Well, it's official. The first trimester of the academic year is over, and I'm going to count my foray into Minecraft: Education Edition as a success. It's remarkable to me how much work it was to design a fully gamified classroom experience. Not that the work didn't pay off - it absolutely did! Perhaps the greatest indicator of success is the fact that my students covered even more content than usual for this time of year, and achieved more in terms of their Social Studies grades. I believe in maintaining consistently high expectations for my students, for my kids in Honors and for my students in grade level or strategic classes. So imagine my surprise when I realized that most of my students earned A's for the trimester - seriously. Eight of my seventy-five students received anything less than an A, and all students passed the course.
Every. Single. One.
Was this massive boost in achievement due to my transition to quest-based learning in Social Studies? Was it due to the motivation they experienced in response to the gamified elements of the 3D Game Lab MLS I switched to for content delivery, or the epic meaning of the narrative adventure I wrote? Or, was it the introduction of Minecraft: Education Edition that made them so excited to come to class each day?
I don't know.
But, I am awfully happy to see my students so happy. At some point in public education, the system tends to kill the joy of learning. At a time when sixth graders generally start settling into the middle school shuffle, deciding to be a little too cool and to hide their smarts, my kiddos are still joyfully bounding into the room in the morning, twenty or thirty minutes before the bell, just so they can finish their Minecraft build, or knock out one more quest. I think that says a lot about student morale, and I can't tell you how much my heart has responded to their positive attitudes.
By far, the most labor intensive task I had this trimester was the intentional planning and structuring of Minecraft quests. Because I believe in the power of sharing, and because there might be another 6th or 7th grade Social Studies teacher out there wanting to dive in, but afraid of the waters... here is my entire Trimester 1 Unit Plan for Ancient Civilizations. If you use it, let me know. Maybe we can compare notes and strengthen any weaknesses. I'd love to collaborate!
The Agricultural Revolution can be a sticky subject for students. In the past, my students have understood the concept of hunting and gathering, and they have understood the concept of farming. However, it was difficult for them to see how the development of agriculture could have led to a better, more efficient lifestyle for migrating peoples. In a modern world where the grocery store is just down the block and Amazon ships everywhere, it's always been tough for students to relate to the continual daily struggles of a hunting and gathering society. So, to shore up this conceptual weakness, enter Minecraft: Education Edition.
My thinking is that students first need to experience hunter-gatherer life on their own. The struggle to survive environmental risks, coupled with the need to hunt food and gather supplies is intensified by the fact that they are working alone. This could be parlayed into a group hunter-gatherer simulation to reveal the benefits of living in a tribe or group. Students could also begin to explore some limited labor distribution. As they hunt and gather in groups, they will discover that it can be easier to survive threats, but that many environment challenges remain constant - such as exhausting the supply of animals or plant resources.
Finally, students could experience the benefits of agriculture by growing crops and domesticating animals instead of chasing them all over the virtual world. They could develop more sophisticated tools and establish permanent settlements.
Last week, my students completed the solo survival portion of this instructional sequence, and today they engaged in a group survival simulation. Here's how that looked in my classroom:
Google Docs - The Minecraft Quest Deliverables for These Lessons
As before, I created Google Docs to structure student gameplay. These docs act as the deliverables for the Minecraft quests I designed, which are posted in our 3D Game Lab (MLS). There is a Solo Survival document and a Group Survival Document. Feel free to use either with your students, and let me know how it goes! Here are some screen captures from docs my students completed:
Let there be Minecraft!
One of the best perks about being a teacher is having FUN at work, and today was one of those days. I will admit that I was somewhat nervous to rollout Minecraft: Education Edition with my students. I've never used a commercial game for instruction before, let alone a virtual world. However, I've experienced the incredible potential for learning through interacting in a creative sandbox through my graduate students, and I am determined to let my students feel the same joy as they build understanding of content. The first step in that journey toward implementation was introducing kids to Tutorial World II.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I've learned when it comes to quest-based learning is that every quest needs to require a deliverable. The deliverable gives teachers a way to assess the student's learning and provides a jumping off point for the type of feedback that can hone understanding and/or confirm the concept connections that are made. So, I am applying this thinking to Minecraft as well by requiring a deliverable as a result of gameplay. Today, students logged on to their Minecraft-ready devices and generated a new Tutorial World II. Then, they logged on to Google Classroom to pick up their copy of the Google Doc deliverable. In the Google Doc, they documented their gameplay by taking screen captures of specific places, people, or accomplishments.
The pairing of Minecraft and Google Docs worked well for the class, but most especially for the students who have little gaming experience. Though the Tutorial World II has many visual cues, including posters, signs, and boards with instructions, students still benefitted from the cues they received from the Doc. For example, students were able to anticipate what they should be looking to do or see next in the game, and that helped them stay on track. For the most experienced Minecrafters - and I discovered that I have some real MC rockstars in my classes - the Doc helped them to stay focused, too. There was a lot of temptation for experienced gamers to move off course, so having the task of screen capturing certain things was beneficial. The MC rockstars finished the Tutorial World first, as expected, but that actually led to a pretty cool development. The early-finishers just sort of naturally started mentoring the kids who were the newest to gaming. Watching the numerous helpful exchanges going on around the room, I issued a general invitation to wander the room the lend assistance as needed. The net effect was decreased anxiety in a few of the newbies and an overall collaborative spirit.
Here's a clip of how gameplay went today:
If you're a teacher looking to use Tutorial World II with your students, I'm happy to share the Google Doc deliverable I designed for my students. One of the challenges of implementing Minecraft is the fact that my students need to put aside their usual Chromebooks and utilize a roving cart of Minecraft-ready devices (laptops that run Windows 10). At the top of the document, there are instructions for how to take screen captures, because my students ordinarily use Chrome. So, other teachers could simply substitute their own screen capture instructions or remove them entirely.
My Gamified Classroom
"We all have our moments of brilliance and glory and this was mine..."
-from "The Great Mouse Plot" by Roald Dahl
This past spring, revolutionizing my classroom became my biggest priority. For the last decade, my classroom has served as a pilot for numerous technology initiatives in Palm Springs Unified. My beloved Room 208 was the first middle school 24/7 classroom in the district, the first 2:1 iPad classroom in the district, one of the first BYOD classrooms in the district, and one of the first 1:1 Chromebook classrooms, too. I've rolled out a lot of new technology over the years, and worked to troubleshoot the workflow on a variety of devices with kids of all achievement levels. Through it all, constructivism has remained the "true north" of my pedagogy, and students making their own meaning has always been the goal.
Over the years, I've increased the amount of choice my students have in terms of task, team, technique, and time. I've given back 20% of their "work week" for entirely self-directed, ungraded research projects, and I've made digital storytelling a pillar of my classroom. Student voices have flourished - there is some absolutely incredible student-created content on my YouTube channel to prove it. And yet...
Something has been missing. I won't say that I've been searching for a silver bullet for all of the challenges we face in education - because no such remedy exists. But there has been a missing element in my classroom, a missing piece of my professional practice and I've been searching for and hoping to find. And I think, maybe, I finally have it.
Last semester in my graduate program, a lot of my thinking about gamification was refined to a workable idea, a grand mashup of everything I've learned over the course of three classes that have dealt with gamified curriculum. My thoughts deal specifically with the value of quest-based learning and how I can integrate Minecraft into my curriculum. For my final project, I developed the vision for my classroom next year. I also began the practical work of building out the components I need in order to make it come alive.
Being a digital storyteller first and foremost, of course I chose to share my ideas via YouTube. Take a look:
So, that's my vision in a nutshell. I've already finished building out the first unit for Social Studies in Rezzly's 3D Game Lab. The Minecraft tasks I've embedded are meaningful and will give kids an authentic opportunity to problem-solve and create. ETIS assures me that a cart of Minecraft-ready devices will be delivered in the fall, the Minecraft: Education Edition usernames will be set up, and my journey to become redefine my classroom with gamification will truly begin.
I am so excited!
Gamification and game-based learning (GBL) has captured my imagination as a teacher and driven my professional development over the past several years. I find GBL so fascinating that I have elected to take three different classes at BSU related to gaming in the classroom. Now, this year, I am piloting the use of Minecraft Education Edition in my 6th grade classroom. Watching my students flourish as a result of their gameplay has offered incredible insight about the motivating factors of GBL and why it can be such an effective way to reach our students.
From a student’s standpoint, the appeal of games is huge. According to Knewton Infographics, over 5 million people play an average of 45 hours worth of games per week. As a teacher, why not leverage games to benefit learning? There has long been debate over the true merit of educational games (called “serious games”) when compared to games created for recreation (called “commercial games”). However, it is possible to transform the purpose of commercial games by changing the context in which the game is played. This is called contextual transposition. According to a Haiku Deck presentation authored by BSU professor, Dr. Chris Haskell, “Contextual transposition occurs when one changes the context of a tool or experience in order to achieve something that the game designer did not intend.” This applies to the use of Minecraft in the classroom, because Minecraft was originally created as a commercial game. Microsoft has adapted it for use in the education setting, but its purpose (to create, build, survival, and/or thrive) remains the same.
The relative advantage to using Minecraft and other games for learning is increased student engagement. Since many students love playing games, it makes sense to utilize them in the classroom. Another relative advantage of game play is that it makes content more relevant and memorable for students. The concrete elements of gameplay can help students retain greater amounts of information based on their virtual experiences. When students are tasked with creating games, both their level of engagement as well as their feelings of ownership increase even further. In an article published in Educational Psychologist, Kafai and Burke contend that creating games is the ultimate constructivist learning activity. They cite the work of Papert and Piaget to support their claim, reminding readers that games allow students to play as well as learn from a personal perspective.
Personalized learning an important key to educative success. Even now, at the age of 35, I vividly recall playing two digital games when I was in elementary school: Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? To this day, I can describe the challenges of westward expansion and trace the route of the Oregon trail. I guarantee that I would not be able to do that without exposure to Social Studies content through gameplay.
The Gamification of Education Infographic. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2017, from https://www.knewton.com/infographics/gamification-education/
Using Commercial Games in Education. (2015, Nov 30). Retrieved October 20, 2017, from https://www.haikudeck.com/using-commercial-games-education-presentation-GWPwqgtm9n
Kafai, Y. B., & Burke, Q. (2015, October 02). Constructionist Gaming: Understanding the Benefits of Making Games for Learning. Retrieved October 23, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4784508/
Everyone's a Philosopher
In teacher preparation programs, there is a lot of talk about various theories of learning. Different schools of thought are discussed, papers are written, conversations are had, and then we enter the real world, where theory plays a much smaller role that we originally perceived it would. This is because the plate of a teacher is very full - full of things like benchmarks, wiping noses, reteaching concepts, calling parents, attending professional development to learn new tools, entering grades, making last minute trips to WalMart for more art supplies, substituting for classes that couldn't get coverage, and dreaming up incentive programs. Sometimes, the pedagogy and the theory behind it just gets shoved to the side in favor of the next Big Thing that needs to be handled. The reality is, unless we make time for reflection, there is very little actual reflection that occurs.
Now that I'm back in school, pursuing a master's degree in Educational Technology through Boise State University, I'm making more time for reflection and I'm revisiting theories that I've only peripherally thought about during the past twelve years. Well, that's not true. I've thought about constructivism a lot, because that is how I've modeled my classroom. However, it's been a while since I really considered other theories and thought about whether or not they are present in my practice.
I decided to take this opportunity to create an infographic to share my thoughts and practice:
Dr. Chris Haskell’s book, “Play This, Learn That” describes the use of commercial games in the classroom. This blog post will serve as a reflective journal as I read through the contents of the book for EDTECH 532.
Introduction: In this section of the book, Haskell discusses the lackluster development of Serious Games, which are overtly educational in nature. The example he references is Oregon Trail, which I absolutely loved playing in fourth grade. Haskell contends that while this game is an excellent example of its genre, most Serious Games are far less well developed.
The topic of gamification is explored, and Haskell identifies the hallmarks of gamification as experience points, badges/rewards, quests or missions, leveling and rankings, visual indicators of progress, and player autonomy (choice). He also covers the concept of contextual transposition, which is when tools built for a particular purpose are leveraged for a new context. An example of this in my classroom is using student-created Instagram pages or text messages/emojiis to showcase understanding of text or historical events. The example Haskell includes is the creation of memes from existing photos. After taking EDTECH 531, I hope to use Minecraft to teach students about the Agricultural Revolution. This is an example of the type of contextual transposition inherent in video games. Ultimately, we want to explore the following question: How can we take commercial games and leverage them for greater educational purposes?
My best, most concise elevator pitch for game-based learning so far is this:
Games grant students the opportunity to learn in a creative, autonomous, compelling environment that fosters extreme motivation, multiple attempts at learning, and an attitude of perseverance.
In chapter one of his book, Haskell explains the inner workings of Minecraft, including the user interface and the basic premise of a world comprised of blocks that can be placed, mined, and transformed. I was fortunate to explore Minecraft in EDTECH 531 for more than half of the fall semester, so I am very familiar with its inner workings and potential merits in the classroom. My favorite aspect of Minecraft is collecting and crafting resources. There is a special joy that comes from acquiring the “just right” ingredients to make whatever is needed.
The most redeeming quality of Minecraft is its versatility. Teachers can leverage this tool to teach a variety of concepts in practically any content area. For example, Glen Irvin uses Minecraft to assist his foreign language students in acquiring and utilizing Spanish. He was a guest speaker for our class last term and I very much enjoyed touring his customized Minecraft map. Irvin shared that students generate their own homes and economy in world, while also embarking on quests to gain XP and further their understanding. Irvin utilizes MinecraftEDU, which allows him to control/teleport players and modify the environment (ex: regulating day/night cycles during class time). Jim Pike uses Minecraft in elementary math to introduce students to algebraic concepts as they build structures according to specific dimensions.
Minecraft is a sandbox environment that gives students the freedom to create. The environment allows for autonomy, which students find engaging. Perhaps most importantly, Minecraft can be a collaborative environment wherein students learn to work together to achieve common goals. My husband, a special education teacher, used Minecraft to help teach social skills to his emotionally disturbed students, and he currently plays with his 6th-8th grade math students.
Most of my pressing questions regarding Minecraft center around the logistics of getting it into my classroom. I am currently working with the ETIS department and technology TOSAs to find tech that meets the specifications required for Minecraft: Education Edition. My biggest struggle at present is a lack of Windows 10 devices.
Games Can Make the World Better
When I checked 3D Game Lab this morning, I was so excited to see the “Games Can Make the World Better” quest appear in my available lessons! I have long been a fan of Jane McGonigal and this particular TED Talk. In fact, my students even watch this TED talk and complete document-based questioning during our unit on coding! McGonigal makes some solid arguments for the incredible impact that games have our society and the potential of games to create an even larger impact over time. Gaming provides an opportunity to learn skills such as collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking – all of which are embedded in gameplay as opposed to overtly instructed. To further to impact of games, players engage in tangential learning because they enjoy the activity and have a desire to educate themselves on related concepts as a result.
McGonigal cites Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory as evidence that gamers are actually educating themselves on gaming principles to the extent that they are virtuosos. She claims that gamers develop a sense of urgent optimism while fostering a strong social fabric. They engage in high levels of blissful productivity, which in turn contributes to a sense of epic meaning associated with their gameplay. From an educative standpoint, this translates into learners who are high motivated, able to collaborate, persevere through difficult tasks, and make greater connections between themselves and the world. Many of those behaviors are qualities teachers seek to instill as per the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice and the Common Core Habits of Mind.
Games constantly, consistently acknowledge player progress, which I think plays a big part in making gaming a compelling experience. Gaming interfaces often include earning XP and provide progress bars for monitoring one’s advancement through levels of gameplay. Often, there are also badging systems and/or a way to earn advanced equipment or perks. In some games, a player’s avatar is reflective of their accomplishments in the game, which can provide motivation for players to continue.
In the classroom, we often give immediate feedback during class discussion, but not nearly enough to be truly motivating. Added to that, there is often a pretty hefty turnaround for grading assignments, particularly at the secondary level when teachers have 150+ students. Feedback from teachers might not even be particularly valuable or meaningful to some students, typically those who are not academically oriented. They are not motivated by grades because there is no epic meaning attached. For these students especially, there is no larger academic story to be told, no way to “win” school and therefore fewer reasons to try.
Gamification presents a unique opportunity to layer gaming principles over curriculum, as seen in the quest-based lessons we are experiencing in EDTECH 532. Even the use of a tool like Class Craft, where students can customize avatars and earn XP for academic tasks, makes school feel more like a game.
Do You Want to Play a Game?
My experiences in EDTECH 531 and 532 at Boise State University have shown me how much gaming can impact my own learning. By participating in gamified graduate courses and spending hours playing games that can be leveraged in the classroom, I have found that I retain content better and I have developed increased confidence in my own problem-solving abilities. This begs the question, what can gaming in the classroom do for our students?
Almost every student I have spoken to has some type of gaming experience. Once I began posting Minecraft machinima projects on YouTube, many different kiddos began showing up on the doorstep of Room 208. They are eager to talk to me about what they like to build in Minecraft, other games they like to play, and strategies for success. Their capacity for self-direction and intrinsic motivation astounds me, because some of these same children are not able to be successful in the traditional school environment.
Some of the challenges facing gaming in education are less theoretical and more practical in nature. Working with the ETIS department can be time consuming, because there are few technical employees and many teachers and school sites that need attention. Also, there are many different regulations in place to protect student privacy and ensure Internet safety. Dealing with all of those literal and figurative firewalls can be frustrating. There is also the question of reaching critical mass with technology. For example, I am eager and ready to utilize Minecraft Education Edition with my students, but I am unable to begin because there are no devices available on campus that fit the required specifications.
These questions remain: What is the practical potential for gaming in the classroom? How can challenges be overcome in an infrastructure that is geared toward educating the people of the Industrial Revolution? How do we move our practice into the 21st century?
I love this infographic from OnlineSchools:
My Personal Gaming Story
The very first computer game I asked my parents to purchase was Carmen Sandiego. There was a children’s television game show by the same name on PBS at the time, and I never missed an episode. I couldn’t wait to play the game each day! Somehow, I do not remember ever catching up to that elusive Carmen, but I do remember the many happy hours I played. Perhaps it was this game that instilled in me a lifelong fascination with geography and travel.
Around the same time, I remember using a GameBoy the size of a brick along with black and white game cartridges featuring the Mario Brothers. Again, I do not remember ever beating the game, but I do remember that the challenge of playing each level left me with a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. The thrill of collecting coins and power ups is part of the reason that I have become interested in the gamification of education.
I did not play many games through my college years, but as an adult my husband and I purchased a Wii and developed a fascination with WiiSports Resort, which provided hours of entertainment. We also succumbed to the Facebook game craze, playing Farmville for hours on end at our local Panera Bread restaurant since we did not have an Internet provider for a time when we were newlyweds and not yet financially stable.
The advent of mobile devices and pocket games really changed the way I viewed games because I saw them as something that could rescue me from tedious waiting rooms and long lines at the DMV. I began to play Tiny Chef, Bejeweled, and Minecraft using my iPhone. I also discovered Settlers of Catan and a PantherSim for iOS, along with The Walking Dead. The joy of discovery and meaningful stories are the most appealing parts of my favorite mobile games.
As a professional, my interest in gaming in education began when I attended several sessions on MinecraftEDU at the CUE Conference in 2015. I was impressed by how content could come alive and tap into student interests in virtual worlds. At the time, the closest thing my district could support was Class Craft, which adds elements of gameplay to my classes. My students assume three different character classes and earn XP for completing tasks. They lose HP for negative behaviors, but I primarily use the game as positive reinforcement over punishment. Now, through my graduate program, I’ve learned how to leverage Minecraft for learning and I am eager to move into the next phase of my gamification journey.
My idea is to use 3-D Game Lab to gamify two of my classes: Social Studies and Leadership. I checked out the pricing packages and I thought it was worth it to spring for an educator subscription. While I already utilize Class Craft, Google Classroom, and Weebly to deliver content to my students, I really like how the quests can be unlocked in a certain sequence in 3-D Game Labs. I think that feature alone will make the subscription fee worthwhile.
Added to that, I am pursuing acquiring Minecraft-ready devices for classroom. I am determined to integrate Minecraft into every unit for my Social Studies class next year. I am convinced that the learning will be EPIC.
Author: Jessica Pack
California Teacher of the Year. CUE Outstanding Educator 2015. DIGICOM Learning Teacher Consultant. 6th Grade Teacher. Passionate about gamification, Minecraft, digital story-telling, and fostering student voices.