Minecraft isn’t about creativity anymore

I’m being provocative. Of course Minecraft can be used in creative mode and allow kids to build amazing things. However, in educational tropes, Minecraft is represented as almost entirely about being ‘creating’ and ‘making’ – the pinnacle of digital games based learning software. Add ‘multi-user’ and the necessary subjective frame to interpret what all some kids are making and another myth is born. Minecraft is a safe, virtual world where kids can make anything. Well I’d like add a new line of discussion. Minecraft is not the nirvana of children focused MUVES (multi-user virtual environments) but that is what is being presented though the lens of educational technology innovation at conferences and online. Minecraft is software that allows cultural reproduction.

Once again, these minorities fail to discuss the broader cultures. In particular, the growing culture of play among Minecraft players. A few years ago, most servers were about building and community, I’m not going to argue otherwise. It was a period where the Minecraft community (early adopters) created the necessary tools and infrastructure to homogenise the game for a broader (now majority) audience. Servers popped up which ran some ‘hunger games’ type arrangements and people shared that code on the forums. Creating a ‘game’ within the sandbox world was primitive, but fun to do in the way that Code.org isn’t.

If you are a parent of a Minecraft kid now, chances are your kids are playing on some very sophisticated servers and watching multi-million dollar Minecraft YouTube channels about those servers, games and mods. It has become a huge media business. Kids perform a form of work in these servers — often paid in gems or some other micro-payment item that allows them to ‘get’ or ‘play’ more later. This is not what the educators talk about, as it’s got some very concerning media-effect by products. Kids log on to game servers, which are vast pre-made, rule based arcades. They line up in lobbies to join games which have been created by some very clever people – in – Minecraft, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is Minecraft as the educators would have you believe. This little more than mini-games (or snack games) which appeal to the decreasing attention span of the emergent snack-gamer. Kids are working by playing, collecting ‘gems’ while sitting on servers simply to rack up time.

Minecraft is now a platform which hosts thousands of competing mini-game servers, which lack just about every characterstic of the game routinely espoused as part and parcel of the game. These kids are having fun, playing online … but so are those kids playing Sky Pirates, Candy Crush or Clash of Clans. In that regard, kids who play Minecraft are not choosing a more creative game which requires the juicy 21st Century skills which get technology salivating teachers going … it’s little more than Habbo Hotel for a new generation, full of the same potential issues. But then most people didn’t play Habbo either.

While schools might well insist on using Minecraft towards educational goals, it has also evolved into a network of game servers which I’d argue have little more value cognitively than any other online snack game arcade. It’s just in 3D (ish). What is more interesting to me is the media which surrounds this phenomenon, the advertising, the merch, posters, books etc,

Often it seems, Minecraft is said to be educational in order to sell more product, as though calling it ‘educational’ somehow stops the broader Minecraft server/media messages having a negative impact on kids. If you’re a parent of a Minecraft player, you will probably agree with me when I say they spend a heap of time watching videos about Minecraft. But do you know what they are watching, or how these videos create breadcrumb trails to these arcade servers? Do you worry that your kid is idling on servers to collect gems and not creating much of anything? Do you even notice?

Then we have teachers, who believe that their Minecraft server is somehow immune and isolated from this media-circus. Oh yes, Minecraft is unlike any other game (for kids) because it has created a network of media consumers in ways no other game has achieved. Its important (I think) for educators to realise that Minecraft exists beyond school and to consider the issues raised in these online arcades and connected media that moves kids from one space to another. That is a literacy that kids are actually building – on of optimal consumption. It’s time to put this out there. As much as I love Minecraft’s potential, there is a BIG culture online that don’t see being discussed by educators … Introducing kids to Minecraft in schools will introduce them to the culture beyond it. Is that being adequately explained? Is that something teachers need to be accountable fot?

Let’s play some Habbo and find out …

Media, kids and mad parents

Most kids growing up playing Minecraft don’t remember why people needed video-rental stores. They don’t care which toys will be on display in the department store ‘grotto’ in six months time. Old people buy toys in stores these days, not kids.

Kids live in a world which is presented to them though inescapable media messages where persistent ‘calls to action’. They are only occasionally thwarted by parental illiteracy towards media – as the kid grabs the iphone or ipad as they jump into their sat-nav powered hybrid car.

Do parents dream of electric cars or Aeon Flux? I think Elon Musk must be rapt with the way the world is heading right now. In my thesis, I’m describing this culture as neo-evolutionary where the media created for them is more powerful than any media created by them. Is it better that they know something (anything) of how to ‘work the media devices’ or should parents just melt them over a campfire of rebelliousness. I don’t’ think ‘gamer’ is a useful term to describe what kids are doing with media anymore than ‘car maker’ describes Musk.

The naive enthusiasm for “Web2.0″, dubbed “the read/write web” created this ready made consumer audience. Being able to make media was always going to be achieved within branded-bubble-worlds, such as Apple and Google. Web2.0 didn’t liberate anyone. The basic tools afforded to users (such as we that blogged) didn’t create open systems, but allowed the media to focus on the most profitable ones. Media companies are not into nostalgia and will kill off any media channel which is not expanding their audience and that of their sponsors and advertisers.

Kids don’t need a credit card these days, as so much of their technology is connected to family funds. Sure some kids have to ask to spend, and parents do say no … but media has forever negated the need for children to handle physical money or visit a physical store to buy goods.

I want, I click, I get is way of life. Whether they need a few Canada Coins for in-game purchases, buy a season pass or look up just ‘information’. My point is that neo-kids are not required to differentiate between the corporeal and the virtual and the lack of physical items in transactions is a form of cultural amnesia. Amazingly, teachers maintain they can bridge this gap, and solve this problem. Try putting wet towels on students heads, that might work too. If we teachers get this right, childhood will be saved blah blah. We are not a more open society because of technology, we are a more gated, scrutinised and biased bunch of users.

In fact the less we are asked to think about the world, the more likely we are to go along with representations of it. Two examples: childhood – a mythical idea which is in danger of being corrupted by the media, unless children spend more time using the media. Childhood is a western, civic idea that is nonsensical to the vast majority of the world. Next, take the new ‘pay-pass’ system for store payments. Just wave your card at a machine. No, not there dummy, where the logo is. How inconvenient was it to tap in 4 digits with your fingers?

Well, it’s not designed for convenience, but to get people used to an important idea. We should wave away our money using digital devices more often than use real money. Real money is inconvenient (like thinking). Through this, the media uncouples the mind from pondering the physicality of consumerism itself. Pay-wave in the self-checkout lane? Oh how I love to use cash, take my own bags and have the store-person fill them out. I shop in the real world still, but I can well imagine I sound weird, if not insane to be the 1:100 who does this now.

Kids dig up diamonds, they find great treasures and despatch enemies without any real risk of actual danger or actual reward. The media has accepted that children will live in a neo-evolutionary closed community where the messages are there for just about any other purpose than critical thinking.

Why pen and paper are imaginative tools

IMG_6056Recently, I’ve been working on a class technology project which aims to help kids understand how creative projects come about and the processes that designers go through to generate ideas and turn those ideas into prototypes. This is foundational in middle school technology, a cycle of innovation, design thinking etc.,

I might not have mentioned that I’m working at the International Football School on the Central Coast, which is the first school of it’s type and academically uses a unique form of project based learning. I’ve been involved in PBL for quite a while and as I roll to the end of term one, I thought I’d post about the on-going PBL challenge.

The main ‘new’ skill for students is being able to negotiate ideas and distribute tasks. in a group. It’s something many adults struggle with, not least those for whom ‘distributed leadership’ means not being in total control. My middle-schoolers are therefore just beginning to come to grips with project management (high-school) with it’s competing priorities, disagreements, unfamiliar terms and deadlines.

To help develop the necessary collaborative skills and work ethics, I’d like to introduce you to a technology called pen and paper (not available on the app store).

Pen and paper is la lean in technology. Unlike a screen, I never see kids learning back and gazing at paper. Movement is really important to learning, despite schools tendency to prefer static bums on seats. Active learning still a hands on activity, and not always a hands on glass activity. Kids are fascinated by what other kids are making in real time. Comments and idea flow without any special effort, as one kid will respond and mediate the flurry of ideas on offer. No one has to be amazingly gifted at drawing or have a developed digital literacy skill-set to use paper. Yes we could used an online sketchbook, and the kids could sign-up sign in and draw on a screen at the same time — but there’s one BIG reason not to do this. Creating ideas and bringing them into reality is exactly the kind of creative life-drama that kids love. It’s an opportunity to disagree without rage-quitting, losing face and to actively observe how others find new ideas and patterns as they emerge.

Paper also allows choice. In this task, the games they are designing need to teach the main points of topics they have also been working on in either geography, maths, science and English. This means that there is good reason to get out of your seat and move around to see what other groups are doing. In this case, the kids are making a simple RPG, and just out of this frame, others are creating a kind of Maths themed Twister. This is of course a PBL school in open learning spaces, where team-teaching really does mean co-player, co-protagonist much of the time. Pen and paper are super fast to use and kids generally have parent-supplied pens and other goodies ready to go.

Give it a try, pen and paper, still rocking the imagination. No batteries required.

Why isn’t that kid on task!

Student engagement is such as hot topic these days. With a wave of the Magic iWand, today’s youth can move from work avoider to engaged entrepreneur according to the buzzy world of edtech. It seems every off-task work avoider can be won over, if only we knew a guy who knows the right app to do it. I don’t buy into this at all. Teaching is hard and it’s always been hard. High school kids do not walk into school with a neutral work ethic, nor is there some gear-change moment that teachers are supposed to spot. Not all kids like the topic or the subject at hand, nor do their siblings or parents for that matter.

There are groupings of students and there are groups of students. Finding the sweet-spot assumes that at some point, by some method or incantation, that teaching and learning can be a stable pursuit. Attempting to separate motivation, attitude, belief and effort from learning is as useful as trying to guess the lottery. Moving kids from one grouping to another requires a careful hand — and not based on a score or a grade. We can put children into any number of groups, but not solve the wicked problem itself. For example, if your classroom is attempting to be PBL, but the mindset of separating kids is though behaviour+marks, then the exercise is futile and unlikely to improve one thing without de-stablising another.

When people thrust “data” from some form on “test” about comprehension, cognition etc., then this is like trying to weigh a pig to see how happy it is … unless your classroom is designed to operate in sync with the test itself. I guess cookie-cutter classrooms and tests are one way to represent education to the public, but not engagement. Are the kids disengaged or just tuned to other channels?

The problem is not ‘education’ or what content is used in it, but the fact that students are increasingly under the illusion that advances in technology has brought them on-tap knowledge and endless choices about what they do and when they do it. I’m sure that the ‘dose-response’ taking hold among societies technological users is eroding the basic need to get onto a task, figure it out and bring it home. That’s not engagement, that’s a battle with consumerism and behavioural conditioning that we might not be winning, despite our ability to draw circles.

How games can highlight under teacher underperformance.

It is often said that games are motivating and fun. Although this may well be true, if we’re going to put them to use in school, the reality is that assessment drives curriculum and this drives content. Decades of research explains why many (not all) teachers teach the way they do . In this canon of evidence, norm-referenced assessment and information transmission stands out. Basically this means that feedback from assessment, tells ‘low-performing’ students they are ‘low performing’ students.

From this, students are placed in lower ability-groups, where most are left to function at that level. This used to be the way parents were convinced their children were dumb, until parents started to notice that millions of kids were playing VERY complicated games which required cognitive skills and information processes which — according to schools — they didn’t have. Schools have attempted to ban games of course. They need games to be seen as an outsider-media, lurking in the shadows to make kids dumb. Sadly, this myth has been debunked. Even the media, who have been negative about games for decades now publish stories of how games are helping kids break the cycle of poor-talent-skill-knowledge identification.

This to me is what Minecraft has really achieved in society. Granted it emerged at a particular epoch, but at a time where governments are wondering what to do with education, here we have a game which clearly shows kids are being wrongly labelled, and worse they self-identity with being a low-performer as though the world they will now enter works like it did in the 1960s. If you’re a parent of a ‘low-performer’ then you probably see your kid effortly playing very very complex games. Do not buy into the false idea that games are for dummies, a waste of time or signal a lifetime of time-wasting. I’m going to set out why this is a deliberate and convenient myth.

So how can a ‘low performer’ level cap in Destiny or build an amazing cityscape in Minecraft?

Parents open the school report to see their child has been operating at the ‘limited’ level (again) and so the circle turns. Go up to the teacher and challenge them — how come my child is limited, when she can build this? Chances are the video-game is being blamed for distracting the child – or worse that the game is a crutch for low performing kids – who presumably can’t read books etc.,

What rubbish! The reason the school report is an unreliable tool that is over-rated. It doesn’t detail whether or not the teacher understands how metacognitive, reflective and imaginative education could lift any child from the perceived cycle of poor-performance. It just says poor performance is the outcome of the classroom strategy. Once again, the child who is a poor performer – can also successfully play video games which require higher levels of performance and cognition than are needed information transmission based classroom. To get around this problem, teachers try to stream kids, which another way of saying reaffirm on a daily basis that you are not very good and should never be asked to think about relational or applied problems. No wonder she likes Minecraft, there’s no such garbage happening.

So why don’t teachers fix the problem? One reason is culture, the other is training. Research tells us over and over why teachers adopt the strategies they do, so I’m not letting the cat out the bag to when I say, low performance is an intended outcome of teaching sadly.

A better approach to using and designing games to break this cycle involves teaching as involving conceptual change/development intentions with student focused strategies (Trigwell & Prosser, 2013). This means that the teacher is focused on the gap between the current position of the child and the NEXT desired position. They are NOT focused on the next question, the next topic to get through or the next fact or powerpoint slide. Learning is intertextual and multimodal, yet teachers press ahead with strategies we know reinforce and trap kids in a cycle of low-performance identity. What crap, I’ve seen ‘low performing’ kids solve problems in games that their teachers couldn’t do — and perhaps this is why kids are awarded ‘detentions’ for playing games, rather than being rewarded for saying “why can you not teach me like this”. In effect, game playing behaviour is an indicator of teacher performance. Ouch.

For example, using Minecraft, Myst, Portal or other entertainment games towards can be intentionally used towards educational goals, The authors contend that literacy relies not only on the content within each element, but also each element’s position, relationships among elements, as well as aspects of the reader. This position can be further understood using the SOLO taxonomy.

In an extensive review of teacher assessment strategies, Biggs (1998) argues teachers tend to use practices that encourage low cognitive level activities such as recall of isolated items of knowledge, norm-referenced in such a way that feedback confirms their low ability and  assessment within this encourages students to mediate their own effort in assessment tasks, (which define the curriculum). Students  adopti cue-seeking behaviours to avoid what Biggs calls the backwash. ie, for those who perceive themselves as ‘low performers’, in classrooms where transmission of information is the dominant teacher strategy, their ability to improve is hampered by the backwash of assessment itself. Cue-seeking is a sign of pedagogical confusion or poor alignment rather than intelligence. Contrastingly, where metacognition and reflection are part of the learning process “students themselves, without teacher help can focus on the gap between their actual position, and the desired position, until the the calendar dictates when the calendar must stop” (p.107).

When we think about game-playing, where fun and immersion drive metacognitive, reflective experiences such as World of Warcraft, Destiny, Halo, Guild Wars, Lord or the Rings and so on – players are almost entirely focused on the gap between current position and the ‘next level’. The game, or rather information processes in the game, are entirely designed to give feedback to the player such that no external ‘judge’ is required.

This isn’t an easy fix and this is a blog post which has gleefully skipped over a raft of ‘challenges’ that can be put up – however, if a parent is reading ‘limited’ on a report and the kid can finish a AAA game in a weekend, then how can that be?

Biggs, J. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning: a role for summative assessment? Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 103–110. http://doi.org/10.1080/0969595980050106

Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (2013). Qualitative variation in constructive alignment in curriculum design. Higher Education, 67(2), 141–154. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-013-9701-1