This is the first of several reflections from Wisconsin elementary principal Matt Renwick on digital and passion-based learning in a new afterschool program. (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.)
Seventy students signed up to attend an afterschool computer club that a teacher and I are facilitating. Given that only 2nd through 5th graders could join, it means 30% of our school’s eligible students elected for this program.
We had so many kids, we ended up moving the 2nd graders in with the K-1 students for the Get Active club in the gymnasium. A few may not have been happy with this move, but we literally did not have enough devices!
So why would so many kids choose to spend an additional hour after school at school? In a word: Minecraft. It was mentioned in the brief description of the club. For those kids who have access to it at home, it can be all-consuming. Students join each others’ worlds to build (and sometimes destroy) things together, playing for hours on end.
I have tried it myself and see the draw. One minute I was asking myself, “What’s the point?” Three hours later, I was quietly cursing the zombies that dared to trample over the flower garden I just planted.
Is this all there is?
But is this type of activity all we want for our kids? A glorified arcade? I feel like public schools should hold ourselves to a higher goal. We should have more purpose behind the programming we provide. As the lead learner in my school, I also feel obligated to consider how to extend these technologies in ways that can enrich students’ lives academically, socially, and emotionally.
This leads into our essential question: Where do we begin?
The teacher I am teaming with on this club wanted to show the students some cool tools they could use on the iPads and iMacs. I was focused more on designing a series of activities that would lead to outcomes that would benefit our community. What we both eventually realized was we hadn’t asked our students what they wanted.
Yes, they want to play lots of Minecraft. But what is it about this game that engages them to such a degree that they would stick around after school two nights a week to play it? Why are they so passionate about it?
I reference the three motivators Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead, 2011) to consider some possible answers.
When someone enters Minecraft, the world is their’s to create. They are in control of their destiny. What a stark contrast to our students’ lives in school. The standards are set, the assessments are pre-determined, and the plans have been prepared. All without the students’ input. If this is their learning to own, we don’t always do a very good job of including them in the process.
Within Minecraft, they make the rules. They can choose to start from scratch and battle the elements (see: zombies), or select the creative mode, which gives them access to all the tools available and few constraints to worry about.
Because the world of Minecraft is so open, there is room for lots of different reasons to play it. In my limited observations and experiences, some students like to play because they can create their own shelters and “live off the land.” Others want to connect with friends and interact in their personal (Minecraft) worlds. A few simply want to build stuff and then subsequently destroy it.
Whatever the reasons, all of the learners I have seen use Minecraft will stick with it for an extended amount of time. When I have asked them what they are doing, every student has been able to clearly articulate their goals for playing. That is an engagement rate that any teacher of formal academics would love to see consistently.
Students immersed in games like Minecraft will persist with the challenges provided because they have a purpose, but also because they believe that their goal is attainable. This ability to envision what one wants to accomplish, along with the awareness of what it will take achieve this outcome, requires some high level thinking skills.
Metacognition, reflection, and self-assessment are constantly in play when learners believe that they can achieve their goals at a high level of competency. There is lots of deep thinking and essential skill development going on here. Because they are embedded within a video game, maybe that is why these tools for learning haven’t achieved a broader acceptance within education.
Start with the student
Considering all this, my teacher partner and I backed off a bit on our preconceived ideas about what our students would learn during Computer Club. Instead of providing a detailed day-to-day schedule of activities they may not want to do, we conducted a multiple intelligence survey to help them start to appreciate and focus on their strengths.
My co-teacher got all of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders set up with a Google Drive account to create, store, and share information. Students had the opportunity to discuss their interests and passions with peers, without the expectations of a written summary about their experience afterwards.
When we dismissed the students, they appeared more excited about this club than when they came in. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the kids when they realized that we weren’t here to dictate what they would learn about, but to guide them toward possibilities.
Passion-based learning should start with our passion, whether student or adult. It’s what we care deeply about, what we value, and how it augments the skills and strategies we use in our pursuit of new learning.
Watch this space for more reports from Matt on the club’s progress. And please share your thoughts!
Latest posts by Matt Renwick (see all)
- How Do Digital Portfolios Help Students Learn? - August 1, 2014
- Should We Unconnect from Our PLNs Over Summer Break? - July 3, 2014
- Passion-Based Learning, Week 8: The End of the Beginning - April 30, 2014
You have begun, but just barely, to scratch the surface of the attraction that Minecraft has — not only for children but for a wide range of ages. This past Oct/Nov. my husband and I were amongst a lucky few who were able to attend an annual event called Minecon. There we met many special people for whom Minecraft is a focus of life and work. I watched as these grownups and not quite grownups talked and interacted with kids and teens respectfully and delightedly. The excitement and creativity was palpable. Minecraft is the doorway to another universe, a place where age and gender don’t matter. It is a place where a group of people can come together and spend months building to create something magical, then film it and present it as a gift for others to watch and dream over — I am speaking here of Mithrinthia, a group of builders who have achieved almost Mythic fame in the Minecraft world. It is place where Map builders like Seth Bling have an awed following of many ages — but he himself is no more than 22 and is stunned at his own popularity. Youtubers, themselves only in their 20s, sat on the floor with little kids and discussed which mobs they liked fighting best and which ones scared them. Keep exploring and writing on the subject. If you google Minecraft Education you will discover that it is an explosively developing topic… Keep going… it should keep you writing for a long, long time. 🙂
When you said, “You have begun, just barely, to scratch the surface of the attraction that Minecraft has”, I found myself nodding in agreement. In my next post, I plan to describe our initial experiences in rolling this out for kids. Hint: It was messy, but in a good way! I think I am going to learn more from this experience than the kids.
Hi, Matt. I think it’s awesome that your school is experimenting with Minecraft. It’s incredibly important that adults (especially educators) seek answers to “Why do kids find ___ interesting?” rather than dismissing the unfamiliar.
Like Jennifer mentioned, there are many resources on the connection between Minecraft and education. Hope you don’t mind me plugging a couple here:
(1) A webinar series on Minecraft and Education, featuring some of the most notable teachers using Minecraft in their classroom: bit.ly/minecrafteducation
(2) The Minecraft In Education community on Google Plus is full of people ready to help & answer questions: plus.google.com/communities/113884091278414495934
Thank you Jon for sharing these resources. I will share them with my co-teacher. This is what being connected is all about!
We home school our four children ages 7, 10, 13, and 14. Our 14 year old has taught himself, and has become very proficient in, binary code and binary mathematics. I’ll never forget The day I walked into his bedroom and found him surrounded by index cards cards covered in ones and zeros. That was the day that I began to understand the value of Minecraft as a learning tool and not just a video game. Thank you for bringing an open mind to education in a day of such constraint!
Interesting connections to mathematics. I had considered geometry and spacial awareness in general, but not what your son was doing. Thank you Tom for sharing.
Thank you Matt for some helpful clarification on the mystery of Minecraft. As your article mentions, my son will play hours on end, unlike any other digital game. He has graduated to using Skype with kids all over the world to meet up and create new worlds. Although too much time online doing anything could be a problem, your article points out the very basic reasons so many kids are drawn to the game, and as a result, makes the mystery much less of a worry.
Kevin, I appreciate you sharing how your son has connected other tools like Skype to Minecraft as a self-motivated learner. We hope to help our students make the same connections as they explore these digital tools with more purpose. Also, I agree with you about not allowing kids to spend too much time online. Everything in moderation!
I was fascinated to discover ways students could incorporate Minecraft into their learning. Recently a group of my 4th graders built Native American shelters with descriptions as a way for me to assess their learning. First time they enjoyed being tested!
Sheila, that is a very creative way for allowing students to show what they know. Thank you for sharing the possibilities of this digital tool!
This is a great idea…and the timing is quite serendipitous. I run a postgrad course at a university and for years we have been using Second Life as part of teaching the students about engaging learning in a 3D virtual world. Just yesterday I was discussing the course with my colleague and suggesting that we need to look at other options, such as Minecraft, as I believe that the future of learning online actually lies in “not-designed-for-learning” spaces rather than the sanitised online learning environments that we create. And so it was great to see that you are doing something with Minecraft, and I’m hoping my students will pick it up too and we can see where it leads.
I mentioned your article (with a bit of a discussion about the future of e-learning) here – http://www.facebook.com/Learning2.0
Thanks for sharing this. I am always inspired to “meet” others who are pushing the boundaries of using technology for learning!
I am glad you have found this post helpful, Craig. I agree with you that the future of learning may not be as teacher-directed and outcome-based as it has been. I know what you are saying in the “not-designed-for-learning” comment…wondering how this could be rephrased to better represent what digital tools like Minecraft have to offer.
Just curious…what was the male/female ratio of the 30% that signed up for the club?
There are 19 girls and 31 boys in the group.
Thanks Renee. (She is my co-teacher. Yes, we have 50 kids for two teachers. Anyone looking to volunteer? 😉
That’s a good question, Patricia. Although more boys than girls signed up, I don’t feel like the ratio was too much in favor of boys. Hopefully that’s a result of promoting this opportunity equally to all students and hosting the club in a gender-neutral environment like the library.
We homeschool our children and use minecraft as a learning tool. I have a 1st grader working on building animal habitats in the different biomes and learning about some of the elements found in mine craft and the periodic table. My 6th grader is amazing at how he uses redstone to power things with different circuits, etc. My 8th grader (who is a girl) and a real life horse rider, enjoys farming and horse training (some of the minecraft wild horses have different abilities at jumping, etc. when saddled). They Skype with kids around the world (Ireland/France/Australia), and play on a server that has a world in which they have economy packages – they have tried different “jobs” as miners, hunters, etc. and have opened their own “stores” selling items that they’ve mined and created. They have built roads and railways to increase traffic to their stores. So many opportunities for learning… We LOVE Minecraft!
Wow Jennifer, I had no idea how diverse the opportunities are within Minecraft. Is this through Minecraft EDU? We are only using the Pocket Edition on the iPads at this time. Your experiences you share have definitely opened my eyes to the possibilities.
I have just started a minecraft pilot at our middle school. The kids are so excited and have begun discussing a way to use minecraft to inform others about tornadoes using the tornado mod. They want to create a a storm chaser minecraft world. I have no idea if this can be done, but I think the kids will get it done. I look forward to our time after school as much as the kids do.
Irma, when you said, “I have no idea if this can be done, but I think the kids will get it done.”, I found myself smiling in appreciation. How often do we as educators take that same attitude with the core academics during the school day? Maybe experiences like the ones we are undertaking will help us recalibrate our expectations for what our students are truly able to accomplish.
We have also just started a MinecraftEdu exploration at our middle school. It is both amazing and magical to be a part of this experience. The students ask to come during advisory, lunch, after school, anytime to work on the virtual school we are creating. We also have plans to build a virtual digestive system in the near future. Students will build various organs together and then take the virtual tour. They are plotting various ways to use it in the classrooms; some of the ideas are so creative! The biggest reward so far is to hear the kids say “That was the most fun I’ve had.”When can we come back?” I wish I had something like Minecraft when I was in middle school.
The more comments like yours, Lori, that I read, the more I am questioning the limits of digital tools such as Minecraft have for deep and conceptual learning. Thank you for sharing the way you have connected the prescribed curriculum with something students are immensely engaged in.
I have 27 secind graders who use their math, writing , reading to build our town growing thought time in minecraft. It is so challenging for them to build together and they have to integrate all of their curriculum to complete the project. They are on a LAN to comply with CIPA but it is such an engaging process for all of us.
Anne, the concept of community is represented in your integrated unit on multiple levels. On the surface, students are creating a virtual community that requires them to connect important social studies concepts to a tool they know and enjoy. Digging deeper, they are creating another community, one maybe more important. Your students are learning critical social skills in this process, such as collaboration, communication, and consensus. These concepts, much more than any content standard, will benefit their lives and their futures. Kudos to you for having the courage to engage 27 second graders in this complex learning activity.
I would love to learn more about how you have accomplished this. My second graders love Minecraft and would love to figure a way ti “mine” to extend this love past writing activities.
Great insights! As a Middle School principal, I start my mornings wandering through our Commons, checking in on students. Sixth grade boys are immersed in Mincraft and when I ask them what they are doing, I prepare myself for a spirited and detailed description of their current project. Indeed, allowing kids to have a say in their world, free of adult-inspired rules and regulations that stifle creativity, is a big reason why I love seeing this type of activity before the school day begins…As teachers, we must capitalize on this approach to learning!
Thank you Bill for sharing your school experiences. Asking students about their interests, like you do, seems like such a simple thing, but I think it means so much to them. I probably don’t do this enough. Hopefully with the maker space we have created after school, students will see that we do value what they find engaging in our actions and words..
Matt, would you be willing to share the multiple intelligence survey you did with the kids?
Sure Beth. I found the multiple intelligence survey on Laura Candler’s website (www.lauracandler.com). Here is the direct link to the PDF: http://www.lauracandler.com/free/misurvey
I have not necessarily understood or even tried to understand my son’s fascination with Minecraft. He has been deeply entrenched in it since 2nd grade. He is now a 3rd grader and is working to build his own Minecraft server. As a “techie” and staff member in teacher education, as soon to be M.Ed. Instructional Technology graduate, I go back and forth between supporting and opposing this endeavor. I look forward to reading more! Thank you!
Judy, by allowing your son to explore his interests, I believe you are supporting his passions and not opposing anything. My son is also engaged in Minecraft. Thank you for joining me in this collaborative inquiry.
Thanks for writing this article. It inspired us at EEME to:
1) Pick up a copy of Pink’s book Drive. About 1/4 of the way through and there are some very very interesting ideas spawned out of the book already.
2) Write our thoughts on how the current White House Maker Faire announcement inspires passion based learning – http://blog.eeme.co/post/76352288959/white-house-maker-faire-teaches-passion-based-learning
Thanks again and looking forward to the “Day 2” follow up?
– Jack “EEME Dad”
Hi Jack. Glad you have found his book helpful. I would also recommend his most recent release, To Sell is Human. I may reference it in a future post here.
I perused your blog. That maker faire at the White House was an interesting event. I did see the video clip of the marshmellow gun. I think the President was as engaged as the boy was!
Look for a Day 2 post tomorrow. -Matt