If Vygotsky played Minecraft

A post from my first ever blog hotmilkydrink.typepad.com from August 2014. Content of which I think is still very much of interest for prospective teachers:

Last week my daughters were playing with their friends. As a group they were all working together to make a movie and their efforts were industrious, noisy and committed. I listened in on their chitter-chatter and I could hear them make the story up as they went along and as the story unfolded, and as great ideas sprung to mind, they shared and accommodated them and collectively created their masterpiece! At one point there was a disagreement and so I, being the skilled adult who knows better, intervened and suggested that they storyboard their movie and plan it in advance. I mean, that’s how we make movies isn’t it, that is the received/perceived wisdom from the educated educator who thinks they are skilled in such matters? The reaction from them was thought provoking. They told me, “No thanks, this is much better and loads more fun than all that planning stuff!” (at least that was the gist of their response!) Remember the context for all of this: school holidays, children out playing, freedom to act as children – they weren’t in school…

A few months back I was dragged to the cinema by my youngest daughter to see The Lego Movie. Now, this was something I wasn’t too pleased about however within ten minutes I was captivated by the absolute aesthetic beauty of the thing, it’s charisma and charm and its developing plot-line that had me totally  hooked. The plotline saw the main character Emmet become ‘the special’ who was doing his utmost, and who seemed destined to, defeat the evil power of President Business whose dark intention was to gets his destructive Lego paws on the super weapon called the Kragle. In doing so President Business would rule the Lego world forever and ever! As the film roller-coasted to its climax it cut away from the animation to a real life scene – *Film spoiler alert* – that showed a young boy in the basement of his house playing with all the Lego characters and pieces that were featured in the movie…the plot line was all from the boys creative imagination as he played with the Lego figures. He had mashed up all the different Lego kits, ignoring the plans and instructions that came with them, and created his own wonderful creative story that just flowed and flowed from him. However, the Lego basement was the domain of his father and he had deemed the basement and the Lego to be out of bounds for his son! It was his Lego, it had been built, it wasn’t to be touched, the plans and the instructions had been followed – the pieces glued down… Keep out all ye who dare not follow the plan!!!

But, the boy is discovered in the basement by his dad!  Here is their conversation:

I gave a gasp of joy and delight when I realised that the Kragle was the lid of the glue, the lid that would stop the plans and instructions from always setting the agenda, that would allow the conditions for wonderful stories and ideas to flourish and that would end the culture of things being glued down, plans and instructions being adhered to. “Put the lid on the glue President Business!” I exclaimed along with my daughter!

Put the lid on the glue. What a metaphor I thought for my experience and my ongoing reflective thinking as a teacher and educator. For years I have been influenced by my observations of children as they played computer games and as I did so I would always be impressed with how they displayed a natural ability to learn on their own and with others. These observations allowed me to lead a significant effort to promote the use of such child-centered contexts in formal educational settings however the lid of the glue, so to speak, was kept in the cupboard marked plans and instructions by some our very own President Business’ in Scotland with their mobilisation of bias agenda! Anyway, enough moaning about that and on to more important matters…

Such experiences where children show their innate ability to think and to learn without the qualified adult supervision that dominates our thinking about children and learning is continuing to make me rethink the role of a teacher and in particular our reliance on and almost uncritical adherence to a specific aspect of learning theory that is used to justify the teacher/ learner dynamic.

The teacher learner dynamic is one that appears to be heavily predicated on the social constructivist theory of Lev Vygotsky and in particular what he calls the Zone of Proximal development. In teacher education this is used to frame a theoretical underpinning that almost justifies the instruction dynamic to some extent. It argues that the ZPD is

the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.

Now, in some cases I see this. The apprenticeship model is one that I fully appreciate and is one that would I feel allow itself to be informed by this particular theory by Vygotsky however I am ill at ease at using this to help inform and articulate my own thinking about children and learning particularly in view of how I have seen young children master the complex world of Nintendogs at age 5 or by what I see when I observe children learning together as they play Minecraft or even when they are making a movie in the summer holidays. It is generally the case that there isn’t someone who is the more skilled or experienced participant/leader. Yes there will always be a group dynamic but as far as I can see the children do tend to self-organise quite effectively without the intervention of a teacher who, for example, places them in roles in their ‘co-operative learning groups’. Hands up who wants to be time-keeper?! Yeah, me neither.

If Vygotsky were to play Minecraft for the first time what would he do? If he were to sit down with his own children for the first time and where neither of them were the more skilled or experienced how would they learn together, make progress and then reach the heady heights of a glass and gold palace with flushing toilets in every room with a creeper trap at the front door and a redstone circuited rollercoaster to take you up to your pad in the mountains!? How is it that children, very young children in so many cases make such progress and make sense of the complex environments in the world of games and in learning in various other contexts/domains without the adult intervention that we have somehow taken to be the common sense agreed norm? I am seriously beginning to question the way in which we refer to ZPD in teacher education and how we need to recognise, value and celebrate the children as learner a little more than we presently do.

In following and pinning our professional colours to the ZPD mast have we as educators lost sight of the child as a learner? Have we become too directive, managerial and controlling? Are we in real danger of being driven by timetables, uncritical acceptance of theoretical perspectives and the gluing down of learning opportunities to the detriment of the creative nature of the child?

The Lego Movie’s theme song states that everything is awesome. I think our children are. Let’s get that lid on the glue and enable the conditions is school to let them demonstrate just how awesome they really are.

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