Saturday, January 28, 2017

That thesis I wrote about fan fiction and computer games: a summary

As you might recall, I recently wrote a summary of my bachelor's thesis in education, in which I abstracted the nuts and bolts and told you the good stuff that came out of the process. Since then, I managed to write a follow up master's thesis about fan fiction and computer games, and what follows below is a similar summary. But before we get to the fan fiction and computer games, some general introductory remarks about education are in order.

Schools aim to teach things. This is not just a tautology, but also a mission statement. Every school has a set of explicit goals of what students are to learn during the course of their education. The curriculum states these goals and the way to reach them, often in explicit terms.

Students are graded depending on how well they have achieved these goals. If you ask a lay person about education, they will usually arrive at some sort of correlation between performance and grades. They will also, with varying degrees of explicitness, place the burden of effort upon the students. A well-performing student gets good grades, while a poor-performing student gets bad grades. It is up to the student to achieve, effort and perform - school is but the arena wherein such feats are to be accomplished. On graduation day, the student receives a paper which states in objective terms what they know and do not know, and to what degree they know what they know. [I use the word 'student' throughout this post, even though it is framed mostly in terms of pupils. I mention this here to preempt confusion.]

What is in a curriculum matters, as does the way it is taught, and the reasons it is included in the catalogue of things to know. A student becomes what he or she does, shaped by the manner in which these things are done. The way in which something is taught shapes both what is learnt and what kind of person emerges after the process of education is completed.

The core statement of my master's thesis was, as it so often is in the field of pedagogy, taken from Dewey. Loosely paraphrased, it is as follows: education is only effective in so far as it relates to the interests of those doing the learning. Learning is not a guaranteed outcome of partaking in an educational situation; especially not if what counts as "learning" is "absorbing the intended subject matter at hand in this particular learning situation". Though - and Dewey would back me up here - it is very possible that a student might learn that a particular teacher's voice is particularly conducive to falling asleep, and that this might be strategically used for restorative purposes.

We have now introduced the core concepts: educational goals, educational evaluation, the organization of the educational process, and student interest. We are almost ready to get to the fan fiction and computer games part. But first, some more discussion about goals and evaluation.

A common way to test what students know and do not know is, as you might have suspected, tests. The specifics vary, but the general principle is to sit students down in a room and subject them to a number of questions. If they manage to produce answers to these questions, a good grade is given; if they do not, a bad grade is given. This is thought to be a fair and proper way to evaluate what students know or do not know, and thus it is widely used as a basis for determining whether students have in fact achieved the goals of their education or not.

Thing is. These tests only measure whether or not a particular student have mastered the art of responding to test questions or not. They do not measure competencies outside the scope of the questions asked and the genre of answers deemed appropriate to those questions. They most certainly do not measure whether a student is interested in the narrow and specialized discipline of providing appropriate answers to evaluative tests.

This opens up for the possibility that a student might possess the desired skill or knowledge (as expressed in the goals of their particular educational setting), but not the will, desire or capability to express it in the form the test demands. If they find the test boring, they might just outright refuse to participate. If they find the test to be an insult to their intelligence, they might produce answers that deviate from the desired form. Or, if they do not understand the questions, they might simply not know what to do.

If the aim of education is to teach a particular skill, then the evaluation of whether a particular student has acquired this skill or not needs to take into account other expressions than test results alone. There are many ways to the same goal, and educational settings have a tendency to delegitimize those ways that are not explicitly stated in the educational process. And this is where we get to the fan fiction and computer games.

My thesis looked specifically at literacy and the goals associated with the teaching of it. While the specifics of what "literacy" means varies from place to place, to general gist of it tends to be to read a text and act on what is found within. In the case of fiction, it tends to be something along the lines of relating what happens in the narrative to other happenings, be it in the real or the narrative world. In the case of non-fiction, it tends to be along the lines of finding useful information and implementing it in some way. In both cases, reading comprehension is at the fore - if the student can relate the content of the text to other things, then they have displayed literacy.

Fan fiction is a clear example of this. If the educational goal is to teach a kid how to write, then it does not matter if the thing they are writing is fan fiction. The skills they acquire in the process of writing about Harry Potter are the same as when they write about anything else, by virtue of writing being writing. Moreover, as they become more proficient in what they do, they acquire other skills as well: referencing the source material, using it in a faithful way, understanding the limitations imposed by writing in the Harry Potter setting, etc. The more time they spend reading and writing fan fiction, the more time they spend reading and writing - which is an explicit goal in the education of literacy.

The same goes for computer games. Given games of enough complexity, there will come a time when it is necessary to consult a wiki. Whether it be to see how to complete a particular quest, accomplish a particular goal or master a particular mechanic, eventually the wiki will become a reference point. If the educational goal is to teach how to use reference material, then such a natural leap to using reference material is paydirt. It is the desired result.

The point here is not to let kids write fan fiction or play computer games (though it could be). The point is that these are but two examples of ways to reach the stated goals of literacy education - to read, write, and to use various forms of source material for instrumental reasons. The key is to look at what the students are interested in, and then to look at what they do when they do what they are interested in. If they write fan fiction and discuss it with their (online or offline) friends, then this is a great starting point for further literacy education. Similarly, if they frequently alt-tab to a wiki to accomplish a certain goal within a game, then this facility to use text-based resources can be expanded upon. While they do not know that they are learning how to read, write and find useful information, you as a teacher know, and you can use this as a starting point to get them to their intended destination.

The key is to let interest guide the way. Learning happens by doing what you are interested in, and the more avenues you have to act on that interest, the more learning has the potential to happen. It is up to schools to find ways to channel existing interest into learning/doing: by setting up discussions for this week's fan fic output, to gently mention that the library has books on the subject that covers things not in the wiki, etc. And, eventually, when their interest in a particular book or game has faded, the opportunity arises to introduce new topics of interest to similarly improve the desired skillsets.

An important aspect of focusing on the interest of the students is to recognize that they do not do what they do in order to learn the stated goal of the syllabi that apply to them. They engage in their interests in the social contexts these interests find themselves - in fan fiction communities, on gaming forums, in dedicated wikis etc. These places do not necessarily have the same priorities as the educational settings the student find themselves in. They are different sites of knowledge, who follow different situational rules, and might have different ways to go about the same activity. A fan fiction community is understandably focused on producing good fiction, with a definition of "good" that is defined by the genre of, indeed, fan fiction. Fiction written in a school setting is expected to conform to different norms and standards. Even though the activity is the same (writing), the social context differs in such a way that being able to perform in one context does not automatically translate into an ability to perform in the other.

A metapoint is that kids will do what they are interested in doing anyway, regardless of whether these interests are actualized in a school setting or not. Kids are always interested in things, but these things might not be on the curriculum in a form easily translated to the context of their interests. More importantly, there is the larger question of whether they are allowed to express what they know or not. A student who can navigate the subtle genres of fan fiction with ease (and who enjoys literary nuances which require years of practice to appreciate) might simply not give a flying fig about Hemingway, and thus flunk the test on him - and be graded accordingly.

If the goal is to teach literacy, then encourage interests that lead to literacy. Mutatis mutandis for other subjects - find what the students are interested in, and proceed from there. Then allow for expressions of mastery that are not explicitly made to be easily quantifiable. Standardized tests make it easy to compare tests results, but they have a hard time measuring non-standardized knowledge. If such tests are the only allowed means of expressing mastery in a subject, then schools institutionally and needlessly bar many students from expressing their actually existing knowledge in a socially recognized manner.

In the end, it all comes down to one thing: whether the goal is for students to learn, or for them to perform well on tests.

The difference is not subtle.

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