Language, Learning, and Science: The Coming Crisis

James Paul Gee
University of Wisconsin

Thomas Friedman's widely read book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-First Century (2005) argues that the United States is facing a looming crisis. While popularized by Friedman, this crisis is at the heart of reports like Science and Engineering Indicators-2002 from the National Science Board (2002). Young people in the United States today are being prepared--in school and at home--for "commodity jobs" in a world that will, very soon, truly reward only people in developed countries who can do innovative work, and punish those who can't. The future of many commodity jobs, whether these be low-status jobs in call centers or high-status ones reading X-rays, is to be outsourced overseas to the lowest cost centers.

Though our schools have gotten better and better at basic skills education, they have not come close to eradicating the gaps between rich and poor children and have not begun to truly enhance innovative science learning for all children, including middle-class children. If we are to discuss the innovation crisis for all children, we need to rethink our ideas about how language and literacy work in the content areas, especially in science and mathematics. Current schooling and theories of learning in the content areas are based on outdated ideas about language, as well as outdated ideas about thinking, especially at a time when multimodal and digital representations play such a big role in different technical knowledge domains.

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