Minecraft in the classroom

Minecraft, the best-selling computer game of all time, is becoming a teaching tool, writes Alexandra Ossola in The Atlantic.  Former teacher Joel Levin and his colleagues founded TeacherGaming to bring Minecraft into classrooms.

Levin played an early version of Minecraft with his 5-year-old daughter in 2010, reports Ossola.  “He was amazed at how much his daughter was learning from Minecraft; she solved problems on her own, developed a spatial understanding in the game, and accelerated her reading and writing skills because she wanted to be able to interact with other players.”

Minecraft is an open-ended game with a never-ending landscape and digitally rendered resources. In certain game modes, players have to gather resources to craft shelter, tools, and armor to meet basic needs and survive battles with one another. But the part that players seem to enjoy the most is the construction element, in which they build entities like functional computers or reconstruct landscapes such as the entire country of Denmark.

Levin designed Minecraft lessons for second graders at a private school in New York City, where he taught technology classes. They learned more than “hard skills,” he tells Ossola.

 “It led to conversations in the classroom about how we treat these virtual spaces that we all find ourselves in, especially the young people that are coming into this complicated world of social networking,” Levin said. “Are we going to treat our class’ Minecraft world as an extension of our classroom? Do the rules that apply in the school building also apply on our Minecraft server? What happens if someone breaks those rules?”

Minecraft Teacher has advice on how to use the game in the classroom.

No child left untableted

Will technology transform teaching? asks Carlo Rotella in the New York Times Magazine.

Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

The $199 tablets come from Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It’s run by Joel Klein, the former chancellor New York City’s public schools. Guilford County is the company’s first paying customer.

The success of Amplify’s tablet depends on how teachers use it, Klein tells Rotello. “If it’s not transformative, it’s not worth it.”

Robin Britt, a Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) lead an all-day training session for North Carolina teachers. The Amplify tablet personalizes instruction, said Britt, a former middle school and Montessori teacher.

It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.”

“Individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen,” says Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Teachers “used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”

To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine traditional classroom skills with new ones, Britt told the Guilford County middle school teachers.

This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.

“It’s the teacher, not the technology,” Britt reminded the trainees.

42 minutes to learn algebra?

It Only Takes About 42 Minutes To Learn Algebra With Video Games, writes Jordan Shapiro on Forbes, citing the Washington State Algebra Challenge, which used DragonBox App. According to Washington University’s Center for Game Science and the Technology Alliance, 4,192 K-12 students solved 390,935 equations over the course of five days in early June.

What’s even more impressive, “of those students who played at least 1.5 hours, 92.9% achieved mastery. Of those students who played at least 1 hour, 83.8% achieved mastery. Of those students who played at least 45 minutes, 73.4% achieved mastery.”

Shapiro downloaded DragonBox “and was astonished to see how quickly my son (then 7) learned to do complex algebraic equations.” Now his five-year-old is playing. “I watched him breeze through the first two chapters in about 20 minutes.”

Creator Jean-Baptise Huynh tells Shapiro that DragonBox teaches “the mechanics of algebra processes and abstraction,” but students will need teachers or parents to “transfer the knowledge to pencil and paper.”

Dragonbox2 screenshot

Darren, a high school math teacher, is skeptical that normal kindergarteners and first graders can learn algebra. “My experience is that there is often a huge gap between the game or manipulative and the transference of what’s learned there to actual algebra,” he writes on Right on the Left Coast.

Gates funds game-based learning

Kids’ enthusiasm for video games could be harnessed by the classroom of the future, Bill Gates told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Gates Foundation is investing $20 million in teacher tools, including learning games.

Students are grouped according to skill set. One cluster huddles around a computer terminal, playing an educational game or working on a simulator. Another works with a human teacher getting direct instruction, while another gets a digital lesson delivered from their teacher’s avatar.

Gates envisions games as “an adjunct to a serious curriculum.” His foundation is working with the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington to develop learning games, said Vicki Phillips, education director for the Gates Foundation.

 The idea is that in coming years, there could be a digital mall full of low-cost or free online games teachers could download to use with the entire class or individual students.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is make more robust the array of things teachers have access to at their fingertips that are aligned to standards, that are high quality, that engage kids though technology and let [teachers] be the orchestra leader,” Phillips said.

“Motivation is such a huge part in what ends up differentiating student outcomes,” Gates said. And games are motivating.

Do our schools support innovation?, asks Aran Levasseur, a middle school teacher turned technology coordinator, on Mind/Shift.

Technology widens the spectrum of how individuals and teams can access, construct and communicate knowledge. Education, for the most part, isn’t creating learners along these lines. Meanwhile, computers are challenging the legitimacy of expert-driven knowledge, i.e., of the teacher at the front of the classroom being the authority. All computing devices — from laptops to tablets to smartphones — are dismantling knowledge silos and are therefore transforming the role of a teacher into something that is more of a facilitator and coach.

. . . Great teachers are needed now more than ever. But what it means to be a teacher and student is changing . . .

In the comments, Barry Garelick argues the “content of the future” will look a lot like the content of the past, at least in math. “The 21st century will require mastery of the same math skills needed in the 20th century,” he writes.

The Serious Play Conference next month in Seattle will look at measuring the effectiveness of educational games.

Science teacher: My class is a game

Paul Anderson explains how he designed a game to teach biology in a TEDx talk. Montana’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, Anderson teaches at Bozeman High. His science lessons can be found on YouTube.