Monday, March 06, 2006

literacy wars

I went to two different Prensky presentations, one was to students who had made games and the other was to adults (95% over 25 yo). I've written a summary here.

Prensky used the same slides in both presentations but his emphasis was very different in each.

For the students he focused mainly on games. He would ask for a favourite game and then talk about it. He knows his games. Or he would suggest the name of a game and pick up on the response he got. He would start with games and link it back to some aspect of learning.

For the adults he focused mainly on engagement. He said the problem is not ADD but EOE. Translation: Engage me or Enrage Me. Schools are failing at the level of engagement.

For the adult talk, he spent just as much time talking about the two way web: blogs, wikipedia, podcasting, IM / chat, etc. Games were in there as well, but he went to pains to say that the guiding principle was engagement, not games. I wondered if the audience would have been so large (the place was packed at $220 a head) if Prensky's talk had been marketed along the line of "engagement and learning" rather than "games and learning". I think not. There is a lot of curiosity around at the moment about games and what they mean. This was one focus of my talk last September at the Game Programming in Schools Conference.

Of course in doing this Prensky is adapting his talk to the audience. Young people often know games well, adults often do not. For Prensky the key learning factor is engagement and he practices what he preaches.

At one point he said, "Young people play the game while the adults read the manual".

He seemed to be saying that the former was better and the latter old fashioned.

Although there is some truth in this (the ability of young people to learn a lot of new things with a hands on approach) it is also possibly a dangerous oversimplification. As a teacher of the young I know for sure that I'm often a step or two ahead of them because I am prepared to read the manual or the online Help, etc. It's a complicated and not a simple distinction. I've also learnt that for programmers presentation, documentation and commenting of code is extremely important.
"Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute"
- H. Abelson and G. Sussman (in "The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs)
Then when Kerry Smith asked Prensky a question about the role of game making in schools for some reason he didn't step up and assert this as part of his position. That game making is something we should be doing in schools today. This surprised me because I know he is involved in making games himself. For example, he has a project going called Algebrots which is promoted along the lines of "beat the game .... and pass the course". It could be that Prensky just missed that opportunity, there was a panel session in progress. But then I thought, maybe game making isn't in his current mindset for this audience.

Prensky even advanced the idea that adults / teachers could use the new technologies without learning them thoroughly!! This didn't sound correct to me. There is always a proportion of less advanced students in your class who do need clear, concise step by step instructions. Or at least that seems to be true for classes that I teach.

Different presentations for youth (games) and adults (engagement). 'Play the game' versus 'Read the manual'. Game playing or game making?

Whilst mulling over this it occurred to me that what is really going on in all of this complicated dialogue is an example of literacy wars and that the literacy wars are hotting up.

Literacy of traditional school: 3 R's plus sit still, listen to the teacher, take notes (broadcast)

Literacy of game play: Play games, solve problems, level up (have fun while you learn what?)

Literacy of computer programming: use logic, functions, conditionals, debugging etc. to solve particular types of problems (higher order thinking?)

Literacy of the two way web: search, blogs, wikis, podcasts, IM etc. (learn to use the universal pipe)

I'm putting this forward as a different way to think about some of the issues that Prensky is raising. One way to approach it is from the point of view that the concept of literacy keeps changing, it's a moving target, and that when we disagree and argue it might be because we value one literacy over another. And not because that literacy is necessarily "better" but because we grew up with it and are more comfortable with it. All of the above literacies have some value depending on the context. I think our job as teachers is to combine them in creative ways that do engage and not enrage our students.

Personally, what I'm currently trying to do in one of my Information Technology classes is to combine the literacy of game programming with the literacy of blogging (students writing in a new, more connected medium) . I think requiring students to write more about their game programming will be good for both their programming and writing skills. I'm not sure whether what I'm doing connects closely with Prensky's message or not.


Blogger Mark Piper said...


great analysis of the games in learning debate.

The diagram that we have developed for the games in learning project has at its core the concept of play, study and making as interacting with each other.

Also if it is desirable for students to be creators rather than just consumers then game making is crucial.

At the ACEC conference in Cairns in October one of the pre-conference workshops has as its topic: Pedagogical approaches for teaching games scripting and programming.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Bill Kerr said...

I've received the following comment from Catherine Beavis (Deakin Uni), who gave me permission to publish it here:

I think you're spot on. The distinctions you make between types of literacy are entirely in tune with the debates about print vs (or 'and') ICT based forms, but you go beyond this when you distinguish between different kinds of computer based literacies and literacy practices students take on.

The point about you as teacher being a step or two ahead because you read the print manual and online help (I'm sure there are more reasons than this, of course) is really interesting, and the sort of example we need, but that is usually missing, about both how the different forms, print and multimodal, work together, but also of the ways in which teachers, still, utilise their knowledge both of teaching and content to take kids forward.

Part of the rhetoric around ICTs tends to imply that teachers are out of touch, but more, redundant, as the technology and kids' innate rapport with it teaches them everything they need to know. Your work and writing doesn't do this, doesn't oversimplify in a romantic way that sounds great, sounds liberating for kids, but in most instances may just simply result in neglect, or more of the same.

I also really like your four way account of different literacies - I'm used to two, much too binary, and what you write here is in accord also with the interesting idea I thought Prensky put forward, of programming as the new literacy of the 21st Century (like you, I was surprised he didn't take this up when it was raised). Lemke talks about the new literacies of the information age as multimedia authoring skills, multimodal critical analysis, cyberspace exploration strategies and cyberspace navigation skills - this seems consistent with what you say.

I also really liked the ways you contrasted the different emphases in Prensky's presentations according to the audience, and used context to foreground some of the difficult politics currently running around about literacy. Your view/intentions as a teacher working to combine differerent kinds of literacy within this web based context also makes lots of sense. My colleague Chris Bigum, talks a lot about web2; from my limited understanding what you're saying fits well here too.

4:52 PM  

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