Monday, September 26, 2011

Two Research Ideas

One of my first assignments here at Stanford was to draft a possible research question and propose a methodology to use in answering that question.  Because I have multiple interests, I wrote two.

The Dialogic Pedagogy of St. John's College


What is a dialogue? Obviously there is plenty of research about how to support dialogue in the classroom, and the role of discussions in learning. From my own limited experience, however, as a graduate student and as a teacher, there is a tremendous difference between dialogue as it is conceived in such research and dialogue as it occurs in, particularly, the classrooms of St. John's College.

As a graduate of St. John's, I have first hand experience in those classrooms. Far from providing answers, my experience only raises more questions. What is it about the culture, the pedagogy, and the organization of learning at St. John's that makes their classrooms unique? How is it that students in the St. John's seminar are able to speak so directly to each other about such complicated texts with minimal Professorial intervention? Or are they actually able to do so, after all? What is the relationship between the dialogic pedagogy of the college and its Great Books curriculum? Do they support each other, are they separable, or do they detract from each other? Perhaps most importantly: what, if anything, does the pedagogy – as distinct from the curriculum – have to teach educational systems at large?

All of these questions interest me, and they serve as a backdrop for a possible research agenda. In the short term, however, I want to focus particularly on undergraduate programs and dialogue. That is, I want to address this question: What constitutes a dialogue at St. John's, and how is it distinct from dialogues in other undergraduate academic environments?


In order to begin to answer that questions, an initial qualitative, ethnographic foray into the college would be invaluable. A visit to the Santa Fe campus would allow me to conduct interviews with current students and faculty, as well as observe seminars in action with a researcher's – rather than a student's – eye. Video analysis of seminars could also be helpful, though that would require both the necessary equipment and approval from the school (recording of seminars is traditionally forbidden). While direct observation and interviews would only be possible when present, with permission and help I might be able to record video of a seminar or seminars throughout a semester or more.

In addition to doing qualitative data collection at St. John's, I would want to follow a similar interview and observation (and/or video analysis) protocol at another or other institutions. Perhaps the most feasible option would be to look at undergraduate courses at Stanford, as well as another local college or university (such as San Jose State). I would strive to find courses which describe themselves as “seminars” and which intend to use discussion-based pedagogies. I would strive, at this stage, to match specific content across the colleges in question.

Having collected my data, I would code and analyze in the qualitative tradition, with an eye towards answering my initial question, but also with the hope of discovering the appropriate path towards addressing the deeper questions that inspire my research.

Design in Game Development and Curriculum Construction

J.P. Gee, among others, has noticed that game developers do an excellent job of scaffolding learning into their products. That is, gamers learn how to play the game from simply playing it, whether because there is a built-in tutorial, or because the mechanics of the game are somehow made obvious by experimentation, or because the game is similar enough to other games in the genre that new players can be expected to transfer skills and strategies. Regardless, learning to play a game is a significant portion of what makes games fun.

School environments and activities, on the other hand, are frequently designed with a much more acute eye for learning, but too often without the same success. What, then, is it about the game design process that makes games so effective? How does that process differ from the curriculum and educational design process? Is the difference cultural, mechanical, or philosophical? 

I'm particularly interested in an analysis of the design process game and curriculum development, as it pertains to learning in those respective environments. The question is not, then, whether students learn better from games, or what games do so effectively. It is how games are designed and how that process differs in education.


I believe this question lends itself to an ethnographic approach. On the one hand, ethnography of a game development studio – or, indeed, a multitude of studios, as different studios likely have different design processes – and on the other, a similar ethnography of a school or other academic institution engaged in curriculum and activity design. Many public schools, of course, have little say in the details of their curricula, so perhaps a textbook company or other curriculum developer (Foss, for example) would serve as an interesting foil instead.
Spending time observing and interviewing participants in the design processes in these two environments, I would hope to discover what, if any, vocabulary is shared, and what is different. I would also hope to see to what degree learning is an explicit or implicit part of the design process. I expect a variety of other notable differences might arise as well, in terms of relationship to prototyping, the degree to which the process itself arises organically during development, and the passion and engagement of the people working on the design, among other things.


Ultimately, my hope is that the game design process might hold some keys as to how educators might help to unlock the powerful learning potential of games in education, without forcing us to conclude that boring “educational games,” irrelevant commercial games, or tacky gamification are the only options. That is, perhaps traditional learning might be benefit at the level of design from contact with the game design world. And, in reverse, perhaps the game design world can benefit from contact with the education design process.

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