Why Video Games Sustain Engagement: A Cage Match between Social Learning Theories

Brock Dubbels

The Center for Cognitive Sciences

Department of Curriculum & Instruction

The University of Minnesota

Abstract: Although games are seen as high interest activities, many children buy them, play them, and move on to another activity. This represents a challenge in creating instructional interventions to achieve an educational outcome or a training effect. This study was conducted to inform an after school program designed to deliver a training effect on female adolescent health. To investigate this, a small sample of young female experts were recruited and interviewed for rich phenomenological descriptions (van Manen, 2002) to examine the aspects engagement as described by (Chapman 2006) as informed through identity construction (Buckingham, 2007, Van Gennep, 1960; Turner, 1969). Interview transcripts were coded and analyzed using methods from discourse analysis (Gee, 1992, 1996, 1999; Fairclough, 2007) using themes from social learning theories such as Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1996), Affinity Groups (Gee, 2001), Positive Interdependence (Deutsch, 1962, Johnson & Johnson, 1989), and Self-Determination (Ryan and Deci, 2008). Implications of this study include understanding the importance of identity construction to motivate and sustain engagement in learning.

Key terms: Dance Dance Revolution, Phenomenology, Identity Construction, Self-Determination Theory, Affinity Groups, Motivation, Engagement, Social Learning, Instructional Design, Rites of Passage, Play, Games, Initiation, Semiotic Domains, Apprenticeship, Transformation.


Dubbels, B.R. (2010) Designing Learning Activities for Sustained Engagement — Four Social Learning Theories Coded and Folded into Principals for Instructional Design through Phenomenological Interview and Discourse Analysis. In Discoveries in Gaming Research. IGI Global Publishers.


This article seeks to understand what engages young people in learning, and what sustains their interest to continue. It was intended to explore the elements that inform the lived experience of a chosen play activity and examine the possible social learning theories that might inform it. Five social learning theories were examined to ground the aspects engagement as described by (Chapman 2006) and informed through social learning theories such as Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1996), Affinity Groups (Gee, 2001), Positive Interdependence (Deutsch, 1962, Johnson & Johnson, 1989), and Self-Determination (Ryan and Deci, 2008). Implications of this study include understanding the importance of identity construction to motivate and sustain engagement in learning (Buckingham, 2007, Van Gennep, 1960; Turner, 1969).

All of the theories listed above seek to explain the motivation behind learning as socially constructed and distributed phenomena; all seek to describe the process of identity construction as an impetus for situated learning.  The assumption in this study was that it is through the process of identity construction that engagement is sustained and supported through the process of group affiliation and is distributed through apprenticeship, modeling, and group interaction.

Social Learning Theory Scale/Application Author(s)
Engagement Aggregate Chapman, 2006
Communities of Practice Structural Social Wenger, 1996
Positive Interdependence Structural Social Deutsch, 1962, Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Johnson and Holubec, 1998),
Affinity Groups Structural Social Gee, 2001
Self-Determination Social Psychological Deci and Ryan, 2008


Identity construction may be an organizing principle in understanding motivation and engagement, and yet these social learning theories do not present themselves as descriptions of the identity construction process, but rather focus on structural factors in relationships Community (Wenger, 1998), (Deutsch, 1962, Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Johnson, Johnson and Holubec, 1998), Activity (Gee, 2001), and needs of the individual (Deci and Ryan, 2008) as organizing principles. For the purposes of this study, these theories were operationalized to provide insight for designing instructional environments that will motivate and sustain the engagement of the learner. It was predicted that identity construction would predict motivation and engagement. This prediction was based upon the recurrence of the theme throughout the social learning theories. The act of identity construction is an act of becoming, Not only do individuals construct a unique description of themselves as an identity, but it I also conferred upon them and reinforced through context, including age, personal history, relationships and history, location, and community status.

Identity construction rituals and rites of passage

Traditionally, communities gather to provide ceremony for initiation and status transition for such things as the celebration of status change from child to adult; initiation single people to married couple; and a multitude of culturally mediated roles, acknowledgement, and transitions. Although there may be many more transitions and ritual’s in today’s society because of the great variety of cultural subgroups, i.e. churches, car clubs, self-help groups like Alcoholic Anonymous, and hobby groups like The Peoples’ Revolutionary Knitting Circle, etc.; many of these groups traditionally necessitated face to face interaction, but with the internet and today’s computing power, these relations can be mediated digitally through portals such as Facebook, Xbox Live, Second Life, and other social networking tools.

The Dance Dance Revolution game club might be represented as a ritual rite of passage to understand how and why people build identities around their play, and sustain engagement to ultimately develop expertise.  Central to the rite of passage is the initiation ritual (Van Gennep, 1960), where new roles and status are conferred through public performance where play, the subjunctive mood (Turner, 1969), situates the activity, so that rules, roles, and consequences are suspended and participants can explore new identities, associated activities, and their semiotic domains and develop new status.

With this in mind, video games may represent new forms of the rite of passage and initiation ritual; games are structured activities that are valued by certain cultural sub-groups, represent expert systems that resemble apprenticeship activities, involve performance initiation, and with similar emphasis on what Sutton-Smith (1976) called the play ethos. The ethos is the context and purpose of the activity. It is as the expectation of consequence of an activity performed. It is the context where play is the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood observed in games and ritual are said to decontextualize the action and provide a suspension of rules, roles, and consequences found in ordinary life to allow for the exploration of new identities, rules, roles, actions, and social affiliations and status in a safe space.

Purpose of study

This interview was to inform design features to develop a program for pre-adolescent exercise with Dance Dance Revolution for the study of obesity reduction and increasing bone density. The study was also intended to get a sense of why a young woman sustained engagement with Dance Dance Revolution over three years to develop expertise, and how educators might replicate that kind of commitment to learning and practice.

Background of the study

Health care professionals have observed an increase in levels of childhood obesity. This increase has been attributed in large part to physical inactivity. Physical inactivity not only leads to obesity and poor cardiovascular health, it also has negative effects on bone health. Bones function to support a mechanical load (a force exerted by body weight, muscle, growth, or activity). Bone is constantly formed and reabsorbed throughout life in a generally balanced way. However, in a three- to four-year window during puberty, bone formation is accelerated. In that period, as much bone material is deposited as will be lost during a person’s entire adult life. During these pivotal years of bone development, physical activity is important for optimizing bone health, as it has been shown to reduce the incidence of fractures later in life.

Because it is difficult to motivate children to participate in the type of cardiovascular activities that adults engage in (running, cycling, aerobics), new strategies must be developed, and these may demand elements that             motivate the learner to sustain engagement over a longer period of time in order to promote and sustain life habits for physical conditioning.

Dance Dance Revolution is not your typical video game.

Dance Dance Revolution is a game that you set up with mats, a TV, a game console and a game disk and up to four people can play simultaneously (figure 1).  To play DDR, a participant responds to a series of directional arrows, (see figure 2) displayed on a video or TV screen to perform choreographed dance steps or hops synchronized to music. Song tempo and degree of difficulty increase as the player successfully progresses in the game. Because of the game’s popularity and its cardiovascular exercise and jumping (bone-building) components, it could represent an appealing model for reducing physical inactivity in children.

The video dance game Dance Dance Revolution may be a possible solution to increasing activity and mechanical load because of the amount of jumping activity, but the young person must be motivated to start, and engagement must be sustained for the activity to produce valid and reliable measures of obesity and bone density.

The issue under investigation is how to help young people start an activity and sustain it; the

simple answer to this was, seemingly, to make it fun; to make it a high-interest activity; but many toys, games, and activities are often tried once and then put aside. What came out of the interview was:

  • the importance of aligning the outcomes with a desirable activity,
  • the importance of group and environment to the construction of status and identity that makes belonging to a group desirable;
  • allow for status and relation for reinforcement;
  • the centrality of ritual and rites of passage in group performance,
  • autonomy supporting environments,
  • and again the importance of identity construction for transformation to instantiate sustained engagement conveyed through affiliation, apprenticeship, and expertise.

Interviewee/ informant

To explore this, we recruited Ellen as a DDR expert and possible employee to lead an after school program at one of our sites at the Minneapolis Public Schools. We had posted a hiring description for DDR experts and we had a number of responses; one respondent, Charles, shared that he had a lot of friends who were really good at DDR, and Ellen was listed as one of those people.  Ellen came into the lab to show us her DDR play, and we were impressed with her expertise.

What was interesting about Ellen was that she was not from a subversive or reactionary sub-culture. Ellen is part of one of the least studied cultural sub-group in schools (Buckingham, 2007)—an urban, middle class teen that is successful in school, is respectful to teachers, has a part-time job, plays varsity soccer, traveling band, is part of the International Baccalaureate Program, and has a satisfying home life.

These elements of her identity were surprising. We usually assume that video game players are a disenfranchised fringe group at school who do not engage with the typical academic fare. But Ellen was able to balance not only her academics and music instruction, work a part-time job, but also play sports and have friendships. These elements of balance were enticing and we wanted to know how she was doing it so that we might try and replicate not only the physical health benefits in our bone density study, but also some of the psycho-social and affective elements necessary for sustaining engagement (Chapman 2006) —she seemed like a great role model for creating a curriculum that would rely heavily on identity development and she was an intriguing informant to help us understand how play identities might lead to work habits to form healthy minds and bodies.

Methodology and review of literature

The question driving this investigation is “why did she sustain engagement in learning?”

According to Chapman (2006), engagement is more than behavioral time on task. When looking to measure growth or change, or even to understand whether a learner has truly engaged, an educator should also look for evidence of commitment and positive attitudes related to the activity and subject matter.

  • Engagement is not just doing the work, it is a connection and an affinity to an activity supported from the affective domains (Chapman, 2003).
  • Skinner & Belmont (1993, p.572) report that engaged learners show sustained behavioral involvement in learning activities accompanied by a positive emotional tone and select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration.
  • Pintrich and & De Groot (1990, in Chapman) see engagement as having observable cognitive components that can be seen or elicited through exploring the learner’s use of strategy, metacognition, and self-regulatory behavior to monitor and guide the learning processes.


These attributes do not magically appear in an activity because a student is told that it is good for them, and that they should commit to their betterment; Least likely is that they do it because we threaten, or because just because we want them to. A student must make a choice to commit to an activity and have that commitment reaffirmed over time to sustain engagement. True engagement in an activity is in some sense transformative and resembles identity construction, in that it changes who we are through cognitive, affective, and behavioral elements; but it seems likely that without positive reinforcement (Skinner, 1938) the behavior may result in extinction and the game becomes another resident on the island of misfit toys.

Dance Dance Revolution is considered a high interest activity for many young people, and it does have a reward system that gives real time feedback on performance with rewards for successful play; but without aligning those rewards and achievement with social capital, they lack meaning and status, and the reinforcement system remains a token economy (Ferster and Skinner, 1957) whose tokens are unredeemable.  Since these flashing lights and high scores do not buy cars, cell phones and other tokens of esteem for young teens, it seems reasonable that gaining status and respect in a desirable community may provide the value that accompanies success and sustains engagement.

The work of Buckingham on identity development may provide some insight for connecting identity with purpose, motivation, and sustained engagement. Buckingham (2008, p. 3) states that:

Identity is developed by the individual, but it has to be recognized and

confirmed by others. Adolescence is also a period in which young people

negotiate their separation from their family, and develop independent

social competence (for example through participation in “cliques”  and

larger “crowds” of peers, who exert different kinds of influence).

Identity and status were traditionally conferred through rites of passage, and there may have been many culturally specific instances of these rites for different groups and related activities. Video games may represent a new wrinkle in the way that we enact and view rites of passage–games may offer a form of guided,  ritualized behavior for identity construction and group affiliation as an autonomy supporting environment (Ryan & Deci, 1999), Affinity Group (Gee, 2001), or Community of Practice (Wenger, 1998).

A rite of passage does not need to resemble the tribal practices that led to vision quests, ritual markings, or exodus. A rite of passage may be organized in three forms: the process of separation, transition, and integration, (Van Gennep, 1960), but all three of these rites may also be presented as single rite (Barnard and Spencer, 1996). What is important for Van Gennep is the idea of Liminality, or the threshold. In the context of Liminality, the activity space may be far removed from reality, and roles, rules, tools, values, and status may be situated in the flux of play as if a hybrid or interstitial space (Turner, 1969).  This concept of the threshold and liminality seems to validate Geertz (1972) and his description of the “Center Bet” in describing the ritual of Balinese Cockfighting and Benthams’ concept of Deep Play.  According to Turner (1969), there may be many rites of passage in a person’s life through sub-cultural affiliation (Cock Fighting, DDR, First Job) where identity and entitlement are inculcated through desire to become a respected an acknowledged group member, where they can share in and contribute to group activity, participate in group spaces, and publicly perform renewing and furthering status.

Since identity is conferred from others, there are factors that can identify a person as a group member and as having identity markings. For Gee (2001), the activity is primary and provides the motivation, the source of group membership and markings; and this membership comes about from engagement in active communal practice that centers on the activity; the ancillary relationships stem from the interaction related to the activity.  He states that these communities and spaces are hard to identify without knowing the person’s intentions — exactly why people are there.  Whether a person actually claims group membership or is acknowledged can be difficult. For Gee, group membership may not be acknowledged or claimed, but attributes can still be observed. The role of Gee’s work is central to operationalizing identity and group membership through offering observable sociocultural markers that come from the semiotic domains as evidence of group membership.

A semiotic domain recruits one or more modalities (e.g., oral or written language,

images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts, and so forth) to

communicate distinctive types of messages.  By the word “fluent” I mean that the

learner achieves some degree of mastery, not just rote knowledge. . . Semiotic

domains are, of course, human creations.  As such, each and every one of them is

associated with a group of people who have differentially mastered the domain, but

who share norms, values, and knowledge about what constitutes degrees of mastery

in the domain and what sorts of people are, more or less, “insiders” or “outsiders”.

Such a group of people share a set of practices, a set of common goals or endeavors,

and a set of values and norms, however much each of the individuals in the group may

also have their own individual styles and goals, as well as other affiliations.

Gee (2001, pg. 2).

This work allows for certain attributes of group membership to be observable rather than subjective. A young person may have grown up participating in an activity with parents and young friends, but during the puberty years, may reject that affiliation based upon new goals for group membership. A new group may be more desirable than a current group, and the young person may cast of markings that identify them with the old group such as a hat from a uniform, ways of speaking, values, etc. This does not mean that markings of prior group membership with parents, family, and childhood affiliations are not still observable. For Gee it is the activities and the group practices that provide evidence of social learning and group membership from semiotic domains, and it is activity that is central to identity construction.

For Wenger, (1998) identity is central to human learning; identity construction and learning are distributed through community and relations; learning is socially constructed; and motivation is based on a desire for sharing and participatory culture. The work of Wenger shares many attributes with Gee’s work, but the focus for Wenger was on socially distributed cognition and learning as social participation. Earlier work explored the role of learning in apprenticeship, where newcomers would enter into a space where learning was situated and contextualized, and goals and purpose were evident due to entering the space. One entered the space to gain apprenticeship and attempt to acquire and learn the sociocultural practices of the community. Thus the individual is drawn to the group and begins to engage and learn by finding their role in a distributed, networked, cultural-cognitive process with the purpose of the individual as an active participant in the practices of a social community. This participation leads to the construction of his/her identity through these communities. From this understanding develops the concept of the community of practice: a group of individuals participating in communal activity– creating their shared identity through engaging in and contributing to the practices of their communities.

The difficulty with this theory is that group membership is hard to define. A person may want to be part of group and claim group membership, but not have the identifiable characteristics that define the membership, but it did lay the groundwork for many of the same features of Gee’s construct.

For Deci and Ryan (2008) these same attributes are also shared, but the focus of Self-Determination Theory comes from work on motivation with a focus on Autonomy — possibly built from early work by White (1959) where organisms have an innate need to experience competence, and experience joy and pleasure with the new behaviors when they assert competence over the environment.—what he called effectance motivation.

For Ryan and Deci motivation is based on the degree that an activity or value has been internalized, and this is based upon the degree to which the behavior has meaning within the context of the arena of performance. In this sense, the feelings of relatedness and belonging in a social, or group setting, play a part in the internalization process along with an inherent desire for competence and autonomy. In order to feel belonging and relatedness, an individual develops autonomy through competence and creates the identity for relatedness and belonging. This process can happen from belonging to competence to autonomy, or other sequences. The key motivating factor for Deci and Ryan is autonomy.

In order to sustain engagement for Deci and Ryan, motivation must be internalized . . . the external contingency must be “swallowed whole”. By swallowed whole, the learner identifies the value of the new behavior with other values that are part of the self. This process of engagement is the transformation of an extrinsic motive, one that is reinforced from outside the learners’ values, into an activity that is assimilated and internalized by the learner as an intrinsic value that is part of their personal identity. This process involves constructing values aligned with the group and environment, and thus assimilates behavioral norms that were originally external as part of a new identity. Based on the degree of control exerted by external factors, levels of extrinsic motivation can be aligned along a continuum (Ryan & Deci, 2000).



  • External regulation: doing something for the sake of achieving a reward or avoiding a punishment.
  • Introjected regulation: partial internalization of extrinsic motives.
  • Identified regulation: doing an activity because the individual identifies with the values and accepts it as his own.

Identified regulation is autonomous and not merely controlled by external factors. It is motivation for an activity that has been integrated as part of the learner’s values, and refers to identification with thvalues and meanings of the activity to the extent that it becomes fully internalized and autonomous (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Themes for coding


Subjunctive Mood

Activity Space Desirable social grouping
Ritual Rites of Passage Belonging/ Relatedness
Desirable Activity Identified regulation Apprenticeship
Affective commitment Autonomy/ Competence Cognitive theories of action



Eleven themes from these theories of identity construction, ritual/ rites of passage, engagement, motivation, and social learning were taken in order to code the interview transcript to inform analysis and make decisions on what factors might be important for the construction our afterschool program so that we can track design efficacy and measure performance.

Data collection

The phenomenological interview methodology (van Manon, 200*) was used to try and elicit responses beyond descriptions of rationale to gather “thick descriptions” (Geertz, 1973) of affective, social, corporeal, and cognitive behaviors (which the researcher hoped for but did not expect) behind the activity and experience of playing Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), but also to encourage descriptions that were thick enough that the researcher might be able to identify instances of engagement situated and distributed learning across networks of time and space, mediated through shared activity,  and perhaps to see if there were evidence indicating whether identity construction and choice did inform motivation and engagement.

Data Analysis

The critical discourse methods as espoused by Gee (1999) and Fairclough (2003) not only provide methodologies that are fundamental to qualitative analysis, but are also fundamental to the study of “the scaffolding of human affiliation within cultures and social groups and institutions,” Gee (1999, pg 1) and “how do existing societies provide people with the possibilities and resources for rich and fulfilling lives,” Fairclough (2003, pg 202). It was for this reason that these methods were used to explore and code the phenomenological interview transcript. Although a sample of one participant is not very robust for generalization, it provided a starting point for more focused theory testing, as well as to provide insights for ourselves as designers, and education practitioners.


This first excerpt from the interview begins to describe the motivation to learn to play Dance Dance Revolution. Ellen and I met on a nice spring day in the Whittier neighborhood near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts at a coffee shop called Spy House.  When I had asked her what was the experience of playing DDR, she said:

The first time I ever played Dance Dance Revolution was with my

friends Tyler and Ben. They had it at Devon’s house and everyone

was playing this game. Really, I wanted to hang out with them, I

wanted to participate and so that’s when I started learning. Then it

was after playing with those guys for so long that I really started to

enjoy the game. I actually didn’t have a play station before that, so

I went out and bought a play station just so I could play DDR, yeah. . .

yeah, I didn’t want to be left out of it. Games are fun and I just wanted

to spend time with my friends and this is something that they were

all doing.

The basis for Ellen’s learning was to Belong to a Desirable Group. This idea of relatedness and Belonging were fundamental in her development of skills and collection of resources to develop as a player. However, she did not have the feeling of connectedness until she was really able to engage in the activity as a participating member —Autonomy/Competence. Also of interest was that the activity was not initially a Desirable Activity, “I wanted to participate and so that’s when I started learning”. After some time participating, she found enjoyment along with her sense of Belonging to a Desirable Group. This phenomenon suggests precedence of Belonging to a Desirable Group over Desirable Activity, and also suggests that an individual can develop interest in activity that might not have been initially motivating. Speculatively, there may be some indication for the importance of play as a subjunctive for developing affinity for an activity. It was clear that she had already identified with the people, but, based on the next excerpt, she had not identified or been identified with the activity.

I was excited because this was something I could participate in. I’ve played Halo and I’m not that good at it and everyone was starting out on this for the first time, so I thought I could be one of those good people at it and get respect from people. I was really excited. They have this huge TV at Devon’s house and everyone’s around you. I was kind of nervous too because you have to do this in front of people. Well, we were all kind of sitting on the couch watching the men and I was like I want to try it. I mean, some of them were interested in seeing me probably because they knew I never played before and they made me where I was probably going to fail, but then I actually really wanted to do it, so I was like I want to do it next! I thought I was going to be better at the game than I thought I was because I’m thinking oh these guys they don’t have any coordination. This’ll be easy for me. I’m kind of in shape, so I was thinking it would be pretty easy and then I do some of these songs and I was like oh, I need to go down a level! I thought I caught on fairly quickly.

What was clear from this passage was the importance of the activity and her feeling that she could be successful participating and “be one of those good people at it and get respect from people.” There are several parts to this that are especially interesting:

  1. Belief in her ability to succeed was essential in her willingness to perform publicly. Research on adolescents’ engagement in literacy for example has found that adolescent perceptions of their competence and ability to succeed may be a more important predictor of whether they will engage than their past performance. (Alvermann, 2001; Anderman et al., 2001; Bean, 2000; Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). Studies of adolescents have also found that they prefer to perform where they know they will have success (Csikzhentmihaly, 200*).
  2. The fear of performing in front of the group with Autonomy/ Competence but that since people were just starting out, she might have a chance to be good at it and to be respected. Thismay have played an even larger role because she was one of the girls who watch, not one of “the men” who play the games and perform.
  3. The importance of the Activity Space and its affordances as well as the possible change in atmosphere with this new game, where there may have been more emphasis on Play as the Subjunctive Mood.

This makes a case for the importance of Affective Commitment, Competence as well as a Cognitive Theory of Action. Although these seem to be sublevels of Desirable Activity and Belong to a Desirable Group, that inform and reinforce action. She had created a Cognitive Theory of Action and knew that it was essential for her to perform to be acknowledged and claim membership — another indication of Chapman’s (2006) description of engagement and evidence of Identifiable Regulation. To claim Belonging to this Desirable Social Group, she realized whether implicitly or not, that she needed to participate through performance (Autonomy/Competence) to Belong. This supports Deci and Ryan’s position that Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence are basic needs that underlie motivation and engagement and satisfy Skinner and Belmont’s assertion of affective involvement.

In addition, Ellen had already aligned her values internally as Identifiable Regulation— but she had not found an opportunity with a Desirable Activity where she might have success in the Activity Space where she could feel confident that she would succeed and enjoy the activity,

I could be one of those good people at it and get respect from people”

Halo and Counterstrike she described as work (Sutton-Smith, 1996), which has consequences for failure — the desirable group may have been much more advanced in their performance in Halo and Counterstrike, and perhaps took playing the game much more seriously and raised the stakes of the performance.

Games and play are often about choices without life-threatening consequences, but that does not mean that games are not taken seriously. They can be performance tests (Autonomy/ Competence) and Ritual/Rites of Passage that allow for the development and affirmation of a place within a group, establishment of pecking orders, and through this, community status and entitlement . . . and it is possible that the experience of being positioned to perform and possibly fail was some sort of initiation, a form of deep play (Bentham in Geertz, 1975).

This act of bettering oneself in public is a tricky situation—but it really must occur in public for a person to be seen as Competent/Autonomous and an acknowledged group member (Belonging). This Ritualistic phenomenon was described by Geertz as the “Center Bet” in “Deep Play”, (1975) and based upon Ellen’s description, it may be that as play in an activity advances, the play gets more serious and the stakes and status of the Ritual change, and the work ethos takes precedence over Play as Subjunctive Mood.

In the DDR trial, Ellen was tested to see how she would respond to public failure: she could have quit and gone home, or she could laugh it off and find the fun in learning and work towards acceptance. As will be shown in the next excerpt, Ellen found that there were others who were beginners that she could get better with, and more experienced players were actually helpful and willing (Apprenticeship) to teach — she also found that there is no substitute for experience, and that in order to become a part of the group, she had to go through the rites of practice and public initiation–according to Van Gennep (1960) this ritualized process is common to many societies where an individual passes from one stage of life to another, and it  can involve separation from childhood environment, transition, and incorporation with new status.  For Turner (1969), this game may not be as monumental as rites celebrating marriage or death, but still represents a moment of social transition and eventual change in status. The importance of this is the public acknowledgement of Competence, and this seems to be essential to identity construction and acceptance as a member of a group (Buckingham, 2007).

The performance/ initiation

Previously, Ellen may have wanted to be part of the group, but Ellen stated that the games they were playing did not provide her with much interest to play, even though she wanted to belong with the group and participate in their space. Because of this, she may not have been considered as part of the group, but maybe more of a tourist or poser; because belonging seemed contingent on being able to “do”.

I have a lot of friends who play Counterstrike and a lot of . . . almost every guy I know plays Halo. You can enjoy watching those games. I don’t enjoy it as much. Like I said, it’s just way more serious. They get more serious. Well, it’s like everyone is more quiet and focused, like they really get into trying to hunt these people down and kill them before they are hunted down and killed. DDR, you are playing against someone but then with Halo and Counterstrike you’re against all these people and you have to be like watching your back all the time. Even the people watching, they zone out and just watch it. For me it’s not as fun. As for DDR, it’s more like people jumping around and are less serious but it’s still a lot of fun.

Prior to Ellen’s embrace of the game, she was a groupie. She could talk about how Devon did, but not about her own experience. This came in part as being recognized as a player by her community, but it was also a confidence that came of public performance (Autonomy/ Competence) and embrace of public performance; sustaining engagement with the practice; working hard to develop status and identity related to the group and the activity and the freedoms and responsibilities that accompany them.

So what followed was me just trying to find where I could go to play. Then I kind

of got eventually frustrated with it—well, not frustrated but I wanted to play more,

so I decided to buy it for myself.


You play by yourself to get better to play with other people. I mean, it’s always fun to play by yourself and unlock new songs and things like that.

I got it for Christmas from my parents, so I didn’t have to buy it but I had to persuade them and make sure they got me what I wanted. They didn’t really understand but they felt okay about it because it wasn’t something violent or anything like that.

Then I was like look what I can do! They watched me. They thought it was kind of interesting. This was with my family on Christmas. Then my uncles and my little cousin who was maybe like seven, they all got really interested by it. So my fifty-year-old uncles are trying it and they’re getting really excited. My little cousin, she’s getting excited too. She doesn’t even really understand what’s happening on the screen but she’s like jumping around on the pad.


The need for Activity Spaces should not be underestimated, but it seemed clear that Ellen was ready and willing to share her activity in a space, her parents’ holiday party to get the game system, mats, and software.

Ellen’s playing the game with family coincides with the Ritual of Integration/Aggregation as described by Van Gennep (1960), where Ellen has returned to her family with a new status. This status may not rival her accomplishments in sports, band or academics in her family’s values, but in many ways it was a revealing of how she had become different – how she had created difference and separated and returned, and her family’s embrace of this new part of her identity — “gamer girl”.

Dance Dance Revolution, and other games played in Devon’s basement provided an experience that offered the separation and initiation for obtaining group identity through the ritual of public performance that could be recognized not only by the group, but also by others away from the basement and through this the identity and status are further reinforced through the rite of integration. It was through the activity that Ellen was conferred status and identity as member not only by her new friends, but through her family and the community that had the power to convey her status and acceptance. This conferred new identity and acceptance allowed her to become that gamer beyond her normal relations and to extend her community network and be recognized by others to develop new relations and status:

because we shared this thing, so it would be like oh so who’s house are we going to go to tonight to play DDR? Okay. Well, my friend Devon, his house was the main DDR house just because he had a great room for it and everything and his parents didn’t really care how much noise we made or how late we stayed there, so his house is generally the DDR house. Tyler, who was my friend prior, we would get together                   and practice a lot. Michael, he bought DDR around the time that I did and we were basically kind of on the same level and I got to know him better that way just by spending time with all these people. Nick, all these other guys, I had kind of known beforehand but now we spent all this time together. So it was basically we all met at Devon’s house and that’s what we would do for weekend after weekend after                     weekend.

If we can draw from these Activity Spaces and domains and inspire the learner to feel a connection and affinity to traditional academic fare like engineering, literature, mathematics, etc. What is also evident that we can create Desirable Activities that align with academic learning where the learning outcomes are embedded in the activity, that supports committed participation and engagement.

What makes Devon’s house a desirable Activity Space was probably the Autonomy they were given in the basement. Devon’s parents gave them access to a big television, let them come and go, let them choose their hours, and allowed them to express themselves with their music played loud in activities of their choice. This was probably trust earned versus parental apathy judging from Ellen and her friends, but this kind of Autonomy cannot be underestimated. What seems to make an Activity Space desirable is the ability to have Autonomy/ Competence, and perhaps this is one of the factors that make for a Desirable Group and the desire for Belonging/Relatedness as well as in creating a Desirable Activity.

Although there seemed to be many homes the kids could have had their gatherings, none of them seemed very prominent in her description, and the only mention Ellen made in the interview of Activity Spaces other than Devon’s were her parents’ house on holiday, when she was showing new friends how to play that were not part of her DDR group at Devon’s; when she would practice to ready herself for Devon’s; and the hotel room on her band trip to New York City.

As Ellen’s ability with the game progressed, she was being recognized as DDR “gamer girl”, and this conferred a new identity and status. She began to find new connections throughout her school experience, as more people knew about her new status as a “gamer girl” beyond her former status as an International Baccalaureate student (Academic), varsity soccer player (Jock/Athlete), Band Member (Musician). It may have been important for Ellen to branch out and change people’s perceptions In the same way that she described the Desirable Group:

Really, I wanted to hang out with them . . . games are fun.”

and the proposition that  might follow as if a syllogism, is that:

gamers are fun, and I want to be fun too.

Perhaps all that work in Academics, Sports, and Band had made her appear too serious, and maybe she felt constrained by all of her commitments and wanted to break out to meet new, fun people? It is only conjecture and anecdotal, and she did not abandon her commitment to band, sports, or academics — she did graduate with an IB diploma — but as can be imagined, all that work in those areas may have made it important to find friends who had interests beyond her everyday world, and that being with them would allow her to step away from conversations about the team, assignments, practicing to perform, and set her apart.

Developing these relations more than fun, but a coping tool. The importance of play, according to Vygotsky (1972), is decontextualization, where an individual can gain gratification and pleasure even in the midst of unresolved issues and larger, time consuming projects. The role of pretense and imagination can bring about pleasure and in the face of uncontrollable circumstances; this can provide some relief. Perhaps the gaming provided an opportunity to decompress and laugh in the midst of all that responsibility and preparation. An example of this may be seen in Ellen’s bringing the game on a band trip.

Yeah, it was a school band trip. So a lot of us went and it turned out that a whole bunch of people knew what DDR was. It was interesting to see them play. Tyler and I, we kind of felt cool because our group that we had played with had progressed better than these other people that we were seeing play. They were like oh man this kid is so good and we play with him all the time. Tyler and I played against these                 people— Yeah, we beat them pretty bad.

In this instance, the game activity did extend beyond the familiar Activity Spaces like Devon’s basement; it even seemed to provide an activity that she could share with new groups as a Desirable Activity that would make others see her as part of a Desirable Group that others would seek Belonging/ Relatedness. The game seems to have supplanted the importance of being part of the gamer group in Devon’s basement, and the activity became a means for extending her friend network as Gee (2001) as an Affinity Group, where people affiliate because of an affinity for an activity. The next section demonstrates this. As the activity began to change for the group members, relationships started to change, and the emphasis on the game diminished.

Well, a lot of the guys that I started playing it with, they moved on to other games because that’s what they do. They focus in on something for a really long time and then they’ll find something else will be just released and everybody else will just be playing that, so they’ll jump into that. Then there was always the people who have it, like Tyler and I, who will still play it. We didn’t get bored with it; it’s just then there       were other things. No. I don’t play it as much as I do anymore and my friendships through that have become different. I mean, we’re all still friends. DDR was just like this common thing that we had to like start us talking and then after that we talked about normal things. I became pretty good friends with a lot of people. I dated one of  the guys that I met for awhile. I don’t know, it wasn’t like any different than like you           meet people playing for a sports team. You have something in common and that’s what you’re coming together to do, and then you talk about other stuff because we’re not just focused on DDR. Well, at my work it’s kind of similar too. We’re all stuck working together and so then we get talking. Soccer and sports a lot. Any kind of group that you all come together and you have something to talk about and then we  just eventually expand on that and that’s how we became friends.

The DDR game did facilitate the relationship in ways that other games and activities did not, but in the end, the initial motivation may need to come from purpose only the individual can formulate. But play can facilitate this and may make the entrance to a group, the practice, and eventual mastery of knowledge, activity space, and activity more likely to be enticing and possibly provide for sustained engagement and eventual mastery. This makes a case for Play as a Subjunctive Mood.

Playgroups, and the activities that support them, provide a common ground for interaction. There is definitely a pecking order that comes from demonstrable competence and evidence of knowledge from the semiotic domains from the game. Games are built upon play, pretense, and decontextualization, but once these activities no longer provide pleasure and gratification, the activity may quickly end and the relationships and spaces that contextualize and support them may change in the way that Ellen’s DDR group cooled off: “and my friendships though have become different. I mean, we’re all still friends.

Games are structured forms of play, Dubbels (2008) that provide rules and roles that are defined to help members to decontextualize from the ordinary world where they have responsibility, deadlines, and environments they cannot control. These same rules and roles also help them know their status in the game, share common, spontaneous, and authentic experience without going too deep into personal motives, negative feelings, and Freudian meltdowns. Corsaro (1985) called this play group phenomenon the Actors Dilemma, and according to Corsaro, the Freudian meltdown, or oversharing, is one of the most common causes of playgroup breakup—perhaps play is the coping mechanism that allows for detachment and the ability to constructively work on what can be changed and separating from that which cannot be. Game roles may also allows for exploration of other peoples’ values and experience in a safe space without getting too deep or real, which represents an opportunity to try on and project different emotions, and build comfort and trust through common experience.

In terms of Ritual/ Rites of Passage, a game  would be a means for rite of passage, where the Activity Space is no longer like the ordinary world, and rules and roles are different and even changed for the sake of experimentation and normal social and interpersonal boundaries can be tested without endangering status and relationships. With Play as the Subjunctive Mood, different parts of person can emerge and people can try on different personae without recrimination — because they are only playing.



In answering the original question, “why did she sustain engagement?” it became evident that her motivation to sustain engagement over time changed. She was attracted to the activity because she wanted to be friends with the kids who hung out at Devon’s basement — she wanted to be an acknowledged member of the group, not part of the fan club. To do this she had to perform and risk ridicule and a possible reduction in status. Geertz (1976) described this spatially in that the further away you were from the Center Bet, where the desirable activity takes place, the lower your status and importance to the main event and performers.

In order to be part of this group, she needed to perform, but she might was hesitant to try because of the games they were playing did not mesh with her sense of play and fun—perhaps because the play of these group members with these games (Halo, Counterstrike) was already too far advanced for them to tolerate a “newb” (new player) at the controller; and it might be better not impose oneself and risk ridicule or contempt if one is not contributing to the play, learning, and or status of the group.

The role of Play as a Subjunctive Mood in these Activity Spaces and Desirable Groups may be the organizing principle that makes these groups and activities desirable as part of identity construction, as well as the means for identity construction. The subjunctive mood situates and mediates the discourse around the group desirability, the space and possibilities for interaction, and the perceived activity and likelihood for success and may be the basis for initial motivation to engage and represent the one constant throughout Ellen’s experience with the game, group, and space. For a person to facilitate and construct an identity, they may need to play, just as children play doctors, firefighters, teachers, mothers, and even animals in games. It is through pretense that we are able to imagine and create cognitive theories of action and circumstance and it is through play that we develop this capacity. If we want to sustain engagement, we need to help students develop the capacity for Identified Regulation, where they may turn their play into meaningful performance when asked to perform in activities that begin to resemble rites of initiation and deep play. This process creates a subtle transition where the initial play activity becomes serious and is approached with the focus of work, like what Ellen experienced watching advanced players of Halo and Counterstrike, and eventually what she experienced in practicing between school, homework, and lessons to prepare for DDR at Devon’s.

What was desirable about this Desirable Group? Probably their reputations as gamers and their ability to talk as insiders about what they were doing in an Activity Space where they were given Autonomy and Competence; it may have been their ability to create spontaneous neutral experiences that they could talk about in the grind of school-band-sports-work, and how they could look forward to this Ritual space away from the ordinary, where Play was the Subjunctive Mood and replicate this feeling in difficult circumstances to separate from stress and worry.

This ability to detach and decontextualize can be a very valuable trait when dealing with pressures of studying for exams, working, and other responsibilities that cannot offer immediate gratification.  This inability to decontextualize and detach is one of the central behaviors inherent in Play Deprivation (Brown, 1999). The original diagnosis in the 1960’s in describing the incredible violence of Charles Whitmore and his shooting spree from the bell tower at Texas A& M University. It was found that Whitmore was raised in very rigid environment where he was not allowed friends or play. He experienced a life that looked very successful on the surface. But in 1966 he committed what was the largest mass matter in the history of the USA. According to the National Institute for Play website (last visited 4/9/09, http://nifplay.org/whitman.html), Brown, who was a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine at the time, collected behavioral data for a team of expert researchers appointed by the Texas governor to understand what led to Whitmore’s mass murder. What was found through interview, diary, and reconstructing Whitmore

had been under extreme, unrelenting, stress.  After many unsuccessful

efforts to resolve the stress, he ultimately succumbed to a sense of

powerlessness;  he felt no option was left other than the homicidal-suicidal

. . . Whitman had been raised in a tyrannical, abusive household.  From

birth through age 18, Whitman’s natural playfulness had been systematically

and dramatically suppressed by an overbearing father. A lifelong lack of play

deprived him of opportunities to view life with optimism, test alternatives, or

learn the social skills that, as part of spontaneous play, prepare individuals to

cope with life stress. The committee concluded that lack of play was a key

factor in Whitman’s homicidal actions – if he had experienced regular moments

of spontaneous play during his life, they believed he would have developed the skill,

flexibility, and strength to cope with the stressful situations without violence.

Brown continued exploring Play Deprivation as a construct and found similar patterns in other violent offenders, and even traffic deaths related to aggression and chemical issues. The role of play cannot be underestimated for its ability to decontextualize and reframe experience. Play therapy currently is a treatment in child psychology for helping children talk about and understand forces beyond their control.

Play may be vital to our well-being. It has been said that the opposite of play is depression, and depression can lead to feelings of powerlessness — the opposite of what we saw in Ellen’s attempt at Autonomy/ Competence and her efforts to connect. In this way, Play as a Subjunctive Mood may perform an important function in the ability to adapt, perform under stress, and create flexibility and adaptation for dealing with seemingly impossible situations — play may offer way out, a way to cope. But play demands time and space– especially spontaneous play – an activity, as was mentioned, where often we see young people working out issues they have no control over (as in play therapy).

It seems that all three of the social learning theories are context dependent based upon the needs of the individual at the time. Ellen, she was attracted to a Desirable Group as in Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1998) because of the activities and space where this group interacted. And there may have been factors that led to her admiration of these boys . . . it may have come from her admiration of how these kids conducted themselves at school and their reputations that they were fun “gamers”; but it was not until there was a Desirable Activity (Gee, 2001) that she could participate; and participation in a public performance was necessary for her to be acknowledged and feel Belonging/Relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2008). As the group changed their focus on activity, the relationships changed, and new relations were created through the activity; but eventually the activity diminished and new activities and groups presented themselves as desirable.

The utility of this analysis comes from these recalled phenomena as a pattern for planning instruction and understanding why people learn. We learn to become. We create and engage to gain new experience and entitlement and gain status without danger in our social network, as well as to learn from others, whether it is a workplace competency, gaining social skills, or as a means of adapting to stress.

Implications / lessons for designing instructional environments

This transcript from Ellen’s experience makes a case for developing instructional environments that allow for playful, autonomous group interaction structured as a game to allow for play in much the same way that ritual demands play.

This process of making work playful, or working hard at play, is in some ways like finding a vocation or calling . . . in some sense the performance as ritual play, as described by Schechner (1994), is not far off when it comes to identity construction.  Identity is bestowed through communal rites of passage, where individuals are sent away, learn, and perform, and then return to be recognized with a new identity and set of responsibilities.  They are judged and identified based upon their performance. This idea seems especially appropriate for adolescents, who are in the process of identity construction, and are trying to find out who they are through trying out new activities, people, places, attitudes, identities, and things in society that has so many rituals and groups, but none communally organized that focus new identities and vocations.

There is distrust for activities that resemble rituals, games, and play.  Part of this may stem from the independence required of play; the time involved in the rituals and competency development, and our general distrust of play as adult activity. Wohlwend (2007) looked at this notion of work and play through showing teachers video of children in classroom activity centers. Although there were clear examples of what was taken to be off-task behavior (Play), she found that teachers were able to find value in their students play if they were generative in creating connections and transfer to the students’ process and linking it to academic discourse.

The trouble with the perceptions of practitioners and policy makers seems to arise in the misperception between what Sutton-Smith (1997) called the Ethos of Work and Play. Given the opportunity, we may find that Play is a reasonable portal to motivation and sustained engagement through linking to the deeper learning that comes from identity construction and these oddly transformative communities that rise up out of them. In many ways, activities in formal and informal learning environments may not mesh with the intended identity of the learner, and this may indicate the difference between education and socialization along the lines of hegemony. The learner may choose a group affiliation antithetical to the purpose of the classroom.

So how might an educator integrate play, games, and lessons from these social learning theories?

I have used these principles on several occasions to explore games and play as effective methods for aligning content and process with resistant and reluctant learners.

Principle 1 — Play as a Subjunctive Mode

Engineering can be a very fun class, but the curriculum I was supposed to teach was very un-fun. In fact the curriculum was the source of the dysfunction. I was being asked to start class by presenting standards, why the standards were important, and tell the students why they were learning what they were learning. I found that this was much more for the benefit of observers evaluating the quality of my teaching than it was to motivate and engage the students.

I still use standards, and I still feel it is important to share the larger scheme of things behind activities and what they might be preparing for, but I do it with Play as the Subjunctive Mood. The first thing I did was to quit thinking these kids would commit to a curriculum where they were asked to redesign a coffee mug as an activity to learn engineering principles, fulfill standards and a rubric on a power point that came with the packaged curriculum. Fear of failure was not a big deal. Many of them were accustomed to it. They had checked out as an act of integrity and in doing so had found that they could dictate terms to teachers because of their disruptive behavior. Although my departure from redefining coffee mugs and the “do it or fail” curriculum did not sit well with the administrators, it did result in engagement from my students.

I told them that we were going to be having a boat race, and that I would be bringing in my wading pool from home, and that we would be making sail boats out of Styrofoam to race across the pool. I structured all of the engineering principles so that they were embodied in the task, and that through experience, we could discover them. What was essential in this case was not in joining a desirable group, but in participating in a desirable activity where their group could interact in the activity space semi-independently, and that the task was one where they believed that they would have early and instant success.

In addition to this, I also tried an experiment where I used a different approach to creation of subjunctive mood:

Work — I told the kids that we were really behind and that we would have to work hard and be rigorous in our approach to these boats. That it was incumbent upon us to learn terms like resistance, surface area, momentum, and force and apply them into our hull designs.  What came from this my disappearance from their radar. I was talking, but they were ignoring me, tuning me out. When I asked them what they were supposed to do, many of them did not know, and many of them defaulted to resistant behavior.

Play — I told the class that we had a fun activity where we were going to be building boats and that we were going to have four kinds of races: speed, weight bearing, stability, and general purpose. I told them that I was going to be showing them examples of boat hulls and that they should play with them a bit to decide what style of boat they were going to make for the races they were going to participate in. I found that kids had listened, knew what to do, and really wanted to start. All of the same principles and terms were still present in the unit, but they now had permission to be playful and perhaps fail. Play implies failure recovery and experimentation. Many of the kids made crazy boats that would never work, but they were fairly successful in using the terms to justify their design for each race. It is not always what you do, or whom you do it with – it is how you do it.

Principle 2 — Desirable Groups

The role of Desirable Groups was primary for Ellen as a motivator for her becoming a DDR expert, but the tricky part about Desirable Groups was that underneath it was the issue of Play as Subjunctive Mood. A person may be attracted to a group for a number of reasons as we noticed from the three social learning theories.  The grouping provides basic needs as in Self-Determination Theory; it provides apprenticeship and acknowledgement (Lave, 1998); and it may be ancillary, as in the attraction to participate with others in an activity.  A Desirable Group can be a great motivator, but what was found was that eventually the Desirable Activity gets old and people move on and the group affiliation was not all that was necessary for sustaining engagement. This could be because the aspirant group member now understands what is behind Cool Kids Curtain Number One and the mystery of the cool kids is solved; or because the lesson from the apprenticeship has been assimilated. Whatever the motivation, indications were that she did join the group to learn who they were and why they were cool, and that after the fun with the activity wore out, the friendships drifted apart and they moved on to new activities. In addition, that the activity was used to branch out and connect with new groups.

With this in mind, we can situate and structure relations, change communication and status dynamics with Desirable Activities that are well-structured through Activity Spaces that have entitlement and opportunity. In thinking through some of the most well-constructed methods for creating cooperative groups, Cooperative Learning depends heavily on structuring Positive Interdependence (Deutsch, 1962, Johnson & Johnson, 1989) of the sort all three theories seek to describe, as well as construct through what was described from Play Group Literature (Corsaro, 19**) as spontaneous neutral experience, where people could build trust and common purpose.–where to succeed, everyone must succeed.(Johnson and Jonson, 2008, http://www.co-operation.org/pages/cl.html#interdependence).

The key element of groups seems to be status and what a person must do to get it. The danger of the Center Bet and the amount of support that comes with affiliation might be the deciding factor – Perceived Ability to Succeed—but it seems more likely that creating an atmosphere with Play as the Subjunctive Mood may be the best predictor of Group Desirability—which seems to come from status, space, activity, likelihood of success and acknowledgement.

Principle three — Spaces

Spaces are where we offer autonomy, equity, entitlement, objects, atmosphere, interaction, and relationships. By creating spaces where learners can self-govern to an extent, we make them desirable, especially if there are desirable tools and resources as affordances. What I did with the boat unit was to create a rite of passage to get from one learning space to another. An initiation where students had to perform to move to the next room — to make that desirable, I put the tools and materials there and gave the students (trustworthy students always get there first because they listen and finish the work early) and allowed them the autonomy to start and work with autonomy and privilege.

The students were told that in order to use the tools and start on their hull designs, that they had to use the hull examples and sketch a hull design In their engineering notebook, and then explain why and how the hull would perform well in specific race conditions (speed, weight-bearing, stability, general purpose) using the key vocabulary postered on the wall. When they were able to describe why and how their hull would perform well, they could go and begin building. This separation from one room to another was where I was able to coach, counsel, and cajole students into thinking more deeply about their designs, make suggestions, and enter their grades. All roads went through me as the Center Bet.

Principal four — Desirable Activities

One of the key issues in creating sustained engagement and identified regulation is in creating activities that align with the goals and purposes of the learner, or exposing the learner to something they think is really cool and they want to do. Making boats was not what many teens would consider a “cool” activity, but it did hold attraction for them when I showed them the tools, the materials, and gave a brief overview of what they would have to do.  Getting kids to engage may just be a matter of creating some fun, and showing that they can have early and instant success; and, that they can make adjustments if they make mistakes. There must be time allowed to go deeply into learning to allow for the student to commit to expression in the work – the work has a part of them in it.

That will allow them to create a cognitive theory of the activity, and also allow for a belief in their future success. Add to this the opportunity to work cooperatively and learn from the work of other class members — some call this copying, I call it modeling and apprenticeship — then they can make a start (often full of errors and mistakes!) and adjust for excellence as they work with others and begin to better understand the project/activity. In this way we enable the spontaneous neutral experience that can be useful for beginning the learning process and also building relationships/ belonging, and autonomy and competence through the activity.

The key to this principle is in embedding the learning in the activity so that learners can discover the learning principles in the process of the activity through performance and reflection, where they compare what they have done with the work of others, and the instructor can provide encouragement to scaffold further development. Oddly, this is how scientific principles often presented in the textbooks were discovered before they were in the textbooks for memorization– they were tripped over by the scientists and then operationalized into methodology that some memorize as students, and others are lucky enough to rediscover in class. This can be done when we think of instruction as games and learning as structured forms of play. Some important elements for designing instruction as play are offered in this taxonomy of play for instructional design:

  • Cognitive Theories of Action: we capture the imagination and build cognitive theories of action through imagery/ visualization (mental modeling).
    • A key word for the instruction should be “IMAGINE”.

This first category in the taxonomy provides a basis for testing comprehension. It is important to be able to create mental model and theory of the action. The key attributes are visualization and imaginatively creating mental models and segmenting process and attributes for indexing in memory. If learners index and visualize well, they will likely have fine grain memory of the experience to draw upon for future use. So creating these mental images is very important for creating the motivation to engage, belief in future success, and a cognitive theory of action.


  • Roles: provide roles and identities they can try on and play with, and offer the ability to change roles and play with the identities.
    • A key word for instruction should be “IMITATE”

Working with others:  A great draw because it allows for interaction. Many students need to be able to copy other students until they are able to IMAGINE and create a cognitive theory of action. Some learners do not learn well from instructors. They need to watch another learner translate the experience. Trough this, they not only learn how to start the assignment, but also how to create a cognitive theory of action on which they can improvise and express themselves through and commit to the activity. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen resistant learners get into a groove and not want to stop the project once they finally get started!

  • Roles: In the case of the boat project, they became Naval Architects and Marine Engineers; just learning about what these folks do as a profession, and, that these professions exist opened a lot of high school eyes and creates schema for the semiotic domains of each role. They also had Learning and Functional roles – see Appendix B.
  • Structuring group work: The creation of roles in cooperative learning as Johnson and Johnson suggest (200*) is very powerful and also what we see in early childhood play, as well as more advanced game experience for video games, teaching empathy, and modeling interaction for professional development. In structuring the work through roles, each group member has role specific tasks. Play Return to Castle Wolfenstein or look at game specific roles (character classes) in Appendix A, and imagine how these roles would culminate in teamwork for a mission. Each character class has several unique abilities and these come with different learning roles and functional roles.


  • Rules — aka, the Identity Tool Box — Provide rules, values, language, actions, and tools associated with the roles and identities (semiotic domains) that they can work with and act upon that are inherent to the task, where the performance is the assessment. The role of the Naval Architect is to design a marine vessel for specific activities. The elements that define this role are the tools, activities, language, values, and outcomes associated with the role, and ultimately, the boat floats or it doesn’t. This embodiment is informative assessment, where the action provides immediate feedback through complete or partial mastery, or failure and the role provides for measure of progress and schema development based upon knowledge of the semiotic domains.
  • Branching — Create choices and branching decision networks — and it is important here that the learners explain their cognitive theories of action and are asked to utilize and explain the identity tool box to support their choices and why they did what they did, and what might be next.
  • Contingency/ Probability — this comes about when we consider the possible contingencies that might come from an action through prediction and hypothesis testing.  Examples of this are resource management; awareness of likelihood of an action based upon knowledge of the game/ instructional environment, and attempted quantification and probability of failure/ success.

This structure for instructional design is a variation of A Taxonomy for Play from Dubbels (2008) and has been the basis for a number of successful curriculum units as well as digital games and is also available at www.vgalt.com.

A final note ~ Play as Subjunctive Mood

A brief experiment testing this occurred at Games Learning Society in a session called Real Time Research, where groups of participants from the RTR session went into the conference and conducted research on games. The author created a tool for measuring engagement to test whether Play as a Subjunctive Mood, or Work as a Subjunctive Mood would yield the greatest engagement from GLS conference participants. The hypothesis we were seeking to test was whether talk about play would elicit greater engagement on social, affective, and cognitive levels as compared to work.

The hypothesis was that people would engage with their descriptions differently when talking about work and play, and the sock puppet would elicit play behaviors and greater engagement. This would be gauged through analysis of the discourse captured in the video recordings of the interviews and then coded with a framework built from elements of engagement as summarized by Chapman (2003) and codified (see Appendix C).

The interviewees really engaged and took risks with the sock puppets. What is compelling about this experiment was that we were able to elicit more of the person with the sock puppet than we were with simple talk—there was much greater engagement and the participants seemed to enjoy the experience. The changes in treatments through creating different subjunctive mood –play versus work—were really quite dramatic.

What is important about these observations, as well as the finding of the analysis of Ellen’s experience with Dance Dance Revolution seems to be the expectations about interaction and purpose: Play as the Subjunctive Mood seems to represent a portal to engagement and its sustenance.
Appendix A

From the Wikipedia:

Soldier: The soldier is the only class that can use heavy weapons. They are: mortar, portable machine gun (MG42), flamethrower, and bazooka/Panzerfaust. On the No-Quarter mod the Venom machine-gun and the BAR (Allies) or StG44 (Axis) have been added as well. Leveling up gives the Soldier benefits such as the ability to run with heavy weapons (instead of being slowed down).


Medic: The medic has the unique ability to drop health packs, as well as revive fallen players with a syringe. They also regenerate health at a constant rate, and have a higher base health than any other class, which makes them the most common class for close-in combat. When a player has achieved skill level 4 in medic, they get Self Adrenaline, which enables them to sprint for, longer and take less damage for a certain amount of time. Some of the medics act as Rambo Medics. Their emphasis is on killing rather than healing or reviving.

Engineer: The engineer is the only class which comes equipped with pliers, which can be used to repair vehicles, to arm/defuse (dynamite or land mines), or to construct (command posts, machine-gun nests, and barriers). As most missions require some amount of construction and/or blowing up of the enemy’s construction to win the objective, and as defusing dynamite can be very useful, engineers are often invaluable, and one of the most commonly chosen classes. The engineer is also the only class capable of using rifle muzzle grenades.


Field ops: The field ops is a support class which has the ability to drop ammo packs for other players, as well as call air strikes (by throwing a colored smoke-grenade at the target) and artillery strikes (by looking through the binoculars and choosing where they want the artillery support fired). This class has low initial health, but makes up for having an unlimited supply of ammunition.


Covert ops: The covert ops is the only class which can use the scoped FG42 automatic rifle, the silenced Sten submachine gun (or MP-34 on some Mods), and a silenced, scoped rifle (M1 Garand for Allies, K43 Mauser for Axis). The covert ops has the ability to wear a fallen enemy soldier’s clothes to go about disguised, throw smoke-grenades to reduce visibility temporarily, and place and remotely detonate explosive satchels. By looking through a pair of binoculars, the covert ops can spot enemy landmines, bringing them up on their team-map. The covert ops also shows enemy soldiers on the team-map. Medic, Engineer,   This creates a fluid transition to the next category.
Appendix B

Functional Roles – Adopted from http://www.myread.org/organisation.htm (last visited 3/9/09)


  • Reads instructions and directs participation
  • Read the instructions
  • Call for speakers
  • Organize turn-taking
  • Call for votes
  • Count votes
  • State agreed position



  • Summarizes findings and trades

ideas with other groups

  • Check up on other groups
  • Trade ideas with other groups

*Allowed to leave your place when directed by the teacher



  • Writes and reports groups ideas;

is not a gatekeeper.

  • Record all ideas


  • Don’t block
  • Seek clarification


Locates, collects and distributes resources including informational resources like web pages and encyclopedia entries

  • Get all the materials for the entire group
  • Collect worksheets from the teacher


  • Sharpen pencils
  • Tidy up

*Allowed to leave your place without teacher permission




Freebody (1992) and Freebody and Luke (1990) identify the roles literate people take on.


How do I crack this code?

· What words are interesting, difficult or tricky? How did you work them out?

· What words have unusual spelling?

· What words have the same sound or letter pattern or number of syllables?

· What words have the same base word or prefix or suffix?

· What words mean the same (synonyms)?

· What smaller word can you find in this word to help you work it out?

· What words are tricky to pronounce?

· How is this word used in this context?

· What different reading strategies did you use to decode this text?

· Are the pictures close ups, mid or long shots?

· Are the pictures high angle or low angle?

· Were there any word pictures, eg similes and metaphors? How did you work them out?


What do I do with this text?

· What sort of text is this? (information, story/narrative) How do you know?

· Is it fact or opinion? How do you know?

· How can you find information in this text?

· How did the author start this text? Did it suit its purpose?

· Who would read a text like this? Why?

· If you wrote a text like this what words and phrases would you use?

· How is the language the same/ different from other similar texts you have read?

· Could the text help solve a real life problem?

· If you were going to put this text on a web page, how would it be different to the print version?

· What is the purpose of this text?

Could you use these ideas in a poem, story, play,

advertisement, report, brochure or poster?

· How would the language, structure and change?



What does this text mean to me?

· Does the text remind you of something that has happened to you or to someone else you know?

· What does the title/cover suggest that the text is about?

· What might happen next? What words or phrases give you this idea?

· What are the characters thinking and feeling? How do you know?

· What message is the author presenting?

· What are the main ideas presented?

· What do the pictures (graphs, diagrams, tables, captions, illustrations) tell us?

· Do they fit in with the text and do they provide more information?

· What did you feel as you read this part?

· Describe or draw a picture of a character, event or scene from the text.



What does this text do to me?

· Is the text fair?

· What would the text be like if the main characters were girls rather than boys and vice versa?

Consider different race and cultural backgrounds too.

· How would the text be different if told from another point of view?

· How would the text be different if told in another time or place, eg 1900 or 2100?

· Why do you think the author chose this title?

· Think about why the author chose particular words and phrases.

· Are there stereotypes in the text?

· Who does the text favor or represent?

· Who does the text reject or silence?

· How does this text claim authority? (consider language, structure and content)

· Who is allowed to speak? Who is quoted?


Appendix C — Scoring for Play as Subjunctive Mood

Scoring categories for checklist:

A review of play research from Brown (http://nifplay.org/polar-husky.html, last visited 2/12/09) Informs this chekliostindicates that there are social cues that indicate play will be the subjunctive mood in an interaction.

SYM/ ASSM (Symmetrical/ Asymmetrical):

Symmetry indicates threat, standing ground, seriousness, and a willingness to confront and fight, whereas asymmetry indicates the willingness to play. The difference between SYM and ASSYM was the positioning of the body with eye contact, head positioning with arms, legs, chest, etc. ASSYM should be an indicator that the participant is in a play mood and interested in attachment/bonding.

ANIM/ NONANIM (Animated/ Non-Animated)

Play indicates an animated persona, where physical cues might include intentional clumsiness, excitement and affective energy, smiling, laughing. This links to affective involvement as well as cognitive theories of action.




This is repetition of SYM/ASSYM, but represents a more general evaluation of body language regarding anxiety, fight or flight. This links to affective involvement as well as cognitive theories of action.



VOLUME VAR/CONSIST (Volume is varied / consistent)

This category indicates that the volume changes in tone, volume, and pitch. This variation indicates excitement and engagement, a commitment to playful behavior and task– as compared to monotone, where the person may be disengaged, depressed, or threatening. This links to affective involvement as well as cognitive theories of action.




This category also refers to vocalization, where there are greater changes in emphasis in articulation–where words are shortened or lengthened for emphasis. This use of emphasis usually indicates more playfulness as compared to “measured emphasis” where words and elocution are carefully annunciated for the effect of seriousness. This links to affective involvement as well as cognitive theories of action.




This category also refers to vocalization, but is more focused on information than voice. The position is that a relaxed playful description will be more descriptive/ verbose. There will be more said in the explanation according Chapman (2006).



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This monograph describes cognitive ethnography as a method of choice for game studies, multimedia learning, professional development, leisure studies, and activities where context is important. Cognitive ethnography is efficacious for these activities as it   assumes that human cognition adapts to its natural surroundings (Hutchins, 2010; 1995) with emphasis on analysis of activities as they happen in context; how they are represented; and how they are distributed and experienced in space. Along with this, the methodology is described for increasing construct validity (Cook and Campbell, 1979; Campbell & Stanley, 1966) and the creation of a nomological network Cronbach & Meehl (1955). This description of the methodology is contextualized with a study examining the literate practices of reluctant middle school readers playing video games (Dubbels, 2008). The study utilizes variables from empirical laboratory research on discourse processing (Zwann, Langston, & Graesser, 1996) to analyze the narrative discourse of a video game as a socio-cognitive practice (Gee, 2007; Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996).


Cognitive Ethnography, Methodology, Design, Game Studies, Validity, Comprehension, Discourse Processing, Reading, Literacy, Socio-Cognitive.


As a methodological approach, cognitive ethnography assumes that cognition is distributed through rules, roles, language, relationships and coordinated activities, and can be embodied in artifacts and objects (Dubbels, 2008). For this reason, cognitive ethnography is an effective way to study activity systems like games, models, and simulations –whether mediated digitally or not.


In its traditional form, ethnography often involves the researcher living in the community of study, learning the language, doing what members of the community do—learning to see the world as it is seen by the natives in their cultural context, Fetterman (1998).

Cognitive ethnography follows the same protocol, but its purpose is to understand cognitive process and context—examining them together, thus, eliminating the false dichotomy between psychology and anthropology.

Observational techniques such as ethnography and cognitive ethnography attempt to describe and look at relations and interaction situated in the spaces where they are native. There are a number of advantages to both laboratory observation and in the wild as presented in Figure 1.


As mentioned, Cognitive Ethnography can be used as an attempt to provide evidence of construct validity. This approach, developed by Cronbach & Meehl (1955), posits that a researcher should provide a theoretical framework for what is being measured, an empirical framework for how it is to be measured, and specification of the linkage between these two frameworks. The idea is to link the conceptual/theoretical with the observable and examine the extent to which a construct, such as comprehension, behaves as it was expected to within a set of related constructs. One should attempt to demonstrate convergent validity by showing that measures that are theoretically supposed to be highly interrelated are, in practice, highly interrelated, and, that measures that shouldn’t be related to each other in fact are not.

This approach, the Nomological network is intended to increase construct validity, and external validity, as will be used in the example, the generalization from one study context, such as the laboratory, to another context, i.e., people, places, times. When we claim construct validity, we are essentially claiming that our observed pattern — how things operate in reality — corresponds with our theoretical pattern — how we think the world works.  To do this, it is important to move outside of laboratory settings to observe the complex ways in which individuals and groups adapt to naturally occurring, culturally constituted activities.  By extending theory building with different approaches to research questions, and move from contexts observed in the wild, then refined in the laboratory, and then used as a lens in field observation.

The pattern fits deductive/ inductive framework:

  • Deductive: theory, hypothesis, observation, and confirmation
  • Inductive: observation, pattern, tentative hypothesis,

These two approaches to research have a different purpose and approach. Most social research involves both inductive and deductive reasoning processes at some time in the project. It may be more reasonable to look at deductive/inductive approaches as a mixed, circular approach. Since cognition can be seen as embodied in cultural artifacts and behavior, cognitive ethnography is an apt methodology for the study of learning with games, in virtual worlds, and the study of activity systems, whether they are mediated digitally or not. By using the deductive/inductive approach, and expanding observation, one can contrast and challenge theoretical arguments by testing in expanded context.

Cognitive ethnography emphasizes inductive field observation, but also uses theory in a deductive process to analyze behavior. This approach is useful to increase external validity, operationalize terms, and develop content validity through expanding a study across new designs, across different time frames, in different programs, from different observational contexts, and with different groups (Cook and Campbell, 1979; Campbell & Stanley, 1966).

More specifically, cognitive ethnography emphasizes observation and key feature analysis of space, objects, concepts, actions, tools, rules, roles, and language. Study of these features can help the researcher determine the organization, transfer, and representation of information (Hutchins, 2010; 1995).


As stated, cognitive ethnography assumes that human cognition adapts to its natural surroundings. Therefore, the role of cognitive ethnographer is to transform observational data and interpretation into meaningful representations so that cognitive properties of the system become visible (Hutchins, 2010; 1995).

According to Hutchins (2010) study of the space where an activity takes place is a primary feature of observation in cognitive ethnography. He lists three kinds of important spaces for consideration (See Figure 2)


Just as a book is organized to present information, games also structure narratives, and are themselves cultural artifacts containing representation of tools, rules, language, and context (Dubbels, 2008). This makes cognitive ethnography an apt methodology for the study of games, simulations, narrative, and human interaction in authentic context.

Because this emphasis on space is also indicative of current approaches to literacy (Leander, 2002; Leander & Sheehy, 2004); as well as critical science and the studied interaction between the internal world of the self and the structures found in the world, and how we communicate about them (Soja, 1996; Lefebvre, 1994); also from the tradition of ecological views on cognitive psychological perspectives (Gibson, 1986),; and in the case of the example, Discourse Processing (Zwaan, Langston, & Graesser, 1996). Because of the emphasis in ontology and purpose of the method align so closely with the variables identified in the Discourse Processing model (Zwann, Langston, & Graesser, 1996), it was applicable as a methodological approach to create a convergence of theory and tradition predicated upon an approach that aligns in purpose with analysis and question.


As an example, Dubbels (2008) used cognitive ethnography to observe video game play at an afterschool video game club. The purpose of this observation was to explore video game play as a literate practice in an authentic context.  The cognitive ethnography methodology was recruited to utilize peer reviewed empirical research from laboratory studies—utilizing narrative discourse processing to interpret the key variables—to extend construct validity and observe whether the laboratory outcomes appeared in authentic, native contexts.

This allowed the researcher to interpret observations of authentic video game play in an authentic space through the lens of empirical laboratory work at an afterschool video game club.

Guiding question

The focus on space and social context, and the methodology for this example of cognitive ethnography explored a statement from O’Brien & Dubbels (2004, p. 2),

Reading is more unlike the reading students are doing outside of school than at any point in the recent history of secondary schools, and high stakes, print-based assessments are tapping skills and strategies that are increasingly unlike those that adolescents use from day to day.

These day-to-day skills and strategies were viewed as literate practice and theoretically.

They led to the guiding question:

  • Can games be described as a literate practice as has been described by theoreticians?

If so, this should be apparent through:

  • Observing game play
  • Understanding the game narrative and controls,
  • And doing analysis of interaction and behavior.   Should the words behind the bullets be capitalized since you have it in sentence form?


The guiding question: whether games could be viewed as a literate practice was extended to create a hypothesis to test:

  • Can the literate practice of gaming be used to facilitate greater success with printed text?

The hypothesis would be tested through examination of game play narratives and printed text narratives—as described in the Nomological network section; this would be an deductive/inductive process. The use of the variables from the Event Indexing Model could be used for identifying levels of discourse and the ability to create a mental representation after the inductive observation process.

The hypothesis was predicated upon the theory that familiarity with patterns in text, from symbolic representations such as words, sentences, images, and story grammars. The story grammar being “once upon a time,” in a game might be used as a developmental analog to help struggling readers predict the structure and purpose of print narratives by helping them to expect certain events, characters, and settings and help the reader to become more efficient. In essence, they would have expectations that “once upon a time” leads to “happily ever after”, and other genre patterns attributable to transmedial narrative genre patterns.

The theory is that a reader may be capable of compensation, i.e., the use genre patterns and predictive inference as higher-level process in order to support lower-level process (Stanovich, 2000). It was proposed that to develop meaningful comprehension, the propositional and situation levels might be built upon for building mental representation of printed narrative text with the game.

Context and Variables for Coding and Analysis

Literate activities were codified based upon a well-established model of discourse processing, The Event Indexing Model (Zwann, Langston, & Graesser, 1996). The Event Indexing Model offered five levels of discourse processing: Surface Level, Propositional Level, Situation Level, Genre Level, and Author Communication.

These levels offer an opportunity to view comprehension as a transmedial trait across discourse.The Situation Level (figure 5) is composed of two sub-levels of the variable. These are aspects of mental representation called the Dimensions of Mental Representation and are composed of: time, space, characters, causation, and goals.  These variables of the discourse-processing model were used to code the transcripts from the game club audio/video games, and context in order to explore the familiarity the students had with patterns in discourse, and their ability to recognize and process them. In order to observe the literate activities of students in their chosen medium, we offered the after school game club to students who had been selected by school district professionals for reading remediation courses outside of the mainstream.  The video game play and activity space was analyzed from direct observation and analysis of audio/video recordings and photos taken during the activity.

Conceptual Space Analysis

Walkthroughs of the game were used to look at decision making through navigation of the game.

A Walkthrough, according to Dubbels (in Beach, Anson, Breuch, & Swiss eds, 2009), is a document that describes how to proceed through a level or particular game challenge. Walkthroughs are created by the game developer or players and often include video, audio, text, and static images—offering strategies, maps through levels, the locations of objects, and important and subtle elements of the game.

In order to have a thorough understanding of possible the goals, actions, and behaviors available in the game, a number of walkthroughs were analyzed along with the game controls, and maps for optimal play—Figure 4.

Physical Space Analysis

To create the cognitive ethnography of the video game play, two video captures were used: one to record the screen activity, and one to record player interaction with the game and play space. Because the player of the game was often highly engaged with problem solving and reacting to the game environment, there was often little-to-no dialog or variation in expression and body language – however, play was often done in the company of others. This was informative as the discussion, encouragement, and advice displayed the social and cultural knowledge of the strategies of game play. In addition, a still camera was made available for the students to take pictures for their club. This included digital pictures of the games screens and each other playing, or whatever they felt was interesting.

Social Space Analysis

The audio and video, and still images were used for analysis of the social space, as well as the physical space. However, another level of data collection involved showing the player the video recording of their play and action in the room were used for a “reflect aloud” (Ericsson & Simon, 1983) for them to describe their play and social interaction.  The key feature was not only observing the play, but also identifying theories of relationships, cognition and social learning—“what were you thinking there?” was the main question asked. This dialogue served to explain the player’s reasoning and decisions  without overt interpretation by the observer. This enhanced the description, and connected the naturalistic game play to the laboratory, and then back to behavior in the wild.

It was this exploration of theory that led to the study of struggling readers using video games as methods for observing levels of mental representation and recall in game play and reading. Using the Cognition Ethnographic approach allowed for comparison of students observed playing video games with friends, the dialog and behaviors that constituted game play as a literacy (Gee, 2007; Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996.) and their formal academic reading behaviors. Because the boys were observed in a formal laboratory setting, it was possible to make comparisons of their game play in the informal, or wild, autonomy supporting space.


Examples of Analysis

An example of the game play observation comes from Dubbels (2008, p. 265):

Since Darius seemed to know what he was talking about, he went next, and as he played, the other boys watched and were excited with what Darius was able to do. Darius seemed happy to demonstrate what he knew. While I was recording, the boys described Darius’ play and shared ideas enthusiastically about how the game worked and looked forward to their chance to play. As Darius made a move where he showed how to do a double bomb jump, the boys watched intently. The way it was explained was that you lay a bomb, and right before that bomb explodes, set a second one, then set a third just before you reach the very top of the jump. You should fall and land said the easiest way “is to count out: 1, 2, 3, 4.”

And he laid the bombs on 1, 3, and 4. The boys were excited about this, as well as Darius’ willingness to show them. What was clear was that Darius had not only had played the game before, and as I questioned him more later I found that he had read about it and applied what he had read. He had performed a knowledge act demonstrating comprehension.

The other boys were eager to try some of the things Darius had shown them, and Darius was happy to relinquish the controller. What happened from there was that Darius watched for a while and then walked over to the Xbox, and then to the bank of computers. I left the camera to record the boys paying Metroid Prime and I walked over to see what Darius was doing. He showed me a site on the Internet where he was reading about the game. He had gone to a fan site where another gamer had written a record of what each section of the game was like, what the challenges were, cool things to do, and cool things to find. I asked him if this was cheating; he said “maybe” and smiled. He said that it made the game more fun and that he could find more “cool stuff” and it helps him to understand how to win easier and what to look for.

This idea of secondary sources to better understand the game makes a lot of sense to me. It is a powerful strategy that informs comprehension as described previously in this chapter. The more prior knowledge a person has before reading or playing, the more likely they are to comprehend it fully. Secondary sources can help the player by supporting them in preconceiving the dimensions of Level 3 in the comprehension model, and with that knowledge, the player may have an understanding of what to expect, what to do, and where to focus attention for better success. Darius has clearly displayed evidence that he knows what it takes to be a competent comprehender He had clearly done the work in looking for secondary sources and was motivated to read with a specific purpose—to know what games he wants to try and to be good at those games. His use of secondary sources showed that he was able to draw information from a variety of sources, synthesize them, and apply his conclusion with practice to see if it works.

One of the key features of the cognitive ethnography is the realization that even the smallest of human activities are loaded with interesting cognitive phenomena. In order to do this correctly, one should choose an activity setting for observation, establish rapport, and record what is happening to stop the action for closer scrutiny. This can be done with photos, video, audio recording, and notebook.  The key feature is event segmentation, structure in the events, and then interpretation.

As was presented in the passage from Dubbels (2008), analysis was done describing the social network surrounding the game play of one boy describing the different spaces, and the behaviors of the boys surrounding him. The link to game play and strategy for successfully navigating the video game can be considered an analog to how young people read print text when a model is used as a framework for analysis.

One can then connect the cultural organization with the observed processes of meaning making. This allows patterns and coherence in the data to become visible through identification of logical relations and cultural schemata. This allowed for description of engaged learning when the video students approached the game, their social relations, and how they managed the information related to success in the game, reading the directions, taking direction from others, secondary sources, and development of comprehension during discourse processing compared to the laboratory setting.

In order to see if there was transfer, students were asked to work with the investigator in a one-on-one read aloud in a laboratory setting. The student was asked to read a short novel, Seed People, to the investigator for parallels and congruency between interaction of narratives found in game play, and traditional print-based narratives found in the classroom.

What I noticed in talking to them about Seed People was that they would read without stopping. They would just roll right through the narrative until I would ask them to stop and tell me about what they thought was going on, with no thought of looking at the situations and events that framed each major scene, and then connecting these scenes as a coherent whole as is described earlier in the chapter as an act of effective comprehension.

In one case Stephen made interesting connections between what he saw with an older boy in the story and the struggles his brother was having in real life. I just wondered if he would have made that connection if I had not stopped at the close of that event to talk about it and make connections. This ability to chunk events and make connections, as situations change and the mental representation are updated, is important for transition points in the incremental building of a comprehensive model of a story or experience.

When working to teach reading with this information, it is important to connect to prior knowledge and build and compare the new information to prior situation models or prior experience. Consider a storyboard or a comic strip where each scene is defined and then the next event is framed. Readers need to learn to create these frames when comprehending text. Each event in a text should then be integrated and developed as an evolution of ideas presented as each scene builds with new information; the model is updated and expanded.

If the event that is currently being processed overlaps with the events in working memory on a particular dimension, then a link between those events is established, then a link between those events is stored in long-term memory. Overlap is determined based on two events sharing an index (i.e., a time, place, protagonist, cause, or goal). (Goldman, Graesser, & van den Broek, 1999, p. 94)

In this instance with Stephen, there were many opportunities for analysis with the spaces described by Hutchins. The boy made connections to family outside of the novel, to his brother, to make it meaningful and also chunk a large section of the book as an event he could relate to. There was also the description of the setting, where Stephen was not pausing or processing the narrative in his reading. The activity did not include any social learning or modeling from friends and contemporaries, but resonated the controlled formal environment of school.

Thus, it was concluded that we must build our understanding in multiple spaces. The attributes of the situation model were made much more robust and much more easily accessible when prior knowledge was recruited and connected with the familiar..

Two types of prior knowledge support this in the Event Indexing Model:

• General world knowledge (pan-situational knowledge about concept types, e.g., scripts, schemas, categories, etc.), and

• Referent specific knowledge (pan-situational knowledge about specific entities).

These two categories represent experience in the world and literary elements used in defining genre and style as described from the Event Indexing Model. The theory posits that if a reader has more experience with the world that can be tapped into, and also knowledge and experience about the structure of stories, he or she is more likely to have a deeper understanding of the passage. In the case of the game players, it was seen to be important for seeking secondary sources, as well as copying the modeled behavior of successful players like Darius and segmenting action into manageable events. This was also evident when the students were asked to read aloud print text from the Seed People novel. The students, like Stephen showed they had difficulty segmenting events, or situations, just like they had difficulty with game play.

Of the fourteen regular students in the club, only two were successful with the games. After further interview and analysis, the two successful gamers, who showed awareness of game story grammar and narrative patterns were found to lack confidence in printed text. However, they were able to leverage the narrative awareness strategies from games to leverage print text form secondary sources in order to help them successfully p;ay the games. Conversely, the twelve students who struggled had to learn the help seeking strategies and narrative awareness.


For this study, cognitive ethnography was an appropriate methodology as it allowed for observation and analysis of the social and cultural context to inform the cognitive approach taken by the game players. It improved external validity from the laboratory study by applying the same construct to a new time, place, group, and methodology. The cognitive ethnography methodology presents an opportunity to move between inductive and deductive inquiry and observation to build a Nomological network. The cognitive ethnography methodology can provide opportunity to extend laboratory findings into authentic, autonomy supporting contexts, and opportunities to understand the social and cultural behaviors that surround the activities–thus increasing generalizability.  This opportunity to use hypothesis testing in an authentic setting can provide a more suitable methodology for usability and translation for other contexts like the classroom, professional development, product design, and leisure studies.


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The visual span for reading refers to the range of letters, formatted as in text, that can be recognized reliably without moving the eyes. It is likely that the size of the visual span is determined primarily by characteristics of early visual processing. It has been hypothesized that the size of the visual span imposes a fundamental limit on reading speed (Legge, Mansfield, & Chung, 2001). The goal of the present study was to investigate developmental changes in the size of the visual span in school-age children, and the potential impact of these changes on children’s reading speed. The study design included groups of 10 children in 3rd, 5th, and 7th grade, and 10 adults. Visual span profiles were measured by asking participants to recognize letters in trigrams (random strings of three letters) flashed for 100 ms at varying letter positions left and right of the fixation point. Two print sizes (0.25° and 1.0°) were used. Over a block of trials, a profile was built up showing letter recognition accuracy (% correct) versus letter position. The area under this profile was defined to be the size of the visual span. Reading speed was measured in two ways: with Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) and with short blocks of text (termed Flashcard presentation). Consistent with our prediction, we found that the size of the visual span increased linearly with grade level and it was significantly correlated with reading speed for both presentation methods. Regression analysis using the size of the visual span as a predictor indicated that 34% to 52% of variability in reading speeds can be accounted for by the size of the visual span. These findings are consistent with a significant role of early visual processing in the development of reading skills.
Keywords: Letter Recognition, Reading speed, Development
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Developmental Changes in the Visual Span for Reading

MiYoung Kwon,a Gordon E. Legge,a and Brock R. Dubbelsb
a Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Elliott Hall, 75 East River Rd. Minneapolis, MN 55455 USA
b College of Education & Human Development, University of Minnesota, Burton Hall, 178 Pillsbury Dr., Minneapolis MN 55455 USA
Corresponding Author: MiYoung Kwon, 75 East River Rd, Minneapolis, MN, TEL: 612-296-6131; EMAIL:kwon0064@umn.edu
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Children’s reading speed increases throughout the school years. According toCarver (1990), from grade 2 to college, the average reading rate increases about 14 standard-length words per minute1 each year. Learning to read involves becoming proficient in phonological, linguistic and perceptual components of reading (Aghababian, & Nazir, 2000). By age 7, normally sighted children reach nearly adult levels of visual acuity (Dowdeswell, Slater, Broomhall, & Tripp, 1995). By first grade, typically 6 years of age, most of them know the alphabet. Nevertheless, reading speed takes a long time to reach adult levels.
Many studies have addressed potential explanations for developmental changes in reading skills. Because it is often assumed that visual development is complete by the beginning of grade school, most studies have focused on the role of phonological or linguistic skills in learning to read (e.g., Adams, 1990; Goswami & Bryant, 1990;Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Taylor, 1997). Consistent with this focus, one widely accepted view is that linguistic skills are predictive of reading performance and serve as the locus of differences in reading ability. According to this view, skilled and less skilled readers extract the same amount of visual information during the time course of an eye fixation, but skilled readers have more rapid access to letter name codes (e.g., Jackson & McClelland, 1979; Neuhaus, Foorman, Francis, & Carlson, 2001), make better use of linguistic structure to augment the visual information (Smith, 1971), or process the information more efficiently through a memory system (Morrison, Giordani, & Nagy, 1977) (as cited in Mason, 1980, p. 97). It is further argued that inefficient eye movement control observed in less skilled readers is a reflection of linguistic processing difficulty (Rayner, 1986, 1998) rather than a symptom of perceptual difference per se.
Stanovich and colleagues have critiqued the general view that differences in reading skill are primarily due to top-down linguistic influences. See Stanovich (2000, Ch. 3) for a review. Stanovich (2000) has summarized findings showing that recognition time for isolated words is highly correlated with individual differences in reading fluency. This work has focused interest on the speed of perceptual processing, rather than top-down cognitive or linguistic influences, in accounting for individual differences in normal reading performance. The differences in word-recognition time among normally sighted subjects could be due to differences in the transformation from visual to phonological representations of words, or to differences at an earlier, purely visual, level of representation. In short, it remains plausible that individual differences in reading skill, and also the development of reading skill, are at least partially due to differences in visual processing.
Five lines of evidence implicate vision as a factor influencing reading development. 1) The characteristics of children’s reading eye movements differ from those of adults, showing smaller and less precise saccades than adults (Kowler, & Martins, 1985). 2)Mason and Katz (1976) found that good and poor readers among 6th-grade children differed in their ability to identify the relative spatial position of letters. Farkas and Smothergill (1979) also found that performance on a position encoding task improved with grade level in children in 1st, 3rd and 5th grade. 3) It was found that children’s reading ability was associated with orientation errors in letter recognition such as confusing d and b, or p and q. stressing the role of visual-orthographic skill in reading (e.g., Davidson, 1934, 1935; Cairns, & Setward, 1970; Terepocki, Kruk, & Willows, 2002). 4) More direct evidence for the involvement of visual processing in children’s reading development was obtained by O’Brien, Mansfield and Legge (2005). They observed that the critical print size for reading decreases with increasing age. (Critical print size refers to the smallest print size at which fast, fluent reading is possible.) A similar character-size dependency of reading performance was also observed by Hughes and Wilkins (2000) and Cornelissen et al. (1991). 5) Letter recognition, a necessary component process in word recognition (e.g., Pelli, Farell, & Moore, 2003), is known to be degraded by interference from neighboring letters (Bouma, 1970). This crowding effect decreases with age in school-age children (Bondarko & Semenov, 2005) and is significantly worse in children with developmental dyslexia compared with normal readers (Spinelli, De Luca, Judica, & Zoccolotti, 2002). It should also be noted that there is a related debate in the literature over the role of visual factors in dyslexia, especially the impact of visual processing in the magnocellular pathway. For competing views, see the reviews by Stein and Walsh (1997) and Skottun (2000a; 2000b).
Collectively, the empirical findings briefly summarized above suggest a role for early visual processing in the development of reading skills. The question of whether there is an early perceptual locus for reading differences is an important one to resolve both for a better understanding of the reading process and for remediation purposes. In the present paper, we ask whether vision plays a role in explaining the known developmental changes in reading speed.
Legge, Mansfield and Chung (2001) studied the relationship between reading speed and letter recognition. They proposed that the size of the visual span2 – the range of letters, formatted as in text, that can be recognized reliably without moving the eyes – covaries with reading speed. They also proposed that shrinkage of the visual span may play an important role in explaining reduced reading speed in low vision. Work in our lab has shown that for adults with normal vision, manipulation of text contrast and print size (Legge, Cheung, Yu, Chung, Lee, & Owens, 2007), character spacing (Yu, Cheung, Legge, & Chung, 2007), and retinal eccentricity (Legge, et al., 2001) produce highly correlated changes in reading speed and the size of the visual span.Pelli, Tillman, Freeman, Su, Berger, and Majaj (in press) have recently shown that a similar concept, which they term “uncrowded span,” is directly linked to reading speed. The influential role of the size of the visual span in reading speed was also demonstrated in a computational model called “Mr. Chips”, which uses the size of the visual span as a key parameter (Legge, Klitz, & Tjan, 1997; Legge, Hooven, Klitz, Mansfield, & Tjan, 2002). These empirical and theoretical findings provide growing evidence for a linkage between reading speed and the size of the visual span.
We measured the visual spans of children at three grade levels to examine developmental changes in early visual processing. The size of the visual span was measured using a trigram3 (random strings of three letters) identification task (Legge, et al., 2001). In this method, participants are asked to recognize letters in trigrams flashed briefly at varying letter positions left and right of the fixation point as shown in the top panel of Figure 1. Over a block of trials, a visual-span profile is built up – a plot of letter recognition accuracy (% correct) as a function of letter position left and right of fixation – as shown in the bottom panel of Figure 1. These profiles quantify the letter information available for reading. The method of measurement means that the profiles are largely unaffected by oculomotor factors and top-down contextual factors. Trigram identification captures two major properties of visual processing required for reading: letter identification and encoding of the relative positions of letters.
Figure 1 

Visual Span Profile. Top: Illustrates that trials consist of the presentation of trigrams, random strings of three letters, at specified letter positions left and right of fixation. Bottom: Example of a visual-span profile, in which letter recognition (more …)
We distinguish between the concept of the visual span and the concept of the perceptual span (McConkie, & Rayner, 1975). Operationally, the perceptual span refers to the region of visual field that influences eye movements and fixation times in reading. The size of the perceptual span is typically measured using either the moving window technique (McConkie, & Rayner, 1975) or moving mask technique(Rayner, & Bertera, 1979). The perceptual span is estimated to extend about 15 characters to the right of fixation and four characters to the left of fixation. Rayner (1986) argued that the perceptual span reflects readers’ linguistic processing or overall cognitive processing rather than visual processing per se. On the other hand, the visual span is relatively immune to oculomotor and top-down contextual influences, and is likely to be primarily determined by the characteristics of front-end visual processing.
Rayner (1986) measured the size of the perceptual span and characteristics of saccades and fixation times in children in second, fourth and sixth grades, and in adults. He found an increase in the size of the perceptual span and a decrease in fixation times with age. These oculomotor changes could be due to maturation in eye movement control, or to secondary factors influencing eye movement control (either bottom-up visual factors, or top-down cognitive factors). Rayner (1986) attributed the developmental changes in eye movements to top-down cognitive factors because the size of the perceptual span and fixation duration were found to be dependent on the text difficulty. For example, he found that when children in fourth grade were given age appropriate text material, their fixation times and the size of the perceptual span became close to those of adults.
To confirm that oculomotor maturation is not the major source of developmental changes in reading speed, we tested our participants with two types of reading displays. First, Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) reading minimizes the need for intra-word reading saccades, and removes the reader’s control of fixation times. Second, in our Flashcard method, participants read short blocks of text requiring normal reading eye movements. If maturation of eye-movement control is an important contributor to the development of reading speed, we would expect to observe a greater developmental effect in flashcard reading compared with RSVP reading. To the extent that growth in the size of the visual span is a contributor to the development of reading speed, we would expect to find a similar positive correlation with reading speed for both types of displays.
We also asked whether letter size affects the size of the visual span. Print size in children’s books is usually larger than for adult books. The typical print size for children’s books ranges from 5 to 10 mm in x-height, equivalent to 0.72 to 1.43 deg at a viewing distance of 40 cm (Hughes & Wilkins, 2002). Hughes and Wilkins (2000)found that the reading speed of children aged 5 to 7 years decreased as the text size decreased below this range while older children aged 8 to 11 years were less dependent on letter size. O’Brien et al. (2005) reported that the critical print size (CPS) decreases with increasing age in school-age children, showing that younger children need a larger print size in order to reach their maximum reading speed than older children. The critical print size (CPS) for adults is close to 0.2° (Legge, Pelli, Rubin & Schleske, 1985; Mansfield, Legge, & Bane, 1996). It has also been observed that the size of the visual span shows the same dependence on character size as reading speed (Legge, et al., 2007). It is possible that the use of larger print in children’s books reflects the need for larger print size to maximize reading speed. In this study, we used two letter sizes −0.25°, which is slightly above the CPS of adults and 1°, which is substantially larger than the CPS. Our goal was to assess the impact of this difference on the size of the visual span and reading speed for children.
We summarize the goals of this study as follows:
First, we hypothesize that developmental changes in the size of the visual span play a role in the developmental increase in reading speed. To test this hypothesis, we measured the size of the visual span and reading speed for children at three grade levels4 (3rd, 5th and 7th) and for young adults. A testable prediction of the hypothesis is that the visual span increases in size with age and is positively correlated with reading speed.
Secondary goals were to 1) examine the effect of letter size on the development of the visual span; and 2) to assess the influence of oculomotor control with a comparison of RSVP and flashcard reading.
2.1. Participants
Groups of 10 children in 3rd, 5th, and 7th grade and 10 adults (college students) participated in this study. The children were recruited from the Minneapolis public schools. They were all screened to have normal vision and to be native English speakers. Students with reading disabilities, speech problems or cognitive deficits were excluded. Cooperating teachers at the schools were asked to select students in each grade level to approximately match students for IQ and academic standing across grade levels. Ten college students were recruited from the University of Minnesota with the same criteria. For each participant, visual acuity and reading acuity were assessed with the Lighthouse Near Acuity Test and MNREAD chart respectively. Proper refractive correction for the viewing distance was made. All participants were paid $10.00 per hour. Informed consent was obtained from parents or the legal guardian in addition to the assent of children in accordance with procedures approved by the internal review board of the University of Minnesota. The mean age, visual acuity, and gender ratio for participants in the different grades are provided in Table 1.
Table 1
Table 1 

Mean Age, Visual Acuity and Gender Ratio for Participants
2.2. Stimuli
Trigrams, random strings of three letters, were used to measure visual-span profiles. Letters were drawn from the 26 lowercase letters of the English alphabet (repeats were possible). By chance some of the trigrams are three-letter English words (e.g. dog, fog) which might be easier to recognize. However, the chance of getting a word trigram is less than 2% which is not likely to have much influence on the overall letter recognition accuracy (c.f. Legge et al., 2001).
All letters were rendered in a lower case Courier bold font (Apple Mac) – a serif font with fixed width and normal spacing. The letters were dark on a white background (84 cd/m2) with a contrast of about 95%. Letter size is defined as the visual angle subtended by the font’s x-height. The x-height of 0.25° and 1° character size corresponded to 6 pixels and 24 pixels. The viewing distance for all testing was 40cm. The same font was used for measuring reading speeds (see below).
The stimuli were generated and controlled using Matlab (version 5.2.1) and Psychophysics Toolbox extensions (Brainard, 1997; Pelli, 1997). They were rendered on a SONY Trinitron color graphic display (model: GDM-FW900; refresh rate: 76 Hz; resolution: 1600×1024). The display was controlled by a Power Mac G4 computer (model: M8570).
Oral reading speed was measured with two methods–Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) and a static text display (Flashcard). The pool of test material consisted of 187 sentences in the original MNREAD format developed for testing reading speed by Legge, Ross, Luebker and LaMay (1989). All the sentences were 56 characters in length. In the Flashcard presentation, the sentences were formatted into four lines of 14 characters (Fig. 2.b.).
Figure 2 

Schematic Diagram of RSVP (a.) and Flashcard (b) reading speed tasks and Sample sentences (c).
The mean word length was 3.94 letters and 93% of the 1581 unique words occur in the 2000 most frequent words based on The Educator’s Word Frequency Guide(Zeno, Ivens, Millard, & Duvvuri, 1995). Mean difficulty of the sentences in the pool was 4.77 (Gunning’s Fog Index), and 1.34 (Flesh-Kincaid Index). According toCarver’s (1976) formula5, the mean difficulty level is below 2nd grade level. Allowing for differences in these metrics, the difficulty of the sentences is roughly 2nd to 4thgrade level. Sample sentences are presented in Figure 2.c. We divided the sentence pool into three sub-pools so that there were separate, non-overlapping sets of sentences for RSVP, Flashcard, and practice. Sentences were selected randomly without replacement, so that no subject saw the same sentence more than once during testing.
2.3. Measuring Visual-Span Profiles
Visual-span profiles were measured using a letter recognition task, as described in the Introduction. Trigrams were presented with their middle letter at 11 letter positions, including 0 (the letter position at fixation) and from 1 to 5 letter widths left and right of the 0 position. Trigram position was indexed by the middle letter of the trigram. For instance, a trigram abc at the position +3 had the b located in position 3 to the right of the 0 letter position, and a trigram at position −3 had its middle letter three letter positions to the left.
Each of the 11 trigram positions was tested 10 times, in a random order, within a block of 110 trials. The task of the participant was to report the three letters from left to right. A letter was scored as being identified correctly only if its order within the trigram was also correct. Feedback was not provided to the participants about whether or not their responses were correct.
Participants were instructed to fixate between two vertically separated fixation points (Fig. 1) on the computer screen during trials. Since there was no way of predicting on which side of fixation the trigram would appear, and the exposure time was too brief to permit useful eye movements, the participants understood that there was no advantage to deviate from the intended fixation. All participants had practice trials in the trigram test, RSVP test and Flashcard test prior to data collection. Participants were verbally encouraged to fixate carefully between the dots at the beginning of a trial.
Proportion correct recognition was measured at each of the letter slots and combined across the trigram trials in which the letter slot was occupied by the outer (the furthest letter from fixation), middle, or inner (the one closest to fixation) letter of a trigram. This means that although trigrams were centered at a given position only 10 times in a block, data from that position were based on 30 trials. As described in the Introduction, a visual span profile consists of percent correct letter recognition as a function of position left and right of fixation. These profiles are fit with “split Gaussians”, that is, Gaussian curves that are characterized with amplitude (the peak value at letter position 0), and the left and right standard deviations (the breadth of the curve). These profiles usually peak at the midline and decline in the left and right visual fields. The profiles are often slightly broader on the right of the peak (Legge et al., 2001).
As described in the Introduction and illustrated in Figure 1 (i.e., the right vertical scale), percent correct letter recognition can be linearly transformed to information transmitted in bits. The information values range from 0 bits for chance accuracy of 3.8% correct (the probability of correctly guessing one of 26 letters) to 4.7 bits for 100% accuracy (Legge et al., 2001)6. The size of the visual span is quantified by summing across the information transmitted in each slot (similar to computing the area under the visual-span profile). Lower and narrower visual span profiles transmit fewer bits of information. In the Results, the size of the visual span will be quantified in units of bits of information transmitted.
Visual-span profiles were measured for each participant at two letter sizes (0.25° and 1°). In both cases, the stimulus exposure time was 100ms. The order of the two conditions was interleaved both within participants and across participants (e.g. participant A started with 1° letter size while participant B started with 0.25° letter size, and so on).
2.4. Measuring Reading Speed
Oral reading speed was measured with two testing methods: Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) and static text (Flashcard method). For both testing conditions, the method of constant stimuli was used to present sentences at five exposure times in logarithmically spaced steps, spanning ~ 0.7 log units. For both reading speed tasks, the two letter size conditions were interleaved. The testing session was preceded by a practice session. During this session, the range of exposure times for each participant was chosen in order to make sure that at least 80% correct response (percent of words correct in a sentence) was obtained at the longest exposure time.
For RSVP, the sentences were presented sequentially one word at a time at the same screen location (i.e., the first letter of each word occurred at the same screen location). There was no blank frame (inter-stimulus interval) between words. Each sentence was preceded and followed by strings of x’s as shown in Figure 2.a. In the Flashcard reading test, an entire sentence was presented on the screen as shown inFigure 2.b.
For both tasks, participants initiated each trial by pressing a key. They were instructed to read the sentences aloud as quickly and accurately as possible. Participants were allowed to complete their verbal response at their own speed, not under time pressure. A word was scored as correct, even if given out of order, e.g., a correction at the end of a sentence, the number of words read correctly per sentence was recorded. Five sentences were tested for each exposure time and percent correct word recognition was computed at each exposure time.
Psychometric functions, percent correct versus log RSVP or log Flashcard exposure times, were created by fitting these data with cumulative Gaussian functions (Wichmann, & Hill, 2001a) as shown in Figure 3. The four panels represent four sets of data from RSVP and Flashcard tasks at two letter sizes. Five data points in each panel represent percent words correct in a sentence for RSVP and for Flashcard. The threshold exposure time, for words of a given length was based on the 80% correct point on the psychometric function. For example, in RSVP, if an exposure time of 200 msec per word yielded 80% correct, the reading rate was 5 words per second, equals to 300 wpm. For Flashcard, if the exposure time was 2 sec and the participant read 8 words correctly out of ten, the corresponding reading speed was 4 words per second, equals to 240 wpm.
Figure 3 

Proportion of words read correctly is plotted as a function of exposure time in sec per word for RSVP and exposure time in sec per sentence for Flashcards (Participant S1, 7th grader). The top two panels show RSVP and Flashcard data for letter size 0.25°. (more …)
Three dependent variables were measured: the size of the visual span, RSVP reading speed and flashcard reading speed. We conducted one ANOVA test for each measure. The grade level (3rd, 5th, 7th, and Adult) was treated as a categorical variable rather than numerical variable for the statistical analysis.
A 4 (grade) × 2 (letter size) repeated measures ANOVA with grade as a between-subject factor and letter size as a within-subject factor was tested on the size of the visual span. There was a significant main effect of grade level on the size of the visual span (F(3,36) = 9.54, p < 0.001). There was a significant interaction effect between grade level and letter size (F(3,36) = 3.46, p = 0.02). But no significant main effect of letter size on the size of the visual span was found.
A 4 (grade) × 2 (letter size) repeated measures ANOVA with grade as a between-subject factor and letter size as a within-subject factor was tested on RSVP and flashcard reading speeds separately. There was a main effect of grade level on RSVP reading speed (F(3, 36) = 7.80, p < 0.001) and Flashcard reading speed (F(3, 36) = 9.35, p < 0.001). No significant letter size effects on reading speed were found.
The effect of grade level on the size of the visual span and reading speed
The 4 × 2 repeated measure ANOVA test showed that there was a significant main effect of grade on the size of the visual span (η2 = 0.44, p < 0.01). A pairwise contrast test also showed that there were significant differences in the size of the visual span among all pairs of grades except between 3rd and 5th grades. The mean size of the visual span averaged across two letter sizes for the 10 participants is plotted for each grade in Figure 4. These results show that the visual span grows in size from 3rd grade (mean = 34.28 ± 1.17 bits) to adults (mean = 41.66 ± 0.87 bits). The effect size (using Cohen’s d) of the difference in the size of the visual span between 3rd grade and adults equals to 2.28.
Figure 4 

The size of the visual span for students in three grades and for adults. Each bar indicates the mean size of the visual span for 10 participants averaged across the two letter sizes. The error bars represent ±1 standard error of the mean.
We also found that there was a significant main effect of grade level on both RSVP (η2 = 0.39, p < 0.01) and Flashcard (η2 = 0.44, p < 0.01) reading speeds. Figure 5shows RSVP (left panel) and Flashcard (right panel) reading speeds (wpm) as a function of grade level. Open circles in both panels represent reading speeds for 1° letters, and the closed circles for 0.25° letters. Each data point represents the mean reading speed averaged across two letter sizes for a single participant.
Figure 5 

Reading speed (wpm) as a function of grade level for two letter sizes. Each error bar represents ±1 standard error of the mean. Open circles in both panels represent reading speeds for 1° letters, and the closed circles for 0.25° (more …)
As shown in Figure 5, there was a linear increase in both RSVP and flashcard reading speeds with grade level. As expected from prior research, RSVP reading speed was faster than Flashcard reading speed for all groups by an average factor of 1.58, which is fairly consistent with the results (i.e. a factor of 1.44) for a similar comparison by Yu et al. (2007). The growth in RSVP reading speed across grades exceeds the growth in flashcard reading speed, confirming the view that maturation of the oculomotor system is not a major factor associated with the growth in children’s reading speed.
The increment in flashcard reading speed per grade was consistent with earlier studies of page reading speed (Taylor, 1965; Carver, 1990; Tressoldi, Stella, & Faggella, 2001). Carver (1990) estimated that the growth in reading speed was 14 standard-length words per minute per grade level (where one standard-length word is equivalent to 6 characters). The average increment for Flashcard reading speed in our study was approximately 18 words per minute each year and its transformed value into Carver’s metric is 14 wpm, equal to Carver’s estimate.
Relationship between the size of the visual span and reading speed
Flashcard and RSVP reading speeds are plotted against the size of the visual span for our forty participants in Figures 6 and ​and77 respectively. The closed circles, open circles, closed squares, and open squares show data for 3rd, 5th, 7th grade, and adults respectively. The best-fitting lines for predicting reading speed from the size of the visual span are also shown.
Figure 6 

Flashcard reading speed (wpm) as a function of the size of the visual span. The solid line represents a regression line. Each point represents data for one participant. Closed circles, open circles, closed squares, and open squares represent data for (more …)
Figure 7 

RSVP reading speed (wpm) as a function of the size of the visual span. The solid line represents a regression line. Each point represents data for one participant. Closed circles, open circles, closed squares, and open squares represent data for 3rd, (more …)
There were significant correlations between the size of the visual span and Flashcard reading speed (r = 0.72, p < 0.01), and RSVP reading speed (r = 0.58, p = 0.01).
From the regression model for flashcard reading (Fig. 6), 52% of the variability of the reading speed can be accounted for by the size of the visual span (r2 = 0.52, p < 0.01). The slope of the regression line indicates that an increase in the size of the visual span by 1 bit brings about an increase in reading speed by 22 wpm. The effect size (Cohen’s d) is 2.29 for the difference in flashcard reading speed between 3rd graders and adults. Similarly, from the regression model for RSVP reading (Fig. 7), 33% of the variability of the reading speed can be accounted for by the size of the visual span (r2 = 0.34, p < 0.01). The slope of the regression line indicates that an increase in the size of the visual span by 1 bit brings about an increase in reading speed by 28 wpm. The effect size (Cohen’s d) is once again 2.29 for the difference in RSVP reading speed between 3rd graders and adults.
As described in the Methods section, reading speed was derived from the stimulus exposure time yielding 80% correct word recognition. To determine if the results were sensitive to this criterion, we reanalyzed the data with 70% and 90% criteria for defining reading speed. We found that the relationship between reading speed and the size of the visual span was not criterion dependent – correlations between size of the visual span and reading speed remained approximately the same across all three criteria (less than 0.01 differences in correlations).
The effects of letter size on the visual span and reading speed
We did not find a significant main effect of letter size on either the visual span or reading speeds in children. Contrary to the possibility raised in the Introduction, it does not appear that the use of larger print size in children’s books can be explained in terms of optimizing the size of the visual span.
While children in all three grade levels showed no dependence of letter size on the size of the visual span, adults showed slightly larger visual spans for 0.25° letters than for 1° letters (~ 3 bits). Legge et al. (2007) studied the effect of character size on the size of the visual span for a group of five young adults. They did not find a significant difference in the size of the visual span between 0.25° and 1°. We are unsure of the reason for the small discrepancy in the two studies.
Relationship between reading speed and the size of the visual span
It is obvious that visual processing is critical to print reading. It is not so obvious that individual differences in reading speed are linked to differences in visual processing nor that developmental changes in reading speed are influenced by visual factors. We have taken the theoretical position that front-end visual processing influences letter recognition which in turn influences reading speed. We have measured letter recognition in the form of visual-span profiles. The shape and size of these profiles are largely immune to top-down contextual factors and to oculomotor factors, and represent the bottom-up sensory information available to letter recognition and reading. The size of these profiles has been previously linked empirically and theoretically to reading speed (Legge, Mansfield & Chung, 2001; Legge et al., 2007). More specifically, it is hypothesized that the size of the visual span is an important determinant of reading speed.
As reviewed in the Introduction, it is known that children’s reading speed gradually increases throughout the school years (cf., Carver, 1990). The principal goal of our study was to determine whether visual development has an impact on this improvement in reading speed. We addressed this question by measuring changes in the size of the visual span across grade levels. Our hypothesis was that the size of the visual span would increase with grade level, and exhibit a correlation with reading speed.
These predictions were confirmed by our results. We found that there was a developmental growth in the size of the visual span from 3rd grade to adulthood paralleling growth in reading speed. A statistically significant 34% to 52% of the variance in reading speed could be accounted for by the size of the visual span.
Why does a larger visual span facilitate faster reading? For eye-movement mediated reading of lines of text on a page or screen (such as the flashcards in the present study), a larger visual span means that more letters can be recognized accurately on each fixation. With a larger visual span, longer words might be recognized on one fixation, or more letters of an adjacent word might be recognized if the fixated word is short (parafoveal preview). The effects of changing the size of the visual span were explored using an ideal-observer model, called Mr. Chips, by Legge, Klitz and Tjan (1997). Because a larger visual span means that more letters are recognized, the reader is able to make larger saccades; the greater mean saccade length facilitates faster reading. In the case of RSVP reading, there is no need for intra-word saccades or parafoveal preview of the leading letters of the next word. Only one word is visible at a time. In this case, we might speculate that the visual span need only be large enough to accommodate mean word length of the text (3.94 letters in the present study) or possibly the longest word in the text (8 letters in our text). If so, we might expect a weaker effect of visual-span size on RSVP reading speed, and possibly a ceiling once the visual span exceeded some critical value. These effects are not evident in the present data. Growth of the visual span manifests as both an increase in the breadth of visual-span profiles and also an increase in the height of the profiles, i.e., increasing letter-recognition accuracy in the central portion of the profile. The increased height of the profile could contribute to faster and more accurate recognition, even of relatively short strings. In other words, the graded form of the visual-span profile, and its potential growth in both height and breadth, can contribute to faster reading for both flashcard and RSVP text.
We recognize that our results are correlational in nature. It is possible that independent factors could drive the developmental changes in reading speed and size of the visual span. Although a causal link between the size of the visual span and reading speed remains to be proven, stronger evidence for a causal link has been provided by Legge, Cheung, Yu, Chung, Lee & Owens, 2007). These authors have amassed convergent data from several experiments on adults showing that the size of the visual span and reading speed vary in a highly correlated way in response to changes in stimulus parameters such as contrast and character size. For example, it is known that the dependence of reading speed on character size exhibits a nonmonotonic relationship in which reading speed has a maximum value for a range of intermediate character sizes, and decreases for larger and smaller character sizes. Legge et al. (2007) showed that the size of the visual span has the same nonmonotonic dependence on character size.
Sensory factors affecting the size of the visual span
What sensory factors might contribute to developmental changes in the size of the visual span? In the Introduction, we mentioned three candidate factors—errors in the relative position of letters in strings, orientation errors such as confusing b with d, and effects of crowding. We briefly comment on additional analyses of our visual-span data to address the roles of these factors.
Errors in relative spatial position (e.g., reporting bqx when the stimulus was qbx), sometimes termed mislocation errors, were evaluated by scoring trigram letter recognition in two ways; by demanding correct relative position for a letter to be correct, or by the more lenient criterion of scoring a letter correct if reported anywhere in the trigram string. The difference in percent correct by these two scoring methods is a measure of the rate of mislocation errors. An one-way ANOVA with grade (3rd, 5th, 7th, and Adult) as a between-subject factor revealed a significant main effect of grade on the rate of mislocation errors (F(3, 36) = 4.55, p < 0.01). The rate of mislocation errors increased with decreasing grade level (mean error rate for 3rd grade = 8.43 ± 1.1% and the mean error rate for adults = 4.25 ± 0.5%). Mislocation errors could be cognitive in origin, resulting from verbal-reporting mistakes, or visual in origin, resulting from imprecise coding of visual position. We think the latter is more likely because we found that the rate of mislocation errors was dependent on visual-field location, increasing at greater distances from fixation. This dependency of mislocation errors on letter position was consistent across all age groups.
We assessed orientation errors by measuring b and d confusions, and also p and qconfusions. Orientation errors are defined when b (or p) is reported instead of d (or p) and vice versa. The number of incorrect responses out of the total number of occurrence of b, p, d, and q is a measure of the rate of orientation errors. An one-way ANOVA with grade as a between-subject factor revealed a significant main effect of grade on the rate of orientation errors (F(3, 36) = 4.98, p < 0.01). Orientation errors decreased with increasing grade level (mean error rate for 3rd grade = 5.85 ± 0.40% vs. mean error rate for adults = 3.79 ± 0.38%). Since these children and adults would typically have no difficulty in distinguishing b from d, or p from q, in an untimed test of isolated letter recognition, we expect that these confusions result from the temporal demands of the trigram task or from adjacency of flanking letters (crowding) and have an impact on the size of the visual span.
In a separate preliminary report, based on this data set, we have shown that a decrease in crowding accounts for at least a portion of the growth in the size of visual span profiles across grade levels (Kwon & Legge, 2006). Pelli et al. (in press)have recently presented compelling theoretical and empirical arguments for the important role of crowding in limiting the size of the visual span (they use the term “uncrowded span”), although they did not address developmental changes in the size of the visual span.
In short, relative position errors, orientation errors and crowding may all play a role in developmental changes in the size of the visual span.
Oculomotor factors
It is also possible that fixation errors could play a role in the observed developmental changes in the size of the visual span. Indeed, it has been reported that children’s fixation stability increases with age from 4 to 15 years (Ygge, et al, 2005). If children erroneously fixated leftward or rightward of the intended location in our trigram task, performance would on average, suffer; the mean distance of trigrams from the fixation point would increase as the size of the fixational error increases. We conducted a simulation analysis to evaluate the impact on the size of the visual span of such fixation errors. The key parameter of the model was the variability in fixation positions, represented by the standard deviation of an assumed Gaussian distribution of fixation locations centered on the correct fixation mark. An average adult visual span was used as an input parameter for each Bernoulli trial to obtain proportion correct for each letter position. Over trials, we computed the size of the visual span in bits of information transmitted. Through 100 repetitions, we obtained the estimates of the size of the visual span for a given fixation error. For example, if the standard deviation was two letter positions (σ = 2), 68% of the fixation points in the simulated trials would lie within ±2 letter positions from the intended fixation mark. As expected the greater the fixation errors (i.e., larger standard deviations), the smaller the size of the resulting visual spans. The simulation results indicated that fixation variability would need to increase from a standard deviation of 0 to more than 3 letter positions to simulate our observed reduction in visual span size from adults to 3rd graders. Moreover, fixation errors of 3 letter spaces for 1° letters would correspond to fixation errors of 12 letter spaces for 0.25° letters, producing devastating effects on the size of the visual span for the smaller print size. Because we did not observe print size effects on the size of the visual span, and because the fixation errors deduced from our simulation seem implausibly large, we doubt that fixation errors account for the developmental differences in the size of the visual span.
We also observed a substantial growth in reading speed across grades even in the RSVP reading where the need for eye movements is minimized. This result also confirms the view that developmental changes in reading speed can not be solely explained by maturation of oculomotor control.
Non-visual factors
Although we have focused on the size of the visual span as a possible factor influencing reading development, our data indicate that this factor accounts for at most 30 to 50% of the variance in reading speeds across grade levels. Non-visual cognitive and linguistic factors must also contribute to developmental changes in reading speed. It is possible that accidental correlations of one of these factors with grade level could masquerade as an effect of visual span. For example, if reading speed is correlated with IQ, and some unknown selection bias resulted in increasing mean IQ across grade level, then IQ might underlie the correlations we found between reading speed and visual span. In the case of IQ, this seems highly unlikely. Although we did not control for or measure the IQ of our subjects, we have no reason to suspect that there were increases in IQ across grade levels. Even if such a sampling bias exists, O’Brien et al. (2005) found no effect of IQ on maximum oral reading speed and critical print size in a group of children (aged 6 to 8) tested with MNREAD sentences similar to those used in the present study.
As another example, it is possible that children’s ability to recognize and speak the words used in our testing material varied across grade levels, accounting for the correlation between reading speed and grade level. For example, if children in the lower grades were unable to recognize and articulate words in the test material, even for unlimited viewing time, the missed words would count as errors in our scoring and result in reduced reading speed. We did not test word decoding skills of our subjects on a standardized test such as the subsets of the Woodcock-Johnson III Cognitive and Achievement Batteries (Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001). We did, however, screen all of our subjects with the MNREAD acuity chart (for a review of its properties, see Mansfiel & Legge, 2007). This chart, although designed as a test of the effect of visual factors on maximum reading speed, critical print size and reading acuity, uses simple declarative sentences with vocabulary consisting of the 2,000 most frequent words in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade text. The sentence material on the MNREAD chart is very similar to the test material in the present study. None of the words was missed or read incorrectly by our children for sentences above their critical print sizes. These observations lead us to conclude that untimed word-decoding skill was not a limiting factor influencing performance across grade levels in our study.
As yet another example of a potential non-visual influence, the oral reporting method used in the trigram task for measuring visual-span profiles might reflect more than the ability to extract visual information. Performance in this task could be influenced by articulation programming, rapid access to letter naming, memory capacity, and reporting accuracy. Many studies using rapid automatized letter naming (RAN) have shown that those component skills are highly correlated with reading performance (e.g., Denckla & Rudel, 1976; Wolf, 1991; Wolf, Bally, & Morris, 1986; Manis, Seidenberg, & Doi, 1999). It is possible that the underlying visual spans are actually stable across school age, but the observed changes in the size of visual-span profiles might be due to some later stages of processing. However, we think this is unlikely. In the trigram task, there was no time pressure to report the letters, so there were no requirements for rapid articulation and no time pressure on access to letter naming codes. It is still possible that younger children might make more phonological errors or transposition errors in reporting due to less efficient memory. Indeed, it is known that overall memory capacity including perceptual-memory improves with increasing age in children (Dempster, 1978; Shwantes, 1979; Ross-sheehy, Oakes, & Luck, 2003). However, convergent evidence has shown that children at the age of 9 are able to hold an average 5 to 6 digits or spatial symbols in their visual memory (e.g., Wilson, Scott, & Power, 1987; Miles, Morgan, Milne, & Morris, 1996). This result suggests that recalling and reporting a triplet of letters is not likely to pose difficulties for the children in our study. Manis et al. (1999) had 1st and 2nd grade students name 50 digits and letters in a random order aloud as rapidly as possible and measured reporting accuracy. They found that the rate of oral reporting errors was less than 2%, suggesting that by the end of first grade, most children know the names of all the letters and are able to report them with high accuracy.
These considerations encourage us to believe that the observed differences in the size of the visual span across age is likely to represent changes in the availability of bottom-up sensory information rather than effects of later stages of processing. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that some other uncontrolled cognitive or other non-visual variable accounted for the apparent association between visual span and reading speed across grade levels in our study.
Effect of letter size
Finally, we addressed the effect of letter size. We expected that young children would have larger visual spans and read faster with 1° characters than with 0.25° characters. Contrary to our expectation, we found no effect of character size for either reading speed or visual span in children. Apparently, legibility as assessed by these two measures, does not account for the preference of children for larger print in books. It is possible that developmental changes in the effects of print size on reading speed are complete by 3rd grade (age 8–9 years), accounting for the absence of print size effects in our data. Consistent with this possibility, Wilkins and Hughes (2002) found that younger children aged below 7 showed a significant dependence of reading speed on letter size in the range 0.72 to 1.43 deg at a viewing distance of 40 cm, but older children above 8 years did not. Similarly, O’Brien et al. (2005) showed that critical print size (CPS) decreased with age from 6 to 8 years old, suggesting younger children need larger print to optimize reading performance. Taken together, it may be the case that the dependence of reading speed on print size becomes adult-like by about 8 years of age.
We summarize our conclusions as follows: 1) The visual span grows in size during the school years. 2) Consistent with the visual-span hypothesis this developmental change in the size of the visual span is significantly correlated with the developmental increase in reading speed. 3) Because both RSVP and flashcard reading speed increase with age, the growth in reading speed is unlikely to be due to oculomotor maturation. 4) We found no evidence that the use of larger print in children’s books reflects faster reading or larger visual spans for large print.
We are grateful to students and teachers of the Minneapolis Public Schools for their participation in this study. We thank Beth O’Brien for her helpful advice on the earlier draft of this manuscript. We are also thankful to Sing-Hang Cheung for his help with the design of experiments. We would like to thank anonymous reviewers for their comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by NIH grant R01 EY02934.
1Carver (1977) defined six characters in text (including spaces and punctuation) as one “standard-length word.” Measuring reading speed in standard-length words per minute is a character-based metric. Carver (1990) argued for the advantage of this metric over the common “words per minute” metric for measuring reading speed.
2The term ‘visual span’ was introduced by O’Regan (O’Regan, Levy-Schoen & Jacobs, 1983; O’Regan, 1990,1991). He defined the visual span as the region around the point of fixation within which characters of a given size can be resolved. Empirical studies have shown that normally sighted adults have a visual span of 7–11 letters. For a review, see Legge (2007, Ch. 3).
3Trigrams were used rather than isolated letters because of their closer approximation to English text. Text contains strings of letters. Most letter recognition in text involves characters flanked on the left, right or both sides.
4In this article, school grade levels refer to the American system. The correspondence between grade level and age is as follows: 1st grade (6–7 yrs), 2nd grade (7–8 yrs), 3rd grade (8–9 yrs), 4th grade (9–10 yrs), 5th grade (10–11 yrs), 6th grade (11–12 yrs), 7th grade (12–13 yrs), and 8th grade (13–14 yrs).
5We estimated the grade level from Carver (1976) who expressed the relationship between characters per word (cpw) and difficulty level (DL). According to his formula, the number of characters per word for 1st grade difficulty is approximately 5 cpw including a trailing space after each word, which is slightly above the number of characters per word (4.7 cpw) we used for our reading tasks.
6Percent correct letter recognition was converted to bits of information using letter-confusion matrices byBeckmann (1998).
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Teachers and teacher evaluation may be directly related to a construct from social psychology called Stereotype Threat and the relationship between motivation and teacher professional identities.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is the fear that we may confirm a negative stereotype about a group we belong to. From the wikipedia, we can read some of the history of the socio-cognitive construct:

In the early 1990s, Claude Steele, in collaboration with Joshua Aronson, performed the first experiments demonstrating that stereotype threat can undermine intellectual performance. . . Overall, findings suggest that stereotype threat may occur in any situation where an individual faces the potential of confirming a negative stereotype. For example, stereotype threat can negatively affect the performance of European Americans in athletic situations[11] as well as men who are being tested on their social sensitivity.[12] The experience of stereotype threat can shift depending on which group identity is salient to the situation. For example, Asian-American women are subject to a gender stereotype that expects them to be poor at mathematics, and a racial stereotype that expects them to do particularly well. Subjects from this group performed better on a math test when their racial identity was made salient; and worse when their gender identity was made salient.[13]


In another description of stereotype threat, Open Education describes that a recent study by researchers at the University of Colorado reveals that the issue of stereotype threat in the sciences is very real for young women. The study also reveals that educators can take some very simple steps to help reduce the impact of stereotype threat in the classroom.

Certain individuals appear to be more likely to experience stereotype threat than others. Individuals who are highly identified with a particular domain appear to be more vulnerable to experiencing stereotype threat. Therefore, students who are highly identified with doing well in school may, ironically, be more likely to underperform when under stereotype threat. A key feature of this phenomena was highlighted by Amanda Schaefer at Slate Magazine. In order to counter stereotype threat, individuals need to experience positive development and build confidence over the course of a semester. Schaefer explains that a slightly better performance on test one leads to greater motivation and thus leads some individuals to work harder. That work then transcends to understanding of the material that then leads to greater confidence and even further motivation.

Teachers and Stereotype Threat

A recent study by the MeLife Foundation identified that teacher morale is at an all time low. This was discussed recently by the New York Times and a blog at Education Week. It would seem that teachers may be in a no-win situation. They are scrutinized for performance, often evaluated by administrators and others who may not be qualified to evaluate teacher performance. When faced with an evaluation, teachers may face serious professional and personal consequences when they do not satisfy criteria in the evaluation rubric, as interpreted by the evaluators. This was very nicely described in an opinion piece at the NY Times, called, Confessions of a Bad Teacher. In this article, the author writes:

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

My belief is that if we are to avoid such things as stereotype threat in evaluating teachers, good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs (Johnson, 2012).

The current culture of teacher quality and evaluation may be leading to issues in how teachers view their professional identities. They may be living two different professional lives–what they believe to work, and what they have to do to make the grade. This may be especially true with innovative teachers, who have to keep their heads down and teach in a way that works for them and leads to results. After I achieving, their  methods may be accepted. This comes from professional pride and ability. The question that must be asked is whether these innovators and creative teachers can document and demonstrate data-driven instruction.   This kind of instruction may not be applicable to generalized teacher quality assessments, because what the teacher is doing is not generally what is seen.  Is it possible an evaluator who is given a rubric is able or capable of making this evident after reviewing the teacher for  55 minutes they spent checking off cells on a rubric-driven evaluation?


The Jekyll and Hyde Effect

In the Jeckyll and Hyde Effect (Dubbels, 2009), teachers reported themselves in a situation where they had begun creating two different classrooms, two different sets of grade books, and two different teaching identities – culminating in the classroom they show, and the classroom they grow. These teachers had created a duality in professional identity, meaning that they had created different classrooms and identities to fit the expectations of the mandates, district mentors on learning walks, district trainings, and Professional Development Planning, so they could work “under the radar” and “not be hassled.”

This phenomena seems to accompany most trends of educational reform.   In an article by Lasky (2005), it was posited that we may be destroying the professional identities of teachers by attacking their styles and beliefs about teaching and learning, and perhaps most importantly, their willingness to be vulnerable to reach kids and connect. Teachers expressed that they felt tension as professional educators, and that their beliefs about student learning often contrasted the current beliefs related to the culture of accountability.



According to Lasky (2005), this is not uncommon. In this passage (pg. 905) Lasky quotes and describes a veteran teacher considering leaving the profession because of frustration with “ladder climbers”:

Now there are lot of people who think this is a job to go to because the vacations are good, they follow the doctrines, and a lot of good people are leaving. The major message I was receiving was that you could make a difference, and we’re in this together, and it’s up to all of us to make the world a better place, you know, find your niche and dig in. And it was almost your job to do the peace and love thing. But the message now is that there’s no one to take care of you, you’ve got to watch your back, which is sad.

This teacher’s identity and sense of agency were in tension with the changing political landscape of reform. She found that she was not able to trust these people who were not willing to take the ‘‘real risks’’ entailed in teaching. One such risk is expressing one’s vulnerability;  such as knowing and standing up for one’s beliefs, connecting with students and doing all that can be done to help students from failing.

This can lead to a real hindrance in organizational and institutional trust, especially when it comes time for professional development activities that might require learning.  Teachers reported that they had seen “outcomes based education, constructivism, and profiles of learning” come and go. They reported that they had already invested a huge amount of time into these curricular approaches earlier in their careers, and were not willing to invest as heavily now that they had curriculum that worked for them. One teacher spoke of, “ I used to spend my weekends, afternoons, and evenings calling parents and correcting all for a .6 (part-time) placement, and I decided that I was working harder than the students and parents and not getting paid for it.” This teacher’s feeling was repeated throughout interviews with experienced teachers who shared that they had found an approach that they liked and allowed them to have lives outside of the classroom.

Identity and motivation

According to Dubbels (2009), formal learning seems to necessitate trust and identity. For Deci and Ryan (2002) the focus comes from work on motivation of basic psychological needs, with a focus on Autonomy — possibly built from early work by White (1959), where organisms have an innate need to experience competence and agency, and experience joy and pleasure with the new behaviors when they assert competence over the environment . . . what White called effectance motivation. If the individual gets social reinforcement and improved status in a relationship or community, they will be more likely be motivated to engage, and sustain that engagement, (Dubbels, 2009).

In order for a teacher to remain engaged in their profession and care about what is happening, and to sustain engagement , “motivation must be internalized” the teacher needs to identify the value of the behavior with other values that are part of themselves (Dubbels, 2009).  This internalization is recognized by others, and can be rewarded, ignored, or punished by the professional community, the students and parents, and administration and mentors for professional development. The same factors that we ask teachers to take into account for their classroom students are also at play in developing teacher professional development. This process of change includes public acknowledgement and awareness of making personal and professional change, and this public behavior can expose the individual to being vulnerable to the perceptions and judgment of others.