Principal Matt Renwick is sharing weekly reflections about an afternoon computer club he and a teacher are sponsoring as an enrichment activity. (Here are the links to this eight-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7 and Part 8.)

In week six of our afterschool enrichment experiment, my teaching colleague and I began asking ourselves, How do we transition from consumers to creators? Here is what sparked the reflection:

In our last post, we noted how our students were very engaged with Minecraft, needing very little direction in how to play or how to play together. We should have knocked on wood.

minecraft-explosionWe discovered that students were joining others’ worlds without permission. Supplies were getting stolen. We were reverting back to how we began: A lack of focus, with little adherence to the group norms we developed together.

So why was this happening? Were they getting bored? One theory was, if all they do is play Minecraft, and even if they are creating worlds, are they really making anything? Were students a part of a learning process, or just consumers along for the digital ride?

It didn’t help that there really wasn’t an audience for their finished product. The past collaborations were now being weakened by unhealthy competition and demonstrations of power.

So we made the bold move of putting away the iPads (and by default Minecraft) for a while. In its place: Legos.

Instructions Not Included

I hauled the Lego Education boxes out of the school basement during the day. Once the students came in to the library, we quickly informed them of the change. Although there were a few groans, I was surprised that there wasn’t more disappointment.

boxed-legos-400

The students opened up their kits to find lots of Legos pieces and little else. “Where are the directions?” I looked in one of the kits myself and responded, “I don’t know.” These were ordered through a grant before I became principal. Each kit also included a battery-powered motor, apparently designed to move a student-constructed vehicle forward. After a brief lesson on how these moving parts might work together, the students dived in.

Invent to Learn

Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager have written one of the best resources I have read on student learning and engagement. In Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom (Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 2013), the authors offer practical advice for educators looking to connect hands-on with minds-on learning.

3d-invent-to-learnThey advocate for students to have access to makerspaces. These are not specific labs or rooms, but rather environments that “share the ideals of making, tinkering, collaborative learning, and invention” (Martinez and Stager, Kindle location 224).

Often, makerspaces are comprised of a combination of high tech and low tech materials. But these learning environments are more than just a playground. There is purpose in what students construct and make.

“This is much more than ‘hands-on’ learning,” they write. “The ‘meaningful’ part of constructionism is not just touch-feely new age language. It acknowledges that the power of making something comes from a question or impulse that the learner has, and is not imposed from the outside” (Kindle location 828).

Our students definitely have questions and impulses, but maybe not a purpose or audience.

Passion Profile: Cole

The builders would have a clear goal in mind: Have their Lego car they create travel the length of the hallway by the Library Media Center. We made a badge in Edmodo called the “Golden Brick,” awarded to those who were able to build a vehicle that would go the distance. Cole was one of our more motivated makers. After a day, he showed me his first success.

rubber-band-thing

“I put this rubber band thingy around the wheels to make it go.” Success! But we didn’t let him rest on his accomplishment. We kept asking Cole and the rest of our students to consider what the next step might be to make it better.

“Where will you put the wheels?” I inquired. Cole gave me a puzzled look for a second, then his eyes lit up, and he walked quickly back to his workspace.

This process of sharing, asking, reflecting, and improving lasted for the remainder of our session. Near the end, Cole felt he was finally ready to test his creation.

This is actually a 30-second compilation of his four trials. The first trial cannot be seen because it went backward. As well, what we don’t see are the conversations and feedback that occurred in between each trial. I recorded each attempt and played the footage back for him to review. Cole’s learning was happening while he was creating – and really, inventing.

Next Steps: More Q’s than A’s

This far into our after school enrichment club, one would think we would have a lot more answers than questions. But the inverse seems to be true. For example:

▶ When we engage in software like Minecraft, do our learners also need a clear purpose to go along with it? If so, who decides that purpose?

▶ Are we being truly inventive and learning when creating worlds within Minecraft? Who serves as that audience to help determine our success?

▶ Will a better purpose and relevant audience help guide our learners to become more creators instead of consumers?

LEGO-Minecraft▶ How could a low tech tool, such as Legos, be combined with high tech such as Minecraft to make something original and connected to the school curriculum?

▶ When we integrate technology, such as Minecraft, into the traditional school environment, do we automatically assume the outcomes will be better?

▶ Where should the majority of our work as teachers reside: In the planning for fun activities and later assessing them, or in preparing for what’s possible by thinking about our learners and the appropriate tools they can use to create their learning?

As our club comes to a close in the next couple of weeks, these are things my colleague and I will be pondering.

About the author
Matt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he did time as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book about digital portfolios will be published by Powerful Learning Press this spring.