Category Archives: gaming

Repairing Identity – Necessary for Deep Learning


This is a beautifully complex topic; so much so that it causes me some hesitation writing about it in a concise way. Then again, isn’t that one of the functions of a blog?

The core of the provoking questions site I work on is, in large part, one of mining our identities as educators (instructors, learning facilitators, coaches, co-learners, etc.).

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The terms we use tell us a lot about how we conceive of our roles and ourselves within those roles for better or worse. Two dangers I see are over-simplification and rigidity. These are at the core of what I am reflecting on today. Stated interrogatively:

To what extent can my academic identity be an obstacle to deep learning for my students and myself? 

Last week I was participating in the VCU Institute on Inclusive Teaching.  The second day had Quentin Alexander and Zewelanji Serpell speak on “Stereotype Threat and Solo Status in the Classroom.”  The conversation was organized around identity. Our first activity was to think of 3 words (maybe 4) that each of us consider our individual identity labels, then we shared our descriptors with a partner. This is really difficult because I see life (our lives and my life) as complex. It’s tough to simplify. Are there words that speak to the core of who I am or how I see myself? Is there a core? It turns out that many people had difficulty. Nonetheless, patterns emerged in the ensuing discussion.

People largely discussed their real-world identities in terms of familial status (father, grandmother, sister, etc), professional status (professor, lawyer, etc.) and social status/sub-group (religious affiliation, friend, dancer, musician, conservationist, etc.). One of the goals of this activity was to highlight similarities among individuals. Another goal was to expose the dangers of over-simplification and labeling.  As I work on this question, I am also revisiting a book I blogged about here by James Paul Gee. Yesterday, I began rethinking this experience in light of Gee’s three identities framework.

Gee has a chapter entitled “Learning and Identity: What does it mean to be half elf?” One purpose of the chapter is to unravel the complex relationships between our virtual identities (Our Roles -context dependent- e.g. video game characters we play or “student as scientist“), our real-world identities (Our Status (whole self) – e.g. familial, professional, social, academic = “learner as scientist”), and our projective identities (Our Desires/Aspirations – the projection of our values and desires onto the virtual identity = learner as scientist).  Another purpose is to explore the extent to which the various ways we might interface or manage these identities in context can point to learning principles that can be a guide for crafting deep learning experiences for students. For example: The Identity Principle: “Learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones” (p. 64). I reread this yesterday and made a connection.


Of course, my thinking went directly to how faculty learn and its implications for crafting faculty development experiences.

Our sense of self can be empowering and inhibiting. So much depends on experience (as the scholarship on adult learning has taught us) and so much depends on context (a big shout out to sociology, psychology and behavioral economics to name a few). I want to focus on a few barriers here.

How do we know when the identity we project in the classroom acts as an obstacle to deep learning? We can apply this question to our students learning as well as our own. I’ll try to parse them out.

I am reminded of Erving Goffman’s work The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. In a sense, Goffman makes the case that the identities we want (projective) manifest themselves in the varied contexts of our lives and to various degrees. In other words, our projective identities function at the confluence of our virtual and real-world identities. Abstract enough? What does this look like, and what are some of the challenges?

If we want students to respect us, we might begin the semester establishing credibility. We list our credentials, our publications, and emphasize anything that might make us look smart. According to VCU’s Faedah Totah & Emily Williams IIT presentation – “Stereotype Threat and the Instructor” – female professors tend to spend more time establishing credibility than do their male counterparts. This is due, in part, to the tendency of students to erroneously stereotype female instructors as less capable or intelligent. Unfortunately, Totah and Williams argued that there is a sense in which establishing credibility reinforces prejudicial thinking on the part of students. Similar assumptions (often built and reinforced by past experiences) in this context are found in younger faculty. both female and male, and in those who are not in the racial majority.


Our real world identities (gender, age and race) influence our virtual identities (the role as the professor). Both are affected by our projective identities: Who do we want to be? How do I want other so see me?

Another example that I hear often is related to credibility, but involves our expectations for performance. We call it “rigor.” Our real world identity as former students, at which professors were very successful, informs our virtual identity as the rigorous professor that is fused with assumptions and values of what intellectual work looks like and what the intellectually disciplined should do. (Side note: “should” is an indicator of a prescriptive assumption that declares our views of what the world ought to look like and how it ought to function).


How can our identity as the “rigorous instructor” create problems? Simply stated: know your context. For example, I spoke with a young professor once who said “I did it, why can’t they?” She was complaining about her students’ poor performance and general lack of intellectual discipline and grit. Interestingly enough, this instructor graduated with a Ph.D. from and ivy league school, in mathematics, and is a female. She is the statistical anomaly, yet she projected her life experiences as a learner on a population who were in an open enrollment urban university with a high minority population. In essence, her assumptions about learning did not match the reality of the population she served. Consequently, she could not communicate effectively with students, which limited her pedagogical options. Our task was to expand those options appropriate to context while not grossly compromising her values of academic rigor.

So much of faculty development is about self-exploration. I have integrated the exploration of our instructor identities in every workshop/seminar that addresses topics of crafting and cultivating meaningful learning experiences for students for at least the last five years. Of course, there are many approaches and methods for mining what I see as a very rich source of information.

3 Brief Examples (there are many more)

  1. I’ve challenged instructors to mine their personal intellectual history (e.g. how they have come to think critically) as a guide to pedagogical methods. We’ve even done this a couple times using a technology like Timeline JS. I then showed them how my students use the same software to log their intellectual journeys as part of their portfolios.
  2. I’ve facilitated learning experiences that utilized art and poem as a window into exploring fears and aprehensions. For example, the Pablo Neruda’s poem entitled “We Are Many” has proven very useful for this goal.
  3. I’ve even had instructors complete the same activity I have my undergraduate students make on the first day of class: Make two lists that complete the following sentences: “The teacher’s job is…” and “The student’s job is…” We then analyze the lists to highlight the assumptions we project on the learning roles and, therefore, expected behaviors.

Such approaches target our identities; our sense of self – virtual, real world or projective. If faculty development does not have space for self exploration, then can we expect transformative pedagogy? Create relationships, build on strengths, and challenge for growth.

Moreover, without a vision or concept of my professional growth, I doubt that I will be able to transfer those experiences into classroom practice. Just as important, will I have a clear conception of my journey or evolution as an instructor? If not, how can I plan? Hmmmmm…


So, who am I? What is my instructor self? I want to see myself as aware, flexible, disciplined and exciting. My identity has evolved from one of “cool new guy” to “establishing credibility” to now (17 years later) one of a provocateur who challenges students assumptions to develop richer world views, skills and dispositions.  I would like to identify my teaching self as a craftsman: intentional, planned, problem solver, present, who acts with love and respects the process. However, I fall short because it’s more than that. I want to be a co-learner: curious, humble, disciplined, and hungry for more knowledge. However, I fall short because teaching seems so much more complex at times. So, who am I? I’m still working on that. I have moments of clarity.

Another way to think about it, a little intellectually playful, is to look at it through the lens of a question: What’s your teaching super hero power? What’s mine, and what does that say about who I am, the roles I play, and what I want to be?

Gaming, Thinking & New Horizons

Now that students have played video games as an exercise in metacognition, critical reflection and transfer of insights, what do we do next?

I’m going to try to do two things in this post. First, I want to highlight what we (students and instructor) are going to do to further the gaming exercise in our class Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. Second, I want to attempt to express the first by capturing the voices of those in the VCU ALT Lab who have thoughts to share on the topic. I’d like to include student voices, but I hesitate in overloading them. I’ll throw out the invitation anyway.

In two earlier posts, I have attempted to explain how students in my sophomore level Inquiry & the Craft of Argument class here at VCU are using video games to make their thinking visible for the purposes of metacognition, critical reflection, transfer of insights and community building. Specifically, they were challenged with the task to narrate their thinking as they played video games and explain how their play parallels the types of thinking moves in the course. They were faced with making explicit what is implicit, communicating their thinking moves clearly so that other students could see the thinking, generalize and draw connections to the types of thinking embedded in the discipline (course), and explain how these moves can help them think with greater sophistication in other parts of their personal and academic lives. It was a tough challenge, but my last post reported what I saw as encouraging and inspiring results. Tom Woodward took a photo of the class in action. What next?

I originally waited for students to bring ideas for next steps to the class, to me, to Tom who is helping with the course, but little happened. I immediately inferred (maybe erroneously) that the exercise, although very valuable for some, might have fallen victim to the curse of compartmentalization (silos).


Oh the efficiency of human thinking! It’s the same type of thinking that prevents one from seeing that Thursday’s class actually follows from Tuesday’s work (for a Tuesday/Thursday class schedule) or that week one is actually connected and necessary for meaningful work in week eleven. That is where my thinking jumped, but I don’t want to sucumb to the same fallacious ways of thinking that I’m critiquing, so I suspended judgment.

The deeper inference is that it is just as much an issue of understanding and practice. Scaffold dummy, scaffold.


So, I organized a class session to revisit the big picture of the class: the fundamental structures that are necessary conditions for deep understanding, meaningful engagement, and insight development.

I put a list of the key / core dimensions of the course on a google doc and had students individually identify the areas they believed they understood and commanded the most. They then got into like groups. For example, those who understand the logic and uses of The Backpack got into one group. Those who get the Grade Profiles in another, and so on. They then had to collectively figure out how to teach it to others. The idea is: If you can’t teach it, then you don’t own it. (You don’t know it deeply enough). Using the resources in the class, they had to figure out how to help others develop deep understanding of their content. Mere presentation was not sufficient. They had to help others figure it out for themselves, which involved engaging them emotionally and helping them make important connections. After a certain amount of time, I arranged them into mixed groups and the teaching began. It was a good exercise because it was intellectually and inter-personally engaging.

But what about the gaming project? I’m curious how my colleagues viewed what was going on based on what they observed and what I informally explained during our ALT Lab Agora’s or in passing. I am curious how others deal with the challenge of transfer. One of my colleagues, David Croteau, developed a class blog space for his class that had students apply theories and concepts in the field of Sociology with concrete issues and examples. Check out the sociological autobiographies and the imagination gallery. Awesome! It is along the lines of what Robert Frank does with his economics class at Cornell University. The fundamental goals: to ground abstractions in concrete experiences and examples characterized by curiosity and driven toward transferring insights into other related contexts so that deep insights, meaningful skills and valuable attitudes emerge and are practiced. These, I see, are major goals and challenges of education; particularly general education.

Observations / Thoughts / Comments / Connections / Oppositions – VCU Colleagues

Here is the link to the google doc where I asked a select group to comment. For some, I asked for specific analytic and evaluative thoughts, and for others open.

Here is brief email conversation where a colleague, David Croteau, asked: “What do you mean by contextualization?” (sorry it’s so blurry)

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Another comment from Joyce Kincannon pointing the discussion to some resources – see sidebar:

Here’s an email comment from one of my colleagues, Joe Cates, in the Focus Inquiry department here at VCU.

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Gaming: Next Steps, New Horizons

I approached two of my self-identified “gamers” last week. I challenged them to develop the project. A few questions always help: What are we going to do next? How can the work you started be used to develop or augment your final project? If you could do anything with what we have done, what would it be? I threw out a few ideas, but I want them to do the mental work. I want to encourage their imaginations. I want them to take ownership of the project. I just want to help guide and facilitate

Nonetheless, what would it look like if these students created a game that attempted to make the implicit explicit? James Paul Gee outlines five “learning principles” that are embedded within video game play and, he argues, can be generalized across domains. I wonder what my students could do with these principles? What could they do for others?

I’d love to teach a class where these questions were explored and actual games were created. Move beyond badges and tokens toward deep critical reflection and transfer. Hmmm??? I’d teach that class for free if students could get academic credit!

Implications for Faculty Development?

Teaching is at my core, and teaching faculty is a passion of mine. I am presenting this week at the 39th Annual POD Conference (Professional Organizational Development). The title of my presentation reflects by my general perspective of faculty development and my frustrations: “Practicing What We Preach: Leveraging Workshops to Foster Faculty Innovation.” My general perspective is that what we learn to do well, we learn by doing it. I design all my faculty development interactions around this idea. They do what we want to see in our classrooms. My frustration is in how so many faculty encounters actually function: didactic lecture telling people that they need to engage students. So odd, but understandable.

What we are trying to do with the video games is based on the idea that students take ownership of content and their thinking when they (1) directly translate, contextualize and practice the work of the discipline in real, meaningful problems, and (2) critically reflect on the intellectual work with a mind to transfer insights to other domains and contexts. This is what I want faculty development to be.

As I reflect on this class and my work, I still cannot escape what has become a mantra of mine: “There is an extent to which thought not applied is useless.” — for better or worse. If we can’t see it, we can’t evaluate it, and we can’t avoid, correct or use it deeply. I started blogging by challenging myself to a 30 Question Challenge. My organizing idea and goal was to pose 30 totally out of the box questions that I would blog about. It was a game that had meaning for me.

  • It was relevant to my context as a teacher and a faculty development coach.
  • It was challenging, but I could figure out how to have emerging success.
  • It forced me to identify and question my assumptions.
  • It forced me to examine things from different lenses and perspectives.
  • I called upon background knowledge and schemas to make connections.
  • I had to reframe my misunderstandings, knowledge inaccuracies and expectations.
  • I had to take action and produce something.
  • I had to check my thinking; assess it for quality.
  • I had to reach out to others (resource identification and use).
  • I wanted to contribute to others involved.
  • I had broader goals beyond myself.
  • I failed, regrouped and tried again writing multiple drafts at times.
  • I made a commitment to learn, explore, fail, succeed, and share.

These are just a few of the ideas embedded in deep learning whether it be gaming, writing, researching, or coaching. This blog post represents another attempt to practice what I believe in: learning with and from others to collectively address the many challenges we have in our teaching and in our lives.

Thanks for all those who contributed. Not bad for three days 31 discussions.


Below are twp screenshots of the google doc to show how much dialogue was going on.

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Gaming, Thinking & Ownership

Serendipitous Connections

I was on my way to a meeting and had a couple minutes to burn. I took that time to interrupt our Vice Provost of Learning Innovation and Student Success (Gardner Campbell) to let him know about our gaming and learning experiment in the general ed class I’m teaching (Inquiry and the Craft of Argument). I did this without regard to what he was busy with, but I knew he would find the project at least somewhat interesting. His next move has come to open my mind up to new ways of thinking about video games, gaming, and gaming culture: he handed me a book. The book is entitled What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee (2007).

As I confessed in my previous post, I know almost nothing about video games and gaming culture, and … until recently I didn’t care. I am, however, VERY interested in thinking and learning. Gee’s book is the bridge. It has given me language, lenses, frameworks, theories, and new perspectives that are built around the THINKING and LEARNING embedded in video game design, play and community. So, I’m struggling through this discourse and also struggling through video games. I actually am surprised at how uncoordinated I am with a controller. I can play a guitar and a trumpet. I can fletch an arrow and manipulate very small components in a car engine, but these game controllers are challenging my motor-skills. Funny.

As I continue to read Gee’s book, I am making multiple connections with other theories, frameworks, and activities embedded in my existing thinking. Some are very explicit and others are present, but emerging. For example, I wrote a note linking Gee’s comments on the situated and social nature of gaming to the seminal work of Lave and Wenger (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Of course, Gee references these authors.

An emergent understanding is captured in the following quote: “We can learn a lot from those young people who play games, if only we take them and their games seriously” (Gee, p.10). I have to ask myself: Whom and what else do I fail to take seriously? This is an example of a reflective jugular question.

Learning Together

I originally started this post intending to write about my most recent experience with students and gaming. I’ll spare you the details about what it is we’re attempting to do and encourage you to read my previous post. The gist of it is that I wanted to see if video games could act as a catalyst for making thinking visible as a guide to learning in our classroom. Thus far, I continue to be surprised and encouraged by the clarity, depth and sophistication of what participating students are doing and saying. I’m excited!

Last week I had four students playing. All are self-labeled “gamers.” One, however, is very serious. Listening to him coach, challenge and encourage others without giving them answers to problems made me realize that gaming is his discipline just as education and pedagogy are mine. I also realized that the all of them did not want answers, just clues. This included reading any pop-up directions or instructions. They wanted to solve problems for themselves. They enjoyed figuring things out. The satisfaction gained from solving a challenge trumped failure and death. Of course, it was part of my role there to stop the play and ask them the what and why of it all.

I challenged all of them to explicate their thinking as they were playing. I challenged them to extrapolate general rules or principles informing their play. I challenged them to generalize their intellectual work while gaming to the classroom. They resisted! Moreover, my prompts were not the kind of challenge they wanted no matter how rewarding it may be for their class thinking and performance. Why? The obvious answer is that reading about argument can be quite boring. The not so obvious answer is that they had never sought out the beauty and challenge (the game) of the course content. That’s the link I wanted them to make… in part.

So there we were, game paused, a question floating in the air, and silent. I changed the question, “The Backpack in our course is a metaphor I created because it reflects my world view. It’s my thinking, my system. What is the backpack in this game (Portal)?” That was it. Why? I don’t know exactly, but broadly speaking it gave them license to look at the course from a different lens. The answer came quickly and vocally by multiple players: “It’s the portal gun!” Tell me more I said and they began describing the gun as the lifeline, the key resource, the tool, the transportable key to success that without it you die. This discussion led to further metaphorical connections centered on the idea of “RESOURCES”! I was seriously getting excited. They took the discussion in a place that almost made me cry. The serious gamer argued that the frameworks and rules one learns throughout the game are what make the portal gun useful, so The Backpack is a repository of resources that one can use to help navigate the curriculum and can be, when appropriate, transferred to other domains/situations. I may have actually cried.

I told them to take notes on their thinking and conclusions, discuss and plan to communicate their insights to the rest of the class by modeling their thinking during game play exhibitions. What happened a couple days later actually made me cry. The serious gamer in the group wrote an email to me and is as follows:

(student’s email printed below)

“Also, I’ve been thinking about how to make the Backpack more… relatable (it says I spelled that wrong). Like I said before about how the students see backpacks as a big heavy thing that holds a bunch of boring things for our boring classes (at-least that’s what I am assuming here). We don’t see the backpack in the same light because we don’t understand how you relate to the idea. Like you said, for you, a backpack means life or death when you’re out in the woods, it holds all your tools that help you survive. I feel as though it would be best that people realize this difference and make their own version (something they would “LITERALLY” (figuratively) die without)…just so that one: they will know where it is, and two: when they go to their version, they realize what it means because of how they relate. now most people are gonna hate me for that, because it means more work, but I think it still would make it more… mentally accessible.”

The conversation that followed was encouraging because this student had moved from a vague understanding of what I was asking the class to do toward an understanding that made intuitive sense. Moreover, he saw its relevance and importance to others and his role in helping others making course content meaningful.


Had I not entertained the possibility that gaming can be a vehicle for deeper metacognitive understanding as it relates to the work we are doing in an argument class, then I would not have interrupted Gardner and found Gee. I would also have failed to provide students (and one in particular) with opportunities to make important connections of their own.

My point: “find new ways to get frustrated.” Or, as Gee says find contexts that are “pleasantly frustrating.”


See Minute 2:02 Sharon Lee, GMU History Instructor

Games, Thinking & Thinking about Thinking

I stepped out of my comfort zone this week: I played a video game. I did. The last time I played a video game was Galaga in a bar.


My discomfort was mainly due to my lack of familiarity with gaming. I spend much of my free time in the woods. I don’t play video games. I don’t dislike them; they are just not part of my life. However, many of my students identify themselves as “gamers.” Playing video games for these gamers is not mere entertainment; it’s a part of their identity. Playing games influences how they see the world, and it reflects their thinking about the world. What does this have to do with teaching and learning? As far as my class is concerned, just imagine a collision of world views!

I generally believe it is unrealistic to “connect” with students by virtue of seeking out common pop culture examples. Mentioned in an earlier post that I had students articulate and outline “The teachers job is…” on the first day of class. One idea the surfaced was that it is the instructor’s responsibility to reach out and “connect” with students citing examples that were mainly found in generation relevant pop-culture. Students stated that it may help with motivation. I argued that it’s unrealistic for me to find such connections a because it assumes that many, if not most, of the students share the experience in a meaningful way. It also assumes that I can relate to a chosen example in a way that points to shared experience. Rather, I believe that it’s safe to assume that my life and world experience is very different from most of my students, so any meaningful connection has to come from a deeper intellectual and emotional place (a human place). This is not to say commonalities cannot be found; established might be a better term.

For those who read my blog, you know that my “thing” (orientation) is to put the thinking first (the focus) by making it visible (explicit). It is in the thinking that meaningful connections are made. Expose the thinking moves that inform our behaviors and beliefs. It is important to note that I only separate the “thinking” from “feeling” for intellectual exercises only. I believe that they are intimately connected; in fact, I don’t think they can be separated fully and doing so often leads to misconceptions and over-simplifications.

So, how do I help establish meaningful connections with students so that we can advance our content specific investigations and create a culture of thinking and co-learning in the classroom? Of course, there are many paths. My most recent experiment (of sorts) involves video games since all my students play them. Yes, all of them. However, only 4 of the 22 label themselves “gamers.” So, there is common ground although not similarly interpreted and experienced.

Gaming Center

This is the location of the developing experiment. It is the ALT Lab gaming center. It has multiple game systems, web access, stadium seating, surround sound and a huge screen that can be sectioned out into four quadrants. What you see here is an orientation to the gaming area by a VCU student who is demonstrating various games.

As I sat there, watching this student play games I wondered how we could substantively integrate this space in our classroom instruction. A question emerged: Why not have the “gamers” in my class narrate their thinking as they play the game? We could then use these narratives as examples to better understand, develop and interface with The Backpack in our course. That’s the goal: to make the use of our class constructed visible thinking journal more meaningful by creating a more intuitive connection through direct and shared experiences. The games provide a fun and fairly intuitive means for practicing visible thinking.

I will elaborate on my method and the results in a later post, but let me say that the first student that participated in a trial run exceeded my expectations. We have some very exciting results emerging to this informal experiment.  My hope is that we can develop a more intuitive and meaningful understanding of the Grade profiles necessary for their end of the term arguments for a final mark.

So, what started as feelings of discomfort and small levels of anxiety have morphed into excitement, anticipation, and curiosity. What were some consequences? Let’s just say that I started playing some simple video games and watching youtube videos of gamers. Here is one of my favorites, which is very popular (beware there is profanity, but it’s understandable due to the investment):  World of Warcraft and the now famous Leroy Jenkins video.

I’d love to break down the thinking embedded in this video, but this post is getting rather long. Notice how the players have distributed power, authority, and responsibilities, how they strategize, and how they have learned from past mistakes/trials. Notice the range of emotions when Leroy doesn’t follow the group’s plan. These people are playing remotely from various locations, so the coordination alone explains the frustrations. In any case, this isn’t a model of what we’re trying to do in class, but it is an example of a way students can begin to think about their thinking.