Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Just Another Tool.

So I have been in a pretty stressful situation these last couple of weeks. I was told the other week that there are some areas of my teaching practice that I am not up to scratch on, little things, but things that are expected of me in my role as a teacher in this school. Now this in itself is great for my own personal development. It is giving feedback on things I can do to improve my own teaching practice.

The stress has been caused by a request to provide “hard data” to prove that Minecraft is assisting my students in their learning. I have anecdotal evidence that supports the value of Minecraft as a teaching tool, but collecting “hard data” has never been a goal as I use Minecraft as a teaching tool. So after gnawing on the meetings and discussions I have had, I requested a follow up meeting to clarify the reason for seeking this data, and why my professional opinion was not enough to allow me to continue using it in my classes.

It seems there is a perception in my school that I use Minecraft in my classes ‘a lot’. Now over the weekend I actually did some calculations to show how much class time over the year I have spent with each of my classes in Minecraft. The results surprised me, the percentage of time spent in my classes using Minecraft is way lower than even I thought it would be. Excepting the Pre-CAL Numeracy Project, which sits around 50% of class time spent in the game, all my classes used less than 10% of available class time in Minecraft.

Now about 4 or 5 months ago I asked my admin at the time whether I could share the work I was doing in Minecraft with the staff at my school. My hope was that of removing some of the misconceptions about using games in classrooms, and also to see if any other staff at my school would be willing to have a go at using this tool in their classes. I was told back then a flat out no, and to work with a small group of interested staff.

Now, given the large misconception about the time I spend using this, my current admin is suggesting that perhaps it is time to share. I will be surveying my year 8 students, as they have used it more than most of the classes. The survey will focus on their thoughts about Minecraft in class, and how they feel this learning tool has assisted them in learning. I feel that the relevance of this data would be enhanced with a greater understanding of what we actually did in those classes.

So to increase understanding I look forward to a sit down with my admin to go through the lesson, “Path to Percentage Perfection.” During this process I hope to talk about the learning goals, the planning involved, the research based foundations, and what the students were required to do within the lesson. Then we will explore and discuss the data I collected from discussion and student surveys after that lesson. My hope is that my admin will see what is happening in my classes, the real learning that is happening, and hopefully provide evidence that this is indeed assisting my students with their understanding.

So back to the ‘hard data’ collection. After these meetings with my admin, I have had quite a few discussions with members of the MinecraftEdu community about how all of us can benefit from this. How can we get some solid, data based, evidence that using Minecraft assists students in their learning? We already have a few ways, the EduCrew MC Answer System, in-game journals, worksheets that fit alongside the learning in Minecraft and pre- and post-testing. I think, however, there is definitely scope to increase our options for data collection that proves to those not using this tool what those of us who are see clearly during our lessons.

I keep emphasising in all these discussions, that Minecraft is only one tool in my repertoire I use to engage and educate the students in my classes. It is no different than any other teaching practice I undertake in my classes except that it has been tagged a game. It has great engagement power, but it also has great teaching potential. Much like the clickers I used intensively last year, and will use again in the same manner next year to improve my students ability to interpret and answer multiple choice exam questions in a timely manner. In the end, Minecraft, like any other tool, is only as good as the teacher using it to teach lessons. So in reflection, if you see someone doing something new in their class, ask them to show you what it is, spend some time trying to understand it... who knows, you just might find a new tool for your teaching toolbox.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Winding Up.

My Pre-CAL Numeracy class is definitely winding up, we have just about a week and a half left of this project, so I have been doing a lot of thinking about how it went, what I would change for next time (if there is a next time) and what I saw during the time undertaking this project with my students.

I have made a post in the past about what I think I would change if I were to run this project, or one similar, again. Just a quick rehash;

  • More structure to the tasks, perhaps project explanation sheets.
  • A more fluid market for the land purchasing.
  • Proformas to fill in for loan applications to fast track the application process.
  • Student 'helpers' that are paid extra for helping me manage some of the land/building permits.
  • Mining permits would be available for a % fee of their findings.
  • A complete rehash of the map layout to remove the lag associated with too many entities in the one location.
Overall I think the project went very well but it was far from perfect, we had server issues for a few weeks that made us lose our momentum early this term. Over the course of the project however I saw glimpses of awesomeness. Glimpses of what this could be with enough time dedicated to adding more structure outside, yet more flexibility in-game.

One 'lesson' will stick with me for a very long time, I think I will be hard pressed to forget a disengaged student doing higher level measurement calculations than I would have ever expected from him given his work ethic and history in Maths. Not only was he doing the calculations on the board in front of me, he was explaining his thinking, with great clarity, each step of the way.

The engagement of the students in the tasks is also something I am very impressed with, that fateful Friday afternoon where students were focussed and working towards a $100 in-game reward for a whole 45 minute period blew my mind. If only I had the time or ability to maintain that level of engagement in every lesson I teach.

The engagement definitely declined as the weeks progressed, compounded by the server issues many have 'given up' on the Minecraft side of things by now. I think this steady decline was because the students could not see 'progress' towards their goals, as they spent so much time building their houses in the creative world, and then would not go through the loan application process to get the money required to get that house put into the Pre-CAL world. To remedy this I would not give them that option again, I would have some houses they could buy/rent if they wanted, but I would also have 'blocks' of land that students could purchase and then build their houses on.

Students did not really keep a good record of their budgets, it took a lot of prodding to get them to do their budgets each week, and that was only transferring the information from their payslip to their budget. Their in-game purchases rarely made it onto their budgets. I am not sure how to remedy this, it was not like the students had to get out of Minecraft to do their budget, they had their laptop beside them. Obviously I need to find the 'carrot' to make the budget a worthwhile activity to maintain. However I have no way to track in-game purchases, the real question I guess is, is the budget a key component of the project? Originally my response would have been yes, now I am not so sure.

Since the project started I have been shown mods and very cool command block systems that can 'lock' students houses to particular students and collect rent without input from me. With enough time to explore and implement one of these options I think it would make the process a bit simpler. That being said I still feel that the ability to be very flexible with the pay system, down to paying individual students different amounts based on their work output is a key component of making students take ownership of their work and their investment into the game.

The targeted lesson/map I called the Path to Percentage Perfection worked for some students, but not all. I believe that if these activities were a bit more regular that the students would 'get used' to doing them and also find more value in them. The first time doing anything is always a bit scary but with repetition, the process becomes more comfortable for students.

Whoa, that turned into a long post, it was supposed to be much shorter than that. If you made it this far, thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment below. If you didn't make it this far ....... ;)

Monday, 18 November 2013

Minecraft Algebra Provides a Reference Point.

So the students in my year 8 class continued on their exploration of building and using algebraic equations from the textbook today. The text questions aligned perfectly with the types of questions the students were doing about Minecraft last week when they swapped back to the text book. Given the introduction that students had, explaining how to create equations from worded questions was much easier with Minecraft as a reference point.

For example, the book asked students to write an expression for legs (l) for n grasshoppers. Some students were struggling, but mentioning the logs to planks expression we used last week seemed to help them to see the connection, that l = 6n because for every grasshopper there is 6 legs. I honestly do not know how I would have helped students to see the connection if I could not refer them back to Minecraft the way I did. I am sure, in the past, I would have just taken more time to sit with those students who were struggling and tried to think of as many different ways of explaining it to them as I could until one stuck.

I think that, perhaps, because algebra is such an abstract thing, that the 'real' connection and visual of the Minecraft crafting bench really helps students 'get' the idea, and gives them a base to work from for the more abstract questions.

Now, the comments from students as to their reason for going to the textbook rather than continuing with Minecraft algebra. I ran out of time to post these last week, but the main reasons students provided were: The questions from the text book are clearer. The book has answers in the back that they could refer to to see if they got the question correct. They also felt that the textbook would have easier questions. Finally, a couple wrote that they were more used to working from the text book.

The comment from the one student who persisted with the Minecraft algebra calculations was "it was harder to comprehend and a challenge." What a great reason to persist, wanting a challenge, wanting to extend themselves.

I will leave you on that positive note, and ask how do I get all of my students to want to challenge their learning instead of taking the perceived easier option? Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment below.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Did I Make Them Think Too Much?

Yesterdays year 8 Maths class was a continuation of Minecraft algebra, my learning intention was that students would be able to build and interpret algebraic equations. So we started with our basic wood tool set again, and put a cost on purchasing logs. I pulled $5 from thin air and we based our calculations on that. As a class we used that to come up with a cost for the planks and sticks. I then went through a worked example for calculating the cost of purchasing the materials needed for a wooden pickaxe on the board. Students were then given the task of calculating the cost for each of the other tools individually and then also the cost of the complete set, in a specific algebraic way, as per my example.

About 40 minutes later, after students we given the task of calculating the stone set in the same manner, there were students who wanted to do 'book' algebra. Now this is a very interesting comment to make. "Can we do text book algebra please?" This does not concern me in the least, they can still meet my learning intention through using the book. What interests me is, what do they see as the difference between the algebra they were asked to do about Minecraft tools, and the algebra in the textbook?

After thinking about this a bit, and I will ask students today when I see them again to see what they say, I think that maybe they thought that the textbook algebra would be easier, and that the algebra I was getting them to do, made them 'think' too much. There was one student who wanted to continue with the Minecraft calculations, she finished the iron set, asked me to do it too, and we compared answers. Interestingly enough, both of us made some simple errors, but came to agreement in the end as to the costs of each tool and the complete set.

A very quick post today to share my thinking, if the students responses today are interesting I will probably be posting again later. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Minecraft Algebra Follow Up.

Today was the lesson where I tied the learning that happened in the Minecraft Algebra play sessions, and by this I mean using the information that students found, telling them about the skills they were using while in the game to explain what algebra is, and how we use it.

I did not mention the world algebra at all, but once I had put the following on the board, someone gave it away :D

L = Logs
P = Planks
S = Sticks

1L = 4P
2P = 4S
1L = ?S

The comment from the student "Is this algebra?" My response, "No, *sheepish look* don't you think I would tell you if I was teaching you algebra?" Despite my best poker face, I knew the game was up, it was not long before all the students realised we were doing algebra. Now, what I find very interesting is, that normally when you mention the 'unmentionable' word algebra, students switch off. Today, however, the students were quite happily discussing their thoughts as to working out the problems I wanted them to solve.

They were arguing with each other over how to do it, which was the best way and what the correct answer was. So today I managed to talk about algebra in a way that the students were willing to listen, engage and explore. I call that a win.

We covered the fact that letters are just substitutes of numbers, that some letters can be made up of other letters, so we can translate planks into sticks, or logs, but not cobblestone as there is no connecting rule. This also allowed me to introduce the simplification of algebraic equations, I did pull out the old 'apples and oranges' for this as well, but tied it back to the cobblestone and wood from Minecraft.

I gave the students a task for homework, based on their understanding of what we found out in Minecraft, and also what we discussed today. It will be interesting to see how many students take the time to do their homework, when it is not 'in' Minecraft, but is about Minecraft.

Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment below.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Pocket Frogs and Plague Inc.

I have been spending quite a bit of time in my senior Biology class allowing students to explore these two games. They are now all addicted to Pocket Frogs, and we had a really good discussion about inheritance, heritable characteristics and the 'flaws' in the Pocket Frogs model when compared to some of the human inheritance we know of.

Selective breeding was also a small part of it as students tried to breed particular coloured frogs to meet requests, or just meet their own goals of getting a certain colour combination.

Now the students are exploring Plague Inc, next week we will have the discussion about selective pressures and evolutionary theory. I still think that Plague Inc is a great way to introduce the topic and get students thinking about it. Within a couple of hours of game play (2 lessons or so of my class time) students have a pretty good base to make some inferences about evolution, its effects and what some of the key terms may mean.

Now if I can manage to tie these 2 games together when we talk about selective breeding and its impact on evolution I will be very happy.

The great thing about using these games as a learning tool/introduction is that students will play at home, not only in my class. Then when we get together in class we can discuss their findings as a group and they can share their ideas with others, which of course will impact on the way they play afterwards.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Kerbal Lesson 2&3.

Lesson 2 (last week)

WOW! It is just amazing to watch what students can come up with the more comfortable they get with the mechanics of the game. I started todays lesson by telling students to load a pre-made craft and have a fly. Many students picked a craft, had a fly, looked at the parts and went back to try to create their own. Today we had some successful flights, and many unsuccessful ones too.

Many students are putting wings on their craft, but no control surfaces, so they have no way to get lift and the ability to move. This is going to make a very good discussion when we start our debrief and talk about forces, their effect and how we can manipulate them.

I also learnt that many of the jet engines, after reading through and talking to some of the students, require one or more air intake parts. So now I could, in theory, create a space plane of my own. I am really enjoying learning alongside the students, not being an expert, but exploring and sometimes advising them with a bit of knowledge.

Lesson 3 (today)

A week later we got to have our third lesson in Kerbal. I started by readjusting the goals I had set for students, and also gave them a bit of an introduction to the control surfaces available to them. I am impressed, more and more students are managing to get airborne. They still struggle to land properly, but they are getting off the ground at least. Soon the time in Kerbal itself will end and we will have to pull it all together. I am interested to see what the students reflections are in terms of forces, and what learning outcomes they believe they achieved while playing the game.

I am thinking one, maybe 2 more lessons in Kerbal is all I have time for. I still have another topic I need to cover this year and the time is slowly slipping away from me. Putting what we did in Kerbal alongside the bottle rockets students created and let fly I am hoping for a pretty solid understanding of forces in the 'real' world and how we can manipulate these forces. I know one student today learnt how to make things spin as they fly, completely by accident, and an unwanted side effect of the control surface placement, but what an 'aha' moment for that student.

Introduction to Algebra.

Today I threw caution to the wind and let my students play Minecraft in class..... sort of.......

Students were allowed into a fresh world and given the task of working out how many logs are required to make a full set of wood tools. This included a workbench, pick, axe, shovel, hoe and sword. Once they had completed that I asked them to list the ingredients for each item in terms of P for planks and S for sticks. The third part of the task was to put each item back into how many logs are required for each of them. They wrote their answers/calculations in a book in game.

Some students finished this quite early, so for those who were ready to move on I gave them the task of working out the above 3 for a full set of stone tools. Now they thought this would be super easy, but they needed to make sure that they included the workbench and also the wooden pick which makes it a little trickier.

After that they were tasked with the iron set, which meant they needed to include the workbench, wood pick, stone pick, furnace and wood for smelting the iron on top of all the raw materials for the tools themselves.

It was really interesting to listen to the 'out loud' thinking that was going on as students were trying to work all of this out in terms of L, P, S, C and I. What a way to introduce algebra.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Kerbal Space Program.

KerbalEdu is currently still only the mainstream Kerbal game, the Edu mod for this game is not available yet. However, I got a chance to explore the game with students today, and I have some pretty good ideas of what I personally would like to see the mod add to the game for schools, students and teachers.

I am using it to explore forces with students, from gravity to air resistance and friction to the lack of, this game has some pretty neat physics we can use to talk about these forces. I gave the students a very brief introduction to the controls on Tuesday, gave my tech the installer to deploy to the school computers, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best this morning when I walked into my classroom.

There are some local issues that need to be addressed prior to future lessons, but that can only be found by testing things out. KSP itself actually runs quite smoothly, I did have to cut down the graphics a little bit just to get it running smoothly. For a game, in a classroom setting, this is really the first one I have used in which the students are 'on their own', that is they are not playing together, but each student has complete control over their own experience.

I gave them a choice between 2 goals, in sandbox mode, no restrictions. They had the option to build a space plane, or a rocket. If they chose the plane, their goal was to get it out of the atmosphere and then land it on the planet again. For those that chose the rocket, they needed to get to the moon and back safely. In a 45 minute lesson, after explaining how to launch the game and that they were pioneers at using this game in a school we had about 30 minutes left.

Some students claimed to have played the game before, however I did not really see what I expected from those who had, they were not streaks ahead of the first timers. There was a lot of 'not reading' going on, much like what I see in Minecraft, which had a pretty serious impact on the students ability to get their creation airborne.

So some students did get airborne, many students unfortunately exploded many rockets and planes, and the population of the Kerbal Astronaut Complex was severely impacted. I think the students took a little bit too much pleasure in watching the poor Kerbals explode.

So what will I do from here? I think before I go into class next time I will create a base for both the rocket and the plane to give to students to tweak, adjust and try to make it fly. The biggest issue today was in getting compatible parts, and since I am nowhere near an expert at building planes or rockets myself, having only put in a few hours of gameplay, I really struggled to help them find the correct parts.

I need to work out which fuel tanks and engines are compatible for the planes, or at the very least explore some of the included creations and suggest that students base their spacecraft on that. I am really looking forward to seeing where KerbalEdu can take my teaching. I think that not only will it be great for teaching forces as I am using it now, but also for costings, higher end physics than I fully understand as well as some scientific principles if I explore career mode.

That is it for now, feel free to leave a comment below.