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Teaching, Learning, Literacy in our High-Risk High-Tech World

reviewed by Megan Adams - October 04, 2017

coverTitle: Teaching, Learning, Literacy in our High-Risk High-Tech World
Author(s): James Paul Gee
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758604, Pages: 192, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Amidst a growing need for culturally aware teachers and teacher education programs, professional development for cultural relevance is critical (Delpit, 2012; Ladson-Billings, 1999). However, professional development and teacher education have been criticized for being too reactionary; the need to fulfill policy and prepare for high stakes testing supersedes the demand for culturally relevant teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1999). In his new text, James Gee delves into how society might possibly move towards understanding the whole child, a key component of cultural relevance.

James Gee's newest book, Teaching, Learning, and Literacy in Our High-Risk High-Tech World (2017) moves beyond a focus on language or literacy and instead looks across various human components into the process of being human. He argues that combining silos such as language, literacy, speech, society, media, and text forms the interactive process of being human. He emphasizes that the process of humanity is cyclical and iterative: we begin with being, move to doing, progress to knowing, find motivation and thus are becoming, with a return to being through various identities. While the ideas of identity, being, and how language, literacy, and media interact with those concepts are not new to Gee, in Teaching, Learning, and Literacy he merges previous arguments into a cohesive text on the psychological, neurological, and sociological elements of human development.

The book begins with the human experience, including how humans experience things differently from other sentient and non-sentient beings, moves from experience to identity in various forms, and finally looks at how affinity connects us sociologically to create an interactive system of being, knowing, and becoming. Gee argues that "being" is the place we return to throughout the processes of memory, identity formation, identity reconstruction, and connecting with others to continue the process. The argument that language and literacy are integral parts of human development is central to his claims throughout the text.

To emphasize the importance of understanding human development, Gee points out that in the age of relativism, we must not fail to act. There are choices that must be made for children too young to make decisions on their own. Gee argues that while we may debate our choices and strive to continuously make better ones, we must act at home and in school in children’s best interest. This gives the text urgency, and calls readers to move beyond the theoretical and understand how development theory must also be a call to action.

Following several chapters explaining language and its impact on identity formations, Gee begins to shift his argument to how shared identities may be beneficial in today's society. In Chapters Six and Seven, he describes how identities inside and beyond school are utilized in assessing zones of proximal development. Indeed, he argues that through distributed teaching and learning systems, there is an opportunity for any participant to teach or learn using various platforms. This allows "school" and "learning" to take on very different meanings.

Gee then uses Chapters Eight through Eleven to further what he has previously defined as affinity identity (Gee & Green, 1998; Gee, 2001). He begins by describing the Pareto Principle in order to describe how groups function in society; he insists this foundation is critical in accepting that there is wisdom in the collective. The Pareto Principle is based upon an 80-20 premise that he explains in detail. The comparison in academia is that 20% of academics produce 80% of the publications. Among that 20% producing those publications, 20% produce the topmost publications. This premise is important in thinking through crowd mentality and power in the United States. For example, if only 20% of the people control 80% of the wealth, how can the other 80% of the population come together to enact change? In schools, the reality of his implication is much more severe. If 20% of the students in the school have access to the best teachers, the best curriculum, and therefore the most opportunities, what are teachers doing about the remaining 80%?

Following this explanation, Gee explores how crowd mentality can be helpful and how social media is now involved in crowd mentality. Given the current political context, this emphasis on the power of social media and the Internet is incredibly timely. Tapping into the collective thinking of a group provides insight into how its members will behave in various situations. This leads directly to an expanded conversation on the power of affinity groups.

Chapter Eleven, also on affinity spaces, is quite novel. While Gee uses Chapter Ten to describe somewhat traditional affinity spaces (church, gaming), he uses Chapter Eleven to describe digital affinity spaces that will soon require digital architects. The primary argument here is an important one for education. As increasingly students require online options for learning, where are digital schools that show an emphasis on equity and justice? Where are the architects needed to create schools without walls that are truly inclusive of all students?

Chapter Thirteen is perhaps the most important chapter in this text. In it, Gee describes an incident where different – even competing – frameworks kept two groups from coming to a consensus. In his example, faculty from the local university were using one framework during discussions, while teachers in the community were using another. It became clear that there were tensions. Eventually, a comparison of the language being used by each group revealed that the frameworks, while different, were really more similar than either group realized. This is something incredibly important in successful collaboration in any capacity. Gee indicates here that defining frameworks through reflexivity is a key scaffold in order to really engage in critical inquiry and discussion. Another implication here is that a shared glossary of terms or an explication of the framework each "team" is using is an important piece of building the "goodwill" Gee says is necessary for groups to successfully collaborate.

Gee concludes the text by reminding us that it is not about educational policy, though it must discuss politics as part of the human experience. He says that this book is about human development, and the possibilities of treating schools as places for children rather than politically-influenced institutions. Education can be a political act, but does it have to be? There is a helpful list of bulleted tips, not only for teachers, but also for citizens on how to begin enacting change.

This text is optimistic in the possibilities for education. It explores human development chronologically, moving readers through chapters on what makes us human as well as the schooling experience throughout the development of our identities. While the reader is, at times, left feeling that there is much to do and perhaps needing more tools to accomplish these goals, the text does what it seems Gee set out to do. This text is a reminder that action and understanding are needed to begin the work of enacting change in schools. The need for equity and justice in education, perhaps founded on an understanding of human development, are greater than ever. Finally, the text is a reminder of the possibility the "new" technological spaces hold for a completely new way of thinking about teaching and learning.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). Teacher education and the American future. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), 35–47.

Delpit, L. D. (2012). "Multiplication is for white people": Raising expectations for other people's children. New York, NY: The New Press.

Gee, J. P. and Green, J. L. (1998). Discourse analysis, learning, and social practice: A methodological study. Review of Research in Education, 23(1), 119–169.

Gee, J. P. (2001). Reading as situated language: A sociocognitive perspective. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44(8), 714–725.

Ladson-Billings, G. J. (1999). Preparing teachers for diverse student populations: A critical race theory perspective. Review of Research in Education, 24(1), 211–247.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 04, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22184, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 2:58:47 AM

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About the Author
  • Megan Adams
    Kennesaw State University
    E-mail Author
    MEGAN ADAMS, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Reading Education at Kennesaw State University. She has most recently published on instructor reflexivity (a scholarship of teaching and learning chapter) and diverse field experiences to foster efficacy in teacher candidates. Dr. Adams is currently a University System of Georgia SoTL Fellow working on SoTL to investigate the impact of program revision on graduate students' depth of knowledge.
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