Wednesday, 26 August 2015

What Does it Take?

I have been sitting on parts of this post for quite some time (about 6 months), mulling over my thoughts, trying to sort them out into some form of clarity, and I think I might finally have some form of coherent post to publish.

At Minecon I was lucky enough to be involved in Microsoft's teaching space as well as being a support member in the training space. The teaching space was amazing, I was not able to use MinecraftEdu, so there were some handy features that I am used to missing, but overall the experience for the participants was very positive. I created a custom map that allowed the participants to explore and interact with some of the activities I and others have actually run in real classrooms. I was lucky enough to have the support of Shane as well, so I could focus on the teaching of the participants, and he could 'manage' the 'stuff' in game. I will gather the map, as well as the supportive materials and share them to the world library at some stage in the near future.

The training space was for teachers and parents to explore Minecraft. There were two sessions I was involved in, one where the participants were taught the basics of the game, so how to move, break and build. The second session was more about problem solving processes using redstone and exploring that. It was really interesting to see the way the sessions were designed, the helpers were to be 'hands off helpers' and the participants were to be exploratory learners. So there were a couple of occasions where a participant would ask a question, and all I could answer was, "why are you asking, why don't you just try it?"

This led to some very interesting occurrences, also for me some very funny ones. There was one question "Can I hit the sheep?" so my response "Why are you asking me, just try it." led to a right click on the mouse, then a left click on the mouse and a jump and squeak from the learner as the sheep went red, baa'd and jumped in the air. Another situation occurred as they were exploring the applications of redstone, as I walked past one screen I noticed the flashing TNT in the corner, so I just stood back and watched the mayhem unfold. The avatar of the learner exploded, died in a catastrophic fashion, and the real person literally jumped out of her chair in fright. What did she learn? TNT is dangerous. Will she forget it? Probably not.

So all of this has had me thinking recently of how I could include more exploratory learning in my classes. Not necessarily within Minecraft, but just in general, how would students respond, would they learn 'more' or 'better', would they be able to 'prove' their learning in a meaningful way? Unfortunately I have not come up with a way to actually trial it yet, the thought process is continuing though and I will definitely be looking for resources on this style of teaching/learning.

Also on my mind has been the question What does it take for a teacher to implement Minecraft in their classroom? I have had a teacher here, one of the most open minded and willing to try anything teachers I have worked with, who, late last year, was super excited about using Minecraft in her class this year. I helped her set up the server, trial some things with students and now 35 weeks into the teaching of this year she has still not tried anything in Minecraft with her classes.

Over the last few days I have been involved in a discussion with a few other educators from around the globe trying to work out how, as a community, we can better support more teachers using Minecraft in their classes. So I approached this teacher with the idea that we could work out how to plan for using Minecraft in a classroom. I have a Minecraft project I want to run next week and I thought I could share my planning process with her and see if that would prompt her to plan her own project. Instead we ended up with a very uncomfortable discussion about why she hadn't used Minecraft yet even though she was super excited about it.

Luckily I have a good enough relationship with this colleague that she doesn't hate me, nor did she feel threatened by the discussion, so while it was uncomfortable for both of us, we had an open discussion about what had prevented her from taking the leap. Interestingly enough it was fear, two very different fears. The first was a fear of the virtual space due to some negative incidents during the trial phase. Some students had dug her into a hole and then put a block over her head so that she could not escape. Now while this is 'normal' behaviour on a multiplayer server between friends, this teacher did not have the ability to get herself out of the predicament they placed her in, and so her discomfort increased and that interaction became a very negative one. To the point where she said "I have never had a student do anything like that to me before." Which is an interesting comment, but certainly explains her fear, if students could 'lock' her in a dark hole, and she could do nothing about it how could she ensure they were learning, or facilitate the learning of those that need support?

The second fear was of map production, she was comparing what she believed her skills to pre-generate maps or content were to what she has seen me do and felt that she came up well and truly short on those skills and therefore she would not be 'doing it right' if she tried. This thought process intrigues me, as I have never said to anyone that pre-generating maps and content is the only way, or the best way. So this fear was quickly alleviated when we looked at how she could get students to generate the map by demonstrating their learning. So rather than Minecraft being the medium in which students learn, for her project it is a medium in which they can show their understanding and pull together their research on the current study.

So now back to the original question. What does it take? I think the answer is one word: Support. Interestingly enough, at the Minecraft in Education Seminar in LA earlier this year, one thing that all the successful panelists that had incorporated Minecraft into schools or classrooms had in common was an 'expert' to call upon. I never mentioned this at the time, but it has been weighing on me since then, as there was a lot of discussion about being called a "Minecraft Teacher" and I am ok with that name, but there was plenty of vocal opposition to the 'title'.

I do teach within Minecraft but do I teach my students how to play Minecraft? Only the skills they need to get through my learning activities, if they want to learn how to play the game 'properly' that is up to them, I do not have time in my busy curriculum, unfortunately, to teach them this, or give them time to learn it. I am not just a Minecraft educator, I am a discussion educator, a question educator, a literacy skill educator, a Biology educator and many different other types of educator depending on the students I am teaching and the requirements placed upon me in terms of curriculum and reporting. I don't think being tagged as a specialist in a particular area, in light of these recent developments, is a bad thing. So be an expert in whatever you choose, be proud of it, but also be willing to be supportive of others who may need your support to begin their own journey.

I would like to highlight that in the panel at MinecraftLA the expert was not always the teacher, it may have been a student, it may have been an external party or it may have been the teacher. But one of the common factors in each of these cases there was a support person to call upon when things got rough, someone who was thought of as a "Minecraft Expert". This to me means we need more "Minecraft Experts" willing to be called upon when support is needed, for my own school and my team of teachers, who will now be implementing a Minecraft option for students to display their learning since the discussion yesterday, that expert will be me at this stage. But more importantly students will now get the opportunity, with support from their own teachers and myself, to use Minecraft as a way to showcase their learning journey and the research they put into an upcoming project.

This is what "we" want, teachers willing to take an idea of how Minecraft could be incorporated, think about it and try it in their own classes, and if they need some support to be able to take this first step, then lets provide them with that support. I think the support could take many forms, from just ideas linking to curriculum, a sounding board when things don't go well or even as a supporter or helper in map generation if required. I feel that the most important thing is that students get access to this extremely powerful "learning platform" that we call Minecraft.


  1. Oh my gosh, Elfie! If you and I ever get the chance to just sit down in the same physical space and talk, we will need HOURS.

    So much of this really resonates with me. Not just from the point of view of an educator who uses MinecraftEdu with her students AND who teaches teachers how to use it, but as the person in the role of supporting all the teachers on a campus with their integration of tech tools and trying out of new pedagogy (digitally enhanced or not).

    We just moved from Moodle to Schoology in both our middle school and upper school. My role as Director of Learning, Innovation and Design for the upper school has me supporting almost a hundred teachers in this transition. I am also showing a lot of teachers ways that they can also use Google Apps to make aspects of their instructional lives easier. The reason I am telling you all of this is that it helps illustrate the fact that we cannot disregard the affective domain where teachers are concerned. There's a whole interesting dynamic about what a teacher is comfortable doing. I had several conversations JUST TODAY with teachers about not waiting until they felt confident to use something with students, because in most cases the students will be able to dive right in, figure it out, and help one another. And they are more than happy to do so!

    Coming back to the use of Minecraft or MinecraftEdu, it's really about letting go of the worrying about looking silly. I have three kids in a class of nine this semester who claim they "could teach others" in their self-assessment of their Minecraft experience. Awesome. One of them asked me yesterday, on a scale of 1 to 1000, what my Minecraft skills are, and I said, "500, no not even 500, because there is so much more I could learn compared to what I already know, and I am totally all right with that."

    If we as adults are consumed with how we might look, or whether we might embarrass ourselves, we teach our students that risks are NOT to be taken, and that how you look to other is more important than stick-to-it-iveness and perseverance. I gave up worrying about looking silly to my students years ago. I can pretty much guarantee I will do one really stupid thing in front of kids each day. And that's likely a conservative estimate.

    On other points you raised, I think it's important that teachers are encouraged to find the way that Minecraft/MinecraftEdu can work for their students in their unique situations. I love how you start with "what are your learning goals?" because that is where ALL of us should start, EVERY DAY, in EVERY situation in which we decide which tools to use and how to incorporate them.

    Here is how I recommend starting. (These questions come from the MERIT professional development program.)
    1. Who are your learners? (You REALLY need to consider this before any other factor.)
    2. What do you want them to learn?
    3. What will they do to learn it?
    4. What tools will they use?
    5. How will you assess/measure whether they have learned it?

    Notice that this is a very learner-centered set of questions. Notice also that it doesn't focus strictly on technology. If we keeping asking ourselves these questions, we take the focus off what WE as the adults or instructors do, say, create, etc. and focus on the learners and their process.

    1. Diane, I look forward to the day that we can have these robust discussions face to face, but alas, until then we will have to content ourselves with the written form of communication :D

      Thanks for raising the point that this does not just apply to Minecraft and teachers utilising this in their own classrooms, but has to do with anything that teachers may be uncomfortable with incorporating.

      I have personally found however because Minecraft is a "game" it gets a lot more 'negative vibes' from the start. I would be interested to know if you, or others, have had the same feeling from "non-gamers" who are looking at implementing a game, be it Minecraft or another game into their classrooms.

      I also thank you for bringing something else I don't think I clearly got across in my post, that our jobs as educators should always have the students at the forefront, not our own personal agendas. However much I enjoy using Minecraft in my classes, it is not always the best thing to be using, and student feedback plays a very large role on when or if I use a particular thing in my classes.

      As an example I like teaching through discussions, but there are students that do not learn well through discussions and their feedback tells me this and means I do not use discussions as one of my main teaching practices in that class.

      Thanks again for continuing the discussion.

  2. The first fear (of negative behaviour) is a real one. One approach to overcome it is through familiarity with the game and its features, especially if using MinecraftEdu which provides ways for the teacher/superuser to exercise control, for example by freezing gameplay. Another approach is to recognise the opportunity for learning about 'digital citizenship'. Before embarking on any activities, discuss with the students how to behave in a co-operative learning environment. Get them to work out the ground rules - no killing, no bad language, no stealing, no griefing, whatever. Remind them of what they decided whenever necessary. I've found that with 9-year-olds the generic rule "Be nice to other people, just like you would in the playground" (lifted from e-safety material aimed at 7-year-olds) is very effective. Best of all is probably to combine both approaches, relying mostly on the students knowing and following their rules but applying a sanction when really necessary. I've found that avid Minecrafters need repeated reinforcement that they're in a type of world which is not the same as they'd find on a no-holds-barred multiplayer server!

    1. Hi Matt, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that it is a real fear, and the best way to overcome it is familiarity, however the problem for most teachers is time. You have to be very passionate about something to be willing to put in the amount of time required to be 'familiar' with it, and if you 'tag' yourself as a "non-gamer" you are building barriers before you even begin, as in the case with the teacher I am working with at the moment.

      I am not discounting the fear, but as Diane mentions in her thoughts, if we as educators are not willing to take 'safe risks' how fair is it that we expect students to take the safe risks in their learning journey?

      The way you set up your expectations sounds great, student voice as well as clear guidelines are a brilliant place to start. I think however with this teacher, and their unfamiliarity, and discomfort with the virtual world it is going to take a "Minecraft expert" for her to refer and perhaps defer to, to build enough confidence in her own ability to trial this as an option for student to show learning.

      I also believe that once this journey has begun that it will evolve into not just an option for students to show their learning, but also a place where students can learn, not only about the 'content or curriculum', but also about the more hidden curriculum that Minecraft allows us to teach so easily.

      Thanks again for taking the time to enter the discussion.