Professor James Paul Gee Inspires at APPLE Lecture

by Noriko Kato

On any given day, anyone with a Teachers College email account can observe the multitude of lectures and events held on campus. Not all of these events, however, can boast being voted for by the students.

JimGee_1_CMYKThis year’s 15th Annual APPLE Lecture Series opened to a reception of nearly 100 students, faculty and visitors to hear Professor James Paul Gee of Arizona State University. As part of an ongoing effort to collaborate with students, the Applied Linguistics and TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) program asked students to vote for the guest lecturer.

Melissa Smith, MA student and co-chair of the student-run TESOL Roundtable, explained that this year’s Apple organizers reached out to the Web Journal Committee and Roundtable members to ask who students were interested in hearing lecture.

“We sent out a survey to the Applied Linguistics/TESOL student body and said, If we were to have somebody come, who would it be?’ We picked the top three and sent out the survey again,” said Ms. Smith.

After confirming the results of the survey, Dr. Gee was overwhelmingly voted to come speak by Applied Linguistics and TESOL students. Since his long repertoire extends across several disciplines, Ms. Smith viewed this as an opportunity to reach out to the rest of the Teachers College community and associate on an intellectual level.

The first lecture of the day, held on February 6, was aimed toward current Applied Linguistics and TESOL students entitled, “Grammar, Language and Discourse: A New Situated Approach to Language Teaching.” Dr. Gee’s abstract explained that in this lecture, he would discuss a new theory of how language, grammar and discourse interact. “The theory I will develop argues that both teaching (as a set of specific acts) and language teaching, in particular, need to be construed far more broadly than we typically do and are both much more central to learning in and out of school than we typically think.”


A second lecture, “Language, the World, and Video Games: Why and How All Learning is Language Learning,” was open to the public and held in the Zankel building. Dr. Gee offered up a new approach to language teaching and teaching in general, arguing that teachers need to utilize technology to create a “collective intelligence.” The lecture largely focused on video games as a perfect example of how educators can create an immersive learning environment.

He first posed two questions, “Is the best way to learn language to first learn the language and then go have some experiences, or is the best way to first have experiences and then learn the language. What’s the relationship between the two?”

“What we don’t want to do is teach language with no experience.” He explained that too often we deny experience to learners. Denying experience to learners is an ethical issue because experience is the basis of learning.

To exemplify why experience is inherently tied to learning, he argued, “You can’t read words if you have not experienced what they are about in the world. And you really cannot learn anything relevant to the world unless you have also learned something about the word’s meaning.”

Dr. Gee explained that language and content teachers need to give learners experiential opportunities and outlined four criteria that contribute to experience that is good for learning which included having a goal, taking action that matters, helping the learner to manage their attention and creating an experience that is well designed.

In addition to these criteria, Dr. Gee argued that if you want someone to learn, give them something they care about.

Q&AAt the heart of the lecture, Dr. Gee outlined video games as an exemplary learning system. When discussing the complicated and highly technical language on a card game like Yu-Gi-Oh to an adult, the rules are incredibly difficult. He explained that this is the same frustration children feel when you put a textbook in front of them, regardless of the subject.

Along with the products, companies have also created “affinity spaces” where communities of people come together to talk about games and teach each other how to play the games. These spaces are available to everyone at all levels, ages and trajectories.

Yu-Gi-Oh, along with major video companies, do not just provide the cards, they provide the opportunities for experience and affinity spaces to support a player’s progression throughout the game. While the movies seem to be merely dramatic stories, they are actually modeling the game for the viewer. “They’re showing you nice monsters but what they’re really doing is playing out the moves. They’re directly showing you different meaning on how the language matches the action,” said Dr. Gee.

Dr. Gee said that by creating a learning system similar to the one video game companies have made, we can help prevent students from failing. “All language situated in experience is easy,” he says. These learning systems promote experience and language simultaneously.

On having Dr. Gee as the guest speaker for the colloquium, Ms. Smith beamed with excitement. “I find him so inspiring in looking at things from a different perspective,” she said. “Having a different focus on the way that we approach education and seeing it as a community rather than an individual is an important shift, so we were really excited to have him here to help facilitate that process at TC,” said Ms. Smith.

Nadja Tadic, doctoral student in the Applied Linguistics program and an editor for the web journal committee, participated in an interview with Dr. Gee before the day’s events. They discussed the influence of technology on learning patterns, collective intelligence, and the direction of education for the future. The interview will be posted on the online web journal soon.

ProfHanProgram Chair and Professor of Language and Education, Dr. Zhaohong Han, who also provided an opening speech for the lecture, said “I think the lectures are interesting, thought provoking, but it takes time for people who do languages to interpret the meaning of the lecture.”

“For me, thinking about gaming and language learning, I think there’s definitely something worth exploring,” said Dr. Han.

Dr. Gee is widely recognized in the social sciences, linguistics and education fields by academics and has most recently published several books resting on the premise of video games, language and learning including, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Second Edition 2007), Situated Language and Learning (2004), and The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Media (2013).




Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also an M.A. student in the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.