Students in Carolyn Bliesener’s 2013-2014 year 5 class used Minecraft to experiment with different styles of government in a social studies inquiry unit exploring the essential question ‘How can societies organize themselves?’ By experiencing different styles of government and taking on roles, the concepts they learned about in class were experienced and made real in a virtual world.
Carolyn Bliesener in her classroom
Schooling level: Elementary School – 5th grade
Location: Elisabeth Morrow School, New Jersey US
Teaching experience: 17 years
Learning design: Inquiry-based learning designed around an Essential Question.
Innovation: Using Minecraft as part of a Social Studies inquiry unit on American History and government
Technologies used: Minecraft within a 1:1 computing environment. Students have their own laptops as part of a BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop) program being gradually implemented across the middle school. Carolyn says that this has been a game-changer for curriculum planning. It means that she can use a whole range of tools available through the school intranet (e.g. Google Apps for Schools) for organizational matters and monitoring and responding to student work.
“It has transformed my ability to pinpoint what every child in this classroom needs and how I can differentiate for different student needs.
Communication between students and teacher has completely changed. I can give them instant feedback. It’s changed so much how I communicate with my students. It’s no longer me and the class but me and the individual, and they are learning from each other.”
Why adopt the innovation?
Carolyn was inspired by seeing the level of engagement of her students when attending weekly sessions with the technology teacher, Marianne Malmstrom (whose online persona is @Knowclue Kidd). In these sessions the students played Minecraft to explore ideas and design games. Carolyn had no games background herself but she decided that she wanted that type of engagement in her classroom. She reflected
“….the discussions, the conversations that the children were having about what they were doing in the game so inspired me that I wanted that – that level of engagement, in my classroom.”
Carolyn decided to learn about incorporating Minecraft into her classroom by adopting it as her professional development focus.
”My biggest hitch was, how do I find the time to do this?……and that took a while to figure out”
“Teachers make choices every day about what to spend precious learning time on. For me to play this game, I have to know why I am doing it. I need to know what I want them to accomplish by playing the game, and also what they want to accomplish.”
Marianne’s modeling and the ongoing support provided by her when needed, has been the catalyst and inspiration to encourage Carolyn to adapt the affordances of the Minecraft environment to suit her curriculum needs, and the needs of the group of learners.
How did you go about the innovation?
With Marianne’s guidance as coach, mentor and critical friend, Carolyn explored how she could use Minecraft to model real-world problems relevant to a curriculum unit whose content was American History, guided by the essential question: “How can societies organize themselves?”For one semester students spent 45 minutes most days putting into practice ideas that had been previously introduced and discussed in lessons. Between sessions and as issues arose, skillfully facilitated class discussions enabled the students to think deeply about the consequences of decisions and actions, and collaboratively solve problems. Every time they played, they wrote a reflection that was private between the student and the teacher. Carolyn required that they write a minimum of 50-100 words but on some days, some students wrote 300 words or more!
A morning in the classroom
On the day I visited, the morning began with a discussion about an incident that had occurred in-world in Minecraft earlier in the week. The students took turns to air their grievances thoughtfully and vigorously, and discuss the issue. They were respectful of diverse viewpoints and proposed various solutions, informed by the knowledge they had developed of the American Constitution. The issue was one of whether a particular action by a student was fair or legal in terms of the rules of the game. The discussion made it clear that fair and legal were not necessarily the same thing and the idea of bringing in a new law to prevent further instances of the same behaviour was raised. One student then pointed out that even if they did that, it would not be appropriate to retrospectively apply the law to the “guilty” student who technically had not broken any rules. To justify his position, he stated that Ex Post Facto was not in place and explained what it meant!
They then proceeded to have their Minecraft session in which they were playing out the next iteration of their experimentation with ways of organizing a society.
At this stage of their experiment, they had formed tribes and alliances. Each tribe had a constitution and each alliance had a treaty. It was amazing to watch the engagement, intensity and absorption of the students as they worked in ‘creative mode’ to build their respective tribal areas.
Students playing Minecraft
Then, Carolyn announced
“The raiding tribe has been notified. You are now in survival mode.”
The adrenalin surge could be felt as survival mode was invoked, and the students sought to protect themselves from the unknown foe. At the end of the allocated time, the game stopped and students packed up and moved to their next class. What I had observed was a finely tuned balance between overall teacher-designed learning and a lot of freedom for students to explore in their own ways individually and in teams.
After their session, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolyn about her journey, as an experienced teacher (but non-gamer), with this innovation.
What was the shift in teacher role?
The hardest thing for Carolyn was letting go of control and being willing to give the students the freedom to explore within parameters determined by the curriculum. Carolyn implemented the innovation in the second semester of the school year. She stressed the importance of knowing the students well and having sound classroom management routines in place. She talked about the school’s underpinning values that are well understood by students – the 4 Cs of Cooperation, Compassion, Courtesy and Consideration. She explained
“The students like playing the game within the parameters of those values. As a school we have to provide a safe environment.”
Carolyn described the disconcerting feeling of not knowing how this experiment would go. She enlisted the support of parents by letting them know of her intention at the start of the school year. At first parents were resistant, thinking that students would just be doing more game playing like many of them did at home. However, when Carolyn explained that it would be contained to a curriculum-related context they became excited and said “my child is going to love being in your class.”.
Evidence of success
Carolyn has been amazed at the processing and transfer that have taken place as a result of this approach. She is in no doubt that it has made the concepts they have been learning about real. By modeling different ways of governing within the virtual world, students get to experience first hand and through different roles, the realities good and bad, and nuances of different types of societal organization.
Classroom poster – Question Everything
I asked Carolyn what exactly were the students learning by playing the game and she responded
“My answer will be different to the students. They blow me away sometimes…….they learned what an ex post facto law is. Little did I know until we had a discussion about something in the game and one student said ‘we hadn’t made that decision yet. It’s ex post facto.’ I think they are learning to make connections between what they learn and applying it in the game.”
“To me what they are learning in the game is how to work together, maybe not on a high level but it’s generating so much discussion about what is right and what is wrong, and how we want to organize ourselves. Do we want chaos, or do we want some law and order? The whole idea of human rights and how that works in the game. We talked about treaties this morning and they discussed whether they would help others in need if they did not have a treaty with them.“
When asked if she thought they would get sick of playing the game, Carolyn replied:
“I don’t know. My feeling is that if I started to impose more on them, they might push back.”
During the lunch break, the students had agreed to give some of their time to answer some questions about their experience with Minecraft. I asked them three questions:
- What are you learning?
- What surprised you?
- Do you think you will get sick of it?
1. What are you learning?
Their responses to the first question included many mentions of teamwork, cooperation, making the learning about the forms of government real to them. Sample responses were:
- Teamwork and we are learning about government.
- Everything is hands on and you can feel it.
- We are learning how government works and we are actually getting an experience with it and we get to have discussions about real issues.
- We get to learn how to do things ourselves and in a group. You also learn how to survive.
- What I learned is that it makes it so much easier to understand because you are actually doing it.
- You learn how to play Minecraft!
- We are learning all this history and social studies and bringing it into the game which makes it fun so it’s fun learning.
2. What has surprised you?
- I thought it would be more just surviving and not coming together and forming government and things like that. Mrs B was Queen for a while and that was fun and then Daniel was the autocrat which wasn’t as much fun for everyone.
- Now what is really surprising me is that we are starting to not just form tribes but form the basis of a country, not just tribes.
- What surprised me is that not just the tribes, but the alliances work well.
- I was surprised that we were actually playing Minecraft in the classroom.
- I was surprised that today we managed to help the other tribe to survive the raid.
- I am surprised at how far we have gotten in the game and where we are now, with the alliances, we can merge together and become countries but because we have made our own bases it might be hard to become one country so we may have to stay as an alliance.
- I was surprised at how well the raiding went and how well everyone helped each other.
3. Do you think you will get sick of it?
All but one student declared that they did not think they would get sick of playing. One student remarked:
“I think I might get sick of the game if the two tribes not aligned with us keep raiding us rather than other tribes, I might get frustrated.”
These young students were articulate, enthusiastic and certainly demonstrated real understanding gained from their virtual world experience.
The next iteration
Carolyn talked about her intentions for the next iteration of the game with next year’s class. She intends to incorporate some ideas from @John Hunter’s work (World Peace Game Foundation) and the book The Art of War by Sun Tzu which promotes the notion of war being an option only if all other avenues are exhausted.
I caught up with Carolyn at the ISTE 2014 conference where she was sharing her work with others in Marianne’s very popular workshops and presentations. She reflected
“Overall, using Minecraft in the classroom has been an extremely positive experience for me and my students. I look forward to next year with now a little more experience under my belt, and I hope to even play more with the class than I did last year.”
To me what is most inspiring about this story, is the way that Carolyn has carefully thought about her use of technology from a learning and curriculum perspective. She has given herself time to think it through and then been willing to take a risk, to try out her ideas in a well planned way within the context of learning design, and with a willingness to iteratively refine what she is doing through a process of ongoing reflection. I think it is a wonderful example of learning leading technology and what good teachers can do as learning designers.
Last but not least, she has been able to do this because of the enabling and supportive conditions of the school’s infrastructure, IT management led by @Sarah Rolle and ongoing professional development and technology support from the technology teacher Marianne.
Contact Carolyn on Twitter @coggone.
Hunter, J. (2011). Teaching with the World Peace Game. TED. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/john_hunter_on_the_world_peace_game
Hunter, J. (2013). World Peace and other 4th Grade Achievements. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Tzu, S., & Giles, L (translator). (2009). The Art of War (1st ed.). Blacksburg, VA: Thrifty Books.