Friday, 1 July 2016

A Taste of Open Endedness

I cannot remember whether I have posted about this prior to now, but I am currently working at a summer school in Greece, teaching a 2 week project for 3 hours a day (it is a hard life!!).

My learning space for the two weeks. Say hi to #FamousFrank.

This project is, of course, based in Minecraft, the essential, underlying goal of the project is for the students to create something of their own design for public consumption within Minecraft.

It is my first ever fully open project, which of course is only happening because it is a summer school, and does not have to be tied to a formal curriculum in any way, shape or form. It is definitely an interesting process to go through with the students, what I am finding interesting is that while the students are enjoying themselves, and are learning new things to help them with their map design, be that redstone, or commands and command blocks, they are certainly not 'actively' pursuing information or researching the tools they could use to help them build their map.

If I truly reflect on what my expectations were coming into this, I expected the students to be 'different' to those 'forced' to learn within my 'normal' classroom. I also, given the many discussions over the years regarding "letting go" and allowing students to self direct their own path and how Minecraft was such an amazing place to let this happen, felt that I had not ever had a better opportunity to 'try the other side of the fence'.

By 'the other side of the fence' I mean, that in my opinion, there has for many years, been a fairly large divide in the Minecraft teaching community. A divide between teachers like myself, who are restricted in their use of Minecraft by the demands of curriculum or administrators and others who have a much more open ended approach, who are not as restricted and can 'just let the students play and learn' with Minecraft as the medium. Some of those on 'the other side', have on occasions, been extremely vocal about how their way is better and that the students will truly learn more, if only we could let go of the reins.

Now if you are a long time reader, you know my position on this and if you are a new reader, I will summarise my position in one sentence. As a professional, each individual knows their students, their own limitations, and the limitations of the system they work within best, and because of this they know what is best for their students and themselves. I am a big proponent of doing whatever you can in the situation you find yourself in.

Now I have tasted 'both sides of the fence', I have been a classroom teacher using Minecraft for nearly 6 years, and I have had some awesome experiences over that time within the virtual world, but I can also say that, currently with, what I am very willing to admit, very limited experience from the other side, that open ended, unrestricted projects do not necessarily, on their own, increase student learning or engagement.

Don't get me wrong, my students are engaged, my students are learning new things, they are exploring, they are adapting and they are producing something which by the end of next week will be something that they can be proud of, if I could not say this, I would not be doing my job as a summer school instructor. That being said, they are no more engaged than any of my more formal classes that have used Minecraft as the basis of our lessons in the past. They are not learning at a vastly increased rate and they are not any more willing to step out of their comfort zone or investigate possible solutions to their problems by themselves.

Now all of this is just a brain dump, as my blog posts generally are, and I do not know what these students are like in formal classrooms, as I have never had them in that setting. But the one thing I am currently thinking is, the "letting go" does not immediately make using Minecraft in education way more powerful as I have been led to believe by those vocal 'other siders'.

This shouldn't surprise me, but as I am writing this post, with years of Minecraft education behind me and many times being told I have been doing it wrong and that I should be letting go if I truly want to see the power of Minecraft in education, I feel cheated by the other side. I feel like, inadvertently they have lied to me. I am sure it is not deliberate, but like me, they may not get the opportunity to truly see the other way, and what it looks like, feels like and sounds like and so don't truly understand it, as I have not (and probably still do not fully).

The saying "the grass is always greener on the other side" applies here, I thought that if I could get to the promised land of no restrictions and open ended projects that I would see students reach greater heights than ever before. Now that I have reached it, and found that it is not all that different, my gut feeling is is that using Minecraft in any classroom can be powerful, whether you, as the teacher has control, or whether your students are the ones with control, whether you have a closed project, or an open ended one.

I now have an even stronger belief that it does not matter how you use Minecraft in an educational setting, just that you use it and see what happens, explore the possibilities and actively reflect on what works for you, and what does not, keep iterating and see how far you can push it.

As always, if you managed to get this far, thanks for reading, and more importantly if this has stirred any thoughts, or you have a comment please leave it below, this is something I would like to get a wider range of thoughts on.


  1. I believe that it is as you say above: "As a professional, each individual knows their students, their own limitations, and the limitations of the system they work within best, and because of this they know what is best for their students and themselves." You know your students and your position in the school and what's expected of you. Though I am on the "other side of the fence", I would gladly defer to your sense of what's right in your situation!

    1. Interesting that you put it that way Bob. I think I am coming to the very solid realisation that there is no right and wrong way, and while I have believed it for quite some time, I finally have the "hard" evidence to "prove" it, at least to myself.

      I have never said to anyone (at least that I can remember) that they have used Minecraft incorrectly in their classrooms, yet I have been told that by others, both online and offline. Now while I listened to their opinions and made my own judgements as to how they apply to me and my circumstances, I now have had the opportunity to explore 'their' opinion for myself and find very little difference in outcomes for students.

  2. Very much agree with you, Stephen. We already "let go" of students all the time -- every day at 3pm.

  3. Very much agree with you, Stephen. We already "let go" of students all the time -- every day at 3pm.