Provocation on James Paul Gee’s What Videogames Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy

First I apologize for my belated provocation. James Paul Gee’s What Videogames Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy is inspiring to me in ways I cannot even articulate – I guess I can say, in a joke that, after reading his theories in chapters 1, 2, 4, and 7, that I have gone through a “tacit learning” process, the results of which are very valuable to personal learning and growth in spite of their underappreciation in traditional education, where the evaluation and assessment are based on students’ explicit performance, according to Gee. Having grown up in a small conservative place in China, where playing games is a sin for students, whose only task is to study hard and do well in standard tests. Video games were seen as an evil monster by parents as “a waste of time”, as was said by the grandpa in Gee’s book, because first, in their opinions, it is “playing” and has no function of “learning” at all. This binary thinking stems from a very special historical background in China. It was only in 1977, a year after Mao had passed away, that the Chinese government restored the College Entrance Examination system, which completely came to a halt during cultural revolution, when the “extreme leftist” claimed that the educational system was “capitalist” and educators were tortured and beaten to death because they were “rightists” and “capitalists”. A small group of people were admitted to universities in China, where only “revolutionary students”, which was a synonym of “economically poor students with ancestors who were all peasants”, could be accepted through “recommendations” from people in power in the communist parties. This small group and students who were accepted through the College Entrance Examinations in the following years later became the most successful and influential in China and a lot of them are still playing very important roles in various fields domestically and internationally. Common Chinese people then suddenly found their path to success other than becoming a faithful Chinese Communist Party member and climbing a social ladder set up by chairman Mao and his entourage, which had no clear path at all. Then kids around China were expected to perform extremely well in standardized tests, which were seen as the most “fair” way of social mobility. All things related to “play” were seen by “good” parents and educators as the enemy of their children’s academic and ultimate “success” in life. Arcades were deemed by them as places where “bad kids” went and there was never a lack of stories of such kids stealing money from their parents to play videos games in the arcades, where they were picked up by “bad people”. Video games were also considered “addictive” and conducive to lower academic performance of academic performance and decreasing moral standards in children. Seldom had anyone associated video games with “learning” and until when I went to in college,  when online games became popular with the development of the internet, media coverage about such games were still very negative: gamers of online games were always so addicted to online games that they died in “internet cafes” from exhaustion caused by excessive sleeplessness. Nowadays, there is a tremendous turn of the attitudes toward “gaming” in China because after neoliberalism has gained control of people’s lives and pressure for making money has made everyone as exhausted as playing games too much, games have become not only a tool for releasing tension and anxiety in their daily life, but also have become a wealth-generating industry that has produced rich CEOs of gaming companies as well as winners of international game contestants. However, it seems like such change of attitudes for the general public is influenced mostly by the counterforce of “capital”, which happens to be balancing the negative impacts caused by excessive political dictatorship reigned over China. A book like What Videogames Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy that thoroughly analyzes “gaming” from the perspectives of learning and education is very inspiring to me because it is calm and rational articulation of what some of the values and advantages games have in learning and education and how we could use those features to improve the deficiencies of the modern education system. In Chapter 2, Gee uses the concept of “semiotic domain” to as a basis of qualifying video games. I think this is a great concept because it neither demonizes nor glorifies video games. Rather, it sees video games as every other “semiotic domain”, which has its own “content”, “design grammar”, and one needs sufficient “literacy” to understand and use it, like one learns the language system. The biases towards games, be it positive or negative,  stems from failure to recognize this commonality that games share with other “semiotic domains”. To be literate in games, one has to learn to “read” multi-media sources and how they interact to function in the gaming environment, and thus the principles behind such literacy. Therefore, it is not only “playing”, but also “learning”, in its unique way that is different from traditional learning. According to Gee, games are advantageous compared to traditional learning because it encourages active learning through creating embodied experiences that enable game players to participate in a process in which they are interested. In order to achieve their purposes, which can be multiple in the games they play, they will need to learn actively how to use the tools provided in such games to solve problems through their own experiences. And they are willing to articulate the results of their “tacit-learning” – how they solve those problems- in communities through writing strategy guides, which will be learnt critically by other gamers who may have similar experiences, and whose feedbacks may strengthen the existing theories of playing the games, and thus, a “probe-hypothesize-reprobe-rethink” process, which is a process similar to conducting scientific research, is formed naturally and organically. This process helps a child to become a “self-teacher”, and it is significantly different from traditional learning, where students learn passively about knowledge in which they have very limited embodied experience, and memorizes the answers they don’t understand because of the reasons mentioned above to complete standardized tests consist mostly of multiple choice questions, which seriously ignores the precious fruits of students’ tacit learning and instead focuses on the “performance” of answering questions testing imposed knowledge that they can hardly digest because of a lack of embodied experience. Above all, I love the analysis of the educational features of gaming and I highly recommend the learning principles summarized through the author’s experience of playing games at the end of each chapter of this book because not only are they useful for understanding the educational features of video games, they are also useful in instructional design with or without video games because they are essentially about how to activate students’ agency to engage them in participating in an active, embodied and communal learning experience that will kindle the fire for learning and they will be motivated by a burning desire to learn for the rest of their life.

Keramidas (2010): Immersive Learning in Game Design

Kimon Keramidas argues that Gee’s classic text on the lessons that video games have to bare on teaching and learning is incomplete. While we learn about the cognitive experience of gamers, the book does not prescribe methods for educators to design curricula based on gaming principles. As his thesis for “What Games Have to Teach Us About Teaching and Learning: Game Design as a Model for Course and Curricular Development,” he states, “This paper will argue that the schema and elements that game designers use in creating games can analogously be used as frameworks for reconsidering the structures of classroom experiences, syllabi, and even program development” (Keramidas 2010).

I found his discussion of teachers as designers from Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play most interesting. “Just as the best games are only effective in attracting and maintaining the attention of players if they are well-designed, the best learning environments will be created by designers who take seriously the task of creating a context for students to decipher meaning through participation and immersion” (Keramidas 2010). Teachers are responsible for creating a learning environment in which all signs, feedback, and experiences reinforce a learning objective or culture. Whether teachers are intentional or not, everything that occurs in their classes sends a message. While educators have written much on participation and its various forms–individual, partner, small group, whole class–I have not encountered much discourse on immersion. What does immersion look like in the classroom? How do the physical environment, learning activities, and assessments contribute to an immersive learning experience?

My thoughts are that immersion parallels with discussions of authentic learning in education. Here, authenticity refers to the learning activities and writing that mimics the work of professionals in the discipline, ie. thinking and writing like a historian, or reading scientific articles in a biology classroom and writing lab reports. Yet, immersion also makes think of something else. An immersive learning experience indicates coordinated, sustained focus on a topic. When do we create the time and place for sustained focus in schools? When do students have the opportunity to experience “flow” in their thinking, reading, writing, or other problem-solving?

In my Composition classroom, I lament that I do not schedule enough time for individual application of a learning objective. I recognize the need for sustained practice of discrete skills. The famed charter school administrator Doug Lemov describes strategies for skill-building in his book Practice Perfect. I disagree with several features of no-excuses charter schools, but their systems for data management and designing specific learning activities to focus on narrow learning targets is notable. In the era of project-based learning, skill-building activities are often derided as put-dated “drill and kill.” Yet, what do we make of the simplistic, repetitive maneuvers of Tetris-type and Bejeweled matching games? We practice an isolated set of skills until we master them and move up in difficulty. Isolating skills is a strategy that special education teachers learn in order to modify lessons for students with a range of learning needs. It seems to me that this is an additional feature of game design that leads to its popularity.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapters 1 and 2

Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapters 1 and 2

In Chapters 1 and 2, Freire explains how the current education system, which he termed “banking concept of education,” functioned as the major instrument of sustaining the oppressive system and justifies the need for pedagogy of the oppressed for liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor. I think Freire’s intentional use of “of ” here is important, as he proposes a pedagogy “with” the oppressed, not “for” the oppressed. As he criticizes several times the forms of “false generosity” or “false charity,” I agree with his idea that liberation/independence cannot be given as a gift for the oppressed, but they should be the subjects of the liberating process. However, one aspect that made me curious was his distinction of the educational projects from the systematic education. He states that educational projects “should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organizing them” while systematic education “can only be changed by political power” (54). I believe most of what Freire proposes are within the boundary of educational projects, but I also wonder if (and how) these educational projects can be the changing forces of the systematic education. In other words, are there always this clear-cut binary between the oppressed and the oppressors and between the educational projects and the systematic education? How central is Freire’s pedagogy in the curricula of most schools in the U.S. or outside the educational system?

I think Freire’s pedagogy has been a good starting point for many educators and academics to think about it in a more specific context (i.e. Feminist pedagogy, etc.). Other way to put it, rather more critically, is that Freire’s critique on the oppressive system can be read as generalizing “the” oppressive system hugely based on Marxist class analysis, without specifying the different layers of oppression or proposing different possibilities of the very experience of oppression. We had a discussion on “intersectionality” and we are not well aware of how social inequality and injustice is sustained by multiple forms of oppression including gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and so on. Drawing from your own theoretical background and/or practical educational experiences, what’s your take on this?

Sometimes Freire seems to be romanticizing the inner values of the oppressed (laborers and peasants), although he understands the double/contradictory consciousness. In part to continue our discussion on pedagogy of the oppressed and “Trump voting masses,” I thought about if we have a clear-cut agreement on who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors under current political and cultural geographies (e.g. white supremacy rallies). How can we use Freire’s pedagogy in the current political context in (seemingly) democratized and societies (especially the U.S. and some countries in Europe)? Can interactive technologies be any useful platform for pedagogy of the oppressed in the twenty-first century?

I would like to end with quoting feminist scholar bell hooks talking on Freire and his sexism (refereing back to the second paragraph of this blog post). In the chapter 4 of her book Teaching to Transgress (1994), which is a playful conversation between herself (Gloria Jean Watkins) and her pen persona bell hooks, she powerfully states that Freire’s work is like water that contains some dirt in it. Do you agree with her statement? Can you let me know other scholars or practitioners against this position? More importantly, how can we think about Freire’s work in a more global context?

“In talking with academic feminists (usually white women) who feel they must either dismiss or devalue the work of Freire because of sexism, I see clearly how our different responses are shaped by the standpoint that we bring to the work. I came to Freire thirsty, dying of thirst (in that way that the colonized, marginalized subject who is still unsure of how to break the hold of the status quo, who longs for change, is needy, is thirsty), and I found in his work (and the work of Malcom X, Fanon, etc.) a way to quench that thirst. To have work that promotes one’s liberation is such a powerful gift that it does not matter so much if the gift is flawed. Think of the work as water that contains some dirt. Because you are thirsty you are not too proud to extract the dirt and be nourished by the water. For me this is an experience that corresponds very much to the way individuals of privilege respond to the use of water in the First World context. When you are privileged, living in one of the richest countries in the world, you can waste resources. And you can especially justify your disposal of something that you consider impure. […] If we approach the drinking of water that comes from the tap from a global perspective we would have to talk about it differently. We would have to consider what the vast majority of the people in the world also are thirsty must do to obtain water. Paulo’s work has been living water for me.” (Teaching to Transgress, 50)

Image result for theatre of the oppressedAs a theatre-major student, I previously commented on Zhang’s post about Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal‘s Theatre of the Oppressed. I write it here again just in case you are interested in reading more about the application of Freire’s pedagogy in theatre. Boal was hugely influenced by Freire and emphasized interaction and communication between the performers and the audience (he coined the term, “spect-actor”). As a form of activism and theatre, the methodologies of Theatre of the Oppressed have been performed around the world and you can check out “Theatre of the Oppressed NYC” too.


added on October 23 Monday after reading some comments:

Here is description of what Boal termed as Forum Theatre: (From Theatre of the Oppressed NYC Website)
“a troupe performs their original play, in which each scene depicts a specific obstacle based on actors’ real-life experiences; this is followed by a “forum” in which a facilitator asks audience members to come on stage and step into the role of the protagonist to try out an alternative response to the problem(s) depicted onstage. Throughout the forum a trained TO ‘joker’ facilitates dialogue about the potential of each alternative, and what social, legal, legislative, and/or institutional changes could make various alternatives viable. These interactive forums have proven to be an effective, inspiring way to engage audiences in a laboratory to ‘rehearse’ practical, creative actions that we can individually and collectively take to challenge systems of oppression.”

Based on our previous discussions regarding the role of “facilitator” it is interesting to note Boal called this as a “joker” in reference to the neutrality of the Joker card.


I had a really fascinating Bass-ian experience with my Media Studies 101 class during Spring Semester 2012 in which we dug in to the viral video phenom of Kony2012. I kept a log of my teaching and wanted to contribute it to yesterday’s class anecdotal content:

PROJECT: CLASS WORKSHOPPING and GROUP INVESTIGATION of Kony2012 VIRAL VIDEO PHENOM in class and independently (mid-term to semester’s end) for MEDIA STUDIES 101: MEDIA IN EVERYDAY LIFE a required TIER 1 CRITICAL THINKING course, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, CT.

Research Topics: -Viral Video (viral content as a relatively new phenom in early 2012) -Invisible Children -Anti-Kony Campaign -United Nations -Jason Russell -Joseph Kony -Missionaries/Colonialism/Conversion/ -Mormonism -Lord’s Resistance Army/L.R.A./LRA -New York Times Op Ed -NPR -Charity/Fundraising/Donation


The Book of Mormon Broadway musical had opened in 2011 with a plot line about missionaries in Uganda, leading to the rhetorical question regarding the Kony2012 film: is art imitating life?

-Our joint research led to a consensus of an appearance that Director Jason Russell was proselytizing and more interested in conversion than in trying to raise awareness due to his personal commitment to Christianity. This was based upon odd similarities in language that we observed in our research between two such diametrically opposed causes such as, “crusades” and “holy wars”.

-Director Jason Russell had a very public mental breakdown mid-way through our research which overshadowed the viral phenom of the film. Personal news i.e., “scandal” about the Director halted our research and presented a “real-time” cautionary tale about media and mediated culture.

FOLLOW UP ASSIGNMENT: A subsequent written paper applying the principles of Kant and Mill from our text “Persuasion in the Media Age” (Borchers) to both Kony2012 and the Rutgers Spycam Trial which we also studied in Spring 2012 as a tragic landmark case in both media ethics and Internet privacy. I wrote the paper alongside the class and as the teacher, when I read/graded the students’ papers, I found that the philosophical theory of Kant and Mill made more sense to the class after the students researched as a group in a participatory way. One of the class’s leading students, who had served in the US Armed Forces, dove in to this project producing excellent research and went on to become a Social Worker. Here is the link to my paper.


An Example of Using Theater as an Educational Tool for “The Oppressed”

As we were discussing “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, it occurred to me that there is a video for an ESL program created by NYC Mayor’s Office and CUNY. I used to be a volunteer facilitator for this program, teaching ESL classes to immigrants in NYC. This video is about how to use theater to teach immigrants and the victims of domestic violence how to stand up against it. I think it exemplifies how to use art as an educational tool for “the oppressed”. The video is free to download and the file is not big.


Materials on Open Educational Resources for the classroom

During tonight’s Intro to Open Educational Resources lab, our facilitator Jean Amaral (Assistant Professor / Outreach Librarian, BMCC) will be referencing some materials for further reading. I am attaching them here for those of you who are participating, or for anyone else who’s interesting in learning a bit about the fundamentals of incorporating OER in your teaching.

Remember that We Switched the Oct. 16 & Oct. 23 Classes in the Syllabus

Because Jenna blogged on one of the reading assignments for Oct. 23rd (Mina Shaughnessy) , I wanted to make sure everyone remembered that we switched the classes for Oct. 16 and Oct. 23rd. That we are doing Dewey/Bass/etc. pedagogy class this Monday and WAC a week from Monday when Luke Waltzer will be joining us. The change is reflected in the online syllabus for the course, but I’m worried that some of you may be working off of older (and now out of date) print copies of the syllabus.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In the preface of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire makes clear that the pedagogy of the oppressed to be presented ” is a task for radicals, it cannot be carried out by sectarians”. This warning was a type of catalyst to me, for the title of the book was instead evoking, at first sight, powerful images of liberation, fight, freedom against all forms of nepotism, neo-colonialism, and social disparity in their primary senses that I was looking for in the trouble linguistics, social and economic context of my country of origin: Cameroon.

Fortunately(or may be unfortunately),  Freire makes a clear distinction between sectarianism and radicalism. The first is made up of Christians(?), Marxists, and tends to mysticize while his approach is radicalism who criticizes and liberates. What is the modus operandum of Freire radicalism? What does it stand for? What does Freire radicalism criticize? How does it liberate? who does it liberate? From what does it liberate? for what purpose?

Freire’s primary aim is the humanization of illiterate and social groups who evolved at the fringe of the Brazilian society due to poverty, lack of educational knowledge, namely the incapacity of decoding the power behind scriptural encoding of the world in words. He wants to educate the oppressed masses by arising in them, not only to the consciousness of their humanity which had been imprisoned by the dominating class – the oppressors- through the limitation of their access to qualitative knowledge.  By  education,  those  ”outcasts” are to regain their humanity, while at the same time being educated  to educate and liberate their former oppressors who are just also the victim of the system that placed them in the domineering position:

In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not in seeking to regain their humanity( which is a way to create it) become in turn oppressors of the oppressed, but rather restorators of the humanity in both.

In other words,  Freire is convinced that the liberation process is only possible through “critical and liberating dialogue ” that will enlighten both the oppressed and the former oppressors, victims of the system. The question arising here would be for who or what does the “system” stands for?

If one thing is sure, it is that Freire doesn’t point a finger at the oppressors(individuals) but at the system, the educational process accused of the malfunctioning of society. For that reason, a revolutionary leadership must  ”practice co-intentional education. Teachers and students(leadership and people), co-intent of reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling ”a given reality or coming to apprehend through critical reasoning, “but in the task of recreating that knowledge”.

In addition, the struggle of the oppressed is to realize what they are fighting for, “not merely for freedom from hunger, but for freedom to create and to reconstruct, to wonder and to venture”. In fact, the reconstruction passes through a deconstruction of the old and archaic system that has been alienating and imprisoning the student in a position of inferiority, that made him the depository, a recipient of the teacher or the system world’s view. This, called the “banking” system is the one to revolutionize.

The nodal component in the banking system is that  ”the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing”. Others components gravitating around it are: “the teacher thinks and the students are thought about, the teacher talk and the students listen-meekly, the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined, the teacher chooses the program content, and the students(who were not consulted) adapt to it”, etc.

The above elements of the banking system can be resumed as the subject/object relation, where the teacher is the subject and the student the object. In fact, for Freire, the banking system constitutes the reasons why the system is so alienating and denaturing. The banking concept should be replaced by problem-posing education which is “revolutionary futurity”‘. Therefore, the problem-posing education model should be “attempting to be more human” by positioning the teacher and the student at the same position: Subjects. These subjects or co-subjects are similar to co- intentional education and are built around a key concept: dialogue.

By Dialogue, Freire means the encounter of “those addressed to the common task of learning and acting” for he emphasizes the communal character of the educational/liberating process. He then proposes theories of revolutionary action as opposed to the theory of oppressive action, both organized around the varying and variable positions of the subjects/actors, actors/subjects.

After reading this summary of Freire’s view in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, what are your opinion about the educational models upraised by Freire in the late ’60s? What is the position of the banking system model in education today? Is the banking system really an antique dehumanizing learning system? What are the limits of the problem-posing method? Is it applicable to all fields of study/learning or is it restricted to some disciplines?

Could Shaughnessy Have Been More Holistic in Her Approach?

Born in 1924 to a father who didn’t finish high school and a mother with a two-year teaching certificate, Mina Shaughnessy earned her BA & MA from prestigious private universities: Northwestern and Columbia, respectively. For financial reasons, she did not pursue a Ph.D. Her modest rural roots, her reputable education, and her own frustration at not feeling free to attain the highest academic achievement provide context for the pioneering work she did at the end of her relatively short life in 1978, a year before Errors and Expectations was published.

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Sugar Cane Alley

Although I cannot find the link for a full movie of “Sugar Cane Alley” (, I still think it is a great movie that may be of some help for us to “experience” the “colonial/post colonial” education discussed in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire.