Friday, July 30, 2010

What Your Identity Has to Do With Learning

What happens if one of your identities conflicts with what you're trying to learn in school? For instance, what if you are a creationist Christian learning science, or someone whose family is just not into school? Or what if you're a woman in a world where women aren't supposed to be good at coding?

It turns out that this can put you at a huge disadvantage when it comes to learning. Now that I've read the explanation in James Paul Gee's book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, it seems so obvious why this is the case, yet it doesn't appear to be something we pay much attention to when designing the education system.

There is a "tripartite play of identities" involved in learning, explained here in the context of a science classroom:
  • "In a good science classroom, a virtual identity is at stake. Learners need to be able to engage in words, interactions, and actions that allow them to take on the identity of 'scientist'."
  • "All learners in a science classroom bring to that room their real-world identities. ... [T]he multiple real-world identities of learners in a science classroom are filtered through their real-world identities as a learner, a school learner, and a school science learner learning science here and now."
  • "If learners are to take on projective identities in the science classroom, they must come to project their own values and desires onto the virtual identity of 'being a scientist of a certain sort' in the classroom. They must also see this virtual identity as a project in the making."
These three identities are easily seen in many video games (particularly role-playing games). As Gee says, "If schools worked in similar ways, learning in school would be more successful and powerful because it would become the active and critical learning discussed in the last chapter [on semiotic domains]."

It's the second type of identity that really got me thinking. The discussion on this one included the idea that students' real-world identities of being learners may be damaged, and they can't learn effectively until these identities are repaired.
But how can such repair work be done? It is no easy matter. In fact, often this is what good teaching, especially in socially and culturally diverse classrooms, amounts to. However, good repair work is just a more intense version of good teaching and learning for all types of students, including those who have no need of any particular repair work.
One of the identities I mentioned at the beginning was for women in technology. Our culture is one that imagines men being much better at these subjects, so many women, even if they enjoy programming and similar activities, often never see themselves as pursuing the subjects further. Those that do give it a shot tend to have at least some damaged identities, and of course, these are almost never addressed. In fact, many first year computer science classes assume you already have some experience in the domain (contrast this with the ridiculously basic level many computer science departments try to teach to arts and general science students in their 'intro to computers' classes).

The part of good teaching and repairing these identities is a great topic for another post, but I wanted to mention a story and/or game idea I wanted to pursue that I think could help with this before post-secondary.

I used to love books like The Babysitters Club when I was young, and have wondered if I could write a book about middle or high school life that has elements of learning computer science instead of babysitting. I even thought this could make an interesting game, where little puzzles scattered throughout the story were something you could actually try as you went through, rather than just read about.

The main goal (after having a good, solidly written story of course) would be to help readers repair their identities as people who are capable of learning about computers. It could potentially reach a lot of girls - many more than local outreach activities! And who knows... maybe it could even fit into my thesis topic of educational games...


Web Teacher said...

As an educator myself, I'm fascinated by this idea. I think we used to call it building self-esteem back in the day. But what you are saying makes a lot of sense. I hope you do go ahead with your game idea. I think it's needed.

Gail Carmichael said...

I think self-esteem is related to this concept for sure, but I suspect in only a subset kind of way. By this I mean that some identities probably are tied to one's self esteem, but certainly not all (for instance, if your family or general culture influence your identity, even subconsciously).

Pontifex said...

Totally agree, Gail.

One of the things I struggled with in designing my RPG is that the RPG industry as it exists now is dominated by male gamers. I wanted to break free of that.

Part of my solution was, of course, game design. But another part of it was graphic design. I intentionally selected art for the book that presented women simply as strong characters instead of sex objects. No chainmail bikinis!

I wanted to create the image of characters that women could see themselves actually playing. Women in armor that is... useful! Women engaging in exciting and heroic tasks. Women as normal.

Even trying to consciously write with female pronouns was hard because I was so used to using male pronouns for examples like "if the GM thinks that, HE will tell you blah blah".

The game went public beta last night ( so we will see how the reception goes on this angle. I hope it will be positive.

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