. Businesses like gamification because it involves minute progress-tracking and feedback systems, assisting in micro-management and accountability. Corporations exist to make money; to them, time is an important factor, as is compensation—payment should be given for a prescribed amount of work.

On the other hand, affinity spaces are organic and voluntarily joined, making them casual enough enterprises to acknowledge the truth: time is not a measure of learning. Businesses care because, to them, time is money—but, in an affinity space, if you learn a new modding technique, online communities don’t care that it took you four months instead of the three allotted in a semester. (Time is still money, but it’s not their money.) School systems have strict stratification between those of varying proficiency, but an ideal affinity space places experts and newbies together and even allows people to float between roles. Because the collective decides and roles are determined by practicality—not prestige—the space focuses the right people’s attention on the right problems.

(For a more detailed list of criteria to by which to define affinity spaces, check out the entry for them on one of the greatest affinity spaces so far: Wikipedia.)

The future

People will be exposed to everything and delve into what they choose. Research will become interdisciplinary enough to effectively render the term meaningless. The world will be a space of self-educated, self-motivated people who have fun going as far as they can in whatever pursuits happen to interest them. University campuses, vestiges of the old regime of knowledge-building, will serve as physical nexus points for the virtual affinity spaces—each likely devoted to a particular subject, topic, or issue. People will treat the campus as a sort of perpetual conference: part town hall, part timeshare. People will pay for college credits in much the same way we currently pay for gasoline: pay as you go, stop when you get there.

No longer confined by this program or that career track, people will be free to expand and apply their skills wherever, whenever. Affinity spaces will be a convergence of scholars, practitioners, policy makers, and even fans—anyone with enough interest to enter the space has the potential for contribution. Society will work as one giant, problem-solving force set to bear on the world right in front of it. It sounds beautiful, natural, and progressive. Each according to their means; all get to choose their contribution, as well as their cost. Everyone can benefit from anyone—a tower of achievement built on a foundation of egalitarianism, all in a ludic framework.

Problems in education, as solved by James Paul Gee by Kenneth Rosenberg, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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