James Gee’s new book proposes “a framework for becoming human”


Erik Ketcherside

Teaching, Learning, Literacy in our High-risk, High-tech World,” authored by James Gee, has been released by Teachers College Press at Columbia University. Gee is Regents Professor and Fulton Presidential Chair of Literature Studies at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College

Gee said he had “several pressing reasons” for writing the book, which is subtitled “A framework for becoming human.” He discusses the isolation the digital world can bring — although it’s been built for collaboration, communication and understanding — and has this message for fellow educators:

“First, I believe that today we need, not incremental school reform, but a new paradigm of what schooling can and must be in our high-tech, high-risk, global world. Second, while digital media holds out great promise for powerful learning and problem solving, digital and social media today are more often used to divide and isolate people into ideological echo chambers uncommitted to evidence, discussion across differences and collaboration. Educators need to become more proactive and thoughtful in how we use new technologies to design for collaboration, understanding, continuous learning, respect for evidence, collective intelligence and real problem solving in an imperiled society and world.

Gee says his message is important now more than ever. He addresses what we as a society need to do in order to remove ourselves from the technological bubbles that we now live in.

“Our divided world was long in the making and digital technologies contributed greatly to making it. We need now to think outside the box to undo these divides and get to work harnessing the powers of new technologies for pragmatic problem solving and the sorts of critical discussions across different viewpoints that such problem solving requires in a democratic society.”

James Gee is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books on digital learning, literacy and discourse. He is a fellow of the American Educational Research Association and a member of the National Academy of Education.

If you’re interested in learning more about literacy, explore the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Master of Arts degree in Literacy Education. It includes studies in literacy leadership, theoretical foundations, technology and digital resources, and critical literacy and social justice.

Excerpt from “Teaching, Learning, Literacy in our High-risk, High-tech World”

Cover of new James Gee book

The learner has an action to take in the experience.

The claim Humans learn from experience is at the heart of this book. The experiences that are best for learning are what I call mindful or focused experiences. Within these sorts of experiences there are three features that are crucial for deep and long-term learning: 

  1. The learner emotionally cares about the outcome of the action in the sense that something meaningful is at stake for the person in the outcome of the action.

  2. Something or someone helps the learner to know what things in the experience are most relevant and important to pay attention to in order to carry out the action successfully. Any real-world experience has a great many things in it that we could pay attention to, not all of which are equally relevant or important.

I will call experiences that have the three features discussed above — action, caring and well-managed attention — “+experiences.” And I will modify the bare claim that humans learn from experience to this version:

Most deep human learning is rooted (is founded, originates) in +experiences.

This claim is simple (though often ignored in schools), but it has many important consequences. It is one of the two major claims this book will make.

Research has long shown that people can think, problem-solve and plan better for future action if their recollections (of experience) in long-term memory are well organized, well integrated and well connected. This helps facilitate the search for useful patterns and subpatterns, the formation of useful generalizations and the search for evidence for what to believe and act on.

As humans form generalizations on the basis of experience, they also form theories or perspectives on things. These theories or perspectives — some consciously known, some not — direct their attention and actions in the world. What I am calling perspectives here are networks of connected claims and generalizations that form a person’s expectations, beliefs, values and actions in a given area of experience.

We all have perspectives — and different people, social groups and cultures have different ones — on a good many things, things such as parenting, friendship, being a citizen, marriage, teaching, being a man or a woman, cooking, music, romance and what it means to “work for a living.” We deeply cherish some perspectives, especially those we have learned in our early socialization within a family and community, through co-participation in a religion, or as insiders in various sorts of groups, cultures and institutions.

For all the deep meaning such cherished perspectives can give our lives, they can and have led to a great deal of harm and even violence in the world. Indeed, today we face a great many conflicts based on unbending ideological, cultural and religious differences. This raises a profound issue of how we can live in peace together in an evermore divisive and polarized country and world.

In my view, for human beings to be healthy in mind and body, they need to develop and continually enlarge their capacities for testing their perspectives. They can do this by acting in and on the world and then paying respectful attention to the world’s responses to (“evidence” of) their actions. And they can do it through respectful dialogue with others who have different perspectives. Sadly, though, today we are short on people committed to evidence and respectful dialogue across differences.

I will argue in this book that a key goal of schooling and human development is the creation of people who are committed testers, people who respect evidence, seek ways to falsify their own beliefs, and engage in civil critical discussions with others who not share their beliefs or values. I will offer ideas about how such people can cherish their core beliefs and values and nonetheless engage in meaningful critical discussion with others in a joint search for truth and peace.

All humans have a deep need to feel that what they do counts and matters to others and to society, hopefully in the service of peace and a better world for all. Education owes each child the skills necessary for effective action in the world.

At the same time, however, society must treat everyone as worthy of full and active participation. One of the greatest evils any society can inflict is to make people or whole classes of people feel they do not matter. It leads to poor physical and mental health. It hampers learning and leads to poor development. Unfortunately, currently in the United States and in many other countries, there are very high levels of inequality. High inequality leads far too many people to feel left out. It leads, as well, to very poor health statistics, because when people feel that what they think and do really doesn’t matter, they can suffer negative health effects.

I should note that I will unashamedly use the word truth in this book. I will say that people need to be truth seekers and truth testers. What I mean by truth is not any form of final knowledge. I mean a journey (process) toward healthier, more moral, more humane, more effective, and more peaceful perspectives on the world. Such perspectives are based on respect for the world’s responses when we act in it or experiment on it. They are based, as well, on respect for others when we have critical dialogues with them about what we each believe we have learned from our differing experiences in the world. In almost all cases, we humans cannot attain perfection; but in almost all cases we can do better. Given the state of health, equality and peace in the world today, the bar isn’t very high.