Wednesday, 25 February 2015

On Minecraft and Curriculum.

So I read an article the other day http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-case-against-minecraft/385678/ and after I read it I was all a bit "meh" about the whole thing. So I read the comments, which is normally where some decent debate occurs, unfortunately the comments devolved very quickly into nonsensical arguments over the syntax used by others. So I left it alone and went to do something more productive with my time.

Then this morning I find this blog post by Donelle Batty https://dbatty.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/does-everything-need-to-be-educational-minecraft/ and found a resonating opinion. Is Minecraft educational? Does it have to be? What makes it so great in education? All of these questions are valid, and I feel Donelle does a brilliant job of bringing into light what should have been the 'real' questions that article addressed.

I felt the original article was lacking in any real substance for me, not saying that the article itself was pointless, but for my purposes, and with my experiences, this article really did not add anything to my own understanding of Minecraft and how it can be used in education. What it did do however, is bring to the forefront something that is becoming an increasing concern for me as someone actively working in the global community of educators trying to use Minecraft in their schools. Some people hear about the wonderful things students are achieving in Minecraft (both in and out of classrooms/schools) around the globe and immediately think that this will teach for them.

And that is just not true. As Donelle states, it is just a tool. In my opinion not much different to a pencil. With the right instructor or instructions the pencil can be used to create wonderful pieces of art, fantastic geometric drawings, a map to buried treasure or even a literary masterpiece, but without that key instructor or instruction what does it create? So how can we as educators utilise this tool called Minecraft properly? I think the first step is understanding it, understanding how to utilise it effectively for the learning objectives you have, the first step is not just expecting it to teach for you.

So in and of itself is Minecraft educational? Probably not, but while I was playing I saw a very large potential for teachable moments, particularly for Math. But that is probably my Math brain altering my perceptions. It is a great environment for teaching about digital citizenship, something that I have never 'really' been able to cover effectively in my classes prior to utilising Minecraft, as it is was a contrived lesson, rather than authentic and the students are very quick to realise that it is not real for them unlike in Minecraft where it is real for them, very real.

Minecraft does not educate my students, that is my job. Minecraft in the end is just a medium of communication between the students and me. I mean I use Minecraft to teach specific concepts, or reinforce them at the very least, and I believe I do that well for my students. But without my input what would having Minecraft in my lessons end up producing for my students?

Monday, 23 February 2015

Probability Map Complete.

The map is complete (I think). The mystery sheep probability portion of the map is now done and I think it will work wonderfully. I did, in the end, display all the possibilities of the sheep breeding, despite the large amount of wall space required as I felt that only showing those that are different may sway the students choice when it comes to choosing the sheep colour for their experiments.

 The walls displaying all the possible breeding outcomes (before I went through and got it right apparently).

The area complete (although I may have 'culled' the sheep after this screenshot).

So the plan is to start with the dispenser trial, complete this twice and record the data in the Google doc. Then we will reflect on our results have a discussion and then complete the two random number trials, again recording this data on the Google doc. Then we will compare these two sets of data to determine whether the rumour that dispensers favour a particular slot are true or not.

From there we will go to the Jeb sheep mystery, where the students will have to choose the colour of the sheep they are going to breed with the Jeb sheep to try and determine the true colour of the Jeb sheep. I imagine most students will only take 1-3 breeds to work out the colour of the Jeb sheep, between each breed the students will need to reflect on their choice of colour, record the result, try to infer the colour and then describe the probability they are correct in their guess.

Once they are certain of their guess I will give them some shears to shear the Jeb sheep to determine whether they were correct or not, and then write more reflection on this. From there they will be teleported to the 'free build' area for creating their own probability experiment in Minecraft, describing the theoretical probability, performing the experiment and comparing the theoretical and experimental probabilities and writing a reflection on this.

Then of course if there is time left, or if they cannot figure a probability experiment to design (it may be quite hard for them depending on their Minecraft experience) they will be able to head through the qCraft portal back to Mathlandia and enjoy some time gaining ownership of their land, gather some resources and think about the reward they would like for completing the probability map. Enough blabbering for now, next step, sharing the map to the world share site and running the class on Thursday. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Even More Probability

So after the last post I started building the 3rd component of the map and realised quite quickly that the behaviours I expected from sheep breeding were not correct at all. So I did a bit of a Google, and of course that was changed way back in Minecraft 1.4 which created quite a problem for me. The task I wanted the students to do will no longer work in the way I intended. So I have spent the last couple of days figuring out how I can utilise the new game mechanics to achieve the same results and learning for the students.

I think I have finally got it figured out. They will still have their mystery sheep, they will also have a display of all the possible outcomes of sheep breeding pairs. Instead of following my initial experimental design to find out the colour I am going to make them design their own experiments and possibly even more importantly (and much more excitingly) explain why they chose that particular experiment, what their outcome means, what they think the colour is and the probability they are right.

This has stepped up the learning for this particular part of the map well above what I was originally planning, and I am excited to see how the students 'cope' with the higher level of understanding about probability required to interpret the data they have access to and their results and whether this activity will help them gain that higher level of understanding.

The current sheep pens. Walls will be built around these with the sheep breeding options displayed for students.

I have begun building the walls, and the display of the breeding options, however to display all the options will take far too much space. So I am going to only show those that 'merge' the colours, all others I will tell the students create a 50/50 chance of either of the parent colours. I will hopefully finalise the map this weekend and upload it to the world share. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment below.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Mathlandia 2015 - Probability

So I am pretty sure I have the first map ready to go for Mathlandia next Thursday. It is a probability experiment, hopefully that can lead to some great discussions on theoretical and experimental probability. I have not completely set up the Moodle for the students yet as I am still not 100% sure on how I want it set up and what will work best, so that will probably remain a work in progress for a bit longer.

This map is a concept I came up with late last year and ran at a school I went to train some staff and students at. However the hardware we used let us down, so I never got to use the map to its full potential. Hopefully next week that will change. I remember writing an almost complete script as to how I would introduce each component of this map, so I will be updating that and making it available with this map. That is right, I am sharing this map to the MinecraftEdu World Library, and I am even going to share it before I run it next week. This is how I am going to improve my map sharing, if it is shared before I use it, I don't know what is 'wrong' with it, and therefore I will not hold onto it to fix those issues before sharing and never get around to it.

Here are some screenshots of the map with explanations as to what is happening at that location.

The sheep barn, with dispensers ready to randomly dispense wool colours. 20 pens of 9 sheep, doubled up for the second experiment where they will use a random number generator to determine the wool colour instead of the dispenser.

The full dispenser, with all the colours the students will need.

The 'free' build area where students will be designing and building their own probability experiment.

If you are interested in looking through the current 'script' follow this link, if you do take the time read it  (it may not make sense without access to the map, so if you want the map to look at alongside leave a comment below and I will get it organised) I would really appreciate your feedback on it. It is not wholly complete, and having re-read the script before linking it, neither is the map :D. I Still have to build the advanced probability experiment where students will have to use their knowledge of probability and decide the colour of an unknown sheep after completing some breeding experiments. I also need to display the possible breeding outcomes in tree diagrams and 2-way tables so that students will have to interpret these options.

Thanks for reading, more updates to come as this project moves along. I am so excited to get this going.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Engaging Students in Minecraft.

Today the year 8 math class and I began our journey in MinecraftEdu towards making Mathlandia the project I always hoped it would be. I am so excited, and so are the students. I explained that there would be a base world where students would just be able to play, in survival, however they wanted. Their response was palpable excitement at the prospect of this, and I mentioned my hope that I can let them into the computer room, and the world at recess at least once a fortnight, hopefully every week.

I went on to explain how we would have a portal to another server where we would do our learning activities, and they would be rewarded with undecided rewards at the conclusion of each task(their first reward they can decide, within reason). Many of these students play Minecraft at home, so that got a stir of excitement as inter-server portals are probably not something that they would have explored before. I then introduced them to our Moodle page, where they will get their tasks, links and what ever else is needed for the lesson and we joined the tutorial world.

The students were off like a rocket, they knew how to play, so once I was sure that everyone had the basics down, we loaded up Mathlandia and I just let them play, gather and begin building their houses. I left night off for the session today, just so that they could get set up and not get frustrated by dying over and over at night.

Now if you are a regular reader, you know that I have been thinking a lot lately about how to make lessons fun and engaging for students. What is it that makes Minecraft fun for students, and how can I utilise that in lessons? Today I received yet another wake up call, which brought about the rest of this post. The engagement in that lesson today was off the charts, every student was working towards whatever goal they had in mind, they were working in small groups towards a common goal and individually towards their own, no arguments, no issues whatsoever.

I've heard lots of similar success stories from other teachers, but it sadly does not seem to be the universal experience in all classrooms. This got me reflecting on how my own practices with Minecraft might differ from those of other teachers. I am a big proponent of the "Minecraft at home is different to Minecraft at school." In fact I regularly use that line when I talk to students and teachers about Minecraft in the classroom. I think the distinction needs to be clearly made in terms of what students expect, however I don't think that the experience in school needs to be completely locked down and so far removed from what makes the game fun for them. In fact I think it would be way better if their learning experience used their knowledge of the game mechanics to complete the lessons the teacher has set.

I feel that if a student doesn't actively play the game at home and the game is ‘locked down’, chances are their experience will not be as negative as a student who is an active player and who knows ‘what they are missing’. So a big part of this year for me will be trying to use the ‘game’ to help me teach, rather than just teaching within the game. But when I hear or read teachers saying that students are disappointed that they cannot reach their 'goals' in Minecraft for whatever reason. I think to myself, why can they not do that, why can the teacher not negotiate with the student to make a valuable learning experience where the student can do the ‘thing’ that will engage them while still reaching the learning goals? So another goal I am working towards this year is to get students feedback on my lessons much more, with pre-lesson and post lesson surveys, focussing on the learning they achieved and what they liked and disliked about the activity, so I can work to improve my lesson design and delivery.

I dont want to be an educator that uses Minecraft in their classes as a 'baby sitter', a 'silver bullet' or just because everyone else is raving about it. I want to use what is a very powerful tool for education in my ‘toolbox’ in the best possible way. I want to use it in my classes because of the engagement, learning and flexibility it can provide. I want to give students the opportunity to learn in a way that they have not before, at least in a formal classroom. Wish me luck and thanks for reading.



Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Return of Mathlandia

OK, so 2014 was a bit of a slow year for me, this year, 2015, I am going to get back into pushing the boundaries of my teaching. I am lucky enough to be teaching year 8 Math again, and I have spoken to the students about a MinecraftEdu session every fortnight. Of course they are excited, but so am I, I have the first couple of topics pretty much ready to go, I am still deciding how I want to tie it all into "Mathlandia" because ideally I would like to start with the Measurement map with Galacticraft and Mystcraft and actually allow the students to leave the polluted planet and find a new home on a remade Mathlandia home world.

The problem with this is the order of topics we are studying doesn't really line up with this, as we are starting with Probability. I plan on using the new probability map I made for a demo lesson at another school this year and seeing how the whole thing plays out. I could of course complete the probability map, have a 'disaster' that makes the world polluted, but it would require a rewrite of the base Measurement map backstory, which in itself is not an issue, it is just a matter of whether it is 'worth' the required time given the students propensity to ignore backstory and any other reading or text while in class.

The other exciting thing I am trying to maintain this year with this math group is on the opposite weeks to MinecraftEdu we will be using an XBox to gather 'data' to perform basic numerical actions upon to improve basic number fluency with these students. The first session of this XBox is this Friday (as in 2 days away) and the first MinecraftEdu session in which we will do the tutorial world is next Thursday. I am really excited and also hoping to be able to actually find the time to open the base Mathlandia world up for students to interact with at lunch or recess at least once a week.

So the 'to-do' list is quite large, starting with a building a completely new Mathlandia home world, deciding whether to continue using Mystcraft as a way of separating the lessons out and being able to upload each lesson separately to the world share for others. On the sharing of my worlds, I am going to try and upload them 'as is' instead of trying to make them 'perfect' before uploading as this is what I believe to be one of my biggest failings, I have all of these wonderful worlds that 'work' in their current state, but they are not shared because there are things I would do different if I were to use it again, and the time needed to alter them in this manner is normally swallowed by the next project or map as, for me, it is way more fun to build something completely new than alter a pre-existing map, even my own.

Setting the boundaries and ensuring students stay up to date with their assigned book work is also going to be a high priority on the list. Unfortunately if students do not keep up, then I cannot afford to take the time out of 'normal' classes to do these different activities, while they are valuable, I do need to keep pace with the other class and make sure students are getting the required skills and knowledge.

I also am hopefully going to gather some relatively 'hard data' to prove that MinecraftEdu is supporting student learning and knowledge retention of these topics. Having taught almost entirely not in MinecraftEdu last year, I have the data of student growth without it, and comparing that with the data I gather this year when I am teaching with it I hope to 'prove' that it is a valuable tool, rather than just knowing it. I know it is difficult to compare different cohorts, but if I look at relative growth of students rather than comparing the data wholly I hope to be able to make some valid arguments for the continued use of MinecraftEdu at my school and in my classes. This may make the time away from 'normal' classes easier to defend in the future.

OK I have babbled on enough now, just a 'quick' update and hopefully some more regular sharing and lessons will happen over this new school year. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Surprises are Nice!

You know one of the things that makes teaching such an amazing job, and what most teachers will look forward to most (apart from holidays) are those moments where students surprise us. Those moments where students are completing the assigned activity at a much higher standard or engagement than you expect. Where they are able to show characteristics like leadership, or teamwork that they normally do not display, or even supporting other students in ways that they normally do not.

I was lucky enough to have one of these moments yesterday with a group of year 8 students. The majority of year 8 are not at school this week, either on a school camp, or choosing not to attend. There were about 10 of them here yesterday, and on Wednesday when I first had the year 8s for the week, I explained that I wanted this group to be the experts for the planned activity next week. So I gave them Wednesdays class to just play and then yesterday we stepped up the 'game' a bit.

I set up some command blocks to detect when any player died and when detected freeze all the students. I also put in a circle of border blocks to limit space and resources. I explained that this would then mean the server would be reset and everyones progress would be lost when the first player died. This meant that they were a team and they needed to work together to survive. Their first attempt was as you would expect, 'little' teams all worked on their own, building their own shelter for the first night. Surprisingly they all survived the first night, but a creeper did what creepers do and snuck up on one of the students and blew them to the afterlife….

Server reset to a new random map after a quick discussion about how effective teams operate. Attempt 2 had all the students in the one 'team' building the same house, it was ginormous, more like a house for 30 people. This time students worked much better, to the point where they were supporting one student who had run out of hunger by going out to get him some food. Again they survived the first night, but a skeleton in the water and students lack of hunger caused the server to reset again.

Attempt number 3 ended in the first night, a student got caught in a cave with a skeleton and died early in the first night. This time however the students made a much more modest house and again, their teamwork and planning was much improved. Food was sought and shared amongst the team, as was the gathering of wood and other resources. Unfortunately many students were relying on the knowledge of others in terms of building tools and other crafted items.

Attempt number 4 is where fantastic things started happening, after a quick discussion about what had happened, and how to prevent it, I restarted the server again to a new random world, and this time set the difficulty to hard, to make food a higher priority. Again the teamwork and planning was excellent, however it was during this run (which is going to continue today) that the sharing of knowledge began. One 'non-crafting' student called out to one of those that knew the recipes, "I need a pickaxe". A third student then said to the first, "You cannot rely on him all the time". Now this third student is probably where the title of this post, and the feelings associated with it come from. This student is normally one who will sit back and let others do the work for them, and yet here he was, in this team situation trying to get others to do their own work.

It was after this comment that this same student began asking others for the recipes to create things, instead of just taking those that were given to him. I think he had realised that being part of a team means that all members of the team need to support each other, and when this other student called out his need, he realised that perhaps only having one or two students with the knowledge of tool crafting was not the most efficient in this situation. This was a nice surprise, and gives me a great deal of hope for next week when I run this with a lot more students with the goal of encouraging teamwork and a less fractured, more cohesive class group.

So on that note, I have decided to just run with this activity, I know I felt that the decision was a worthwhile addition to the beginning of the lesson, but seeing what I have this week, I think it is far more beneficial to complete this activity, and the learning and teamwork that comes out of it will be far greater than a collaborative build with no consequences for a lack of team work. So now I need to work out the right balance of space restriction and life restriction for a whole class instead of a small group.

I am still leaning towards 5 lives for the class, and I think an initial space of a radius 100 blocks that doubles on the dawn of the 3rd day. Given this small group I am currently working with is unable to survive past the second day I think it is a good target and I wish I had more than just 90 minutes to run this program with the students as I think 90 minutes will only scratch the surface of the possible outcomes for this activity.

This brings to mind the video Shane and I produced a while ago, talking about the problem solving process while playing Crash Landings. The goal of that 'series' (we have 2 recorded iterations currently, but more planned) is to discuss the potential for teaching the design process and problem solving processes. Having done this activity I really think there is massive potential for that sort of teaching within this space, be it in modded Minecraft like Crash Landings, or vanilla Minecraft with specific restrictions.


Thanks for reading and as always, feel free to leave a comment below.