Reflecting on James Paul Gee’s Keynote Address at Computers & Writing 2013

Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to Frostburg, Maryland for the 29th annual Computers & Writing Conference. The jam-packed weekend was filled with interesting panels and inspiring keynote addresses, including one by the impressive James Paul Gee.

ManualEchoing arguments in his 2009 Why Kids should Learn with Video Games, Gee stressed the importance of learning-by-doing. He offered the example of a video game manual—if you try to read the manual before playing the game, it doesn’t make any sense. The terminology is inextricably linked to the experience of the game. In the same way, Gee argued, if you try to read a geology textbook without having looked at evidence of erosion on rocks, then the language in your textbook is nothing more than terminology—you can learn the meaning of the word “erode,” but you will not fully grasp the meaning of the word unless you have had some tangible, situated experience with erosion. His point is that our attempts to teach students concepts in the abstract are not likely to lead to fruitful learning. He further argued that, for many children, “school is about a world they don’t live in and about a game they don’t get to play.”

Gee also pointed to the power of collective intelligence that we see
in collaborative educational games like FOLDIT, arguing that we are witnessing “the death of experts.” His point is that digital tools and networks enable anyone to become an expert without necessarily earning a credential. Consequently, the credential holds less power: just because you have a credential does not mean the people who create their own media, science, news, and games are not your competition.

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Gee further argued that the world is too full of complex systems to believe we can solve real problems in isolation—solutions today require teamwork. Gee thus contends that we cannot continue to believe that the best way to share our knowledge and our expertise is by publishing in journals that no one reads. We need to legitimately work not only with scholars from other disciplines, but also with specialists outside of the academy.

Gee concluded by arguing that the main skill we need to be teaching our students and our institutions is resilience. They need to flexible, to think about complex systems, to be metacognitively aware of the social and political realities that constrain our world, and to be comfortable taking risks and persisting past failure. And we need to recognize that production is the key 21st century skill; as such, we need to be teaching students to create, not to memorize abstract terms from a textbook.

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