Dr. James Gee of ASU on literacy education (and its lack in the USA)

I was privileged today to hear professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University Dr. James Paul Gee speak about the reasons behind the “4th grade slump,” achievement gaps, and other horrific aspects of US public schools. His remarks were interesting, provocative, and delivered with passion at the Chicago Humanities Festival‘s excellent Summer Institute for Teachers held at the Harold Washington library. It is clear that American education is one of his “affinity spaces.”

Gee described the origins of all US gaps in academic achievement as the foundational school:  the home, where, if a child has low-income parents, he is in a 30-million word deficit compared to the child of privilege. With each word of attentive, sustained conversation a child gets before age 5, the capacity for subsequent literacy increases. The Matthew Effect and achievement gap arise naturally from the verbal inequities, which of course stem from growing our growing economic inequities.

One suggestion he offers is a 1:1 program–one unemployed American for each little child (talk about an infrastructure project! Not only would it eliminate the word deficit and achievement gap, it would also build the frayed social fabric of our democratic republic).

The infamous “4th grade slump,” I learned from Gee, is merely the introduction of latinate, “specialized” English to reading tests at the fourth grade level. Again, students whose parents could enrich their child’s verbal nutrient bath show no “slump” at all.  And with their content knowledge enriched from authentic literacy experiences, in which a mentor helped them pursue their passions, those kids emerge confident of their literacy and, because their vocabulary is “situated” who get a variety of experience emerge with that allows them to “see” what a science or math textbook is asking them. Such an experience base is of course not found in consumptive, deprived homes)

Gee spoke against typical “literacy enrichment” programs, which divorce reading from learning and waste money. Authentic inquiry–such as that which kids are finding in their off-school hours, in online communities of practice like modding the Sims or theorycrafting WoW–is where real word, situated-knowledge grows. Teaching reading with canned curricular chunks divorced from meaningful content is foolishness.

He pointed out that kids are not reading any less, but the old literacy ecology has changed, with considerably more digital reading going on than ever before. Whether this is good or bad depends on the use humans give it. In this connection Gee raised the rhetorical questions:  “How many people have been killed by video games? Now how many have been killed by books?”

The best we can do for kids, Gee said, in an economy that may be designed to relegate 80% of them to “dead-end” service industry jobs such as those at Wal-Mart is make sure that they all know how to learn, and how to be produce their own content in a space of affinity with other humans. Doing so satisfies one’s yearning for community, gives dignity to one’s work, and allows one to maintain one’s sense of personal agency. The worst American poverty, he said, would be to have both a bad job and no passionate community in which to exist.

Finally, Gee mentioned a recent study from the National Research Council that describes the failure of incentives and test-based accountability in education. In his wry way, Gee said that in his opinion all that educational testing had done for America was “degrade teachers and made more Wal-Mart workers.”

Thanks to the CHF for bringing Gee to town and for their high-quality, inexpensive professional development!

Here he is in a recent talk (bad audio) describing the coming “gamification” of education*:

In this talk he claims that the future of ed will be enriched by the data-mining, rich resource communities, the integration of assessment with performance, media-mergings, and the ascendency of Edu-tainment, with “engagement and discovery”to the fore.

So why does such a provocative and with-it analyst not have a twitter feed?

*In Gee’s talk today, he seemed to have a different understanding of “gamification,” which goes on nefariously when capitalists turn jobs into games without the workers’ knowledge

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