Forum looks at relationship

by Stacy Jo

The root of all learning can be found in language.
This idea was presented to a group of nearly 60 people in a forum entitled “Why Writing and Reading Are Hard” by Dr. James Paul Gee at the Weisman Art Museum Wednesday.
The forum was co-sponsored by the Weisman Art Museum and General College’s Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy. It was the second annual research forum to attract a nationally-known speaker.
“People can connect here and find out what they have in common,” said graduate student Dana Lundell, who coordinated the event.
Gee, a Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke about the key role of language in the learning process.
Gee told the crowd — predominantly instructors — that the conditions for real learning are not often found in school classrooms.
He introduced five learning principles that underscore the connection between language and learning: language design resources, social language, discourse, situated meanings and cultural models.
Language design resources are the structures that allow individuals to make meaning and engage in activities. Gee said people frequently ignore this feature of language.
He made the comparison that while architects see a building for its structure, others simply walk through it without taking notice of structural specifics. In order to be successful at learning, Gee said, it is necessary to become conscious of the structure of language.
The social language principle implies that any type of learning involves being aware of specific social languages. These languages not only include spoken words, but gestures, body language and attitudes.
“Language is like sticky glue: It always comes with a lot of other stuff,” Gee said.
Similarly, the discourse principle identifies how an individual thinks, acts and feels. Primary discourses begin within a family setting. Secondary discourses develop in more specific settings as individuals branch out into career and social niches.
The situated meanings principle states that words alone have no meaning. In different contexts, the same words can have various meanings. The only way to discover these meanings, Gee said, is through practice.
“Words are an assembly kit and you assemble the meaning on site,” Gee said.
Carol Berkenkotter, a visiting professor in the Department of Rhetoric, said the ideas Gee introduced could enhance her own teaching methods.
“What he was saying was very real, tangible and concrete,” Berkenkotter said.