ECI 832 / Major Project / Through My Eyes

Through My Eyes: Final Musings on Minecraft Math

“A motivated learner can’t be stopped.”

-Marc Prensky

Minecraft merges learning outcomes with the motivation of a game that has limitless potential for creativity and collaboration.  Our major project has been marked by many highlights, memories and learning.  In this final installation of Through My Eyes, I look back on the essential questions that inspired our major project.  Head over to A Digital Mindset to read Terri’s reflections from an administrative perspective, and check back later this week to see the video sequel to this written reflection!  The video will visually represent and celebrate our learning throughout the project.

How does MinecraftEdu work?  What are the ins and outs of the game? How can I use it in Math?  What are the ways it is specifically tailored to education?  How do I set up my server and actually get things running with my kids?

Readings from Minecraft experts, YouTube videos, the Google Plus MinecraftEdu community and Twitter connections (summarized in my Top Ten Minecraft Take-Aways) have all helped me learn the ins and outs of MinecraftEdu, but I learned the most learning from my students and exploring Minecraft alongside them.  It’s not the kind of game you can learn from watching; you need to play!  I’ve come a long way since my awkward and anxious beginnings- when I destroyed pretty much everything in my pathway (these sound bytes relive those early moments).  I have definitely become much more comfortable navigating, building and crafting in Minecraft in the past month!

It has been fascinating to learn (on the go) how to best facilitate and guide learning as well as peer interactions in an online space.  I’ve become familiar with the various settings I am able to adjust (ex.  changing the length and the time of day, muting or freezing students, teleporting myself to students or vice versa, changing different effects like the weather or enabling/disabling monsters, villagers, TNT and lava, etc.).  At one point, I noticed the “whispers” among students in the chat were becoming a distraction, and I really just wanted to mute them.  I did end up muting them in the moment, but it lead to a great conversation about what meaningful and helpful “chatter” might sound like on Minecraft.  As much as possible, I have tried my best to coach rather than simply control and manipulate settings.  At the same time, there are strategic ways that you can use the settings to make efficient use of time on task (for example, freezing all students to call them attention or wrap up a class saves time!).

My first “assignment” for students in Minecraft was very simple.  In a flat world, I directed students to build a house and then find the perimeter, area and volume of their house.  After that, students were free to add their own unique creations to our world.  There are endless (and far more complex) ways a teacher could approach the teaching of measurement using Minecraft, but this basic, no frills approach was an excellent way for me to get started.  It also points to Minecraft’s versatility! With zero background knowledge and experience, I was able to use Minecraft simply but effectively.  I plan to continue exploring the many worlds available in the MinecraftEdu World Library.  Again, limitless potential!

I have learned how to run a server, and I’ve realized that it’s really important to remember to “save the world” (once I forgot, and the building efforts of the previous day were lost!).  I’ve also learned that the game is far easier and more comfortably played with a mouse.  At the moment, I have enough mice for half of the class but I’d like to complete the class set.

How does game-based learning impact student efficacy, engagement and achievement?

Readings from Marc Prensky and Richard Van Eck have helped me learn about the impact of game-based learning on student efficacy, achievement and learning.  I have also watched TED talks by Gabe Zichermann, and listened to interviews with MinecraftEdu creator Joel Levin.   My posts on digital game-based learning and the distinctions between game-based learning and gamification summarize my learning.

Of course, I also observed the positive impact of game-based learning in many ways.  Building houses in Minecraft allowed students to creatively apply their understanding of measurement, while fostering really great levels of engagement.  Creating with 3D blocks is the perfect way to visualize and apply measurement concepts.  Minecraft creates a space for kids to make their thinking visible in such a concrete way.  Part of the summative assessment was a paper-pencil quiz, but another dimension was a screencast where they explained their thinking and calculations.

What was more effective: the hands-on paper build or the actual Minecraft game?  What was easier as a teacher?  What was more engaging for students?

This was a really interesting facet of the experience.  Last year, we used paper-nets to create our worlds.  We only used Minecraft online a couple of times as a large group demonstration.  This time, we featured both the “hands-on” paper-net building station, as well as “Minecraft Math” online.  While students have enjoyed the paper-net creating process, it has definitely been overshadowed by the thrill of building and crafting on Minecraft.

I have found it more difficult to devote time and energy to the paper-net process because I invested so much into gaining familiarity with MinecraftEdu.  While I still think a hands-on experience is valuable and creates great opportunities for learning and collaborating, there are a few reasons why I will likely let go of the paper-nets next year:

  1.  There is limitless potential building in Minecraft online.  Kids can create pretty much anything they can visualize in some way.  Paper-nets just can’t match the options available online.  The creative upside is incredible.
  2. Pure engagement across the board. Period.
  3. Building online is much more time-effective.  Paper-nets can be very tedious to glue and they are also quite fragile.  Students can build houses in minutes and gain the same Math understandings along the way.
  4. It’s really not that much more expensive.  The license for a one-time fee for 25 users and the server cost about $400, but we spent oodles on paper and ink last year (a lesson learned).
  5. The paper-nets are very unforgiving.  The online game allows for risk-taking and easy failure, as you can recreate in seconds.  Mistakes are just part of the learning process, and I think that’s one of the most important aspects of game-based learning.
  6. There is such great versatility for me as a teacher. It’s so easy to create assignments for students and I have access to the incredible work shared by contributors to the World Library.
  7. There is easy capacity for both individual work and collaborative work.  In our online world, each student was responsible for their own house and needed to independently explain their Math thinking.  Last year, students worked in groups and shared their learning collectively.  This year a much higher percentage could explain their measurements with confidence.  I like that each student is held accountable for their learning, but they also have the opportunity to help one another and work together online.
  8. The screencasts are a fantastic way for students to make their learning visible (and aligns well with the Digital Citizenship Continuum: “students will use social media for a variety of purposes: sharing information, connecting with others and displaying learning”).

Here are some highlights from the community students built together, evidence of the creative upside:

How can I help my students build positive online learning communities through Minecraft?  How can I use social networks to help me learn about Minecraft and also model digital citizenship to my students?

This part of the project unfolded in a way that I didn’t anticipate, and I think it was tied to teaching in a space outside of my comfort zone.  I didn’t have a clear picture of what “positive learning” might specifically look like within Minecraft, so I was a little anxious about getting started.  Just a day in, I quickly discovered the potential for easy and sneaky destruction within the world.  While the mischief was minimal, it created a perfect opportunity for a conversation around the “ground rules” for our online community.  The students lead the conversation, teaching me about new terms such as “griefing” and “trolling”.  They came to a quick consensus that in our world, “There would be no griefing and trolling, but instead, helping and coaching one another”.  We came back to that statement in the weeks that followed (almost becoming pledge-like), often coupled with reminders about the “why” behind using Minecraft in Math (we established the “why” on day one).  Our conversations also focused on how our online actions should mirror our offline actions; we need to demonstrate the same respect and love for others, and their work, regardless of the space.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much direction, feedback, help and encouragement I received from my PLN.  Members of the MinecraftEdu Google Plus group helped me understand how Minecraft can be classified as both gamification and game-based learning.  Subscribing to the channels of MinecraftEdu experts was also really helpful when I was getting started.  Following #minecraftedu has led to many great connections and resources.  ECI 832 classmates have also generously tweeted links and helpful articles to help me along the way.

While I have started to build up a solid circle of Minecraft supports in my PLN, I have yet to connect my classroom to other classrooms.  This is something I would like to develop in the coming months.  I have a couple of possibile connections, both in Regina and beyond, that could be excellent partnerships.  Skyping (or hosting a visit) with an architect or city planner would add another rich dimension to the learning experience!  I am also interested in joining the “Craft Reconciliation” (#craftreconciliation) project, where a First Nations school partners with a mainstream school to share in dialogue, research and finally, collectively build a representation of “what reconciliation means to them”.

Beyond the Questions

“Minecraft is teaching me that it’s worth it to step outside my comfort zone because I’m stepping into something better: the experiences and the expertise of my students.  It’s worth it to step aside, let go of the reins and let my students lead.”

-from “Stepping Out and Stepping In”

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Student-Centered Learning

While becoming comfortable with MinecraftEdu has been an important dimension of this project, the lessons beyond the game have been substantial and formative.  In my reflections on  “Launch Week”,  I wrote about a new dynamic in my relationship with students, energy and engagement, and “finally letting go”.  Being comfortable with the unknown, teaching outside of my comfort zone and leveraging student leadership and ownership (notice who is in the middle of the photo to the right!) have been key take-aways from this experience.

This learning experience would not have been the same had I not shared the journey with Terri.  She was an integral part of our “Math Studio” (how many teachers can say their administrator teaches with them daily?).  It’s not just about the time invested, of course.  No doubt, her excellence in teaching contributed to both student engagement and achievement.  Her lessons were always so effective and engaging: hands-on, memorable, fun, and often with measurement tasks involving treats!  We loved seeing how approaching concepts from many different angles (tech-based, hands-on, paper-net building, paper-pencil worksheets) contributed to deeper learning.  It was also a lot of fun being able to continually reflect on the experience together.  Having support and encouragement from your administrator is so important to any educator, but especially when you are taking risks and trying something completely new.

Last year I started my journey with Minecraft.  This year, my experience has continued to evolve in more ways than I imagined.  It seems that when it comes to Minecraft, the potential for learning is limitless… so who knows what’s next?!

Stay posted for this week’s video summary, but until then, check out this excellent video from Microsoft highlighting Minecraft in education!  It completely aligns to my experiences using Minecraft in my classroom (thanks for the link, Genna!).

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