DATE: November 24, 1997
TO: All Concerned
FROM: John Garvey
RE: So what if Jim Gee is right?
Several weeks ago, at our Convocation, Jim Gee addressed almost two hundred teachers and directors. He covered a lot of territory and put forward a number of rather stark propositions in order to argue for a particular approach to the education of individuals who, in one way or another and/or at one point in time or another, are considered to be less prepared than others for particular educational opportunities. This could include individuals as varied as children entering kindergarten, middle school graduates entering high school, under-prepared high school graduates entering college, people with limited English proficiency at various levels, and adults enrolled in literacy or GED programs–in other words, with the exception of the kindergartners, all the students we work with.
I’d like to review some of what he said and then draw out what I think are some of the implications and then ask, if we believe that he is right, what we should do.
He began by observing that people in a complex society such as the United States speak many different languages–by way of example, a young woman tells a story one way to her parents and a quite different way to her boyfriend. She and we may very often be unaware of how we are changing our language to accommodate different circumstances and purposes but change it we do.
These different language practices can be described as different discourses wherein different ways of using language are related to and reflect different customs, traditions and expectations. A discourse is a way of using language that is associated with customary ways of behaving. Different discourses are more or less like each other. Thus, the discourse of hockey fans is somewhat different from the discourses of the fans of other sports and very different from the discourse of collectors of antique furniture.
Furthermore, all individuals are given one discourse for free. That is the discourse that they are born into–the discourse of their parents, siblings and possibly extended family members. Gee refers to this as a primary discourse. All other discourses are secondary and must be acquired through exposure, practice and more or less effort. Our primary discourse and the secondary discourses that we acquire can mean a great deal to us for they are, all but inevitably, deeply connected with our own sense of who we are. If the discourses that we speak are discredited or discounted, it can have a profound effect on our willingness to do various things–such as to actively participate in a classroom.
Since literacy is not acquired free, it can be seen as a secondary discourse–or, more precisely, as an assortment of secondary discourses. In the same way that we don’t speak the same in different times and places, we do not always read and write the same. Thus, the way that we read and write about biology is not the same as the way that we read and write about romance.
Anyone’s ability to achieve mastery in a secondary discourse is deeply affected by the experiences they have had. The closer the fit between the nature of the experience and the linguistic and social demands of a discourse, the more likely it will be that an individual will become fluent and proficient in that discourse. Thus, it becomes quite important for teachers to pay attention to the ways in which learners use language and to look for opportunities to build bridges between the discourses they have and those they wish to acquire.
Gee also argued that learning is primarily a matter of discovering patterns through extensive experience. For example, it is not likely that students will learn what a noun is by being taught a definition but rather, through extensive experiences with words of different varieties, they will come to understand something of what “nounness” is. After such a sense has been developed, a definition might prove to be a helpful way of summarizing that understanding in a shorthand kind of way. In some cases, the patterns we establish are not especially helpful ones. This can happen, for example, when someone prematurely over-generalizes before becoming fully aware of all the possible variations. Examples might include notions like: “the subject always comes before the verb in English;” “you should use a comma to separate clauses,” “paragraphs should have five sentences.” Teaching, in Gee’s view, can be very valuable in assisting learners to notice those unproductive patterns and trying out other more productive ones, such as: “In English, the subject usually comes before the noun, except in questions.”
All this becomes very important when we are trying to help individuals, whose prior experiences have either been very limited or very different from those customary within the target discourse, acquire a language or literacy. While he cautioned that the task was a daunting one, he did not counsel despair. He enumerated a number of important learning principles, which I have summarized on the attached sheet.
0 A low affective filter–wherein an affective filter is understood to be the array of human feelings through which an experience is mediated; learning will usually be facilitated if the filter is low (meaning that learners’ feelings don’t get in the way of their learning); in the case of learning a new language, the affective filter could include misgivings about leaving behind a first language or culture; in the case of learning a new academic discourse, the filter could include reservations about the challenge of psychoanalysis to religious beliefs; one of the indispensable conditions for a low filtering effect is the existence of trusting relationships between teachers and students.
1 Situated practice–practice within a discourse; such practice needs to be for real, like it is, for example, in the case of high school basketball teams; it can include drill but the drill must be incorporated within the logic and tempo of the actual game or discourse activity; such practice, perhaps obviously, needs to be graded–in the sense that novices should be engaged in novice-like activity under the tutelage of an expert–keep in mind the training of the young Luke Skywalker by Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back;” for example, in the case of narrative writing about personal events, the foremost thing for a learner to be concerned about is the extent to which he/she can write an engaging story which remains faithful to his/her intended meanings; to the extent that misspelled words or inadequate punctuation interferes with the quality of the storytelling, those issues could be addressed and even taken out of context for further scrutiny.
2 Automaticity–comes from lots of practice; the learner needs to be able to efficiently recognize many things (words, meanings, figures of speech, variant syntaxes) so that he/she can concentrate on the essential meaning-making activities–such as: does this make sense, how does it compare with another version, do I agree, what else do I need to know.
3 Functionality–we are better at solving problems when they make sense, when we know what they’re about; this means that the choice of the “situation” for the practice we intend to offer students should map onto something that they want to do or, perhaps, are obliged to do; it also implies a role for teachers in that they need to be alert to providing good reasons for engaging in particular activities; this can be problematic to the extent that it borders on the notions that all learning must be situated in “real life;” there are a number of reasons why “real life” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; the first is that some “real life” problems are not rich enough to sustain students’ interest over time; the second is that students, as do teachers, have varied interests and they are not necessarily enamored of dwelling in the land of the practical–fantasy has its own functionality; or that it that it must be student-centered; the problem with student-centered learning is that learners seldom know enough about the demands of a discourse to be entrusted with the responsibility of knowing how to become proficient within it; what is essential is that students’ actual knowledge be given a respectful hearing.
4 Scaffolding–teachers have a very important role to play in designing tasks for learners and in providing assistance to them; the assistance should be provided during and after close observations of students’ efforts to notice patterns and develop rules from what they are doing; the point of the assistance is to help the students to avoid premature and faulty generalizations; this can be done in a variety of ways–by having students generate “rules” in small groups and then comparing their rules with those developed by others; by providing counter-examples.
5 Meta-awareness–at a certain point, students can and should be expected to learn something of the underlying patterns of a discourse and to understand the ways in which it resembles or differs from other discourses; this learning will both assist in the relatively more rapid acquisition of other discourses and will allow the learner to perhaps appreciate some of the more or less inherent limitations of a particular discourse, or perhaps some of the distinctive beauty that can be achieved in the poetry of different languages.
6 Critical framing–by extension, students should have the opportunity to critically examine the assumptions and consequences of particular discourses–for example, the discourse of individual rights within the US constitutional framework; this is even the case, or rather especially the case, when such a critical examination might lead to disagreements with teachers; in some cases, individuals who have been excluded from what are thought to be mainstream or powerful discourses have acquired a critical predisposition towards official discourses which can be used to powerful effect; by way of example, individuals who have been more or less systematically treated unfairly by the courts may have a very critical stance towards the discourse of “the rule of law.”
7 Transformed practice–discourses are not only inherited; they can be changed into new discourses; for example, the traditional discourse of history can be changed into something quite different if and when the experiences and perspectives of ordinary people are accorded the same potential significance as the experiences and perspectives of kings, presidents and generals.
I am convinced that he is right. So, what should we do? First off, how do we establish trust between ourselves and our students? I don’t think we can or should take that trust for granted. On the other hand, I think that there are a good number of programs within and outside of CUNY that have, in fact, established the conditions necessary for trust. At the very least, those conditions reflect a deep-seated commitment on the part of teachers and other staff to their work and to the potential of their students. In addition, those conditions are conducive to the realization of thoughtful, considerate encounters with students. Students must understand what’s going on and why. In addition, programs must be prepared to take students’ questions and points of view very seriously.
Situated practice requires the design of learning environments which contextualize the activities of teachers and learners. In this case, environments should be understood broadly to include physical, technical, intellectual, inter-personal resources–classrooms and labs, computers and VCRs, books and other types of print materials, and places for students and teachers to talk. Productive learning environments for the kinds of students described above can probably only be designed and established by people who themselves have achieved mastery of the particular discourse that is situated within that environment.
To be more specific, a productive learning environment for college preparation can only be designed and maintained by people who know a great deal about what constitutes successful college-level study. Or another–a productive learning environment for the acquisition of everyday commercial English (used, for example, in transactions with banks or utility companies) can only be designed by people who know a great deal about commercial English. Lest I be mistaken, I want to emphasize that being able to successfully complete college or to conduct commercial transactions does not mean that anyone knows a great deal about either of those two spheres of activity or about how a novice might be initiated into the essential activities. The kind of knowledge that I have in mind is acquired through both extensive practice and careful reflection.
How do we know what constitutes “situated” practice as opposed to some other kind of practice? It might be helpful to recall that practice has two meanings–1) doing something over and over again (like practicing piano) and 2) engagement in craft-like activity (like the practice of medicine or law). Situated practice draws from both meanings–it involves extensive, and sometimes repetitive, engagement in doing things but the logic of what is being done should be designed in light of the kind of versatility and proficiency that really good practitioners have.
Automaticity depends on lots of practice. How much? Let’s use me as an example. I have not kept careful records on the matter but I usually estimate that I read for about twenty or thirty hours and read about a thousand pages a week. That is a lot less than I averaged when I was in high school and college. The number of pages that someone can read obviously depends a great deal on the speed with which one reads. I am not about to promote speed reading but I do think that it’s likely that we have to convince our students–not only by verbal argument, but by our own practice–that they should engage in active discourse practice for at least two or three hours everyday. Active practice consists of reading, writing, speaking and listening within that discourse.
Immersion-type programs clearly have an advantage in this regard. When programs can only offer limited hours of instruction, or students can only attend part-time or when class participation is interrupted (as in the BEGIN programs), the out-of-class activities will have to be carefully and comprehensively developed and subsequently monitored. While they are away from class, learners should have clear directions for what they should be trying to do and what they should do when they encounter difficulties. This, I think, probably needs to be very specific–by way of examples, request that students read a short story at one sitting, rather than in a number of separate instances; utilize a variety of journal formats for students to record their understandings, confusions and reactions to what they are reading; encourage re-readings; carefully select and recommend materials; provide telephone assistance during days and hours when students are away from class. Attendance in class should provide an opportunity for the teacher to assess the quantity and quality of the practice and to, periodically, evaluate performances.
I increasingly think that if we don’t consistently encourage, even insist upon, that kind of practice, we are collaborating in a cruel joke–our students will never achieve the kind of proficiency and fluency they need. When they don’t, they will be inclined to think again that they really are not smart enough and others will be confirmed in their conviction that the effort is futile. We are faced with a difficult reality–there is a way forward but it is much harder than most of us, teachers and students both, would like. When we take the easier path, we accomplish little. The modest accomplishment, in turn, is interpreted as meaning that only modest accomplishment is possible. We rail against the interpretation but we do a great deal to make it plausible.
This raises another tough issue–how long will it take. I don’t know. It may be that, if we do everything well, we can expedite the rate of progress. As we organize and conduct the kinds of programs our students need, we should be asking ourselves that question. Our ultimate answers will have significant implications for the definition of satisfactory participation and satisfactory progress. I am not averse to the idea that we would eventually be prepared to say to some students that they will not be able to continue because they have not done enough of the work. But we can only do that in good conscience after we have made our programs as good as they can be.
How might we make it easier? By making it make sense. How can we help make it sensible? By listening carefully to the ways in which students talk and reading carefully what students write. Rather than being preoccupied with questions of right or wrong, we must be concerned with detecting the ways in which students are interpreting what is in front of them. Instead of insisting that they understand us, we must understand them. As we discover what makes sense to them, we must develop ways of illuminating the internal difficulties associated with their ways of making sense and nudging them forward to new, more powerful, conceptions.
Let me cite an old example. Some years ago, I was a member of a committee that organized an AIDS education conference for students in adult literacy programs. It was held at Bronx Community College. In any case, one of the presenters was a woman volunteer from Gay Men’s Health Crisis. She did a version of what was often described as “AIDS 101,” in other words, a quick review of what was thought to be known about AIDS at that time–matters concerning the HIV virus, transmission, prevention and so forth. After her presentation, there were questions. One woman stood up and, touching her chest, expressed her puzzlement about what this whole thing had to do with the chest virus she occasionally suffered from. The presenter, as I recall, repeated what she had previously said and, undoubtedly, the woman remained bewildered. I don’t think this was only a case of an inexperienced educator failing to understand adults. Instead, I think it’s probably an exemplary illustration of what often happens when students express their bewilderment. We repeat our previous explanation–either more slowly or more loudly. But we do not listen carefully enough to what they have said. In the instance of the confusion about the meaning of “virus,” it might very well be the case that few of us will have a sufficiently precise understanding of a virus to offer. I don’t think we need to be instant experts on everything. But, we can and should point out that a word, like virus in this case, can have everyday meanings that are quite different from what might be considered their technical meanings; in many cases, the everyday meaning might suffice but, at other times, it can get in the way of understanding; the discrepancy between the two meanings creates an opportunity for an investigation into the word and, subsequently, a return to the understanding of issues related to AIDS.
There is a lot of hard work for teachers to do. They must pay attention, probably to each individual student, to understand what it is that’s going on and, hopefully, to offer valuable suggestions or directions. This work can only be accomplished by dedicated, knowledgeable people. We can no longer afford to use people for whom this work is a sideline. If necessary, our programs must be restructured so that only the most qualified teachers are doing the work.
Let me use an example from far afield. For the past seven or eight years, I have coached little league baseball with two of my children on different teams. Some years my team did well; other years we did terribly. I have been pretty good on some things–giving every kid a chance to play, having the girls play the infield, encouraging kids who had done badly to hang in there, keeping the fathers of the more accomplished kids away from their own kids and the others. I have done not very well at all at the technical aspects–although the kids have learned a lot about baseball through their own playing and practicing.
In any case, my youngest child, Elizabeth, has turned fourteen and I don’t think I should be her coach again. I just don’t know enough about baseball and I am not prepared to invest the kind of time and energy that it would take to learn enough (if I could) to be the kind of coach that all kids, both very accomplished and not-so-accomplished, need to be good enough to play with other fourteen year olds. To stretch the term, the discourse of baseball coaching needs to be practiced by someone who knows more about it. If Elizabeth plays again, I hope that she has a coach who will be able, in Hilary Low-Beer’s phrase from her remarks at the Convocation, to provide both “support and authority,” for it is clear that support has reached its limits. I am fully aware that the prospects for that are slim since the ranks of baseball coaches are thick with authoritative figures and thin with supportive ones.
Few teachers or program directors will enter this field of work with all of the knowledge and expertise they need. It will help if they come with substantial knowledge about a number of different disciplines and with some passion about at least one. But they will all have to be provided systematic opportunities to reflect on and improve their practice.
At the end, I guess that I believe that only programs designed along these lines will make enough of a contribution to enough students to make all of our work worthwhile. I would like to discuss this with anybody and everybody.