Minecraft in the Classroom: A Real-world Example

You may have seen the above video floating around from the PBS Idea Channel, posing the question of whether the video game Minecraft is the “Ultimate Education tool“. With over 200,000 views and over 6500 likes, it got me wondering how many of these viewers have actually seen Minecraft being used in the classroom? Before last week, I hadn’t — which made a recent opportunity even more exciting.  Part of our e-Learning for Educators team was invited to visit a local elementary school to see how they’ve been using Minecraft — and what I saw was pretty inspiring.

To give you an idea of what it is like to play Minecraft, it has been described as “first person legos” mixed with “The Sims” (and maybe with a few other games thrown in). The game is considered a “sandbox” game with an open world, giving players a large amount of freedom when it comes to playing the game.  In the standard version of Minecraft, there are four different modes to the game: survival, creative, adventure, and hardcore. While not all of the modes of the standard version are ideal for educational use, there is an educational version of the game called MinecraftEdu that was created for teachers by teachers.

During our visit, we observed a second grade class using the standard Minecraft‘s “creative mode” to collaboratively build an interactive world. The students were divided into four groups, with each group being assigned a time period to create within Minecraft together — but each at their own computer. When creating their worlds, they had to think about what to include and what to build, making sure to justify why they included what they did.

Students can leave signs for other players.

Players have the ability to leave signs throughout their worlds. In this project, students used signs to ask questions or to clarify what they were building.

Here’s a little rundown of the time periods and what I saw:

  • 1850: I learned from a couple students that they were currently reading the Little House on the Prairie books, which I believe was the inspiration for this time period. This world was complete with a dry goods store, pigs (and other farm animals) and other period appropriate creations. One student in this group was building a “dugout” house and confidently explained to me what it was and why it was there! :)
  • 1950: The school we visited was built around1950, so students had to think about how their city was different in 1950. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of this time period.
  • 2013: Students had to recreate Columbia in the present. I was given a “tour” of the school as it is today (in Minecraft, of course) and the local grocery store (I think it was a Gerbes). I believe I even spotted the local mall!
  • Future: I didn’t get an exact date for this time period, but I think it may have been  around 50 years in the future. According to their teacher, this was the time period the students had the hardest time with. I did see buildings equipped with “solar panels” (while Minecraft doesn’t have solar panels yet within the game, they designated materials to stand in for solar panels) and other evidence of a future of renewable energy, giving you an idea of how this project is getting their mental wheels turning.
future

Future: The glass ceiling of this building was meant to represent solar panels.

Watching the engagement in this classroom was amazing — the students enjoyed what they were doing and, based on my conversations with them, they were definitely practicing some higher-level thinking. This doesn’t mean there were no hitches. At times, it seemed difficult to get them to stop building in their worlds. Despite these minor issues, I could really see the future of this software having a place in education. While I’m not sure about it being the “ultimate tool”, Minecraft is proving to be a unique and rewarding addition to the classroom.

This is just one way of how Minecraft is being used with students. Check out MinecraftEdu‘s Real-world Example page to see more great ways this software is already being used in the classroom.

What are your thoughts on Minecraft as the “Ultimate Education Tool”? In what ways do you see yourself using Minecraft with your students?

[This post was provided by Zoë Hyatt, an instructional developer for the eMINTS National Center and eLearning for Educators.]

GIS and geo-literacy

During this wintry weather, I’ve been finding myself looking at a lot of weather and transportation maps to assess my work and travel situation — and it got me thinking about maps in the classroom.  When I was in school, over ten years ago, I got very little exposure and use out of maps, aside from the few classes that did use them regularly. However, this was a different time in education — Google Maps didn’t exist (remember when MapQuest was the primary way to get directions online?) and Google Earth was but a twinkle in someone’s eye. ;)  As an educator, you may find yourself asking:
With all the technology available today, what quality tools are available to advance geo-literacy in your classroom?

Besides common web mapping services like Google Maps, one way to expose your students to geography and other geographical data online is to bring GIS software into the classroom. In fact, the Missouri Geographic Alliance, through the University of Missouri, has signed on to provide all Missouri K-12 schools and educators with access to ESRI’s GIS software called ArcGIS (and I’m confident that other states are doing the same). The first step is to request the software, and ESRI even provides a free online training course to help you get the most out of the software.

Arcgis geocoding service inside Excel... Sweet! #esriuc

Unsure of what GIS is? As described by wikipedia, a Geographical Information System, or GIS, is “a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of geographical data”. In a nutshell, a GIS merges maps and statistical data with database technology, allowing you to view and interpret data in new ways. ESRI provides a good, easy to understand overview here. This type of software and data pairs great with inquiry and project-based learning, adding depth to assignments and simulations with geographical context and real data.

A real example of how GIS can be used in the classroom comes from Barbaree Duke, a middle school teacher in Raleigh, NC.  She had her students use GIS to create a project based on the travels of Mark Twain, using math skills to measure distances using the tools found in ERSI’s software. They then demonstrated social studies and technology skills by using the database to find locations around the world that Twain had visited. How cool is that?! For this lesson and more ideas from Barbaree, check out her GIS in Education blog.

As the above example demonstrated, GIS can be used in many different subject areas, not just social studies and geography, and can be paired with many other online tools, such as blogs, websites, and more. GIS can be used by your students to:

  • visualize historical events
  • explore the social and mathematical characteristics of demographic information
  • study climate change
  • design cities
  • take inventory of geological samples
  • plan ecological growth models
  • catalog archaeological sites
  • map travel logs/journals
  • map the setting/locations of a book
  • explore the locations and spread of diseases/illnesses
  • create travel routes for a delivery business
  • explore natural phenomena, such as volcanos and earthquakes
  • explore the habitats of animals and/or humans

This is a small list of the things you can do with GIS software. What about you? In what ways could you use GIS software to spruce up a new or existing lesson?

For more information on GIS and how to use it in the classroom, Missouri educators can visit http://gis.missouri.org/. All other areas, you can check out the National Geographic Network of Alliances for Geographic Education community and click on your state to get more information.

How We Make Meaning

How does this baby learn about his world? For the most part, this child is constructing his own meanings and ideas about how things work. While some of the parental guidance has been edited out of the video, there’s still four hours of footage (condensed into two minutes) of a baby simply exploring his world and making sense of it all.

Why can’t this be the same approach we take with students? Students can explore, inquire, and investigate the world around them in order to create their own meaning just as this baby is doing in the video. Of course, there are key elements that make this exploration possible.

The baby has some limitations. There is a limitation of space where the baby is learning. He is generally contained in this one room, not permitted to roam throughout the house. Part of this limitation is due to his lack of mobility, but it’s a limitation nonetheless. Similar limitations can be set for student inquiries. Identifying essential, guiding, and content questions can help with focusing the inquiry. Also, hooking them with engaging examples of the phenomena to be studies will provide parameters.

Another thing the baby has that encourages his inquiry is the ample supply and variety of resources. No matter where the baby turns or what he decides to do, there are toys (or sometimes other household objects) with which he can experiment. Providing resources can be challenge for cash-strapped schools, but the internet more than makes up for these shortcomings in the form of limitless literature, multimedia, and simulations.

Finally, the baby’s inquiry goes so well because there is a skilled, caring adult providing an opportunity to actively explore his world. Much of the child’s interaction with adults has been edited out, but one can tell by the way toys have been laid out and the simple fact that his entire play session has been recorded that this baby has adults who are looking out for his well-being. The same can be said for students with teachers who care enough about their learning that they sacrifice their time and financial gain in order to help their students grow intellectually.

With these support systems in place, students, like the baby in the video, will succeed in their efforts to inquire about the inner-workings of their world. Of course, this inquiry can’t take place in an environment that is too restrictive or encourages passivity. Structure, access to resources, and caring and thoughtful facilitation are musts for inquiry to succeed.

What lessons about learning do you glean from the above video? How might these lessons inform your teaching? What can you do better in providing opportunities of inquiry for your students?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger with the eMINTS National Center. A special hat tip is given to eMINTS staff members Carla Chaffin and Carmen Marty for pointing out this video in connection with inquiry.

Lecture as Scaffold for Inquiry

Lecture Rozhen

Click for source.

We ran across this blog post yesterday, Teach Paperless: How to Lecture in a PBL Classroom, and connected it right away to our Inquiry training sessions. One of the topics we discuss in this module has to do with when to use Inquiry and when it is maybe not the best teaching approach to use.

The aforementioned blog post compliments that conversation so well and gives another example of how teacher-directed instruction (specifically lecture) might fit into Project-based/Inquiry-based learning. It seems PBL/IBL methods have been pigeon-holed as being only student-centered, devoid of any teacher-centered practices such as lecturing. However, as pointed out in the Teach Paperless post, problem- and inquiry-based learning can incorporate all kinds of teaching techniques.

In the PBL model described in the post, the teachers involved offered voluntary workshops as a way to inject lecture into their student projects. As struggles arose, the teachers offered these voluntary workshops to students in order to help them revise mistakes in their bibliographical work. The big idea here is to offer lectures that support the PBL/IBL process for students who are interested in the topic as opposed to forcing the lecture on a classroom full of disinterested students.

How might a “lecture workshop” fit into the IBL unit you are planning? How might one involve students in facilitating these lecture workshops in your classroom? What are some other ways to make room for lectures in an IBL unit? How does this approach make a lecture relevant to students and their learning over traditional lectures?

Brooke Higgins and Zac Early are instructional specialists for the eMINTS National Center.

Meeting Inquiry Halfway

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Inquiry is a quarter of the eMINTS Instructional Model and it causes a lot of stress among our teachers. It’s a scary thing to give up so much control and move from a model of closed inquiry where the teacher makes all the decisions and asks all the questions to a model that is completely student-led. However, no one is asking anyone to make that leap just yet. Just try meeting inquiry halfway.

First of all, it is nearly impossible to expect students be able to guide learning by developing their own questions independently. There must be some guidance in developing a meaningful inquiry. This is where teachers come in as guides or facilitators. Teaching students how to ask the right questions and providing them the proper scaffolding can help insure that their inquiries are successful.

To do this, consider your next lesson and where it lies on a continuum of inquiry. Is it a closed inquiry lesson? Are you asking all the questions for students to answer? Do you provide the entire process? Answering “yes” to these questions would suggest that you are facilitating a closed inquiry lesson.

The next step is to give up some of that control. Try to limit the questions you provide. Maybe an essential question and one or two guiding questions will help students get started. Spend class time developing other questions that will guide the investigation. When students get stuck, provide examples or questions stems to get them going. When they ask questions that might not achieve your expected outcomes, work with the students to evaluate and revise these questions.

The next step is to help students develop a process. How open or closed this part of an investigation is totally up to you, but it’s also important to figure out what you are willing to leave up to the students. Start by prioritizing what is most important for them to perform. Anything left should left up to student discretion. For example, how students present what they have learned is an easy place to start giving up control. Allow students to choose their final products or at least give them an array of options.

Other small areas where you can give up some control in the effort to make your inquiry lesson more open might include…

  • Give students the essential question and topic. Then, help to guide them in writing guiding and content questions.
  • After dividing students into groups, allow them to create member roles that will help them with their inquiry. You may have to support them by teaching ideas such as interdependence and simultaneous activity.
  • Give students a model of learning such as Bloom’s Taxonomy or Web’s Depth of Knowledge to develop their investigation.
  • With the problem to investigated laid out, help the students plan out a process to meet a set of learning outcomes you expect students to achieve.
  • If your inquiry project requires several processes or goals to be accomplished, allow the students to determine which order these tasks can be completed.
  • Maybe provide the steps that students must follow for an inquiry, but allow them to determine how each step will be completed.

There are many small things we can do in order to make inquiry part of our lessons and units of study without jumping into student-led inquiry headfirst. If you struggle seeing your students as able to complete an inquiry independently, but you want to make your lessons more open, meeting open inquiry halfway might be a suitable compromise.

How comfortable are you with inquiry? What ways have you incorporated inquiry in your lessons? How far are you willing to go toward fully open inquiry?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center.

eMINTS Conference: Session 2 (Thursday)

Using Google Forms for Formative Assessment

D. Zach Holden of Joplin School District demonstrates how to use Google Forms for assessing learning or tracking data. Teachers create a Google Form that can be used to track data and assess progress. Information will then be transferred to a Word Document for distribution. This strategy is especially helpful for walk-through evaluations and preparing for the online MAP test.

Unlimited Questioning Through Inquiry Circles

Michelle Gilmer of Sikeston School District provides participants with an explicit structure for lesson design that they can use to encourage students to question, research and produce a product. Students need to be asking questions and to be the driving force in inquiry-based learning, but perhaps some are not certain of how exactly to go about facilitating that activity. This session introduces participants to a structure called Inquiry Circles that can be used to facilitate student-created questions, research and products. This presentation is based on the books Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels and Reading & Writing Together: Collaborative Literacy in Action by Nancy Steineke.

20+ Ways to Integrate Technology

Presenter Marilyn Otte introduces participants to programs or tools that will improve student engagement, maximize inquiry-based learning and provide creative presentation tools to take back to their classroom the next day. 20+ Ways to Integrate Technology is designed to give participants resources to use technology in their classroom in all areas of curriculum. Attendees gain a basic understanding of how to incorporate technology in twenty plus ways using different programs and tools for themselves as well as their students.

Apps with Aptitude

eMINTS’s own Cathie Loesing shares ways to foster creativity, higher order thinking, and communication through the use of apps for iPad, iPhone and other mobile devices. Participants become acquainted with a variety of iPad apps that support higher order thinking for K-5 students.

SMART Notebook 201: AKA ‘I didn’t know you could do that’

If you are not at the “SMART Notebook201: AKA I didn’t know you could do that” session presented by Brooke Higgins, an eMINTS instructional specialist, then you are missing it! She is showing advanced SMART Notebook functions for those of us that have had the basic training, but are ready to learn more about what this program has to offer. I have been to many SMART Board workshops, and I even learned lots of cool new things to use! (Chris Lohman, eIS)

PBL – A Facebook Testimony

I admit it, I am a Facebooker. I keep up on what all of my “friends” are doing and of course watch for updates from eMINTS about eMINTS news and blog posts. I must say I was surprised when I saw this status update and knew I had to share it here.

As I read this update, I instantly remembered back to a project a high school History teacher assigned to make a documentary. Who knew that 20+ years later my friend (and others who commented on his update) would not only remember the project of making the movie, but more importantly, what they learned from it. This struck me as just another reason to keep doing what eMINTS has been doing for years…promoting Constructivist teaching!

Last week Zac shared many reasons for using Inquiry and Problem-based Learning in the classroom in his post Room for the Basics. The documentary project reminded me that we might want to share a bit about “The Other PBL” – Project-based Learning.

Project-based Learning is another constructivist based, student-centered pedagogy. Wikipedia describes it as an

“instructional method that provides students with complex tasks based on challenging questions or problems that involve the students’ problem solving, decision making, investigative skills, and reflection that includes teacher facilitation, but not direction.”

PBL is focused around a central question (we call it an Essential Question) that engages  and offers a central focus giving students a purpose for their learning. Teachers structure the guiding question around content and are continually assessing where students are in getting to deeper understandings about that content.

As in life, Project-based Learning activities are long term, learner focused, and interdisciplinary where students learn from addressing real-life experiences, issues, challenges, problems, etc. Students may be given the task to solve a problem or investigate an issue. Like Inquiry, students develop questions that guide their investigations, but in PBL those questions and answers lead them to create something new. Something new could be a tangible product, an idea, a new way of doing something, or even a performance all requiring both lower and higher-level thinking to complete the authentic task assigned.

Because teachers are facilitators and do not give students answers or solutions but guidance, PBL has been shown to improve students abilities to be responsible, self-directed, and critical thinkers; skills essential for moving on to higher educational settings. PBL provides the perfect opportunity for teachers to not only focus on teaching content but also habits of learning like self-direction, collaboration, time-management, organization, critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. Developing these skills in students is essential so that they transfer them on to future projects and then to life.

Common Craft has created a great video for The Buck Institute for Education that explains Project-based Learning.

So as you are planning an upcoming PBL experience for your students remember these key elements to include in your unit:

  • focus around a guiding question (essential)
  • frame the project in a real life context
  • provide engaging topics for your target audience
  • embed problem solving, decision making, critical thinking, and creativity
  • require purposeful collaboration and independent learning opportunities
  • provide a variety of resources, information, and tools (including technology)

What PBL units have you had success using with your students? What might your students say about the projects they are working on in your classroom  20 years from now?

*image used with permission from my Facebook friend.

Brooke Higgins is an instructional specialist with the eMINTS National Center who occasionally finds time to blog.

4ALL: Taking Lessons to Task

Student project

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When planning a unit or lesson, maybe the most important decision we make is writing the task. Sure standards and learning outcomes must be met, but a well-conceived task is how students will achieve academic goals. Additionally, a task that is meaningful and interesting is what motivates students to do their best work.

Tasks should be authentic. Students want to learn, but they also want to learn skills and content that have real-world applications. We are long past the days of learning just for the sake of learning. A motivating factor for students is the authenticity of the task. A tasks “realness” encourages students to attend to the content even more than abstract exercises. Particularly in web-based learning activities, such as WebQuests, authenticity can be crucial to motivating students. Not only can an authentic task motivate students to learn, it also helps in showing them the relevance of academic work.

Creativity is another aspect of effective tasks. When we talk about creativity, we are not only talking about the aesthetics of a project or display. No, what we are talking about is the kind of creativity in the form of innovation. When students are given tasks that require them to creatively solve a problem or devise new meanings of their worlds, they are both motivated and highly engaged with the content. Creativity has a place in education despite traditional education’s tendency to squelch innovation among students.

So, where do we find tasks that are authentic and promote creativity? Well, there are actually several approaches that fit this bill.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an approach that requires students to creatively solve real-world problems. Students might be charged with solving a pollution issue in their community’s streams or in designing a new library that fills a school’s needs. These tasks require collaboration, communication, computation, analysis, and an understanding of their world in order to come up with solutions that may work.

Inquiry is another pedagogical approach that requires authenticity and some creativity. Inquiry-based lessons allow the students’ questions about natural phenomena that lead to further investigations.  Students experiencing inquiry develop experimental and analytic skills while conducting investigations. Inquiries can begin with topics such as the current socio-economic environment in the US or around the world, the power of lessons to be learned from well-crafted literature, or the best computations in figuring out mapping the quickest route to the top of Mt. Everest.

A third tool that features authentic tasks that encourage creativity is the aforementioned WebQuest. The WebQuest prominently features a task as its core element. This is how all WebQuests are judged. In fact, Bernie Dodge’s “Taskonomy” lays out the various kinds of tasks that elicit the best results from a WebQuest. In short, a good WebQuest task pushes students to dig into content beyond rote comprehension in collaboratively creating something that demonstrates a deep understanding of the topic. For the best list of high-quality WebQuests, visit Quest Garden.

If you are looking for standards to justify authenticity and creativity in your task, there are plenty of standards and learning models that support these approaches. Look no further than ISTE’s standards for student learning. Also, if one were to look at a DOK chart, the kinds of tasks littered in levels three and four can easily be correlated with real-world and creative tasks. If your school subscribes to Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy, you’ll find that creativity is at the top and the real-world skills of evaluating, analyzing, and applying are just below.

What other ideas should we keep in-mind when designing student tasks? Which is more difficult to plan in a task: authenticity or creativity? What is the most challenging part of facilitating learning through authentic and creative tasks?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger with the eMINTS National Center.

Thursday’s Tip: Let the Students Lead

Student presentation

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Teachers have a lot on their plates. The stress of the job is often compounded with the pressure to simply deliver an enormous amount of content. However, teachers shouldn’t feel alone in this endeavor. There is a classroom full of students who can help.

What I’m talking about is actually allowing students to deliver and teach content. We know that today’s student is particularly social, more than capable of creating their own assessments (with the right amount of guidance), and often knows more than we give them credit. Of course, structure is still important. We can’t just set them loose with the curriculum, but we can certainly share the work of delivering content.

There are various ways to structure students teaching content. Consider the following ideas:

  • Students can make instructional or informational videos that explain processes similar to this video

  • A cooperative learning strategy such as the Jigsaw cooperative learning strategy (yes, we love Jigsaw at eMINTS) provides a structure where students become experts in one area to provide perspective to a collaborative project. Sometimes, this strategy can be used to simply divide and conquer content, requiring students to teach one another their portion.
  • For those of you who are SMART Board users, the SMART Recorder that is part of the SMART Tech suite can record audio while a student demonstrates a process on a SMART Board. It’s ideal for math problem solving.

  • Peer tutoring can work well, but training must take place. Teach the process for delivering content to a small group of students who will turn around and teach that content to another group of students who will teach it to the next group and so on. The repetition provided by teaching the content over and over will strengthen the students’ knowledge.
  • Other approaches to delivering content may also include student-centered methodology such as problem-based or inquiry-based learning. These strategies provide students an opportunity to determine the direction of lessons and units, involving them in the planning and implementation process.

What are some other ways you have involved students in teaching content? How do you feel about giving up some control in order for students to teach one another? How is peer-to-peer learning addressed or not addressed through cooperative learning?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center.

Videos to Inspiring Inquiry-based Learning

Passing on a GREAT resource to inspire IBL lessons – The Futures Channel is a “must see” site. They offer short movies about real world jobs/topics in the STEM/METS areas all relating to careers students may someday have when they are grown up. It may also introduce kids to careers they didn’t even know existed. The coolest thing is that many of the videos have lesson plans (sometimes multiple plans for different focuses or ages) to go along with them.

Each week, The Futures Channel highlights a handful of movies and makes them available for the public where all of their resources can be viewed at any time with a subscription or purchasing CD’s full of TFC movies.

Many of the lesson plans are for older students (7-12) and they are not inquiry-based, but they are there to do what you want with them and make them fit what you need to teach. Teachers I have worked with in the past have used them as inspiration for Inquiry-based lessons or just used the videos as resources for lessons they were writing. Enjoy…. and if you really like the site, you can sign up to have their weekly newsletter sent directly to your email inbox or add the site to your Google Reader.

Brooke Higgins is an instructional specialist with the eMINTS National Center. You can visit her site here or read her blog, Higgins’ Helpful Hints.