A Lesson in Digital Learning from Minecraft

Reflecting upon my son's Minecraft experience, I could see how truly multi-dimensional and integrated his learning network was. As he learned, he developed agency. He could test and apply his learning immediately and in ways that excited him personally.
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How might today's technology eco-system further meaningful, progressive education?

This question was posed by Dr. Mimi Ito during her plenary, The Digital Revolution, at The Future of Learning Institute this past July at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As Dr. Ito pointed out, most learning technologies reinforce traditional models of instruction. They may seek to teach, but they do little to foster purposeful learning. Dr. Ito has spent over a decade examining the sources of change and innovation in the learning of youth outside of traditional schooling. She has found that while youth engage with media for an average of over seven hours per day, the quality of this engagement may vary greatly from student to student. At the same time, opportunities for robust independent digital learning abound, although most are leveraged outside of school. Dr. Ito provided several examples which prompted me to think of my son's experience learning to play Minecraft.

I resisted Minecraft for as long as I could and caved this summer. My eight-year-old son had played Minecraft at friends' houses, had learned the language of Minecraft from listening to his friends (filing bits and pieces away for my inevitable giving in...), and had even played Minecraft-based playground games his friends made up. He was crazy about the game and had developed significant knowledge about it, despite his overall lack of experience. Upon downloading Minecraft, my son played a bit, searched YouTube for videos on Minecraft, bought a book about Minecraft -- I need a mouse, Mom! -- at a museum, and even Skyped with a friend overseas for tips. He consistently assessed his progress and sought help and inspiration on and offline. His reward was not only playing the game well, but inclusion and status within his social group. All in the maximum 15 minutes per day I would allow.

Reflecting upon my son's Minecraft experience, I could see how truly multi-dimensional and integrated his learning network was. As he learned, he developed agency. He could test and apply his learning immediately and in ways that excited him personally and connected him to his peers. His school laid the foundation for this. There, students are encouraged to be independent and yet work collaboratively, to seek resources on and offline to answer questions, and to be creative and resilient.

The answer to the question posed above comes from a triangulation of curating digital resources, enabling and encouraging learners, and re-imagining teaching. Ultimately, the student must be capable of constructing, managing, and leveraging his or her own digital learning networks and have the right toolkit necessary for doing so. The teacher's job is to provide a framework for doing this -- and the right skills and habits of mind for the toolkit.

I had the privilege of hearing Mark Treadwell, education consultant and author of Learning: How the Brain Learns, coach a group of teachers on enculturating a learning process in the classroom. He stated that students need to have a shared language and opportunities to reflect on this process with one another. He also spoke about the need for schools to teach skills such as making connections, establishing conceptual relationships, and applying knowledge in different contexts to underpin a learning process.

So what does this mean for me, as an educator, as I begin this school year? What will I need to do to enable my students to create and draw upon powerful digital learning networks?

Provide opportunities to make learning explicit: Have students take time to speak about the ways in which they learn inside and outside of school, to share the ways in which they learn with one another.

Allow students to form questions to guide their learning: Have students assess what knowledge and skills they require and how they may access or acquire these. Then given them time to explore, find answers, and discover new questions.

Encourage learning from experts in the field: To quote my eight-year-old, "There are a lot of people out there who know much more about Minecraft than I do. I want to get as good as them, so I'm trying to learn from them."

Enable connection making: Allow students to model their academic digital learning networks after their informal digital learning networks. What if students could articulate what was effective in their digital learning outside of school and leverage this within school?

Allow students to develop a common language: Mark Treadwell shared a video in which two students spoke about falling into "the pit" while learning and working their way out, about the joy of figuring something out. We, as teachers, broke into groups to speak about how we can create more opportunities to fall into pits -- experiencing rich, real world problems that are challenging but accessible. "The pit" has now become part of our planning dialogue and we hope to make it part of the students' shared experience as well.

Provide time: To effect change in teaching, we must fund it with time. This time needs to appear in our school day for our students as well as in our own personal and team planning time. This cannot be left to chance.