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Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

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Moral Struggles Matter -- to Learning!

Even in fiction and games, we care about what’s right and wrong.

I’ve been trying to work out a puzzle lately: why do our feelings matter to how we make sense of the world around us? The answer, I think, lies in the contribution of feelings to the process of making evaluations and judgments. Not just about what is good or bad, but about what’s important or trivial, what’s surprising or ordinary, what to take seriously or just as a joke.

Last week at the International Congress of the Learning Sciences, where I was talking about the role feelings play in how science represents the world [see my next blog entry], I attended a session on learning through computer games. There’s no doubt that games play on our emotions; that feelings matter to what we do next in the game. But what hit me in this session was how deeply engaged we get when there are moral issues at stake, when we’re trying to figure out what’s right and wrong, and having problems deciding what’s right.

Many theories of learning imagine that all learning is like problem-solving, but then they mistakenly assume that problem-solving is or should be purely logical and rational. It never is; it never can be. Solving a problem always requires us to make choices and decisions along the way, about what is relevant, important, likely to succeed, etc. Take away our feelings about what to do next and we can’t do much of anything (that can, unfortunately, happen; read Antonio Damasio).

Likewise, most problem-solving involves the use of tools, especially information tools like books, notes, computers, or just counting on your fingers. And we always have feelings about those, too (my topic at the conference). Computer games put us in imaginary worlds full of problems to be solved and tools to solve them; they offer us adventures that rev up our feelings. And it turns out that what can draw us in most deeply is not the shooting or thinking, but puzzling about what is right and wrong when our choices matter to ourselves and other people.

Schools, on the other hand, seem scared to death of both feelings and moral issues as essential elements in learning. The main feeling reported by most students about most of their time in school is: boredom. The last thing the curriculum wants students to engage with, it seems, is issues of right and wrong. It’s all about knowledge and not about life. So most students learn little, forget most of that, and basically just don’t care. They feel that everything that matters is missing, and I think they’re right.

We learn when we have a need to know, when something really matters to us. It can be imaginary, but it has to feel important. Like being fair, like choosing between justice and forgiveness, like making the right decision when the wrong one will harm innocent creatures. No one can learn how to always make good choices, but we do learn passionately when we believe learning something can help us make a better choice here and now.

A century ago, and for a long time before that, the purpose of education was to build good moral character. When our society lost its consensus about what was morally right, education lost a critical link between learning and life. And schools lost a key principle for engaging students emotionally with learning.

We can’t teach students right and wrong. But we can engage them in deeply felt and learning-rich projects of trying to figure it out for themselves.

If we have the courage to try.

Images: Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice; Pilot of the Hiroshima bomber, years later; the Dalai Lama. People who faced and had to live with profound moral choices and their consequences, with no easy answers.

Reader Comments (2)


I was the guy in the audience at Barab, et al.'s ICLS session asking whether morally ambiguous choices could be applied to more Quest Atlantis projects. I do think there's something there, something about the personally meaningful exploration of self that motivates learning. I was partly compelled to ask that question because I know that when I play computer and video games, I'm drawn by narratives that make me make difficult decisions (and I wrote about moral ambiguity in a game called The Witcher for E-Learning a couple of years ago, tying it to Gee's projective identities and Kohlburg's moral stages of development).

I think what makes games games--that is, goal-driven activity within systems of rules and constraints--can be thought to apply to narrative elements, not just algorithmic underpinnings of the games.


July 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermark

Hi, Mark. Thanks for the comment! You probably know that there's been a lot of debate about the role of narrative in games. It may be that when we look at games in terms of what's learned, other than just how to play the mechanics of the game better, then narrative becomes more important. It becomes a vehicle that carries other content, and does so more effectively when it engages our feelings more.

Moral struggles are one kind of engagement like that, and I think they may tell us something about the connection of feelings, judgment, and learning.

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArrow

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