Gee - Learning by design

James Paul Gee has written an interesting paper called “Learning by design: Games as learning machines” (1). In the article he describes thirteen principles that characterise the learning behind (successful) games. Being a gamer himself he probably has a lot of experience with theses games, and I sense that authenticity in the article. That makes me want to try out some games, I’m not a gamer myself J. It is really a very interesting idea to look at learning principles behind success stories. That could be transponed to other areas as well. Successful companies that share their vision on professionalising their staff. What makes a certain app a hit, and can that be used as a strategy in schools?

So, the question he anwers is: ‘How do good game designers manage to get new players to learn long, complex, and difficult games?’.

An overview of the principles:

Empowered Learners

  • Co-design: good learning requires that learners feel like active agents (producers) not just passive recipients (consumers).
  • Customise: people cannot be agents of their own learning if they cannot make decisions about how they are learning.
  • Identity: deep learning requires an extended commitment.
  • Manipulation: humans feel expanded and empowered when they can manipulate powerful tools.

Problem Solving

  • Well-ordered problems: problems in good games are well ordered. In particular, early problems are designed to lead players to form good guesses about how to proceed when they face harder problems later on in the game.
  • Pleasantly frustrating: challenges feel hard but doable.
  • Cycles of expertise: expertise is formed in any area by repeated cycles of learners practicing skills
  • Information “on demand” and “just in time”: humans use verbal information best when it is given “just in time” (when they can put it to use) and “on demand” (when they feel they need it).
  • Fish tanks: use simplified systems with a few key variables. Learners are not overwhelmed by a complex system.
  • Sandboxes: safe havens for learners where ‘things can’t go wrong’.
  • Skills as strategies: people learn and practice skills best when they see a set of related skills as a strategy to accomplish goals.


  • System thinking: People learn skills, strategies, and ideas best when they see how they fit into an overall larger system to which they give meaning.
  • Meaning as action image: humans do not usually think through general definitions and logical principles. Rather, they think through experiences.

How can we bring this more into schools?

Every principle can be somewhat transferred to the school. For example: let teachers and students co-design the course. The curriculum is still too much top-down and teacher-centred. Students should feel “agents” of their own learning (‘agency’ as the capacity to act in a world). Beware of the balance between skills of the students and the level of the challenges in a course (when the problems are well-ordered there will be less anxiety with students). This principle of well-ordered problems is exactly what Csikszentmihalyi means with his graphic (2):

At the third level of “Understanding”: the teacher-training program can use a more holistic approach to form teachers instead of breaking apart every task into sub-sub-sets of target goals.

Conclusion: When we think of games, we think of fun. When we think of learning we think of work. We should see schools more as places of fun. Teachers and students should have more fun in the classroom.

(1) Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

(2) Csikszentmihaly, M., 1999. Flow: the psychology of Optimal Experience, HarpersCollinsPublishers, p.107.

Twitter as learning environment #2

During the first #telic1 session, Claire raised a good question about Twitter being a learning environment, or not.

I have been thinking about this during the past week and I agree with Ian that we first need to define what a learning environment is. In fact, the more basic question is: 'what is learning?'. A lot has already been said and written on this matter and I’m not intending to cover everything here on the subject,  but it is very valuable to sum up some definitions of ‘learning’ in order to get back to the question about Twitter being a learning environment.


“Learning is a goal-directed act. Learning is acquiring new, or modifying existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values or preferences… Learning is not compulsory; it is contextual .”

In this definition I definitely see my Twitter activities as ‘learning’. I have consciously defined my own goals: being able to connect to others, and professionally develop myself.

Definition of a Learning Lab In Ghent Uni:

"Learning can be defined as ‘changes in the behavior of an organism that result from regularities in the environment of the organism".(1)

Here also, Twitter often has changed my behaviour and that is more the result from regularity rather than a one-moment-tweet or situation (although it also has happened that one tweet changed, influenced my behaviour in the long term).

So, considering these definitions, Twitter is a learning environment but  I agree with the question that Ian puts as a conclusion: perhaps a learning environment is only as good as we make it? Not the tool itself is most important but how the learner uses the tool. And this tweet of Charlie Palmgren could not be more spot on …

Apart from the definition of learning it is interesting to look at the conditions that facilitate the learning for me. Charlie Palmgren writes in his book “The Ascent of the Eagle” about the Creative Interchange process and the conditions needed for this process. Simply put, creative interchange is a process in which human beings are working together at their best. And the conditions are: mutual intrinsic worth, trust, curiosity, connectivity and tenacity.(2)

Daniel Willingham also mentions the importance of the right conditions for learning. “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” (3)

The conditions that facilitate my Twitter learning are:

1. Trust: the willingness to risk sharing some of the best ‘stuff’ I have, and the humility to be open and receptive to what others bring and say on Twitter.

2. Curiosity: exploring and appreciating new ideas on Twitter. Even if they sometimes seem contradictory to my own thinking (at first).

3.  Connectivity: I love creating links between Twitter ideas and my own situation. Using my imagination to build upon those Twitter connections to create new ideas and solutions (learning with Twitter is a goal-directed act, indeed).

4. Tenacity: the discipline and practice it takes to make new thinking into sustainable habits. Also, showing commitment to engage myself in Twitter discussions, and practicing with new tools such as, to curate my resources etc. Showing tenacity to stop with Twitter once and awhile, because it can be quite addictive.

Conclusion: Twitter is a learning environment but the conditions that facilitate the learning are more important than the tool itself.

(1) De Houwer, J.,  Barnes-Holmes, D., Moors, A., 2013. What is learning? On the nature and merits of a functional definition of learning. Psychon Bull Rev.

(2) Palmgren, C., 2008. The Ascent of the Eagle, p. xiv.

(3) Willingham, D., 2009. Why don’t students like school?, p.3.

Twitter as learning environment #1

In the first #telic1 session the question 'Is Twitter a learning environment' was raised. I tweeted the question, and had some interesting food for thought.

It especially made me think deeper about 'what is learning?'. This is the essential, underlying question of course. And much has been said and written about the process. I came across this interesting Lab at the university of Ghent. And a PDF 'What is learning? On the nature and merits of a functional definition of learning.'

So I'm reading a bit more before digging into my next post 'Twitter as a learning environment #2'.

Ian already replied in an excellent blogpost: