The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning by James Paul Gee
Gee, J. P. (2013). The Anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Collaborative Book Review by
Yukiko Bonnefoy, Møre og Romsdal, Norway
Miles MacFarlane, Winnipeg, Canada
LaKisha Scott, Atlanta, USA
Jenna Wallace, San Antonio, USA
With more than 20 books, almost 200 journal articles, and more than 300 conference lectures to his credit, James Paul Gee is an innovative thinker and prolific author at the intersection of linguistics, communication, cognition, identity, and technology, in both real and virtual spaces. Gee is most recently known for his application of gaming theory to learning situations. Gee is a member of the National Academy of Education and is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University.
His most recent works include Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy (2013), Collected Essays on Learning and Assessment in the Digital World (2014), and Unified Discourse Analysis: Language, Reality, Virtual Worlds, and Video Games (2015).
This review focuses on his 2013 book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning.
Dealing with broad societal issues but focusing on the educational context, the author seems to target educators, but the subject matter could have a wider appeal. The content addresses issues far beyond the classroom showing how individuals and the broader social context affect how we think and perceive the world. More than a book of educational reform, Gee addresses the deep philosophical and psychological factors that cause us to be stupid. Anyone with an interest in how society functions and what can be done to improve the human condition will enjoy this book.
People are ill-equipped to cope with today’s fast-paced hyper-connected world and much of what we do stand in opposition to what we want. It is this, Gee suggests, that makes us stupid. Recognizing what makes us stupid is the first step toward being smart.
In our reading, Gee’s provocative and confrontational style pushes an unflattering mirror in front of the reader highlighting everything that is wrong with individuals and civilization. He then describes possible applications of technology that could direct the collective wisdom of humanity toward positive change.
In the first half of the book, Gee describes at length how people’s thought processes and behaviors result in stupidity. Gee suggests that the human brain was not designed and has not yet evolved to cope with the complexity of human relationships, society, and types of problems we now face. He suggests that we can use digital media to compensate for where we struggle and augment where we have it right. Digital media offers the means and context for coalescing human wisdom and experience into something not only manageable, but effective in helping us achieve our collective goals.
He outlines fifteen different ways in which human thought is misguided or deceived. These errors limit our ability to live in harmony with people and ideas and prevent us from approaching the world intelligently. Given the depth and pace of change, Gee says, we are, as a species, at greater risk of social, economic, and climatic catastrophe. He frames and details each of the fifteen challenges and, in the end, offers an approach to learning that leverages the collective wisdom of our species. In this way, we can overcome these challenges moving us farther from being “stupid” and closer to being smart.
The amount of ink devoted to what makes us stupid and the provocative language about human intelligence, creates in the reader a sense of discomfort and defensiveness. Gee describes numerous examples of how what we are doing is not getting us what we want. By holding up to humanity a mirror that exposes every flaw and blemish; he forces the reader to examine one’s worldview through a different lens. He offers much that is wrong, and only hints at possible solutions. For receptive readers, this will churn the ground on which belief systems are built offering an opportunity to rethink, debate, and collaborate on new foundations for a better world.
Gee suggests that our current education system needs to engage learners in more social, authentic, and meaningful learning experiences that promote reflective thinking through collaborative mentorship. Rather than trying to get our brains to work more like computers he wants us to develop the unique creative and meaning-making capacities, and let computers manage our information storage and processing needs. We tend to think of human intelligence as a measure of an individual’s cognitive abilities. Gee urges us to think beyond that to humans augmented with technology connecting with other augmented humans. In this way, we can manage very complex scenarios more effectively.
Humans are good at identifying patterns but sometimes generalize too quickly, not appreciating the broader context of that experience. Such a narrow or limited focus is a barrier to understanding. Beyond limiting our experience, Gee says who we relate to (solidarity) and who we aspire to (status) similarly limit our thoughts and behaviors and our social position further affects our ability to participate in society. In the search for solidarity and comfort stories, we can often be led to believe things that are factually wrong. This mentality can lead to “us versus them” dichotomies, marrying individuals into groups that reflect one’s own existing beliefs and perceptions. Such groups can have a negative impact when they isolate the individual from other perspectives and other opinions. Similarly, learners in highly customized, personally adapted settings are sheltered from authentic challenges and do not develop the ability to problem solve or deal with the non-customized world. Likewise, institutions can also experience limited or narrowed focus when formalized processes lock participants into thinking and behaviors that prevent the institution from evolving as needed.
In the last portion of the book, Gee points to some scenarios or structures to address the sources of human stupidity. He describes the importance of both virtual and real spaces where people from a variety of backgrounds converge, by choice, in fluid and flexible groups to explore a common issue. These so-called affinity spaces promote a synchronization of intelligence that leverages the wisdom of the group and the affordances of digital technology, to make and communicate meaning. He offers Talk, Text, and Knowledge mentoring (TTK) with digital technologies as the foundational skills upon which a smarter civilization can be built.
Analysis and Evaluation
Strengths and Weaknesses
Gee’s book evokes a visceral response from the reader as he holds the unflattering mirror to humanity in an uncomfortable confrontation with our very belief systems and worldviews. Front loaded with blunt rhetoric about humanity’s stupidity, readers seeking solutions rather than colorful commentary on how awful the world is may be turned off and abandon the book. However, we found the longer we stood in front of the mirror, the more we saw the truth of his provocative assertions.
Two-thirds of the book clearly defined and gave examples of humanity’s stupidity while the final third, rather than offering solutions, gave only suggestions of a solution. This mentality is frustrating as a reader because the book title promises that we can “Create Smarter Students through Digital Learning” yet it is consistent with his thesis. Gee says that we must create purposeful communities where everyone has a voice and put our collective minds and technologies to finding solutions - solutions will not come from one single author.
Implications for Education
Understanding the many ways people get things wrong, and the ways in which we avoid the ruth, educators can better recognize the origins of misunderstandings in students and correct them. They may also use this understanding to craft learning experiences that address these human inclinations to help learners make meaning from determined truths.
Learning experiences, Gee suggests, should make use of digital technology to create both real and virtual points of contact where individuals can gather to learn, share, debate, teach, explore, take, and contribute ideas on a particular topic. Education can be restructured to make use of affinity spaces and leverage the synchronized intelligence of a vast and diverse learning community to create even better learning experiences than exist now.
Educators should identify those strategies and pedagogies that promote empirical thinking and leverage the power of communications technology to build productive and positive affinity spaces for learners. In this context, we can even rethink the definition of learner from one who simply receives or creates knowledge to a term that embodies the notion that they are contributors and active participants.
Gee (2013) stated:
To be smarter today we need Minds, not just minds. We need synchronized intelligence we need to be able to dance the dance of collective intelligence with others and our best digital tools. Talk, text and knowledge (TTK) mentoring and digital tools can be deployed in ways that reverse our brain bugs and social bugs to make us smarter. (p.208)
This quote communicates the essence of Gee’s path away from the stupidity toward smartness. The terms he uses in this quote are elaborated on at length in the book, and his full meaning is hard to comprehend out of context. Essentially, we need to confront our flawed and narrow thinking (brain bugs and social bugs) and use the unique capabilities of our brains (Minds) and technology (digital tools) together with diverse others (collective intelligence) in a coordinated (synchronized intelligence) and collaborative (mentoring) effort to make meaning based on empirical evidence.
Book Club Questions
Gee suggests that the pursuit of empirical reasoning is critical to creating a better world. He also suggests that religion, as a complex set of mental comfort stories can get in the way of our capacity to reason. He does propose that science and religion can co-exist as complementary frameworks for understanding the world. Do you agree? Can science and religion support each other in the pursuit of truth?
Gee identifies Affinity Spaces as important elements of a thriving civilization. Understanding Gee’s vision of affinity spaces, discuss examples of affinity spaces in which you already participate. To what extent do your affinity spaces reflect the criteria outlined in Chapter 20?
Gee describes video games as potential virtual spaces for learning and describes how affinity spaces can exist in the context of a game. There is a lot of criticism about the effect of video games on today’s youth. Is Gee on to something, or is this simply a bad idea? Is there unlocked potential in virtual gaming spaces, or do the dangers outweigh the potential benefits?
Humans often seek meaning over truth. Sometimes we find meaning that is void of truth or truths that do not yet have meaning for us. Gee urges us to recognize and false meaning, and find motivation for embracing truths for which we do not yet have meaning or use. Discuss examples of meaning without truth and truth without meaning. Explore the challenges of dealing with each scenario.
Gee suggests humans have to acknowledge our penchant for mental comfort stories. Nietzche famously said, "God is dead" but went on to say how we will always invent something new to take God's place. Can humans live without mental comfort stories?
How fitting is the title The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning for the book? What alternate title would you give it?
Individuals with an interest in sweeping social change will appreciate Gee’s observations and recommendations for changing the way we think to achieve a better world. Senior education leaders will find the messages a challenge to traditional learning approaches and may find Gee’s ideas useful as a framework to guide reform efforts. Educators, in general, may find the points related to society’s “stupidity” somewhat confrontational spurring reflection on their practice and experiences.
While the book proposed ways in which technology could improve education, we wouldn’t recommend it as a “how-to” book for those searching for practical strategies to implement digital technology in education settings. Rather, it serves as a conversation starter for those interested in improving education in the 21st century.
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