James Paul Gee

I recently came across James Paul Gee through David Smith. He is exactly what I was looking for: an eloquent champion of the beneficial role of computer games in learning.

You can see him in two great talks here and here. Wikipedia entry here.

Three points that resonated:

  • “School is all manual and no game.” A Professor of linguistics before becoming interested in gaming, JPG argues for the existence of “situated meaning”. Anything we read, he says, makes much more sense if we can relate it to an experience, image, idea, action or argument we’ve already had. (His comparison is with computer game manuals – they only become useful after you’ve played the game for a bit). Most children do not connect with textbooks not because they can’t make sense of the phonics [aside: I had the enriching pleasure to see Margaret Snowling talk about phonics last week] but because the books’ specialist language doesn’t connect with anything out of which children can make meaning.
  • Assessment. As JPG says, you don’t need to test a player who has completed the most difficult level of Halo on his Halo-playing skills: the assessment is built into the game. His argument is that there must be some means of mimicking this design when designing, for instance, algebra-learning courses. Would it not be possible for students to only qualify for a more challenging level once they defeated the last, in a way that was built into the whole learning process – and without the endless annual trauma of exams.
  • Problem-solving. In just a few comments, JPG brings a breath of fresh air to the turgid knowledge vs. skills debate currently boring the UK. Facts about Science/ French vocab items/ History dates are putting so many children off because, despite teachers’ vigorous assertions to the contrary, they can’t see them as tools. In well-designed games, knowledge is realized as tools. To quote JPG more fully:

“School is locked into content-fetish. It’s all about facts. Biology is the 1200 facts somebody in Biology discovered. Memorise 1100 and get ’em on paper – you pass Biology. [But] Biology, Physics, Chemistry ARE NOT FACTS; they are problems to be solved. And Biologists, Chemists and Physicists use facts as tools to solve these problems, and once they’ve used them again and again, they can’t be forgotten.”

I have one criticism so far:

  • This is a little unfair, as I have only got about fifty pages through it, but I can’t understand JPG’s unbridled support for Marc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom I’m Learning. The splurge of exclamation marks (+15 per page in some parts) is off-putting; the lack of footnotes unsettling. The hysterically partisan style (chapters are titled with scammy phrases like “But Wait – What About All That Bad Stuff I Hear About In The Press”) is what really put me off, though. Once I’ve finished the book, I hope to post more, but I get the feeling that this stuff is only going to convince the massively-sceptical wider population if its approach is cautious and substantiated with sound, academic arguments.

Tutoring: A fresh debate

I’ve just finished an article on tuition, and am boldly looking for a publisher!

I thought I’d share it here:

Tutoring: a fresh debate.

Private tuition has entered the national conversation. For long a rather mysterious operation, the media has woken up to its rapid growth – especially after the Sutton Trust showed that 43% of children nationally had received private tuition. This openness in the media is both symptom and cause of a similar openness amongst parents. No longer a whispered secret, recommendations and warnings about certain tutors and agencies are now regularly swapped outside the school gates.

Regrettably, this openness has led to very little debate on the merits and demerits of tuition – or much analysis as to why parents are seeking it in such droves. Some commentators have seen in tuition a desire to recapture the cosy world of governesses and nurseries. Others have reached, inevitably, for the recession as a possible explanation – either that a place in a good school is even more essential in the long march to the furiously-competitive job market, or that tuition is parents’ compensation for choosing state education. Where are the considerations of its impact on learning, or the larger questions posed by its rise?

So: do children (or some children) learn better as a result of a one-on-one tutoring? What sort of learning goes on one-on-one? The answer is that you can regulate the learning in a very specific way: whether you’re looking for focused troubleshooting (fractions, decimals) – or a deeper exploration (“why do we have cases in Latin?”), the form is flexible to the content. The former is the most popular, and areas of misunderstanding (sometimes layered up over years of confusion) can be quickly unblocked with a good tutor. For some subjects and topics in particular, such as Maths and Languages, this creates something of a delicious learning environment. There’s no hiding in tuition, no slouching at the back of the class hoping that you wont be asked a question. Many parents talk about the benefits tuition delivers for self-esteem. It is not difficult to see why, when students are given the opportunity to learn in an environment where questions can be unlimited – and where it is okay to be wrong.

Continue reading “Tutoring: A fresh debate”


I’ve recently moved house, and for the first time have all my books in one place. This evening was one of the first chances I have had to actually make use of them. I re-read some dog-eared passages from Richard Sennett’s amazing, rambling book The Craftsman.

I’m glad I re-discovered this passage – a defence of repetition:

We should be suspicious of claims for innate, untrained talent. “I could write a good novel if only I had the time” or “if only I could pull myself together” is usually a narcissist’s fantasy. Going over an action again and again, by contrast, enables self-criticism. Modern education fears repetitive learning as mind-numbing. Afraid of boring children, avid to present ever-different stimulation, the enlightened teacher may avoid routine – but thus deprive children of the experience of studying their own ingrained practice and modulating it from within.”

I particularly agree with reference to a subject like Latin – so much of the joy of what Mary Beard calls the “command and control” of Latin comes from the pencil-breaking frustration of all those mistakes – all that self-correcting – early on.

Role of Teacher in 21st Century?

I quite like this from David Price’s blog today, about the role of the teacher in the future:

Imparter of Knowledge, Guide and Personal Search Engine

The last most of all, though. It seems to have gone pretty unnoticed that teachers are strictly not gatekeepers of knowledge these days – rather, they are the sifters, the qualifiers, the challengers of that knowledge.

Jan Sramek and Racing Towards Excellence

We’ve been having some very interesting meetings with the team from Racing Towards Excellence. They seem to share some of our concerns about the provision for quality, impartial careers advice in schools today.

For the purposes of this post, I wanted to quote a bit from Jan Sramek (the co-author’s) introduction to the book – in which he discusses his own education. Those with especially good memories might remember the small ripples of controversy caused by his astonishing A-level results: 10 A’s.

To Jan:

What was remarkable during those formative years of my life was my parents’ ability to create an inspiring environment where outperformance was natural, rather than expected. The pressure was non-existent, replaced by an almost implicit understanding that I would go on to do great things…

…My parents’ thinking on parenting and education [were] progressive for the time and place [the Czech Republic]..My chores as a child were very light to non-existent, as was any intervention from either of them into how I spent my free time. This allowed me to spend much of it studying what I wanted to study, rather than what others thought I should study.

The idea of naturalizing a habit of mind resonates very much with comments I’ve heard from Matthew Taylor about this. There is obviously cross-over with Outliers too on the role of upbringing for future “outperformance” status, even if Jan’s 10,000 hours remains in doubt.

The Traveling School

I came across a student of the Traveling School on holiday this summer. I had been initially struck by how much she enthused about her education, and was fascinated to hear about this project.

In their own words:

The Traveling School started in the Spring of 2000 with a revolutionary concept generated by a group of high school girls and their teacher, Gennifre Hartman.

“What if,” one asked. “What if there was a school that traveled around the world while we still kept up-to-date with our classes?”

“What if,” asked another. “What if it was all-girls so that we could just hang out and be ourselves?”

“What if,” asked a third. “What if it was for a single-semester so we could go back to school and still be able to go to prom and participate in a regular high school?”

As a teacher, Hartman thought, “What if all of the classes were about the areas where we are traveling to expose the girls to inspiring, authentic learning in a genuine setting?”

They described a school with an educational format that gives students an alternative to traditional education for a single semester during their high school careers. This group of confident, intelligent, inquisitive young women described a program for girls, a program with overseas exploration, a program with strong academics, a program with an emphasis on outdoor skills development, and a program that would offer scholarships.

It chimes nicely with some of the work we’re doing on students talking about – and shaping – their own education. I ran an evening workshop last year for 11-14 year olds, and the suggestions were staggeringly creative: pupils to be assessed on how many questions they asked etc.

More evidence for the case that students respond better to work that is led by their own curiosity and therefore, above all, feels relevant.

Michael Gove and the return to ‘chalk-and-talk’

I would really urge watching Michael Gove at the RSA on ‘What education is for’. There’s quite some possibility that this talk will act as one of the first big salvos in what is shaping up to be an increasingly divisive debate between the parties on education ahead of the General Election.

It has galvanised certain bloggers into action, to be sure. This post was emailed to me: it packs some important and convincing punches, but it is the tone – unbridled concern – that is the most noteworthy.

This paragraph is good:

No, for the purposes of this diatribe, let’s just focus on his spurious argument that not teaching history in chronological order, and depriving kids access to Cicero and Wagner is some social injustice, perpetrated through the ‘tyranny of relevance’. First, it’s a fallacy that ‘relevance’ automatically means hip-hop, Carol Ann Duffy, and pandering to what kids like, rather than ‘the very best of what has been thought and written’.

Matthew Taylor could well become one of the forefront commentators in this education debate, and his plea (best expressed here) that the debate is an open one without recourse to knee-jerk reactions is surely one we should all support: and is why I have set up this blog. His open letter to Michael Gove, still unanswered to the best of my knowledge, raises such important questions, and is posted below. These are the inferences that Matthew Taylor draws from Michael Gove’s talk – what education is for, in conservative eyes:

1. Curriculum content should contain the classical canon of history, literature and scientific knowledge and we should pull back from seeking to make content more relevant to the contemporary concerns and lives of young people. Young people should be discouraged from pursuing newer or non traditional subjects like media studies, which are not seen as credible by the best universities.

2. The curriculum should be delivered though traditional subject disciplines and not through approaches emphasising cross cutting themes and competencies, such as, for example, the RSA’s Opening Minds.

3. (Something I heard emphasised by your number two, Nick Gibb), the practice of the best schools shows traditional chalk and talk forms of pedagogy are superior to practical, project based, forms of learning.

4. Schools should focus much more on the core activity of imparting knowledge. Children’s wider development is best enhanced through extra curricular activities such as schools clubs and societies but not through ‘teaching’ life skills or well-being.

5. Schools should be institutions that are primarily or even exclusively about learning and should not be required to engage in the wider delivery of children’s or community services.

6. Rather than blurring the divide between academic and vocational learning we should assert it, with, for example, 14-19 Diplomas restricted to vocational content.

7. Implicitly, strategies to widen participation in learning should not include developing forms of content and levels of assessment which enable more children to succeed: more should rise to the bar, the bar shouldn’t be moved to allow more to jump it.

Video Games and Children: first salvo

I’m going to start fondly at home: with dysTalk.

Last October, Tom Maher gave a talk for us on Video Games and Children. It was an elegant and convincing argument against their use from the perspective of a teacher, and shall form a perfect opening for our debate.

His allegations:

1. They take up children’s time and make them exhausted.

2. They affect children’s capacity to learn by encouraging in them a desire for “immediate response.” The assumption is that because children can change screen when they’re bored gaming – and can’t when bored in class – they are less likely to have the resilience of attention needed to stick at trickier topics/subjects.

His suggestions are moderate – and surely sensible:

1. A more comprehensive debate with the industry, a la the film industry and the junk food industry.

2. More awareness for parents as to the issues; and that computer games be brought out of the bedroom and into a family room.

Benjamin Franklin’s education

I’m re-reading John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education, a rollicking read, and feel compelled to quote the passages on Benjamin Franklin’s education. Frustratingly, JTG is quite footnote-shy so I’m going to have to take his word for it.

Indirectly, this provides early anecdotal evidence for the key role parents play in a child’s upbringing. As Gatto says, A major part of Franklin’s early education consisted of studying father Josiah, who turns out, himself, to be a pretty fair example of education without schooling”.

This is on Franklin’s pop:

He had an excellent constitution…very strong…ingenious…could draw prettily…skilled in music…a clear pleasing voice…played psalm tunes on his violin…a mechanical genius…sound understanding…solid judgment in prudential matters, both private and public affairs. In the latter, indeed, he was never employed, the numerous family he had to educate and the straitness of his circumstances keeping him close to his grade; but I remember well his being frequently visited by leading people, who consulted him for his opinion in affairs of the town or of the church…and showed a great deal of respect for his judgment and advice…frequently chosen an arbitrator between contending parties.

This bit is brilliant too; again about Franklin snr:

At his table he liked to have as often as he could some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table…I was brought up in such perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me.

The rest of Gatto’s chapter on Franklin is well worth reading; his conclusion will do for now:

Josiah drew, he sang, he played violin—this was a tallow chandler with sensitivity to those areas in which human beings are most human; he had an inventive nature (“ingenious”) which must have provided a constant example to Franklin that a solution can be crafted ad hoc to a problem if a man kept his nerve and had proper self-respect. His good sense, recognized by neighbors who sought his judgment, was always within earshot of Ben. In this way the boy came to see the discovery process, various systems of judgment, the role of an active citizen who may become minister without portfolio simply by accepting responsibility for others and discharging that responsibility faithfully.

A Fresh Start

With the optimism of the summer and a new academic year, this blog is going to see some changes.

  • 4 posts a week,
  • A bit more direction

I’ve felt myself lurch ever closer to the ‘club bore’ on matters of education; this blog (rather than the ears of bored friends) shall become by receptacle instead. Education is shaping up to be one of the key battlegrounds ahead of the election next year. I intend this to be a personal archive for my own reference – and I hope a fertile resource for people coming at this stuff fresh.

I’m going to stick to FIVE broad threads to keep the focus even tighter.

  1. Good Teaching and Curricula: to include the debate between subject-based “Chalk and Talk” teaching championed by the Conservative Party vs. competency/skills-based learning.
  2. Discipline: taking in behavioural management, drug policy, corporal punishment debates etc.
  3. Selectivity: grammar schools, streaming etc.
  4. Motivation/self-esteem: how far are schools implicated in this?
  5. Impact of computer games/internet use on children and their receptiveness to learning/ their outlook in life. This might be renamed, as I want it to take in the ADHD/Ritalin debate.

Though I am very ready to be persuaded, here is my pithy-as-possible starting position for each:

1. Good Teaching: Matthew Taylor seems spot on here: it’s a false dichotomy. As Guy Claxton has shown, we shouldn’t have to choose between The Tudors or Media Studies.

2. Discipline: the debate has a larger significance. Should schools should be run on utilitarian principles (prioritizing the experience of the many even if that means failing the few)? I want to learn more about Steve Heppell’s Not School.

3. Selectivity seems part of the same debate. At the moment, I am very much pro-selectivity. As a classroom teacher, I didn’t see my weaker students benefiting from the strongest – nor vice versa. I’m ready to be proved wrong.

4. I quote Prof. Claxton in complete agreement: “Too often children see school as posing another set of challenges, rather than as an opportunity to develop the sorts of resources needed to deal with those challenges.”

5. Hmmmm.. a change of mind every day..