More on teaching textual codes…and some thoughts on student motivation

I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed Gee’s book. I particularly enjoyed his introduction and first few chapters as I felt that he became repetitive, essentially saying the same principles in a different way, as the book went on. (I also found some of his examples to be rather long-winded and, at times, redundant.) What struck me most about Gee’s points were the connections to other works we’ve read thus far in the course. I noticed some strong similarities between Gee’s work and the article on expert/novice learners that we read for our second class. I also noticed connections to Scholes’s points about textual power and “codes.”

Like Scholes, Gee speaks to the idea of expanded literacy. Gee says that “print literacy is not enough” (20). It’s not enough to be able to “read and write.” Rather, what matters is how successfully an individual can communicate in any given domain. In chapter two of Textual Power, Scholes states that “our job […] is to show [students] the codes upon which all textual production depends and to encourage their own textual practice” (24-5). Similarly, chapter two of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School stresses the importance of learning concepts rather than facts. Really, we should be helping our students to further develop their skills so that they can read and send “signals”/codes in any situation. Yes, we love it when our students truly analyze and discuss the novel we’re studying, but we should also want them to be able to apply those skills outside of the text, observing and analyzing the world around them.

Gee argues that “a great deal more is at stake than ‘content’” when it comes to video games (38). The same applies to literature studies, too. While our students may think English is just about reading and analyzing certain texts, we need to be teaching our students to think critically about the texts and the world around them. (Hopefully we’re already doing this and the students just don’t realize it—like the gamer who told Gee he never thought of playing video games as learning.) Gee repeatedly references science and math classrooms, and his book truly lacks significant references and direct application to English classrooms. I’d like to think this “lack” is because we, as English teachers, are already applying many of the principles Gee mentions. Gee’s point seems to be (if I really simplify his arguments and principles) that learning needs to be meaningful and relevant. In order to really learn, the learner must really care. We (naturally?) work to make literature studies meaningful and relevant by making connections between the texts we study and the world around us. We’re making “bridges” between identities (57). This being said, though, it’s important to reflect on our practices. I’m sure we could be doing more to apply Gee’s principles.

Although I understand and agree with Gee’s principles, I am concerned about the “fun and games” mentality. Gee states that if “learning is not compelling to the learner, at some level, then little deep learning is liable to occur” (59). In terms of our classrooms, then, is Gee suggesting that we need to do “tricks” to make everything compelling?? Doesn’t it, at some point/level, come back to the individual and his/her motivation? Gee also states that “children must be motivated to engage in a good deal of practice if they are to master what is to be learned. However, if this practice is boring, they will resist it” (65). Gee acknowledges that we can’t guarantee or make students think actively and critically, but we can set up learning in such a way to encourage deep learning. We can plan lessons and activities in such a way that they are meaningful and relevant. On the flip side, though, life isn’t all fun and games, and I don’t believe that learning is, or needs to be, either, at least not at all times.

Gee somewhat acknowledges that, at some level, it does come back to the individual students’ motivation and learning style.  He points out that students with an identity as someone who dislikes school are at a disadvantage when it comes to meaningful learning (45), acknowledging that some students simply dislike school. (We all know what a challenge it is to try to “entice” that student!) Gee also acknowledges that “video games are particularly good […], at least for some types of learners” (58). Some students may be engaged with a video game, or a novel of study, and some may not. Yes, we should strive to make our lessons meaningful and engaging, striving to make literature studies relevant and meaningful, but I believe there is something to be said for personal motivation and dedication on the part of the student.

(I really don’t mean to sound negative as I end this post. I really believe in the principles Gee shares, and I believe they can be applied effectively in our English classrooms. I guess I’m just commenting on some of the realities I see, too, and I’m always concerned when student accountability is potentially downplayed in some way. One more thing—sorry for such a long post! I always have so much to say about our readings!)