Friday, July 06, 2007

Fun and games, with Jim in Toronto

This is the last day of our involvement in this year's summer institute for MSVU, and on Sunday it'll be the plane for Newfoundland. This morning Jim Gee is going to be talking on new ways of learning -- none of which existed 20 years ago, most of which are not available in schools today, but all of which are readily available on the internet. This creates a paradox.

In part we are looking at an information overload that needs to be negotiated, raising the question of how we can interface with information in user-friendly ways and modify it to work with our purposes. This attitude also is paradoxical -- because the value system that says "give me info in a form I can use and modify and purpose fit" is held by 7 year olds, but in education we are just coming to it.

To spell these paradoxes out and move toward resolving them Jim is returning to "old" literacies, beginning with the question of what predicts success in first grade. A common answer here is "early literacy at home". But current policy often skips the robust finding of emergent literacy and overrides it with phonics ... (speaking of paradoxes)

What predicts success in 4th grade and beyond? The answer arising here is "academic language". Jim is running the Phonics -- Academic Language rift: 90% of kids can decode but relatively few of them handle academic language. So what gives?

Let's assume that by high school it's too late to dump Academic Literacy on kidz. So what does early introduction to academic language look like? Jim is referring here to Kevin Crowley's transcript of the oviraptor egg (elaborated and discussed in Jim's new book Good Video Games + Good Learning)

Jim provides several examples of parents getting kidz well prepared for academic language, and shows how the mad(dening) emphasis on phonics fuels the 4th grade slump. He runs a lovely line on a major text book publishing company pondering whether they should some books on how to overcome the 4th grade slump, and Jim says "funny you should ask that, since you have done plenty to cause the slump".

So we are now moving into a discussion of lucidly functional language -- also beautifully covered in his new book (in case you missed the link first time round). The argument draws on Yu-Gi-Oh. (Try running the text of a Yu-Gi-Oh card in the biker bar -- to introduce another old friend.)

So, in effect, 7 year old kidz read and argue over doctoral level language (playing Yu-Gi-Oh).

Paradox: how come many middle class and other (poor) kidz fail at school academic language (in school) yet the same kidz excel in the same kind of language outside of school?

How does school manage to mess up what capitalists excel in enabling? Jim is currently running his early experience with reading the games manual as a way of getting into a game. "I know what every word in that text says in English, but I haven't a clue what that means".

He played the game for a while -- hours -- and then had to go back to the manual to solve a problem, and found he now had a situated meaning -- vivid pictures, vivid images -- for every word in the page of text that had previously been unintelligible.

Moral: If you haven't played "Geology" before reading the manual (textbook) you won't understand the manual/textbook. No situated meanings.

In school we give the Geology test, but make sure most kidz haven't played the game first.

Learning science shows us that we store every experience in our headsing video games in our heads to get ready for action. He cites Barsalou -- "comprehension is grounded in perceptual simulations that prepare agents for situated action".

"Higher intelligence is not a different kind of process from perceptual experience" (citing the inventor of the palm pilot). i.e., "thinking" is really largely a matter of "seeing".

Video games: "perceptual simulations that prepare agents (players) for situated action via a surrogate body". Imagine the kid who circulates as a T cell through the circulatory system of a pig, and what s/he'd know about that.

We are reminded that gamers don't attend to the eye candy. People learn by getting a ton of experience, but they have to have a goal. So in games players look through the eye candy to find how to get to the goal. If you focus on the eye candy you get dead. Hence, the game tutorials strip the eye candy away so you get to see what you need to do.

So the pennies are dropping here right now. If you want to do physics you have to see the world as a physicist does ("assume the cow is a circle" -- it's OK, you can adapt afterwards). This is why players don't watch the eye candy in Grand Theft Auto.

Moreover, to appropriate the knowledge, purpose it, learn it, the roles of modding and modeling become very important. Games introduce players to both -- to varying the values of variables, making choices (how to play the game, how to build the context of the game, etc.). Jim discusses models and simulations -- referring to games like "Civilisation" as a model for aspects of past times. Poor kidz are modding models of civilisations, and not failing, but are failing in school.

This turns on the difference between moving from experience to abstraction vs moving from abstraction to experience. Games do it the opposite way to schools/formal learning.

And we end with a reference to the graphical and other summary information the player gets at the end of playing a game. Do kidz like grading at school? NO. But they pore over the graphic assessment at the end of a game. The latter provide understanding of what one has done in a game so that the next time tround one can do it/play it better -- the data provides a model of all you did moment by moment so you can put it into a form you can think about and analyse and do things better next time. School assessment, by contrast ......

We almost end with that. We end, instead, with the example of Jim's son, Sam, playing civilisation by "turtling" -- using cheats, that in the particular case involve hippos. But a colleague at a games conference says that this in effect involves the player using a crutch. When challenged with this, Sam says that it is OK, since he is now down to a "one hippo game". So we end with a rhetorical question: is Sam cheating or customising the game to his own learning purposes and goals?

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