Context-Embedded Learning Part III: Learning By Doing (Aldrich, Shaffer, and Others)

This is part of the Context-Embedded Learning section of my dissertation lit review.

Given the title of this section, I’m amazed at how few of my notes on Aldrich’s work came up here. I think this is mostly because my current note-taking and outlining processes hadn’t been established yet when I was reading his books. In any case, I suppose this is only a first draft and I shouldn’t worry about it being comprehensive – actually I think I have no hope of achieving comprehensive… I’m hoping for acceptable. ;)

Aldrich (2005) quotes Will Thalheimer on the role of context in simulations:

“The first thing that makes simulations work is context alignment. The performance situation is similar to the learning situation… when the learners enter a real situation, you want the environment to trigger the learning. That results in a 10 to 50 percent learning impact” (Will Thalheimer, as quoted in Aldrich, 2005, p. 84).

When Aldrich (2004) discussed the objectives of designing an interface system for a simulation, his most important points were that a simulation interface should “represent the actual activity at some level” (p. 173) and “be a part of the learning” (p. 174) in the sense that simply learning the interface would help a user learn about the subject being learned. Though he advocated for keeping a simulation interface simple and streamlined (p. 175), he was interested in fidelity where it impacted learning. He suggested that a simulation interface should operate in real time such that “all options are available all the time”(p. 175). Similarly, he called for simulation design that, like the real world, included all three types of content, linear, cyclical, and open-ended (p. 99). He also opposed simulations that presented the world as it should be rather than as it is, even if this is done in the name of political correctness (p. 215).

Shaffer (2004), too, noted that “new technologies make it easier for students to learn about the world by participating in meaningful activity” (p. 1403). He tied this directly to constructivist tradition, saying that “new technologies support Dewey’s vision of bringing the ‘life of the child’ into an environment for learning” (p. 1404). Shaffer aimed to apply the following philosophy to the design of educational video games:

“pedagogical praxis seeks to create environments that are thickly authentic. Resnick and I (Shaffer & Resnick, 1999) argued that authenticity is an alignment between activities and some combination of (a) goals that matter to the community outside of the classroom, (b) goals that are personally meaningful to the student, (c) ways of thinking within an established domain, and (d) the means of assessment. Thickly authentic learning environments create all of these alignments simultaneously. For example, in the case of pedagogical praxis, when personally meaningful projects are produced and assessed according to the epistemological and procedural norms of an external community of practice.” (Shaffer, 2004, p. 1406)

Shaffer’s epistemic games “are about having students do things that matter in the world by immersing them in rigorous professional practices of innovation” (Shaffer & Gee, 2005, p. 12). As Shaffer and Gee explain, “in this approach, students do things that have meaning to them and to society, supported all along the way by structure, and lots of it—structure that leads to expertise, professional-like skills, and an ability to innovate” (p. 12). They point out that “the key step in developing the epistemic frame of most communities of innovation is in some form of professional practicum… environments in which a learner acts in a supervised setting and then reflects on the results of his or her action with peers and mentors” (p. 14), and they aimed to use video games to provide this practicum. In such epistemic games “students learn facts and content in the context of innovative ways of thinking and working… in a way that sticks, because they learn in the process of doing things that matter” (p. 24). Such epistemic games exemplify the learn-by-doing philosophy. In these games, “students were learning to solve real problems by working on real problems, learning how to think about things that matter in the world by actually doing things that matter in the world” (Shaffer, 2006, p. 6).

Shaffer (2006) argues that “video games can change education because computers now make it possible to learn on a massive scale by doing the things that people do in the world outside of school” (p. 9). Citing Gee’s principle of performance before competence, Shaffer (2006) explains that with video games students can “learn by doing rather than learning first and doing later” (p. 68), and that the “difference… between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge, or being able to explain something and being able to actually do it – is fundamental to education as we know it” (p. 92). Again invoking Dewey, Shaffer state that “the process of moving from interest to understanding, according to Dewey, was learning by doing – or, to be more precise, learning by trying to do something, making mistakes, and then figuring out how to fix them” (p. 124). Because epistemic games can “develop professional skills, knowledge, and epistemology in the context of professional values,” Shaffer suggests that, “epistemic games are thus a potentially important part of children’s development” (p. 132).

Several other scholars have demonstrated the value of video games in providing a learning context. Like Shaffer, Squire and Jenkins (2003) advocate the use of games “in conjunction with real-world simulations” (p. 9). They also noted that “students learning in the context of solving complex problems not only retain more information but tend to perform better in solving problems” (p. 28). Holland, Jenkins, and Squire (2003) explained that “embedding challenges within the tool requires users to actively monitor their performance, observing, hypothesizing, acting, and reflecting” (p. 37). As they point out, “In addition to being potentially more motivating for learners, engaging in such critical thinking processes is generally thought to be the basis of meaningful learning… knowledge developed in the context of solving problems is typically recalled better than knowledge learned by rote and more readily mobilized for solving problems in novel contexts” (p. 37). Video games that can exercise such thinking processes “give students a sense of the practice for which they’re being trained” (p. 40).

McMahan (2003) also discussed the value of the presence and immersion offered by video games (p. 68-77). And, as Filiciak (2003) expressed it, players “desire the experience of immersion, so we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience” (p. 99), a factor that can work both for and against the instructional goals of video games.

I’m seeking feedback on this writing, so please let me know what you think in the comments.