Serious games

When small children `play', it may look like an exercise in chaos. But look closely, and you'll see complex patterns, patterns which, says Gunther Kress, provide an ideal model for education in the new world of information
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When did you last observe a group of three- or four-year-olds at play? Next time you do, pretend you need another cup of coffee so that you can stay in the kitchen, watching; or plump the cushions in the sitting- room. But do hang around, and watch. What you'll see is concentration, absorption in a game, perhaps drawing or cutting out, pasting and sticking, or building on the floor. You might notice that the room has been transformed: a dining room minutely constructed in that corner; here a bedroom; there the kitchen: all meticulously laid-out. The play, you will observe, is rigorously planned; the minutest detail reflects the interests of the makers.

What you observe may be play to us, the adults. The micro-structures may look, from our distant perspective, like so much junk on the floor, to be swept away by the next peremptory "Clear up that mess in the living room". From another perspective these are designs of the greatest seriousness. The objects made for a game of shops encapsulate childish conceptions of the world of the high street - pressed through the filter of their interests. The objects reflect the detail of a child's perceptual and affective engagement with its world: a recorder fashioned from rolled- up paper, carefully stuck with sticky-tape, the finger holes neatly drawn; a necklace crafted from old bits of coloured wool and silvered paper. This is a world of three- and four-dimension design, of precise and full communication.

Children's "play" rehearses the new world of multi-media communication. It is more densely textured than any CD-Rom: sound, colour, image, movement, speech, writing are integrated in complex spatio-temporal configurations. Its design aspects are closer to the world of Windows than to that of traditional narrative. Its informational arrangements anticipate those of the coming knowledge-based economies.

Where we have to make heroic efforts is in getting ourselves to believe that these are precise and intentional representations of the children's interests. Attributing intentionality and design to three- and four-year- olds requires a new and steady confidence on our part.

At the moment there is little connection between this astonishingly precise competence, the constant interested transformations of the world, and what happens in schools when children get there. And there, in a nutshell, is the problem. It is essential that we should make that connection. Look at any bit of your communicational world, from newspapers to the supermarket. That world communicates in forms which integrate image, writing, texture, colour, shape. Defer disdain for one moment and accept that you are a witness to the most profound revolution in communication in 500 years. Then ask how the 19th-century literacy curricula which shaped our education can possibly give children the skills they will need in their working lives, 10, 15 years down the track?

If you were to derive a theory of literacy from what children do before they come to school, it would be entirely out of tune with ideas now dominant in the public arena of political debate. Their theory would stress communication through a plethora of forms and materials; it would stress agency and interest in their making of their messages; it would not focus on norms and convention but would lay stress on constant remaking. Above all, it would stress the unbroken links of affect and cognition, of pleasure and work; in all likelihood it would not recognise these distinctions.

But while children's theories of communication are out of tune with the current public common sense, they are absolutely in tune with the likely cultural and economic demands of the next decades. The landscape of communication is changing in ways which leave presently dominant notions of literacy simply inadequate. Writing is being changed in fundamental ways by electronic technologies; it is being pushed off the front pages of tabloid newspapers by the advance of the visual; neither boardroom presentations nor lectures in a university can now happen without visual display.

Language and image approach the world in a deeply different fashion. The temporal/sequential medium of speech asks "what events are going on, and in what sequence?"; the visual asks "what are the most significant elements in my visual field, and how are they related?" Speech is time- based and sequential; it leads readily to narrative and to ideas of causation; the visual is spatial and simultaneous, and leads readily to spatially integrated displays.

The pages of new science textbooks show these changes. Thirty to 40 years ago these were written objects; now they are predominantly visual. Then language carried all the information of the science syllabus; now the task is divided: language points, retells, instructs; images convey the core information of the curriculum. The images show what a circuit is; that information is nowhere expressed in language.

To get a sense of the changes in writing look first at this sentence, from a textbook published in 1936: "When a current is passed through a coil in the direction indicated in the figure, we can show, by applying Fleming's left-hand rule, that the left-hand side of the coil will tend to move down and the right-hand side to move up." This is a complex sentence, consisting of seven simple sentences ("a current is passed through a coil", "the direction is indicated by Fleming's left-hand rule", etc). It makes two specific cognitive demands of the reader. One is to grasp the complex relationship between the seven (simple sentence) propositions compressed into this one large sentence; the other is the ability to treat this complex unit as one conceptual entity. Now look at the sentences from the 1988 example. "In your first circuits you used torch bulbs joined with wires. Modern electrical equipment uses the same basic ideas." These sentences are much, much simpler; a simplicity which is one factor that lies behind much of the panic about "standards".

But that is not the point. The new communicational world is one where writing and images go together, in a new code in which each does specialised tasks. What follows from this is a renewed, more intense interest in writing, in its strengths and its limitations compared to images, for instance. This deepened interest is essential as writing is likely to remain the central mode of communication for the elites in our societies. Equity demands that schools provide full access to the forms of communication of all groups, for all groups. But the renewed interest in writing must be fully aware of its newly evolving place as one of the central modes, no longer as the central mode.

Different forms of expression open up different sensory engagements with the world; and these give rise to profoundly differing forms of thinking and feeling. Our single concern with writing has neglected many of these resources.

We have to rethink. If we are to prosper economically and culturally, we will have to make the fullest use of all these; the new forms of communication demand that. Our present understandings of literacy simply won't do. The time has come for us to summon our courage and resolutely help the young develop a new path. It is already marked out, if we have eyes to seen

The writer is Professor of English and Education at the Institute of Education,University of London. He is author of the recent "Before Writing. Rethinking the paths to literacy." (Routledge: Education/Linguistics) He is currently working on an ESRC-funded project "Visual Communication in the Science Classroom" with John Osborne, Professor of Science Education at the Institute.