Monday, March 12, 2007

Situated Language and Learning

I really enjoyed Gee's Introduction to Discourse Analysis and picked up his book, Situated Language and Learning.
One implication that I hope this book has is this: if you want to design a learning environment, don't start with content, start with the following sorts of quesitons: "What experiences do I want the learners to have? What simulations do I want them to be able to build in their heads? What do I want them to be able to do? What information, tools, and technologies do they need?" Another way to put these questions is: "What games do I want the learners to be able to play?" The first decision, then, ought to be about what are good and useful and powerful experiences for people to have, and what are good and useful and powerful games for them to be able to play.
-from James Paul Gee's Situated Language and Learning: A critique of traditional schooling.

He talks about how kids learn to read in the context of playing video games:
Computer and video games often contain lots of print and they come with manuals. it is notorious that young people don't read the manuals, but just play the game. While older people bemoan this fact as just one more indication that young people today don't read, these young people are making a very wise decision when they start by playing and not reading. The texts that come with games are very hard to undersand unless and until one has some experience of playing the game-- experience which, then, will give specific situated meanings to the language in the text.
--- he pulls out examples of passages in video game manuals that make absolutely no sense, but presumably would if you'd tried to play the game and run into some snags. then he compares that to a science textbook (a passage on erosion) and how difficult it would be to make meaning out of that without first "playing the game" of science.

This reminds me of spending weeks having conversations with high school students about "Why is the sky blue?"-- by the end of the discussion we read pop-literature (a NYTimes article) that addressed why the sky was blue and they could critique it and underatnd it in a really sophisticated way.

So far (by p. 46) the message of the book is that what's difficult about reading isn't phonics and decoding words, per se, but instead putting those in context, matching them up with some kind of embodied meaning. I like the way he uses "embodied." (as opposed to the very strict embodiment that I usually think of when I hear the word.)

Another nice example...
these two sentences [from the paragraph on erosion] are meant to be definitions, though not of the words 'erosion' and 'weathering' in everyday temrs, but in specialist terms. And , of course, I do need to know that they are definitions and I may not even know that if I have had little experience of specialists trying to define terms in explicit and operations ways so as to lessen the sort of ambiguiity and vagueness that is more typical of everyday talk.
So the message to me is that kids need to have participated in scientific ways of knowing, talking, thinking to be able to make any kind of sense of these kinds of texts.