Recently, I had a professional opportunity that I had to pinch myself to believe was actually happening. I was a guest on the Teaching Tolerance’s The Mind Online podcast with Monita Bell. I have been a fan and supporter of Teaching Tolerance since I started my teaching career more than a decade ago. I have personally used many of their resources to tackle issues of social justice in my own practice. It was an honor to be part of the conversation via this podcast. If you’re curious what we discussed on the episode, check out the description and link to the episode below:
Episode 10 Video games in the classroom can help young people learn a wide range of skills. But gaming can also expose them to radical ideologies. We talk about game-based learning with Meenoo Rami, manager for Microsoft’s Minecraft Education. We also explore how educators can counter hateful messages in games with Keegan Hankes from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
The fundamental question we should be asking children as they grow up is no longer what they want to “be” but rather what they would like to “do.” What problems are they passionate about solving, and what are the skills that will enable them to achieve their goals.
Traditional education models are at odds with this type of thinking, however, as they are still built largely around the mythology of finite goals. The concept that there are clear milestones and an eventual finishing line to learning was never ideal, but it is even more woefully inadequate in a technology-enabled world. To thrive in volatile environments, we must embrace life-long learning.
One solution that educators are deploying to bridge that gap between traditional learning delivery systems and newer workflows and expectations, is the use of gamified learning platforms. Gamified learning is very helpful in cultivating a mindset where problem-solving becomes a fun activity, and failure is seen as a stepping stone.
If, like myself, you’re old enough to have earned your gaming chops alongside Mario or Sonic, you’re unlikely to recall exactly how many times you “died” along the way, or exactly how you adapted your strategy incrementally after each setback. The moments when you beat that boss and rescue the princess, however, tend to stick with you.
Vice President of Education at Microsoft Anthony Salcito spoke with me during this week’s Education Exchange conference (E2 in Paris, which brought together a diverse group of educators from all over the world to discuss how best to leverage technology such as Minecraft to deliver better learning outcomes for students.
For those unfamiliar with Minecraft, it is a game that allows players to construct 3D worlds out of textured cubes, but players must explore and gather resources in order to do so. There are individual and collaborative multi-player modes. It was originally published in 2011 before being acquired by Microsoft in 2014. To date it has sold over 121 million copies making it second only to Tetris in terms of popularity. Microsoft has since developed Minecraft: Education Edition which is used in schools and has additional pedagogical tools and functionalities.
Learning by teaching
“When you find something joyful, you will discover that fully. I learn more from students than the people actually coding the game in Redmond, says Meenoo Rami ,Educator Advocate at Minecraft and Microsoft.[
Since many students are already familiar with the platform from playing the game at home, educators are able to draw upon the student’s own expertise and to focus on the learning aspects rather than covering the mechanics of the technology itself. It also prompts situations where “expert” users mentor younger learners and also help teachers who might not be as familiar with the platform as their students, further fostering a collaborative ethos in the classroom.
Building modular skillsets
Another advantage of Minecraft is that it helps to encourage a modular approach to building skillsets. When each new problem demands you to find and leverage different resources, materials and collaborations, you start to envisage those as pieces of a puzzle, for which there are multiple possible solutions. This is why LEGO and Minecraft have proven so popular and effective in those contexts, as their core design is in itself modular.
A recently published survey polled teachers across 11 countries and four continents. It revealed that students’ decision-making and communication ability were positively impacted by the time they spent playing Minecraft, and that it cultivated a creative problem-solving mindset.
In Minecraft, starting over represents a new opportunity rather than a regrettable ordeal. Remaining calm and focusing on solving a problem is a skill that is likely to serve students well throughout their academic and professional careers.
Surveyed teachers reported that students using the platform were confident interacting freely during lessons, exercising agency often without prompts from teachers and overcoming challenges as teams. They found that working through the game made it easier to bridge accessibility issues, in that students with different learning styles and abilities were more easily able to find common ground, and to share what they discover in multiple formats.
They also felt comfortable experimenting, and perceived failure as part of the creative learning process. This resilience and growth mindset is very much recognized as a key desirable trait by employers, especially in innovative industries such as technology.
Paradoxically, however, the more teachers and students utilized the Minecraft platform to deliver pedagogical content and improve learning outcomes, the less emphasis they placed on the game itself. As is often the case with successful technology solutions, the measure of their success hinges on how invisible they become, allowing the content to shine through.
Social emotional learning
Considering how videogaming is often perceived as being socially isolating, it is somewhat surprising that one of the areas that was most dramatically improved by engagement with the Minecraft for Education platform was social and emotional learning (SEL).
A study conducted by Microsoft has shown that an increasing number of schools across the SEL, an approach that builds skills and competencies that help students be successful in school, work, and life.
In the context of K–12 education, SEL is the process through which students acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
SEL initiatives thrive when woven into subjects across the curriculum throughout the traditional school day, tackling real-world problems, or at the very least problems that “feel” real to students.
Research has shown that students exposed to SEL are better equipped to manage themselves and exhibit agency over their own academic experience, have a greater understanding of the perspectives of others and a better ability to relate effectively to them, and are able to make sound choices about personal and social decisions.
Social emotional learning comes to life when knowledge is applied to solving relevant problems, whether in the context of real-world scenarios or disguised as play. One of the best examples that Rami showed me was how students needed to leverage basic chemistry to obtain materials such as latex. This could in turn can be used to make balloons. And those balloons can be attached to the whimsical pigs that populate the game (once you manage to catch them, that is). I have a feeling that applying chemistry to make pigs fly is the sort of thing that might make a student remember what that chemical components of latex are far better than memorizing the periodic table ever could. I know the image of those floating square pigs stuck in my mind.
Comprehensive SEL goals include developmental benchmarks across five key social and emotional competency domains, encompassing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making skills.
More than just a videogame
Minecraft creates opportunities for transformational learning experiences, says Dr. Michelle Zimmerman, an educational researcher who works at Renton Prep Christian School, an institution which makes extensive use of the platform in delivering its curriculum.
Educators have the opportunity to help students develop empathy through gaming and imagine how they’d like to be treated, talk through scenarios in gaming and in their personal lives, and discuss how they would do something differently (or have wanted to be treated differently), then practice those skills. Technology doesn’t impede our ability to build relationships; conversely, with regard to gaming in the classroom, it can serve to further bolster them. We know that human connection can be powerful in many settings and environments. Gaming is no exception, Zimmerman concludes.
It’s somewhat ironic, Salcito says, that as the world becomes ever more digital, companies like Microsoft are more than ever in need of hiring people with interpersonal skills. As artificial intelligence transforms the labour market, the importance of human skills like creativity, interpersonal understanding, and empathy becomes exponentially more valuable.
Therefore, those who can make connections and foster collaboration in globally distributed teams, who are capable of relating to, empathise with, and inspire their peers. And that valuing of so-called “soft skills” in the workplace is far from a trend that’s unique to Microsoft. Because more companies are demanding this, universities are also pivoting towards offering “mission based” degrees. In other words, you enrol in order to explore how to solve a problem rather than to “become” something.
Stephane Cloatre, Minecraft Global Mentor who works in partnership with Microsoft, says that this flexibility also allows the platform to evolve and incorporate emerging technologies as they become more prevalent for students. Mixed Reality, which is a big focus for Microsoft’s own strategy, is a prime example of this.
Rami adds that students and teachers ask all the time about when immersive functionality will be rolled out on the platform, but for Cloatre, the pieces are in place for that to happen, since Minecraft is pretty much a 3D design platform already. It is easy to see how that could actually become quite an exciting avenue in future, as immersive tech becomes pervasive it will require lot of fresh talent and skilled professionals to develop the ecosystem to its full potential.
Yet none of this, Salcito stresses, can happen without proactive educators leveraging the platform to appropriately support learning outcomes for students. “Educators are champions, without them we can’t do this,” he concludes.
This week, I spent part of it with a sixth grade class at the International School in the Bellevue School District. Together with their amazing teacher Cheryl, we ran a focus week for a group of 15 students. Students were allowed to pick from a myriad of activities as part of their pre-spring break choice week. This particular group had chosen to work with me on Minecraft Education Edition because of their love and passion for the game.
In planning for the week, I wanted to provide them with an authentic opportunity to interact with not just me but other members of our team, learn a bit more about how features get developed into their beloved game, and design thinking process involved in making it all come to life.
Needless to say, when students are given an opportunity to work together to solve a complex challenge, they will astound us with their creative prowess and empathy for users. I am so lucky to have met these students and some of them even helped me to work on my Minecart creations.
Let me know if you’d like to use some of these resources to create your own design challenge day(s) with your students. I’d love to connect with you and help you do a similar activity with your students.
I am returning from a week in Toronto with some of the most energetic, energizing, and thoughtful educators from around the world at the E2 conference. What struck me about the gathering was the sense global citizenship, the welcoming attitude of our Canadian hosts, and general sense of unity amongst all the attendees. I also noticed that all these educators who often didn’t speak a common language could immediately connect around wanting to improve their practice to serve their students better.
Educators no matter where they are, no matter what they’re doing, they never forget their students. We know that our growth and relevance depends on our continued exploration of new ideas, new tools, and meeting new people.
I loved meeting educators like Renato who is doing incredibly innovative things using Minecraft with his students. And Dean who is using Minecraft to teach his students about slope and rise/run, words I have not thought about in a long long time. It was also great to connect with the amazing Minecraft Mentors who were also present at the event.
I missed so many of my educator friends while I was making new ones, so many educators around the world would benefit from a chance to see practice beyond their own classroom and their own focal point. It helps all of us to step outside of our day-to-day work to be exposed to new ways of being educators in the world.
I can’t wait till next year, and I hope to see you there. If you’d like to check out my talk about Minecraft Education Edition during the livestream, you can find it here. Thank you to the organizers of this incredible event for all their hard work.
A few years ago, I taught a class called “Storytelling” and it was my students in that class who taught me a great deal about game-based learning. I’d see them engaged in their video games or magic cards, and as a self-proclaimed non-gamer, I had much to learn from them.
A great game combines the art of storytelling, fine arts, music, video production, and appropriate player engagement to create an immersive, memorable experience. Gamers are very much like readers: they like to explore, uncover, discover, and fully immerse themselves in the experience they’re willingly entering. As a book nerd and teacher of readers and writers, it took me a long time to realize my students were reading and writing in games in the same ways I wanted them to do with books. It took me a while to learn from them that games were another form of literacy they were unlocking for themselves.
I began to reimagine my class and used the above principles to make learning more engaging and impactful for my students. Was I building in enough time for my students to practice? Were all of my students being appropriately challenged by the work in the course? How can I create learning activities that will make my students willing participants in them?
Turns out, educators have a lot to learn from game designers and I was barely scratching the surface of this topic.
Fast forward a couple of years and I find myself serving students and teachers via the Minecraft: Education Edition team at Microsoft. As an education manager on the team, I’m able to create content for our community, lead our research work, present at various education conferences, and help create a community for others who want to start their Minecraft journey. This year, we launched our Global Mentor program made up of 60 educators from 19 different countries who are eager to help others get started using Minecraft in their classrooms. When I asked them their reasons for joining and what they hope they’ll discover about Minecraft, here’s what they had to say:
Kyriakos, Portugal: “The great advantage of Minecraft is how it encourages everyone to fail, learn from their mistakes, fail again, then fail better, until you get it right.”
Katja, Denmark: “I don’t expect myself to be the expert of the game. I plan challenging and innovative activities for my students around the content and standards; that never goes away just because we’re using Minecraft.”
Ben, Canada: “Minecraft allows students to complete learning objectives and demonstrate understanding in a way that makes them feel empowered and safe!”
Steve, United States: “I’ve found engagement to be key, tapping into a student’s interests, and providing an incredible creative outlet.”
In many of our educators’ experiences, you’ll find four common themes emerge again and again:
The opportunity for collaboration among students
An outlet for students to express creativity
The ability to connect learning to tangible outcomes
Ultimately, using game-based learning tools like Minecraft in your classroom works because our students already inhabit this world and speak its language. It’s up to us to take their passion and leverage it toward powerful learning experiences.
If you’d like to take the plunge with us, over the next few weeks Minecraft Education — in conjunction with Teaching Channel — will lead a webinar and multiple Facebook Live sessions to help you get started with your Minecraft: Education Edition journey. For now, feel free to peruse the various Minecraft resources on Minecraft: Education Edition, including lessons, tutorials, and mentors, and to start your free trial.
Share your thoughts and leave us a comment about what you’d like to see included in our future webinars, Facebook Live sessions, and blog posts.
About the author:
Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching, is a National Board certified teacher who taught English in Philadelphia for ten years at the Science Leadership Academy and other public schools in the city. The founder of #engchat, an international Twitter chat for English teachers, Meenoo has also been a teacher-consultant for the Philadelphia Writing Project and an educational consultant with The Educator Collaborative. She is also an instructor at Arcadia University’s Connected Learning Certificate Program. Meenoo has also served as a teaching fellow with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she led the portfolio to help teachers refine their practice through collaboration. Currently, Meenoo works as Manager for Minecraft Education at Microsoft, where she helps educators and districts reimagine game-based learning for classroom practice. Connect with Meenoo on Twitter: @MeenooRami.
I had the honor of getting to know Dr. Amy Stornaiuolo when she conducted some action research in my classroom. For many Fridays, she’d watch me strive, struggle, and at times reach my students at SLA and then afterwards we’d talk at length about her observations, her questions, and reflections on the collective work of my classroom. She honored students’ thoughts and opinions and interviewed them privately about their experience in my classroom. I learned so much from those Friday afternoon conversations and have continued to learn from her. Please take a moment to check out a new project she is launching for educators and share your thoughts on it if you check it out.
I am excited to share with educators the Write4Change community. After finishing some pilot work, we just moved to a new platform and are just about to launch into a new activity cycle, which will bring together teachers and their students in more than 7 countries (and counting). We are working with the National Writing Project and hope to have lots of NWP folks joining in the next year!
Write4Change is a global online community for adolescent writers (ages 13-19) to share their writing with others, collaborate with global peers interested in using writing to effect change, and learn from and with one another.
Teachers sponsor their group of students, who engage in writing projects that are oriented to taking some form of action. Some of our educators teach history, social studies, or civics classes and are interested in youth developing as civic actors on a global scale. Other educators teach writing, either informally in libraries or camps or formally in English classrooms, and are interested in connecting their writers to broader audiences and purposes for writing. And still others are media, art, or enrichment teachers interested in issues of social justice, equity, and artistic voice.
As you might imagine, with all of these different partners, we think about writing and change very broadly. Change can involve more individual and local change (as young people think about themselves, their schools, and their neighborhoods) or broader social change (e.g., advocating for girls’ education). Writing may include traditional textual forms (essays, narratives, poems) or more arts and media oriented textual forms (digital stories, movies, films, image, music, etc.). The tools in our community will help writers with these different forms.
Teachers are welcome to use the provided curriculum, design new curriculum to share with others, or use or adapt their existing curriculum on the W4C platform. We are very open to teachers customizing the space and community to suit their needs.
If you’ve not attended EduCon before, you’re missing out. If you’ve been here before, I don’t need to explain the magic of Educon to you.
I invite you and your colleagues to EduCon, a conference hosted by my former school, Science Leadership Academy, in Philadelphia. It would be lovely to see you here and a treat to spread the conversations among the wonderful folks that you work with.
This year’s conference takes place the weekend of January 27-29, 2017 at our school. It’s not a typical conference: there are no vendors present, and the breakout sessions are conversations, not presentations. Every year I am reminded of the incredible communities I am privileged to be a part of — both the SLA community and the EduCon communtiy — and feel so proud of the work we do in our conversations about education. I’ve written about our conference many times on my blog; this reflection is one of my favorites.
I hope you can be a part of our community at this year’s EduCon. Registration is available on our website, and proposals for conversations are being accepted through November 1. Your voice would be a valuable addition to the mix.
I’d love to hear your reflections or tips for new attendees if you’d like to share in the comments. Thanks!
In a few weeks, I will be leaving the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to join the incredible team at Minecraft Education. I’m grateful to the Foundation for introducing me to so many inspirational educators and ideas, and I’ll always be a champion of the Foundation’s commitment to equity, optimism, and students.
In my new role at Minecraft, I will be joining a team that helps students unlock their own potential for deep learning. My students at Science Leadership Academy first helped me to learn about the potential for using gameplay in storytelling, problem-solving, and creative thinking. I am bringing that powerful experience with me, and I am excited about the ways in which Minecraft’s creative and collaborative platform can put students at the center of learning.
While candidates and media concentrate on issues that matter to voters in this election season, teachers and students in our nation’s schools will be concentrating on issues that matter to the next generation of voters. How can they have a voice? How can we support the mission of schools to engage youth as productive and active citizens?
Letters to the Next President 2.0 (L2P 2.0) is an initiative that empowers young people (13–18) to voice their opinions and ideas on the issues that matter to them in the 2016 presidential election. The focal point of the program is a massive, open online publishing platform where any educator or youth mentor give their students a safe place to voice their opinions about key election issues that they believe the next president whomever he or she may be—needs to address. The site also offers a dynamic repository of resources, ideas, how-to’s, and other helpful information for educators to make the L2P 2.0 project engaging and powerful for their students.
L2P 2.0 is being built by teachers for teachers and students, but you can help us reach
as many youth as possible so that their voices can be heard. Sign up for resources and opportunities.