James Paul Gee and The Maker Movement: Or, Rejecting the Manual ~ KN1

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Review by Liz Homan

Read more about Keynote 1 on the C&W conference site.

Allison’s Situated Writing… Learning… Making

A high school teacher and friend of mine – I’ll call her Allison, but this is a pseudonym – recently posted on her blog, Sammiches and Psych Meds, a few tips for beginning bloggers. In the post, she describes why she started blogging in the first place. The following is an excerpt from her post, where she describes what got her started in the blogging world and how she went about learning about blogging:

I started blogging quite by accident. I was pissed off at our state governor and his endless attacks on the middle class, public schools, and union workers, so I decided to sit down and write about it. Only problem was, I didn’t know where to write. I think my Facebook friend posted something from Blogger? I remember asking myself. Is that a thing?

Blogger is a thing, and once I found it in the Googlesphere, I was off. But finding where to write was only part of the battle. There still remained a slight hitch in my giddyup: I DIDN’T HAVE A CLUE WHAT I WAS DOING.

I spent hours, days, and months joining blogging groups online, reading blogging advice columns, and picking the brains of my new virtual friends. Eventually, I learned the ins and outs of the blogging world (at least enough to look as though I’ve got my bloggy life together), and what follows are some of the most important tidbits I picked up along the way.

I quote Allison at length here because she offers a perfect example of learning that is, to use Gee’s terms, “situated,” or embedded within action, images, or some other form of contextualized meaning. In his address to the Computers and Writing 2013 audience on June 7th, Gee challenged us to reconsider how we think about writing and production, and how this might shift our instruction in the age of the maker.

Allison did not start blogging because her graduate school professor told her to. Nor did she start blogging because her principal told her to. And she didn’t learn how to blog by buying a book like Blogging for Dummies (yes folks, that manual actually does exist). No – Allison’s learning was entirely situated within the context of her own rhetorical and personal purposes. The ways in which she went about learning how to blog (and what to blog about, and how to participate in the blogging community) echo Gee’s story about learning how to play a video game. Not by reading a manual, but by diving in, joining the community, engaging in action.

Gee’s Argument

Gee argues that our school systems are broken, at all levels. He tells us that they are currently “set up as a classic example of how to make most people look stupid,” while the popular culture of the maker movement is meanwhile making people look smart. He notes that when, like a kid playing Yu-Gi-Oh (or like Allison), we “give a damn” about something, we’re really very smart. We learn new languages, the rules of new communities, and new literate practices. When we don’t give a damn, we’re not as smart. Schools, especially when they rely on textbook-driven teaching, banking-model instruction, or decontextualized learning tasks, have the potential to disassociate learning from the circumstances in which it actually matters – from the images, actions, and circumstances about which our students might actually “give a damn.”

My Take

As a former middle and high school teacher, I have to agree with Gee’s assessment, disheartening though it may be. Many writing teachers will tell you that their students produce better compositions – analytically, rhetorically, and grammatically – when they care about their work because it is situated within a reality that matters to them. For example, my former high school students demonstrated their collective intelligence when they knew there would be an audience for their documentary videos about bullying, which they posted on YouTube and showed during a school assembly that they organized themselves. As writing teachers, we have all had moments like these in which our students have shown us how smart they really are when they care about the task at hand and can associate it with meaningful action.

But these moments, in my experience and in the experiences of those teachers with whom I have worked and conducted research, are often (and sadly) mere glimmers of meaningful instruction in a system obsessed with accountability and, to quote the recently-released and ubiquitous Common Core State Standards, “career readiness.” And though teachers may wish for their classrooms to always involve this kind of meaningful learning, they often (especially at the secondary level) find themselves faced with accountability measures that do not mesh with a collaborative, action-based model of learning and teaching.

As Gee spoke, I found myself nodding along to the following points about learning, making, and doing in the 21st century, and how our schools are (or perhaps more appropriately, are not) responding to these literacy shifts:

  • Humans are hard-wired for collective intelligence and collaboration.
  • Technical language isn’t difficult when it is contextualized and associated with actions and experiences.
  • The world is now “so full of complexity” that single experts are dangerous – we need teams of people with different knowledge sets.
  • It is (unfortunately) popular culture that is letting some students gain their confidence and sense of self-worth as composers… not school.

Schools today might make our students look stupid because many forces are coming together to discourage students from engaging in those tasks that might make them look smart – collaboration, contextualized language learning, combining skill sets, and confidence-building creation. Why are these tasks neglected? Because assessment (whether we want it to or not) drives instruction. And as Gee points out, collaboration is viewed as cheating, and the individual’s knowledge is valued over collective knowledge, in today’s accountability-obsessed school culture.

In a maker movement, Gee argues,

We’re supposed to teach this old production technique, writing, and since the 16th century we have not succeeded in making most people writers. And now the world is making them producers of houses and skin, novels, galaxies, and proteins. We need to get going. Now, your job is not just to teach them to write, but to teach them to produce in all of the literacies. And to do so such that they get a sense of self-worth, not a sense of exploitation in a world where there’s going to be massive social change.

And I’m thinking, what steps have I taken? What steps have others taken? What steps are they taking now, today? Because there’s no way we’re starting from scratch here.

Which Brings Me Back to Allison

Allison became a maker when she started her blog, on which she writes about her life as a mom and sometimes about her work as a teacher. She learned how to blog and became successful at blogging because she gave a damn about something and wanted to find a way to voice her opinion. She has since built a loyal following on social media and in the blogosphere, and her experiences (along with some supportive colleagues) have led her to investigate how 21st century literacies, like the ones she has gained in the past few years, might transform her classroom practice. In the past two years, Allison has started incorporating new production tasks into her students’ lives as writers.

Allison and many of her colleagues are answering Gee’s call for educators to engage students in ways that give them feelings of pride, self-worth, and motivation as makers. Not all students in today’s schools are set up to “look stupid,” and many teachers are looking for ways to take advantage of the maker movement and to motivate their students to be producers of various types of texts. These teachers need support if they are to continue transforming their classrooms to reflect the needs of the “makers” who populate them.

Gee’s talk leaves me thinking about teachers like Allison, who are makers themselves, and who want to engage their students as makers, but who face so many of these institutional and systemic obstacles. How will they continue moving forward, challenging age-old definitions of writing and production in the age of accountability, which seems so at odds with the maker movement? How do these lessons extend to post-secondary writing classrooms, which still often rely on the essay as the primary form of production? And finally, how can we transform the classroom into a space where learning is situated in actions and experiences, instead of a space that is designed to make our students look stupid?

Allison, and many of her colleagues, are working to transform their teaching for the makers who walk into their schools every day. They are doing so by diving in, becoming makers themselves, and learning alongside their students (not by reading manuals). Perhaps it is time we look to – and find more of – these teachers, such that they can provide hopeful models of what teaching in the maker movement might look like.

Liz Homan is a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Michigan. Her research focuses on teachers’ digital and pedagogical practices, and how these are shaped by (and shape) teachers’ collegial relationship networks. She also hosts her own blog, Gone Digital, at http://liz-homan.com.

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