James Paul Gee: What you NEED to know about Digital Literacy & Social Media

I was fortunate to be able to hear James Paul Gee talk at The Learning and the Brain Conference in New York this past May. He was as dynamic and animated as you would expect from an innovator challenging many entrenched views of education, learning and their relationship to digital learning and social media. Of the many talks that I heard, Jim Gee’s talk and his book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Media, keeps creeping back into my thoughts.

The notion that we need provide young children with scaffolding so they can learn to talk, read and develop thinking skills has become a mainstream understanding. The amount of talk a child has heard before five years of age and the child’s oral vocabulary by five years of age, directly corresponds with school success. Parents of preschoolers readily attend library story time, puppet shows and preschool programs to prepare them for school. Maria Montessori was cutting edge when she introduced child sized furniture for use by students. The notion of children being seen but not heard is no longer the societal standard. At Science World, the Aquarium, the beach, the park, the grocery store and the mall, you can overhear adults asking children for their thoughts, ideas, opinions and engaging in meaningful conversation.

Gee talks about the importance of “talk, text, and knowledge (TTK) mentoring” required to use digital tools effectively. This essentially is the notion of providing the scaffolding required in order to move beyond using digital media for entertainment only.   Gee emphasizes the need for synchronized intelligence: “…we need to be able to dance the dance of collective intelligence with others and our best digital tools (p.208)”.

As an educator with a MA in Reading, I understand and live the love of books. Lousie Rosenblatt best described the vital importance of the transaction between the reader and the text that makes the experience of reading significant. Gee makes the case that “…books and digital media are both technologies for making and taking meaning, forms of “writing” (producing meaning) and “reading” (consuming meaning), as are television and film.”

Once digital media is embraced as a form of literacy, it becomes less easy to dismiss it as irrelevant or harmful to learning. This expanded notion of literacies requires that parents and educators provide the scaffolding for students to learn about creating meaning in the digital world. Just as we want our children to move beyond consuming a diet of comics and magazines to more thought provoking reading material, we want our children to move beyond mindless or violent games to applications requiring them to create meaning in complex and thoughtful ways. We want to teach students to persevere past failures to find answers to their problems. We want them to create connections with others to help them in finding the answers to their questions.

Gee creates the following list of 21st Century skills that are more often developed out of school than in it (p.202):

  • Ability to master new forms of complex and often technical language and thinking
  • Ability to engage in collaborative work and collective intelligence where the group is smarter than the smartest person in it
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Ability to deal with complexity and to think about and solve problems with respect to complex systems
  • Ability to find and marshal evidence and revise arguments in he face of evidence
  • The ability to produce with digital media and other technologies and not just consume their content
  • And the ability to avoid being a victim of social forces and institutions that are creating a more competitive, stressful, and unequal world.

This creates a compelling rationale for mentoring the effective use of digital media and social media.  The goal is for students to define a passion to provide the motivation to engage wholeheartedly in a quest that helps the student to persevere through challenges and engage in higher order thinking to solve problems and communicate in a meaningful way. I highly recommend this book to teachers and parents.

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