Thursday, January 28, 2010

Language, Learning and Literacy in a Digital Age

Kids fail at school because they are learning in a language that's foreign to them.

That's the first thing I wrote down at a talk given at Carleton last week by James Paul Gee, a linguist and one of the English-speaking world's leading experts on education (or so the poster advertising the event says). The better half of the talk was all about the state of education, mostly in the United States. Gee talked about the strategies used in the past to try and help everyone do well, from the poor to the rich, and how there ended up being only two schools of thought on how education should work that ultimately aligned with politics. All this to lead to the notion that there's a curriculum outside of school that kids and their parents are willing to pay for, yet when the government spends millions of dollars for the curriculum in school, kids lose interest.

That outside curriculum is games.

The thing is that academic language is not the kind of language kids connect with. It's supposed to be a voice of reason, with no affect or emotion. But are students likely to connect with this kind of language, the stuff found in text books? If it sounds foreign to them, is it any wonder so many tune out, or struggle to understand even when they do try?

But games... games include lots of language training in a setting kids care about!

Think of World of Warcraft. When the audience (which, by the way, included very few computer scientists) was asked who played, only a few hands were put up. What a shame, Gee says! WoW does an incredible job of influencing learning, and academics are the last to play. A wonderful example came from a kid who was annoyed at being 'nerfed' in the game, and so did an in-depth study of all the game variables before and after the incident to prove just how bad it was. The kid was using technical specialist language to do science! Yet this same person is probably falling asleep in and maybe even failing science class.

Portal is another good example of the power of games. It's a physics based game, where you must make judgments of momentum, geometry, and so on. It's a great example of embodied and situated learning, but it doesn't have you using any actual physics terminology, so it can't be useful for schools, right? Wrong! Even if the game itself doesn't have you talking about physics, the community surrounding it does. For instance, Wikipedia articles talk about the physics and even link to technical pages about the concepts. (Gee points out, by the way, that such communities are rarely created at school.)

The idea of community is even stronger surrounding The Sims. Many overlooked the power of social media when they concentrated on the technology instead. But there are many interesting things that come out of communities. The Nickel and Dimed challenge, for example, has players trying to recreate a life of poverty in the game just to see if it can even be done. Specialist language is used to describe the conditions of the challenge, and the challenge itself is essentially a social science experiment.

Finally, have you ever seen the language written on card games like Yu Gi Oh? I haven't, but the audience seemed to agree that it's pretty darned complex. Seven year olds play this game! Why can seven year olds read PhD level language playing Yu Gi Oh but can't read at a third grade level at school? "What is hard in school isn't outside of it."

I got a lot out of Gee's talk. I've been thinking about most games being educational in some general way (being about problem solving and such), but never took the language perspective. As the post-talk discussion suggested, having a mentor for game players seems to be a key component in ensuring that game playing does remain an educational pursuit rather than a mindless diversion, but I certainly don't see this as a negative. I would love to see games used more effectively inside the classroom where mentors are available.


Ed said...

This talk sounds really interesting and this is a great post about it. Games have been a popular topic with you lately (although I think it's for a class) and it's been very cool hearing how games can be educational, for both the players and makers.

After going to this talk, are you forming any plans to start a game-focused group or mentor one?

Gail Carmichael said...

Glad the post was interesting! Yes, I am taking a game design class, but actually, many of my posts are based on stuff outside of class. I'm planning on doing educational games for my main PhD research you see. ;)

There was a "games round table" that met last semester with people from many disciplines, but there hasn't been any news of it lately. I hope to hear more soon!

Oliver said...

This brings to mind highschool. I told my teachers back then that I got so much better at typing from playing MUDs than I ever did from the brief keyboarding class. I think my suggestion to build a game where competitive rewards revolved around typing performance fell on deaf ears. The classes today are probably using the same textbook as back then.

Gail Carmichael said...

Ha, so true! There are better typing games out there now, but still don't do quite what you probably imagined I think.

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