In several places in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (VGLL), James Paul Gee mentions “embodied learning.” Gee gets to the point of what he means by this phrase in this passage on the critical roles that practice (which is not the same thing as ‘drilling’) plays in learning:
In the context of schooling (that is, formalized, instutionalized learning), "practice" may connote repetition but for Gee it really occurs when a learner desires to re-engage a challenging activity over and over again. When this happens, and Gee suggests it happens frequently when people play video games, the learning is “deep”—it is felt in, and acquired through, the body. In his book, Gee argues that video games have something to teach educators about effective learning environments. Good video games, he says, offer people opportunities for deep learning by:
For Gee, learning neccesarily involves practice--the revisiting of puzzling or problematic situations "in the context of embodied actions"--but this intellectual/physical process of re-engagement can be boring. So, what makes practice pleasurable?
Looking at the four principles above, it is possible to suggest that practice is pleasurable when it involves people in making choices that reward them somehow--choices about
Although recently there has been a great deal of research and curriculum reform aimed at getting students more involved in their learning, the "pedagogies of engagement" (i.e., cooperative learning, collaborative learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning) could pay more attention to the question: What makes practice pleasurable?. The theorizing of fun (called "ludology" by game theorists) has a great deal to offer discussions of improved ("learner-centered") educational models, which sometimes read like Fredrick Taylor's descriptions of how to manage the "wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient" ("Introduction"). For example, in a recent article for Journal of Engineering Education, the authors write that "at the heart of a student-engaged instructional approach" is the "simultaneous presence of interdependence and accountability" (2005). Smith et al. propose to enhance engineering students' enagement in the discipline with cooperative and problem-based learning:
To represent problem-based learning, the article presents the following diagram:
Note how the better managed process (top) is literally circumscribed--made into a tight circle.
Decentering the classroom is a risky business for students and teachers and so it makes sense that faculty feel compelled to manage and schematize the ways in which learners become engaged. It is important, however, not to limit our understanding of student engagement by focusing soely on what the teacher does to choregraph and assess learning. Engagement should have something to do with fun, with play. As John Dewey writes in Experieince and Education:
Gee's notion of embodied learning is important for anyone interested in pedagogy because it directs our attention to the issue of how feelings are involved in (collateral) learning, in particular, in the pleasurable revisiting of puzzles and problems.
There are, of course, other contexts for pleasurable learning than the one that interests me here: practice. Intricatedly plotted soap operas like "The Sopranos," Steven Johnson writes in Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Actually Makes Us Smarter (2005), are enjoyable largely because the viewer must fill in a lot of information "that has been either deliberately witheld or deliberately left obscure" (63). College composition, long regarded by students and teachers alike as the painful disciplining of an individual's scrambled, idiosyncratic thoughts into uniform academic prose, has been reformulated in a number of recent teaching guides that enlarges upon the ways in which learning is embodied. Refusing the academic/personal binary of personal versus academic writing that seems to always construct pleasure as matter of writing without constraints, these pedagogies treat composing as a process that is at once scripted and improvised, with a good deal of collateral learning occuring as writers
Drawing on research in experiential learning and game theory, this essay aims to explain some of the pleasures of practice by looking first theoretically at the question of what does it mean to embody learning and then concretely at a case study of Oliver, a six-year old who invented a card game. My interest in the emotional aspects of learning in general and writing in particular is driven both by my past experiences with learning that takes place in contexts other than traditional schooling and my present concerns with improving what I take to be an extremely important assignment in English 111: the literacy autobiography.
Plan of the Essay
In ther first section of the essay, I situate Gee's notion of embodied learning in relation to developmental theory and ludology; the second section applies my hypothesis about the pleasures of practice to a case study of a six-year old (Oliver Dickson) who made up his own card game called "Civil War." A (9 minute) video documentary about the game, created at “DMAC” (the Digital Media and Composition Institute at Ohio State University) in the summer of 2006, is available here. The last section offers concluding thoughts about new directions for the Literacy Autobiography Assignment in First-year Writing.