Literacy and Critical Thinking in the Modern Classroom

Writing. Critical thinking. Rhetoric. We often times find ourselves placing these words on a pedestal that focuses only on canonical literature or verbal literacy and communication.

That’s a major problem with academia, something that stems (somewhat) from the rise of philosophical thought and the shadows on Plato’s cave. Not that philosophy is bad, but it did undeniably see itself over art and visual thinking as some sort of intellectual behemoth well above cathartic moments and classical art. It was in this that our conceptions of the verbal and visual were divided as two separate and unequal modes of thought. *rant rant rant, academia, rant, ivory tower*.

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But surely, because we are surrounded by visual things, we don’t really need to learn visually, right?

Actually that gives us all the more reason to want to learn about it. Being surrounded by something does not merit immediate literacy. If we truly thought this then we would be a generation of truly illiterate people.

But what does it mean to be literate in a visual sense? Really, it can mean whatever you want it to (aka, academics still don’t know). In my own understanding of it, I think it’s something that leads us to better understand the world around us, in culture, art, literature, media, and life in general.

We oftentimes find ourselves making that verbal vs visual divide today, a process I think that is harming our own abilities to teach creativity.  While creativity is something that can be inherent in writing or verbal communication, there is something lost in not being able to think visually as well–and this is not is not simply in interpreting art. In fact, that is only a small portion of what it could mean to think visually. When you think about it, some of us are visual learners, where we learn by seeing rather than reading… and then there is the the question of whether we think visually or verbally. But these are questions that seem to be more individually based.

To be short, creativity itself has a strange connotation in education. If we teach creativity, it would seem as if we are not teaching critical thinking. If we teach critical thinking, we probably aren’t allowing our kids much creative freedom. So the obvious question is, how can combine the two and why don’t we? Are they not fruits from the same tree? Aren’t visual and verbal so much more effective when juxtaposed as the same? I mean look at freaking memes people.

And that’s where video game design comes into my classroom. This entire semester has been mixture of analyzing culture, graphic novels, articles, music, and documentaries. Essentially, this was done with the goal of having my students look more closely at the things they encounter in their every day lives. Something I believe is important in the lack of ethos (credibility) we find so often on the internet and even in media.

So then how did we get into video games? Pretty much just how we got into movies or music. It’s a part of culture largely used for entertainment and finds itself in and out of the ever-so-unsolvable “what is art?” debate.  Video games are for entertainment, yes. They may or may not be considered art. And this means that there is plenty of room for writing, critical thinking, and rhetoric within the medium. Games are becoming a cultural activity. They create communities. They can represent cultural values through the use of whatever the they want, be it satire, critique, or commentary. Ultimately, games (just like literature, movies, or music) can make claims about the world that players can evaluate for themselves through interaction. And that’s what is unique about games–they are the only medium that allows the player to directly interact with them–and that’s an aspect that takes them from linear media to non-linear media. How we think about games is not based on what we witness or feel, but how that changes based on how we individually interact with the games. Not all games make claims or arguments, it’s the entertainment industry after all, but that doesn’t keep us from being able to think about them more critically. This could turn into a rant about procedural rhetoric, but I’d rather focus on the project… and I am getting tired of the ivory tower making up random words.

In my class, this unit in particular has focused on video games–something I decided to do with much apprehension. I knew that I loved games, but I also knew that many of my students had never really picked up a controller before. I was nervous that they wouldn’t care for the assignment. That they would be confused. That they would ultimately end up exiting my classroom with nothing to help them in their future professions.

But the results so far have blown me away.

Before introducing the project, I had my students go home and play games (even just the free one’s on the internet). Then I had them analyze the way the games played. I asked them about the intended audience, purpose, narrative, and how they themselves interacted with the game. Then, once we spent some time looking at different games together and discussing game design, the crazy started.

The project calls for my students to design a game that shines light on current issues or makes a blatant claim about current events. They create companies, in groups of 3-4, and designate jobs to each member (Marketing, Game Designer, Artist/Sound Designer, Technical Desginer) Obviously, they are not programming the game, but what they are doing is creating a portfolio that they will present to financial backers (i.e. me) with the goal of getting their games put into production. Once they turn in their portfolio and present their game, each student writes a short paper analyzing their own rhetorical choices within the project. Obviously there are more specifics within the project, but that is the gist of it.

This was ambitious from the start. And it’s far from perfect. More than anything, this has been a classroom experiment.

But what I have seen so far in my students has blown me away. Many of the games they are creating focus on corruption and moral choices within the medical and natural gas industry, sustainability and conservation, and problems within the government.

They created their own websites and twitter accounts and have been “marketing” their games. They made company logos and slogans. They got their own etch pads and have been creating their own level design and artwork. They made graphics of characters in Adobe programs. Some of them have already written and composed their own theme songs for their game. They are taking all of these things into collaborative consideration within the context of what is this game doing and how will the player interact with it. They are thinking creatively and critically about making a non-linear argument in a medium many of them didn’t care for. All of them are working together in what is meant to simulate a professional work environment on somewhat unfamiliar grounds. And it’s actually working. Because video games. I can’t wait to see what comes of this.

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2 thoughts on “Literacy and Critical Thinking in the Modern Classroom

  1. You are crazy. That’s precisely why you are such an interesting human being.

    I won’t agree that philosophy deserves all of the blame, but I do agree there is a problem. I think it’s a more fundamentally human problem though. After all, it seems natural that we categorize, label, divide, and define things. There is a great big flux of sensory possibility out there, so we are forced to use our senses to organize chaos into order.

    It is perhaps necessary for human intelligence and experience to function this way, but it so easily leads people to believe in a vast array of false dichotomies and rigid definitions. We begin to believe our assumptions as factual representations of reality.

    Academia is especially bad about this. The whole idea is organizing human knowledge into a tangible, teachable mass of information. It’s an approach to living that does its best to decide the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, the right way and the wrong way. In doing so, it can stifle creativity.

    (For an example I think you’ll agree with me on, we can look at the English language. Despite dictionaries, BBC English, and prescriptive high school teachers, the language changes and evolves, fitting and forming to newer generations with new ideas and their own unique discoveries. Language is a vast river, amorphous if it weren’t for the banks and rocks and creatures that it shapes itself around. It is not static or easily contained or constrained, it is alive – it is fluid.)

    What I think you are doing and have thus far accomplished is brilliant. You’ve managed to find a way to connect with the modern student, while also opening their eyes open to making new, creative, and varied connections between the experiences that have filtered through their individual senses.

    I applaud your contributions. Bravo.

  2. I won’t say that all of academia is willing to accept games as a medium worthy of criticism and serious discussion, but at my university you could get a MS or PHD in Computer Science with a focus in Video Games, so we took games more seriously than most places. Several of my professors let me write final papers on video games (in literature classes, no less), but I wish I could have had the opportunity that your students do! As a writing class, that sounds like a great way to engage with students who might not enjoy conventional texts for critical examination, and a great way to encourage students to try games even if they aren’t “gamers.”

    Thanks for sharing your project!

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