Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Four)

I have been serializing in this blog the white paper I wrote for the MacArthur Foundation on youth, learning, and participatory culture. If you want to read the whole report, you can find it here.

My collaborators on this report were Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison.

Yesterday, I began to identify some of the core social skills and cultural competencies that we think should be embedded in contemporary educational practices. These skills reflect the best contemporary research on the informal learning which is taking place as young people assume roles as fans, gamers, and bloggers. Yesterday, we spoke about Play and Simulation; today, we will discuss Performance, Appropriation, and Multitasking.

I am hoping that if you are enjoying reading this discussion, you will bring it to the attention of parents, teachers, church leaders, librarians, and others who regularly interact with young people. We would very much like to use this report to open up discussions about the place of media in young people’s lives. Yet, we want to have a discussion which is not led by our fears and anxieties about what media is doing to our children but rather one that reflects our best research into what our children are doing with media.


Performance– the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery.

So far, we have focused on game play as a mode of problem solving which involves modeling the world and acting upon those models. Yet, game play also is one of a range of contemporary forms of youth popular culture which encourage young people to perform fictive identities and in this process, develop a richer understanding of themselves and their social roles. In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee coins the term, “projective identity” to refer to the fusion that takes place between game players and their avatars. Gee sees the term as playing on two senses of the word, “project”: “to project one’s values and desires onto the virtual character” and “seeing the virtual character as one’s own project in the making”. This projected identity allows the player to strongly identify with her character and thus have an immersive experience within the game and at the same time, to use the character as a mirror to reflect on her own values and choices.

Testing the educational video game Revolution with middle school students, Russell Francis found a number of compelling examples where projected identities had pedagogical payoffs for participants. For example, Margaret, a girl who played a loyalist character in the game which was set in Colonial Williamsburg on the eve of the American Revolution, was shaken when she was shot by the redcoats in the midst of a street riot:

“The towns people were very mad. They went to the Governor’s mansion to attack. I support the red coats, but they started shooting at me, and then they arrested me. I felt horrified that they would do something like that to me. I don’t even believe in violence. I wonder what is going to happen to me. I run the tavern and I have no family. Will I get sent back to England or will I be able to stay here?

” She had seen herself as a supporter of the British troops, at worst an innocent bystander, but she came away from the experience with critical insights about political violence.

Francis built on this process of introspection and projection by asking students to write journals or compose short films reflecting in character on the events that unfolded in the game. In constructing and inhabiting these virtual characters, participants drew together multiple sources of knowledge, mixing things they had read or learned in other educational contexts, information explicitly contained within the game, and their own introspection based on life experiences to create characters that were more compelling to them than the simple digital avatars the designers had constructed. One can think of the process as closely paralleling what actors do when preparing to play a role. Here, for example, is how a young African-American girl explained her experiences in playing Hanmah, a house slave (an explanation which reaches well beyond anything explicitly present in the games and even invents actions for the non-player characters in order to help her make sense of her place in the social order being depicted):

“You don’t really have as much support as you would like because being a house slave they call you names, just because most of the time you’re lighter skin — you’re the master’s kid technically…I had to find the ways to get by because, you know, it was hard. On one side you don’t want to get on the Master’s bad side because he can beat you. On the other side the slaves they ridicule you and are being mean.”

Children acquire basic literacies and competencies through learning to manipulate core cultural materials. In The Braid of Literature: Children’s World of Reading, Shelby Anne Wolf and Shirley Brice Heath trace the forms of play which shaped Wolf’s two preschooler daughters’ relationship to the “world of words” and stories. Wolf and Heath are interested in how children embody the characters, situations, generic rules, even specific turns of phrase, through their socio-linquistic play. Children do not simply read books or listen to stories; they re-enact these narratives in ways that transform them and in this process, the authors argue, children demonstrate they really understand what they have read.This play helps them to navigate the world of stories and at the same time, elements of stories help them to navigate real world social situations. Children learn to verbalize their experiences of reading through these performances and in the process, develop an analytic framework for thinking about literacy. Anne Haas Dyson’s Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy extends this analysis of the connection between performance and literacy into the classroom, exploring how educators have used dramatizations to teach children to reflect more deeply on their experiences of stories. Wolf and Heath describe individualized play in the context of the home; Dyson recounts social play among peers. In both cases, children start with a shared frame of reference — stories they have in common, genres they all understand — so that they understand the roles they are to play and the rules of their interaction. Performing these shared fantasies (such as the scenarios which emerge in superhero comics) allows children to better understand who they are and how they connect with the other people around them.

Role play is a persistent interest among contemporary youth whether we are looking at the coplay of young anime fans, the role play that takes place around Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic or Hero Clips, the fusion with a digital avatar through computer gaming or fantasy role playing, or the construction of alternative personas in sub cultural communities like the Goths. Such play has long been read as testing identities, trying on possible selves, and exploring different social spaces. Susannah Stern has stressed the forms of self-representation which occur on teenagers websites and blogs: “the ability to repeatedly reinvent oneself is particularly appealing since home pages and blogs can be updated as often as desired and because they may be produced anonymously”.

These more elaborated and complex forms of role-play may also provide a point of entry into larger spheres of knowledge. Consider, for example, this interview Comparative Media Studies graduate student Vanessa Bertozzi did with a 17 year old American girl named Chloe Metcalf: “

I have been really interested in Japanese culture since I was in sixth grade. When I was in the seventh grade, I started studying Japanese on my own. When I got into high school, I started taking Japanese courses at Smith College. I got into costuming through anime which is actually how I got interested in Japanese. And I taught myself how to sew. …I’m a stage hog. I like to get attention and recognition. I love acting and theater. The biggest payoff of cosplay is to go to the conventions where there are other people who know who you are dressed as and can appreciate your effort. At the first convention I ever went to, I must have had fifty people take my picture and at least ten of them came up and hugged me. It’s almost like whoever you dress up as, you become that person for a day….People put the pictures up on their websites after the con. So after a con, you can search for pictures of yourself and if you are lucky, you will find five or ten”

For Chloe, assuming the role of a Jpop character demonstrated her mastery over favorite texts. Assuming this new identity requires a close analysis of the originating texts, its genre conventions, its social roles, its linguistic codes, and so forth. She has to go deep inside the story in order to find her own place within its world. In this case, she also has to step outside the culture that immediately surrounds her to embrace a text from a radically different cultural tradition. She has sought out more and more information about forms of Asian popular culture. And in the process, she has begun to re-imagine her relations to the world — as part of an international fan culture which remains deeply rooted in the everyday life of Japan. This search for more information expresses itself across a range of media – the videos or DVDs she watches of Japanese produced anime, the recordings of JPop music which may consumed on MP3 or on CD, the information she finds on the internet as well as information she shares with her fellow fans about her own activities, the physical costumes she generates as well as all of the photographs that get taken of her costumes, the magazines and comics she reads to learn more about Japanese popular culture, her face to face contacts with fellow fans. These activities around popular culture in turn translate into other kinds of learning. As a middle school student Chloe began to study Japanese language and culture first on her own and later at a local college.

Role play, in particular, should be seen as a fundamental skill used across multiple academic domains. So far, we have suggested its relevance to history, language arts, and cultural geography. Yet, this only scratches the surface. Whether it be children on a playground acting out and deciphering the complex universe of Pokémon,Orville Wright pretending to be a buzzard gliding over sand dunes, or Einstein imagining himself to be a photon speeding over the earth — role playing enables us to envision and collaboratively theorize about manipulations of entirely new worlds. Consider, for example, the way role-play informs contemporary design processes. Increasingly designers construct personae of would-be users, who can serve to illustrate different contexts of use or different interests in the product. These personae are then inserted into fictional scenarios so that designers can mentally test the viability of their designs and its ability to serve diverse needs. In some cases, this process also involves the designers themselves acting out the different roles and thereby, identifying the strengths and limits of their approaches. Improvisational performance, then, represents an important life skill, one which balances problem solving and creative expression, one which invites us to reimagine ourselves and the world and allows participants to examine a problem from multiple perspectives.

Educators have for too long treated role play as a means to an end — a fun way to introduce other kinds of content — yet we are arguing here that role play skills may be valuable in their own right and are increasingly central to the way adult institutions function. Performance brings with it capacities to understand problems from multiple points of view, to assimilate information, to exert mastery over core cultural materials, and to improvise in response to a changing environment. As with play and simulation, performance places a new stress on learning processes — on how we learn more than what we learn. These learning processes are apt to sustain growth and learning well beyond the school years.

What Might Be Done:

Performance enters into education when students are asked to adopt fictive identities and think through scenarios from their perspective. These identities may be assumed within the physical world or the virtual world.

*The Model United Nations, a well-established educational project, brings together students from many different schools, each representing delegations from different member countries. Over the course of a weekend, participants work through current debates in foreign policy and simulate the actual procedures and policies of the international organization. Students prepare for the Model United Nations by doing library research, listening to lectures, and participating in group discussions and they return from the event to share what they learned with other classmates through presentations and written reports.

*The Savannah Project, created by researchers at the University of Bristol, has children playing the parts of lions stalking their prey in physical spaces, such as the school playground, but reading them through fictional data provided on handheld devices. This approach encourages students to master the complex ecosystem of the veldt from the inside out — learning the conditions which impinge upon the lion’s chances of survival and the skills they need in order to feed on other local wildlife.

*Teachers in a range of subjects can deploy what David Shaffer calls “epistemic games.” In an epistemic game, the game world is designed to simulate the social context of a profession (say, urban planning), and by working through realistic but simulated problems players learn the ways of acting, interacting, and interpreting that are necessary for participating in the professional community. In effect, rather than memorizing facts or formulas, through performances of being an urban planner, lawyer, doctor, engineer, carpenter, historian, teacher, or physicist the player learns the particular ways of thinking of these professions.

*Medieval Space, a MySpace clone created by teachers at Byrd Middle school, asked students to create online profiles for the various historical figures studied in their classes. Rather than seeing figures such as Richard III, Henry VI and Queen Elizbeth as distinct characters, students explored the complex social relationships between them by imagining how they might have interacted if they had online spaces in the 15th century. For example, students were asked to imagine what their character’s current song might be, with as 2Pac’s “Only God Can Judge Me Now” listed for Richard III.

Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content

Journalists have frequently used the term “Napster generation” to describe the young people who have come of age in this era of participatory culture, reducing their complex forms of appropriation and transformation into the simple, arguably illegal action of ripping and burning someone else’s music for the purpose of file sharing. Recall that the Pew study cited earlier found that almost a quarter of American teens had sampled and remixed existing media content. The digital remixing of media content makes visible the degree to which all cultural expression builds upon what has come before. Appropriation is understood here as a process by which students learn by taking culture apart and putting it back together again.

Art doesn’t emerge whole cloth from individual imaginations. Rather, art emerges through the artist’s engagement with previous cultural materials. Artists build on, take inspiration from, appropriate and transform other artist’s work: they do so by tapping into a cultural tradition or deploying the conventions of a particular genre. Beginning artists undergo an apprenticeship phase during which they try on for size the styles and techniques of other more established artists. And even well established artists work with images and themes that already have some currency within the culture. Of course, this isn’t generally the way we talk about creativity in schools, where the tendency is still to focus on individual artists who rise upon or stand outside any aesthetic tradition.

Our focus on autonomous creative expression falsifies the actual process by which meaning gets generated and new works get produced. Most of the classics we teach in the schools are themselves the product of appropriation and transformation or what we would now call sampling and remixing. So Homer remixed Greek myths to construct The Iliad and the Odyssey; Shakespeare sampled his plots and characters from other authors’ plays; The Sistine Chapel Ceiling mashes up stories and images from across the entire Biblical tradition. Lewis Carroll spoofs the vocabulary of exemplary verses which were a standard part of formal education during his period. Many core works of the western canon emerged through a process of retelling and elaboration: the figure of King Arthur goes from an obscure footnote in an early chronicle into the full blown text of Morte D’Arthur in a few centuries, as the original story gets built upon by many generations of storytellers.

Many of the forms of expression that are most important to American youth accent this sampling and remixing process, in part because digitization makes it much easier to combine and repurpose media content than ever before. Jazz, for example, evolved through improvisation around familiar themes and standard songs, yet the digital remixing of actual sounds which occurs in techno or hip hop music has raised much greater alarm among those who would insist on strong protections of copyright. Fan fiction clearly involves the transformative use of existing media content, yet it is often treated as if it were simply a new form of piracy. Collage has been a central artistic practice running across the 20th century, one closely associated with the kinds of new creative works that kids are generating manipulating images through Photoshop. Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet in doing so they sacrifice the opportunity to help kids think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content; they often do not provide them with the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process.

Appropriation may be understood as a process which involves both analysis and commentary. Sampling intelligently from the existing cultural reservoir requires a close analysis of the existing structures and uses of this material; remixing requires an appreciation of emerging structures and latent potential meanings. Often, remixing involves the creative juxtaposition of materials which otherwise occupy very different cultural niches. For beginning creators, appropriation provides a scaffolding, allowing them to focus on some dimensions of cultural production and rely on the existing materials to sustain others. They are, say, able to focus more attention on description or exposition if they can build on existing characters and plots. They learn how to capture the voice of a character by trying to mix borrowed dialog with their own words. Mapping their emotional issues onto preexisting characters allowed the young writers to reflect on their own lives from a certain critical distance and work through issues, such as their emerging sexualities, without facing the stigma which might surround confessing such feelings through autobiographical essays. These students learn to use small details in the original works as probes for their own imagination, overcoming some of the anxiety of staring at a blank computer screen. Building on existing stories attracts wider interest in their work, allowing it to circulate far beyond the community of family and friends. In turn, because they are working with a shared narrative and many others have stakes in what happens to these characters, they receive more feedback on their writing.

Classically, engineers learn by taking machines apart and reassembling them, acquiring in the process familiarity with core processes and materials and with an underlying logic that will shape their future construction projects. Appropriation represents this same learning process applied to cultural rather than technological materials. In a world where creativity is often expressed through sampling and remixing, schools need to make their peace with these creative and highly generative processes: they need to help students to better understand the poetics and politics of remixing, to understand how artists draw inspiration from their tradition and what ethical responsibilities they bear in their treatment of materials that others have generated.

What Might Be Done:

Appropriation enters education when learners are encouraged to dissect, transform, sample, or remix existing cultural materials.

*The MIT Comparative Media Studies Program runs a workshop each year, asking students to work in teams to think through what would be involved in transforming an existing media property (a book, film, television series, or comic book) into a video or computer game and then preparing a “pitch” presentation for their game: starting from a preexisting property allows students to get started quickly and more or less on equal footing since they are able to build on a text they have in common as readers rather than one created by an individual student author; the process of identifying core properties of the original work teaches students important skills at narrative and formal analysis while the development of an alternative version of the story in another medium emphasizes the creative expansion of the original content.

*The crew of Public Radio International’s program, Sound & Spirit, has gone into schools around Boston, encouraging students to develop scripts and to record radio broadcasts which involve critical commentary around existing songs to explore a common theme or topic. They have found that this process of sampling and remixing music motivates kids to think more deeply about the sounds they hear around them and motivates them to approach school related topics from a fresh perspective.

*Artist and filmmaker Juan Devis , has been working with the University of Southern California Film School, the Institute for Media Literacy, and the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, on a project which will eventually have minority youth developing an online game based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Devis drew a number of strong parallels between the experiences of minority youth in LA and the world depicted in Twain’s novel — including parallels between “crews” of taggers and the gang of youth that surround Huck and Tom, the use of slang as a means of separating themselves out from their parents culture, the complex experience of race in a society undergoing social transitions, and the sense of mobility and “escape” from adult supervision.

*Ricardo Pitts-Wiley,the Artistic Director of Mixed Magic Theatre, has been working with students from Pawtucket (RI) area high schools to develop what he calls his “urban Moby Dick” project. Students worked closely with mentors — artists, law enforcement officers, business leaders, from the local community — to explore Herman Melville’s classic novel together. Through a process of reading, discussion, improvisation, and writing, they are scripting and staging a modern version of the classic whaling story, one that acknowledges the realities of contemporary urban America. In their version, the “Great White” turns out not to be a whale but the international drug cartel. Ish and Quay are two members of Ahab’s posse as he goes after the vicious force which took his leg and killed his wife. Through re-imagining and reworking Melville’s story, they come to a deeper understanding of the relationships between the characters and of some of the core themes about male bonding and obsession which run through the book.

*Renee Hobbs, a 20-year veteran of the media literacy movement, recently launched a new website — My Pop Studio — which encourages young middle school and early high school aged girls to reflect more deeply about some of the media they consume — pop music, reality television, celebrity magazines, and the like — by stepping into the roles of media producers. The site offers a range of engaging activities — including designing your own animated pop star and scripting their next sensation, re-editing footage for a reality television show, designing the layout for a teen magazine. Along the way, they are asked to reflect on the messages the media offers about what it is like to be a teen girl in America today and to think about the economic factors shaping the culture that has become so much a part of their everyday interactions with their friends.

Multitasking– the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus onto salient details on an ad hoc basis.

Perhaps one of the changes most alarming to many adults about the new media landscape has been the perceived decline in young people’s attention spans. Attention is undoubtedly an important cognitive ability: all information to be processed by our brains needs to be temporarily held in short-term memory and the capacity of our short-term memory is sharply limited. Attention is critical: learners need to filter out extraneous information that is not relevant to the task at hand and sharpen their focus on the most salient details of their environment. Instead of focusing on narrowing attention, young people often respond to a rich media environment through a strategy of multitasking, scanning for relevant shifts in the information flow while taking in multiple stimuli at once. Multitasking and attention should not be seen as oppositional forces — rather, we should think of them as two complementary skills, both strategically employed by the brain in order to intelligently manage constraints on short-term memory. Whereas attention seeks to prevent information overload by controlling what information enters short-term memory, successful multitaskers seek to reduce demands on short-term memory by mapping where different information is externally stored within their immediate environment.

In Growing up Digital, John Seely Brown (2002) describes an encounter he had:

Recently I was with a young twenty- something who had actually wired a Web browser into his eyeglasses. As he talked with me, he had his left hand in his pocket to cord in keystrokes to bring up my Web page and read about me, all the while carrying on with his part of the conversation! I was astonished that he could do all this in parallel and so unobtrusively.

People my age tend to think that kids who are multiprocessing can’t be concentrating. That may not be true. Indeed, one of the things we noticed is that the attention span of the teens at PARC–often between 30 seconds and five minutes–parallels that of top managers, who operate in a world of fast context-switching. So the short attention spans of today’s kids may turn out to be far from dysfunctional for future work worlds.

Right now, young people are playing with these skills as they engage with games or social activities which reward the ability to maintain a mental picture of complex sets of relationships and to adjust quickly to shifts in perceptual cues. We can already see the multitasking process being applied to news and information, embodied within the “scrawl” of contemporary television news: the screen is organized around a series of information surfaces, each contains a relevant bit of data, none of which offers the complete picture. Our eyes scan across electoral maps and ticker tapes, moving images and headlines, trying to complete a coherent picture of the day’s events, and to understand the relationship between the data inputs. Similarly, as Gunther Kress notes, the contemporary textbook is increasingly deploying a broader array of different modalities as it represents information students need to know about a given topic: here, again, readers are being taught to scan the informational environment rather than fix attention on a single element.

Historically, we might have distinguished between the skills required of farmers and those expected of hunters. The farmer must complete a sequence of tasks which require localized attention; the hunter must scan a complex landscape in search of signs and cues of where their prey may be hiding. For centuries schools have been designed to create “farmers” . In such an organization, the ideal is to have all students focusing on one thing, and, indeed, attention is conceived of as the ability to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time while the inability or refusal to maintain such a narrow focus gets characterized as a “disorder.” Yet, fixed attention would be maladjusted to the needs of hunters, who must search high and low for their game. Schools adapted to the needs of hunters would have very different practices and might well value the ability to identify the relationship between seemingly unrelated developments within a complex visual field. As we look to the future, one possibility is that schools will be designed to support both “hunters” and “farmers,” ensuring that each child develops multiple modes of learning, multiple strategies for processing information. In such a world, neither attentional style is viewed as superior but both are assessed in terms of their relative value within a given context.

Multitasking often gets confused with distraction but as understood here, multitasking involves a way of monitoring and responding to the sea of information around us. Students need help distinguishing between being off task and handling multiple tasks at the same time. They need to acquire skills in recognizing the relationship between information coming at them from multiple directions at the same time and they need to acquire skills at making reasonable hypothesis and models based on partial, fragmented, or intermittent information (all part of the world they will confront in the workplace). They need to know when and how to pay close attention to a specific input as well as when and how to scan the environment searching for meaningful data.

What Might Be Done:

Multitasking enters pedagogical practice when teachers recognize the desires of contemporary students to come at topics from multiple directions all at the same time or to maintain what some have called “continuous partial attention,” interacting with homework materials while engaged in other activities.

*A teacher’s assistant blogs in real time in response to the classroom instructor’s lectures, directing student’s attentions to relevant links that illustrate and enhance the content being discussed, rather than providing distractions from the core activity. Students are encouraged to draw on this related material as they engage in classroom discussion, grounding their comments in specific examples and quotations from relevant documents.

*At the Brearley School in Manhattan, foreign language class materials are transferred directly from the school’s servers to student’s iPods. Rather than needing to set aside dedicated study time to practice a foreign language, this allows students to access their homework and foreign songs while walking home from classes or while engaging in other activities (Glassman, 2004).

*The online game cybernations.net, a simulation game that lets players learn about nation building and international diplomacy, breaks player actions down into distinct choices that can be made at the player’s own pace. This encourages players to keep a browser window open to periodically check in on updates from their nation throughout the day while working on other tasks, rather than playing the game only during a dedicated play time. Homework assignments in the form of online games could be designed in a similar manner to facilitate patterns of multitasking.