Sunday, May 1, 2011

Self-Directed & Collaborative Learning via Minecraft

Interior Screen Shot of Art Gallery from Minecraft Deigned by Devon
When I went to Columbia University, I went there for one reason: to learn how to theorize. My dissertation [Courting (in)Stability] was a rather unpolished attempt to compose a theory of learning built upon the twin ideas of folding time-space and dialogism, neither of which I understood all too well.  That was nearly 20 years ago. What I actually learned at Columbia, mostly through dialogue with Ruth Vinz, was to privilege uncertainty--be it in the dissertation process or other types of learning and living. Being uncertain is a stance that is informed through observation and wonder.  I have been wondering about play and learning and so I have been watching the last few weeks as my son and now several of his friends play Minecraft. I thought observing would help me to better understand learning, especially learning that happens outside the influence of school and is self-directed and collaborative.

It's mid April when I mentioned to Devon a neat game I had downloaded, Minecraft and explain it is a game where you build a world and work to survive.
He's a bit skeptical and asks, "Is it educational?"
"Not in the way you mean," I assure. "Take a look if you want."
That was Friday, mid April. By a week later, he had built a multi-room and leveled home that included a waterfall and an elevator that opened into a glass room located above the clouds. Survival was no longer a marker of progress.

Screenshot of Farm (Growing Wheat) in Minecraft, by Devon.
A week after that he "discovered" obsidian and built a transport to take him through the portal to the Nether world. His game play was not restricted to one world as he had been designing and building  multiple worlds. It was about this time that his friends started playing. Teaching his friends to play was all hands on and began and ended with a few hints to get going and the suggestion, If you don't know what to do, go to Youtube.

A week after that he began to build intricate designs that included lava and water flows, a house that included an art gallery and had electricity, a gigantic electrically powered roller coaster that ended where you started, farming, and controls to make the place, peaceful and multiple trips to the Nether world.

It was about this time that Devon and a friend, Damian, decided they needed to show what they were doing to others.
I mentioned Jing as a way to capture what he was doing in Minecraft.
"J-i-n-g? Is it an app or on the Internet?"
"You can download it from the Internet."

Devon and Damian set about making their first two Jing movies about how to build a transport to the nether world and by dinnertime were waiting on the films to be processed so they could be uploaded to YouTube. Neither child asked for my assistance.  They did not need instructions to download or use Jing.  Now and again I could hear when they reached a dead end and had to retrace, abandon, or figure out the problem in some new way. The language I heard was not defeatist, but rather words and tone that suggested curiosity and encouragement of one another, and lots of laughter.  Some, No no and a lot of Yes, like that.  What I noticed is that they did not outline their movie before making it.  They dove in.

I noticed that after their first attempt at Jing, Devon said to Damien, "I think we should skip the whole beginning and just get to the part about making obsidian. Who's going to want to sit through all that?"
"Yeah you're right. If they're making a portal, they know all that stuff already."

Screenshot of Portal.
Screenshot of the Nether World

We might label that idea as revision and narrowing the focus.  For the boys it simply made sense as they were doing what Aristotle said writers need to do, consider audience. They did not need to define vocabulary terms or use terms in a sentence. They did not need to outline the steps they would take before taking them.  They didn't need to do a lot of what gets privileged as important learning in school and I am hoping that gives you pause.

What they did need was some relevant prior knowledge about the way "how-to Jing films" work.  Having watched a fair amount of how-to films about Minecraft on YouTube, they had some models in mind and were delighted to find out that those movies were made using Jing.  They had to have a sense of the audience for whom they were creating the films. They needed to understand what they were going to demonstrate, but not fully.  Perhaps most important though, they needed to be willing to experiment, fail, and retry--to collaborate and to be self-directed. 

Will Richardson via his post, Have Schools Reached Their Limits? shared The Right to Learn: Identifying Precedents for Sustainable Change, a white paper generated by Bruce Dixon and Susan Einhorn and informed by those who attended the Big Ideas Global Summit 2010.  About halfway through the report I stopped as I read this:
What is becoming better understood is what personal computing in the hands of learners allows. The emphasis is more about who controls the learning than about content. It’s about learners learning through the lens of topics and issues that are of interest, relevant and purposeful to them; it’s about them constructing knowledge; it’s about connecting to an unlimited resource of people, ideas, and conversations that gives all learners unique insights, insights that underpin deeper understandings about the world in which they live, and how they might act collectively to influence their world and their lives. It's about having the freedom to learn in a way that is appropriate in a modern world. It’s about acknowledging a learner’s innate drive to learn about, and understand, his or her place in the world (p. 11).
The very thinking dispositions we continuously attempt to engender in students at school are the ones I see and hear occurring as I watch my son and his friends playing Minecraft. Through self-directed and collaborative play, they continuously demonstrate what it means to be adventurous, to persist, to problem solve, to sustain intellectual curiosity, to clarify and seek understanding, to be strategic, to be intellectually careful, to seek and evaluate reasons, to be metacognitve. When they need assistance, they seek it out from resources they discover: videos about Minecraft, a Minecraft Wiki, and Minecraft apps. What's equally interesting is that not all of these resources remain valued as they learn.  Much like Lev Vygotsky describes, these scaffolds are self-destructing.

Empowering students to determine their learning matters.  In talking with Devon about what he had created in Minecraft, he explained, "People don't give people enough credit. It takes a lot to put things together and to figure it out. The roller coaster is more than a 1000 pieces of rail. It was hard to figure out slope to make the roller coaster keep going and eventually I figured out how to power it. It took a few tries." 

Screenshot of Roller Coaster, Designed by Devon

Screenshot of Roller Coaster, Designed by Devon


  1. have you read Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken? if not, i think you will love it. i think your son might as well..

    privilege uncertainty.
    i love it.

    i also love this from your tweet the other day:
    we cannot cause learning. At best we may occasion it. Y so much of curriculum is fraudulent

  2. I know of her, Monika, but have not read the text. Will put it on the to read list and mention it to Dev too. I always know when I have had some presence in a new job when I hear others begin to use words like privilege and occasion.


  3. Mary Ann, have you or Devon and his friends setup a minecraft server where their friends can join in yet? Even more magical things happen then. I have a post overdue on what my nephew and his friends taught me about Minecraft. Will show you and others in the next day or so.

  4. Great I look forward with it. We struggling to figure that out.

  5. Mary Ann, the title of your Blog, alone intrigued me. Upon reading, I share the kindred spirit of your passion in exploring 'learning'--the process of learning; its power and empowerment, and its FUN--which recognizes the 'fun' experienced through persistence through 'failure.' I was an art teacher, now superintendent (and am sometimes sad to use past tense for the 'art teacher' statement). However, the creativity embraced in art has provided me great insight to administration and leadership (which would be no surprise to you). Thank you for your post. Thank you to Scott McLeod who posted your blog link in his Tweet so your thoughts might be shared. Your term of "privilege uncertainty" and your statement that "we cannot cause learning. At best we may occasion it." have been added to my pallet of learning and thinking! Thanks!

  6. Catherine, Thanks so much for your response. Two things:
    1. I am beginning a new journal, (re):Mix and would love for you to consider submitting work to it or passing the info on to others. There are posts that explain the first issue (focusing on uncertainty) and how to send in work (visual as well as written).
    2. I would love your response to a post, Unschool, that I wrote. Your perspective as an artist and superintendent would be very welcome. I didn't know Scott McLeod had tweeted the link. Thanks for letting me know so I could thank him.

  7. I'm obsessed with minecraft. My students, 8th graders, recreated the island in Lord of the Flies. Amazing watching them reimagine the symbolism in a different medium. They then took us on tours, putting the viewer right in the t POV of a character in the novel. Here's a sample one student put on YouTube:

    1. I took a look at their video (left a comment) and their knowledge and appreciation of the text comes through. Back in 2012 I presented about Minecraft and building literary worlds at a conference in Plymouth, England. Hope you're documenting the work:)


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