Stealth Learning

It has long baffled educators, how kids - including functionally illiterate ones - can get the required information on new video games, process it, and apply it with obvious success. According to popular thinking, if they haven't read the instructions they will not know what to do; what the strategies are; and how to play to win. Popular thinking - or should we say our generation thinking - is wrong on each count. James Paul Gee, Professor of Linguistics, Madison University in Wisconsin, opens up lots of new thinking in his remarkable book: What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. He describes about thirty learning principles in detail, and three are worth considering here: 'stealth' learning; virtual identities; and thinking as a social activity.

It is useful to consider this definition:
.... when the learners are so caught up in their goals that they don't realise they are learning or how much they are learning or where they actively seek new learning.
Professor James Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

How, then, you might ask, do learners get 'so caught up in their goals' that they don't realise they are learning. Stealth learning works best when the various learning activities (or 'subjects') are embedded into a single project. This allows learners scope to face the tasks without any pre-conceptions from the labels of 'maths' or 'English'. It also provides for the two agendas of stealth learning to function. One agenda is overt, the nature of the project as understood by the teacher and the learner. The other agenda is covert, specific learning tasks - such as visualisation - embedded into the project work.

Let's look at the second learning principle from Professor Gee's book, the identity the game-player takes on. They play with a whole set of skills, attributes and resources they don't have in real life.

Taking on a virtual identity constitutes a form of identification with the virtual character's world, story, and perspectives that become a strong learning device at a number of different levels.

And the third principle helps explain why many young people get left behind in the learning process; thinking is essentially a social activity, not an individual affair. Gee's study of electronic games confirm that brain function is interactive with its environment (in this case a virtual one), not isolated from it. So our challenge as educators is to create a learning environment in which young people can take on all the characteristics of a successful person, someone not carrying the limitations - real or otherwise - of past learning.

The question becomes: "Can students be encouraged to take on an identity for the purpose of learning better?" My answer is yes. I start with images of success, house, car, family, airline travel, - some I propose, some they propose, all embraced at an emotional 'this-can-be-me' level. I use visualisation and guided imagery, manipulation of digital images, and constant application of the question: "What would I look like if I were very successful at this task?"

Edited from: New Thinking, Better Results - project-based learning. Merv Edmunds VCAL Coordinator, Mercy Regional College, Camperdown. Fine Print, (VALBEC Journal), Winter Edition, June 2005. Download article (PDF 36KB)