Open Thinkering


Tag: James Paul Gee

Investing in infrastructure: does it work?

Chicago from the air

Yesterday the government announced a combination of public and private funding, a £30 billion investment in the UK’s infrastructure (transport, hospitals, schools, etc.) The private funding would probably come from pension funds and Chinese investment, and it’s anticipated that the public funding will come from cuts to the tax credits system. They’re hoping (and it is a hope) that this will stimulate the economy and provide economic growth.

Earlier this year James Paul Gee, a big advocate of games-based learning, wrote a post entitled 10 Truths About Books and What They Have to Do With Video Games. It included these nuggets:

 3. For good learning, books require talk and social interaction with others around interpretation and implications. 5.   Books can make you smart by supplying vicarious experience, new ideas, and something to debate and think about.

6. Books are often best used as tools for problem solving, not just in and for themselves.

8. Just giving people books does not make them smarter; it all depends on what they do with them and who they do it with. For young people, it depends, too, on how much and how well they get mentored. Mentoring is, in fact, crucial.

10. Books tend to make the “rich” richer and the poor “poorer” (those who read more in the right way get to be better and better readers and get more and more out of reading; those who don’t, get to be poorer and poorer readers and get less and less out of reading. The former get more successful, the latter, less). This is called “the Matthew Principle.”

What happens if instead of ‘books’ we talk about ‘infrastructure’ in the above examples? I’d argue that the following is true:

  • Infrastructure can give people new experiences.
  • Infrastructure can be used to help solve social problems (especially social justice issues)
  • Infrastructure does not to lead to improved quality and efficiency in and of itself. It depends what people do with it.
  • Infrastructure tends to make the “rich” richer and the poor “poorer”. Those who have the social and cultural capital to make the most of the infrastructure improve and entrench their position.

The word ‘infrastructure’ can also be applied to the ‘hard’ stuff in educational institutions and especially the kind of educational technology that occupies much of my thinking time.

Time and time again over my (albeit relative short) career I’ve seen investment in educational infrastructure without the associated, necessary investment in people. Not only do we need to provide the kit, we need to invest in skills. In fact, it’s more than that, we need to go beyond training and give people the space to be creative and innovative – job security and hope for the future being a good place to start with the latter. That’s why so many public sector workers are striking tomorrow.

I agree that investing in infrastructure is important. But investing in people, for all kinds of reasons, is crucial.

Image CC SA dsearls

New Literacy Studies

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at

In the last two decades of the twentieth century an interdisciplinary group of academics including Brian Street, James Paul Gee and David Barton started to approach literacy from a sociocultural point of view. They continued to view literacy in a traditional way, as ‘reading and writing’, but looked to move away from defining it as a merely cognitive process. This became known as the ‘New Literacy Studies’ (NLS):

The NLS opposed a traditional psychological approach to literacy. Such an approach viewed literacy as a “cognitive phenomenon” and defined it in terms of mental states and mental processing. The “ability to read” and “the ability to write” were treated as things people did inside their heads. The NLS instead saw literacy as something people did inside society. It argued that literacy was not primarily a mental phenomenon, but rather a sociocultural one. Literacy was a social and cultural achievement-it was about ways of participating in social and cultural groups-not just a mental achievement. Thus, literacy needed to be understood and studied in its full range of contexts-not just cognitive but social, cultural, historical, and institutional, as well. (Gee, 2010:10)

Literacy, therefore, was no longer a journey that a teacher could take a child upon to a predictable destination, but something that resulted from thought and an evolving understanding of the world. Literacy became a construct.

In fact, a plurality of literacies is necessary, NLS theorists argue, because texts can be read in different ways. The Bible, for example, can be read from a religious, historical or hermeneutic point of view meaning that literacy always involves ‘apprenticeship’ to a group. Being literate is always being literate for entry into a particular community or group:

Many different social and cultural practices incorporate literacy, so, too, there many different “literacies” (legal literacy, gamer literacy, country music literacy, academic literacy of many different types). People do not just read and write in general, they read and write specific sorts of “texts” in specific ways; these ways are determined by the values and practices of different social and cultural groups. (Gee, 2010:11)

Proponents of the NLS therefore do not literacy directly but always through the lens of organizations, institutions and groups. The ‘manifesto’ of NLS is a book edited by Cope and Kalpublished in the year 2000 entitled Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures. Despite this, Gee, one of the contributors to the book believes that NLS ‘never fully cohered as an area’ (2010:12). Confusingly, NLS bred the new literacies studies which, instead of focusing on viewing literacy in a new way, investigated literacies beyond print literacy. To demarcate the two, Gee refers to new literacies studies as New Media Literacies Studies (NMLS). As suggested by its name, the latter is particular interested the ‘literacies’ associated with media and popular culture:

The emphasis is not just on how people respond to media messages, but also on how they engage proactively in a media world where production, participation, social group formation, and high levels of nonprofessional expertise are prevalent. (Gee, 2010:19)

The NLS is part of a wider ‘social turn’ which shifted the focus away from individual minds towards social interactions. Proponents of NLS argue that literacy (i.e. ‘reading and writing’) is always for a purpose and therefore must be understood as operating within social and cultural contexts. The specific practices of literacies, taking place within specific contexts are known as ‘discourses’. Understanding literacy as operating within such discourses can lead to two different types of ‘new literacy’.

The first type of ‘new literacy’ comes through understanding what is ‘new’ as being the ‘digital’ element of literacy: examples of this include word processing and hypertext. Whilst the context (and therefore the discourse) may have changed, literacy still involves reading and writing text. In terms of the denotative and connotative elements of ‘literacy’ we explored in Chapter 5, this definition is remains towards the denotative end of the spectrum.

The second type of ‘new literacy’, however, resides closer to the connotative end of the literacy spectrum. Here, ‘literacy’ remains ‘reading and writing’ but these elements are understood in a post-typographical and metaphorical way. In the same way as a footballer might be said to ‘read’ a game, so this second type of ‘new literacy’ employs a definition towards the connotative end of the literacy spectrum that embraces non-written methods of communication. Examples here include the type of ‘mash-ups’ prevalent on video-sharing websites such as YouTube and often include memetic and other meta-level elements.

As Lankshear and Knobel (2006) have pointed out, educational practices within the realm of the first type of new literacy often fall into the trap of ‘old wine in new bottles’. Just because new contexts are being used through the use of new technologies does not mean that any form of ‘literacy’ is involved. For new discourses to be created both new contexts and new literacy practices are necessary. In other words, literacy is more than the mastery of procedural skills.

Literacy, as we have alluded to elsewhere, confers some kind of status to a set of practices. For something to be a ‘literacy’ means that it is a socially-acceptable practice to be engaged in and, therefore, something with which an ‘educated’ person needs to be familiar. As with the Australian ‘literacy wars’ mentioned in Chapter 2, there is a tendency for educational institutions – conservative at the best of times – to focus on the denotative, procedural, and cognitive elements of literacy. The sop given to the ‘social turn’ of NLS is to use traditional literacy practices with new technologies: requiring students to ‘type up’ their essays, for example, or produce a PowerPoint presentation. These, however, neglect to immerse and induct young people into the kind of ‘discourses’ that they encounter outside and beyond school, college and university. There is no ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Ghefaili, 2003) but merely a semblance, a veneer, of new literacy practices where old ones persist.

Epistemic games and situated learning.

Space Invasion

In the last chapter of my hopefully-soon-to-be-complete Ed.D. thesis I’m applying a model of digital literacy to games-based learning in an attempt to see if there’s scope for a ‘digital games literacy’.

One of the leading lights in this field is the Australian academic James Paul Gee who, thankfully, writes in an extremely incisive and lucid fashion. In Are Video Games Good For Learning? he produces this wonderful passage about the ‘just-in-time’ learning and scaffolding provided by good video games (my emphasis):

Video games are external (i.e., not mental) simulations of worlds or problem spaces in which the player must prepare for action and the accomplishment of goals from a particular perspective. Gamers learn to see the world of each different game in a quite different way. But in each case they must learn to see the virtual world in terms of how it will afford the sorts of actions they (where “they” means a melding of themselves and their virtual character) need to take to accomplish their goals (to win in the short and long run).


While commercial video games often offer worlds in which players prepare for the actions of soldiers or thieves, the question arises as to whether other types of games could let players prepare for action from different perspectives or identities such as a particular type of scientist, political activist, or global citizen, for instance. If games could play this role, they would speak to one of the deeper problems of education, the fact that many students who can pass paper and pencil tests cannot actually apply their knowledge to real problem-solving (Gardner, 1991).

Good video games distribute intelligence (Brown, Collins & Dugid, 1989) between a real-world person and artificially intelligent virtual characters. For example, in Full Spectrum Warrior, the player uses the buttons on the controller to give orders to two squads of soldiers (the game SWAT 4 is also a great equivalent example here). The instruction manual that comes with the game makes it clear from the outset that players, in order to play the game successfully, must take on the values, identities, and ways of thinking of a professional soldier: “Everything about your squad,” the manual explains, “is the result of careful planning and years of experience on the battlefield. Respect that experience, soldier, since it’s what will keep your soldiers alive” (p. 2). In the game, that experience—the skills and knowledge of professional military expertise—is distributed between the virtual soldiers and the real-world player. The soldiers in the player’s squads have been trained in movement formations; the role of the player is to select the best position for them on the field. The virtual characters (the soldiers) know part of the task (various movement formations) and the player must come to know another part (when and where to engage in such formations). This kind of distribution holds for every aspect of professional military knowledge in the game.

By distributing knowledge and skills this way—between the virtual characters (smart tools) and the real-world player—the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual soldiers. This offloads some of the cognitive burden from the learner, placing it in smart tools that can do more than the learner is currently capable of doing by him or herself. It allows the player to begin to act, with some degree of effectiveness, before being really competent: “performance before competence.” The player thereby eventually comes to gain competence through trial, error, and feedback, not by wading through a lot of text before being able to engage in activity.

Such distribution also allows players to internalize not only the knowledge and skills of a professional (a professional soldier in this case), but also the concomitant values (“doctrine” as the military says) that shape and explain how and why that knowledge is developed and applied in the world. This suggests an important question for research: whether and how other “professions”—scientists, doctors, government officials, urban planners, political activists (Shaffer, 2004)—could be modeled and distributed in this fashion as a deep form of value-laden learning (and, in turn, learners could compare and contrast different value systems as they play different games).

Shaffer’s (2004; 2005) “epistemic games” already give us a good indication that even young learners, through video games embedded inside a well-organized curriculum, can be inducted into professional practices as a form of value-laden deep learning that transfers to school-based skills and conceptual understandings. However, much work remains to be done here in making the case that the knowledge, skills, and values that good games offer transfer to school and, in particular, to students’ learning in traditional content areas.

(Gee, J.P. (2006) ‘Are Video Games Good For Learning?’ (Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 03/2006, p.174-6)

Image CC BY-NC-SA Stéfan