Sunday, 18 August 2013

Our Minecraft Journey

Over the last couple of weeks I have been confronted with some really uneasy feelings about learning, and my own place in approach to learning,

To go back for a moment, in our Year 5-10 inquiry learning this term, focussing around community and innovations we have started off with a couple of true ‘discovery’ types of sessions where students have been free to roam and try different things- for no set amount of time and in no set groups. The activities provided included playing with oobleck and play dough, building and flying paper airplanes, making water glass xylophones, construction with cards and blocks, creative thinking activities, internet research and minecraft on their ipads.

The addition of research and creative thinking activities were my attempt to cater for the ‘girls’ who might not like to make things. Was this really to cater for the girls or was it because I knew that I would much prefer them myself? While for many other people walking into a room where you got to make things for 95 minutes would be incredibly liberating for me it would be a nightmare. 

The only condition was that each activity had to stay in its set area. There was a small reflection sheet to complete at the end focussing ok key competencies.

On the second session, after seeing how many students went to minecraft (probably 60-70% )and stayed there the whole time, we introduced the guidelines that you could only stay at a session fro 30 minutes and had to record when you arrived and left a station.

Some  students played with their understanding of 30 minutes. Others dutifully left the minecraft station after 30 minutes, went to other stations, looked involved but on investigation were back on minecraft.

Students were spoken with very strongly about the appropriateness of minecraft for inquiry but not at other times during the day and not to be on it although some continued to be found on minecraft at a few other times.

So   a couple of weekends ago I decided perhaps it was time for me to learn a  little of what minecraft was all about. If I was going to facilitate our students developing an inquiry plan around it how could I do that without having some grasp of what it is they are doing on there?

And the learning I did  was pretty confronting for myself. Being someone who has always considered themselves- and been considered by others- to be slightly visually an perceptional challenged- as witnessed by the fact I am apparently on the “don’t drive with her” staff list, how was I meant to move around this foreign world with oceans and skies that required me to operate on different levels  in order to survive the world. 

I spent most of the first hour falling into the ocean and having to climb my way back up form the ocean floor. I learnt to fly up above my building so that I could look at it form a different angle and figure out what was wrong with my building.

I learnt that  making a simple building was qctually a complex task. I had to draw on my knowledge of area and perimeter and shapes and sizes. And I had to keep watching out because every time I dropped a brick I made a hole in the ice and was in danger of falling throuhg. Finally, a friend who was also building ont he same server kept coming over to my building intermittently and plugging up the holes i was making so I stopped falling through the water.

And really it was this collaboration that was the key to my being able to continue and persevere. Although the friend who was on the same server was really wanting to build their own thing and didn’t want to stop too much to help me, when I got really desperate, he was willing to either suggest something, come and help for a few moments or show me a way to control something on the control pad which helped. Knowing someone else was there if I really needed it and I had access to immediate help was a key to persevering to me. This was a revelation to me. I’ve always considered myself an independent and self managed learner- and indeed I am with words- because its what I am comfortable with learning. When I had to learn something that I was not comfortable with- either in content or context- I absolutely needed the power of collaboration- and it needed to be supportive collaboration. Someone who let me struggle for a while and get frustrated but stepped in before the levels of frustration became so high I gave up- and I honestly think I probably would have given up in under 10 minutes if i had been by myself.

What does this say about some of the situations I have put learners in in a classroom in the past? How many times have I said you just need to figure this out by yoursmlef not with your mate. This was a key question I kept thinking to myself all afternoon.

There were some real-life lessons. I was sitting on my couch on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in a  reasonably spacious lounge but when I went down into the mine Jono had made I actually felt quite claustrophobic. (Not to mention highly uncoordinated because getting the electronic me to walk up and down stairs proved a lot more difficult for me than it looks like when the kids do it!’)

When we ventured into the survival world and I got completely lost for over 30 minutes and couldn’t find my way back, in the end Jono had to come and look for me- because we actually needed to work together to make some of the things we needed in this world and I was hopelessly lost. Therefore he had to leave the mining he was doing to come and search for me. And he had to leave appropriate signals so that once he had found me we could find our way back to where the crafting table was. In the end he made a huge marking pole that I could see from all over the world so that the next time I got lost I could use this to find my way back. How many real-life lessons are there here?

And how do we facilitate the kids making connections to some of those real life situations? So they can articulate the learning they are doing.

I learnt that when I was doing something difficult I needed to talk out loud. 

I kind of knew this. I’d realised a few weeks ago when there was someone else in the room while I was re-timetabling on a database, how much I talked out loud constantly while doing it. I’m normally alone when i do stuff like tat and hadn’t realised how much I did it out loud. 

But the entire time I was on minecraft I found myself telling myself out loud what I needed to know or where i was going wrong. And how many times have I said to students in a classroom- can you do your thinking inside your head as its distracting for other learners?

And when I was just starting to feel slightly proud of the piddly little very traditional building I had made I looked at what Jono had made in that time and felt very insubstantial. While I had built this little 4 by 4 brick house with a bed and a doorway he had built this amazing castle moat like fence right around my house. How did he even know how to do that? According to him he visualised it in is head before he started and then made the picture in his head in the game. So again i thought to myself well how do I even start because I just don’t see that picture in my head? And if I cant see that picture in my head but the kids can, then what pictures do I see in my head that I think the kids should see and that they simply can’t, just like I can’t picture that building before I start?

And when I thought that maybe it was about time to do something else because we must have been doing this for close to an hour, we checked the time and found out it was coming close to 3 hours we had been totally engrossed in this learning- it was enjoyable and challenging and fun- and yes, it was certainly learning.
And how many times have we said to kids in our classrooms right your 30 minutes for that learning is up now for the next learning- and how authentic is that to real learning engagement? 

So what were the main lessons for me
  • the power of  having a mentor who knew a little bit more than you but didn’t consider themselves an expert- someone who was discovering and exploring just a few steps ahead of you
- the power of collaboration- from someone who was prepared to make you work a little but was perceptive enough to jump in before you hit the total frustration wall
  • the power of talk-out loud- both with a learning partner and also self-talk
  • the importance of real time for learning

Now I know we deal with the realities of classroom learning on a daily basis. 

We have numerous achievement objectives we are meant to be meeting. We have students who have significant literacy and numeracy deficits. We have students in whom who we often lament the lack of curiosity and questioning. We never think we have enough hours in the day. 

Can letting these kids loose on minecraft a couple of times a week do something dramatic for their learning or not? 

What about the fact we are meant to be spending all our time on literacy and numeracy because our kids are mostly all “well below” national standards?

How do we facilitate it so they can acknowledge and articulate their learning in order to accelerate their learning across the curriculum? 

How do we harness this engagement into literacy and numeracy? 

How do we give them sustained times on something like minecraft to really get into it and balance this with all those other demands? 

How do we ensure we are not being completely dictated in the learning we support our students with by an arbitrary timetable? 

After a couple of weeks of playing I have more questions than answers. And just maybe that is the answer. If after 10 weeks of this the kids have a pile more questions than answers how bad a thing is that?

I recently read the book Why School? by Will Richardson- one of the best books on learning I have read in ages and as a bonus a real easy hour read. It was that good that I have bought a kindle copy for all teaching staff at TKAS and sent it to their ipads. I look forward to hearing their responses to the book. 

And just for those  learners who prefer a movie option- here’s a You tube clip about minecraft that I though was also well worth considering.

I look forward to sharing our minecraft journey as we proceed through the term.


  1. Awesome post Karyn, love your honesty. Ronald Davis has a lot to say about picture thinkers and word thinkers. Here's just a little from the forward in "The Gift of Dyslexia" by Ronald D Davis... "Betty and I had been developing the concept of the visual-spatial learner since the early 1980's. These children think in pictures rather than in words, need hands-on experiences to learn, and often reach conclusions without appearing to take the logical steps. So the directive "show your work" mystifies them. "I just saw it in my head!" doesn't gain any credit on standardized achievement tests. When we first began studying visual-spatial learners, we though that they represented a small percentage of the student body. We were surprised when field testing of our Visaul-Spatial Identifier revealed that at least one third of the regular classroom was strongly visual-spatial. Davis Dyslexia Facilitator Crystal Punch writes that there is a "need for educators to truly understand this visual process, or ... it oftentimes is diagnosed as something else... It truly is a different learning style just requiring a paradigm shift in learning , learning a visual way."
    From observing Josiah over the past 3 years using Minecraft, I have seen how it is so suitable for these type of learners. And after half a year teaching the Davis Method, I can honestly say, I think we are on to something significant to help these 1/3 of our students. If we can grab these learners when they are young, and teach them these very simple methods of focus and provide a visual path for them to learn in then we will make life and learning fun, meaningful and successful for them. So worth it don't you think.

  2. Hey Karyn,

    Thanks so much for reading my book and for sharing it with your staff. I just looked you up on Google street-view...what a beautiful school! If you ever want to do a 15-minute Skype call Q&A, I'd be happy to make a virtual visit.

    Sincere best wishes in you work to move our thinking around learning and education forward!


    Will Richardson

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  4. I loved reading your post, Karyn!

    I found it as it was tweeted by @MinecraftEdu. Both my primary aged boys are into minecraft and I'm trying to learn about it with them.

    I also enjoyed reading about how you set up for your schools innovation theme this term. Innovation is another area that I'm interested in. I'm one of the writers for these innovation resources - I wondered if you'd come across them?