Category Archives: 3.4 Prof. Reflection & Commitment

Keeping the Dream Alive

I was asked to write a response to Tom Bennett’s comment piece in the TES about how he thought that the use of computer games such as Minecraft in Education was ‘gimmicky‘. My response was written in early December 2016 however it was published in the TESS today. Here is the unedited version:

My Christmas playlist will soon be pulled out and its number two track (you can’t top Mario Lanza’s command of vibrato in It Came Upon a Midnight Clear) is the 12 inch version of Keeping the Dream Alive by Freiheit. Twitter can be a most useful place to share ideas, resources and perspectives and it was through Tom Bennett’s sharing of the extended version of this song last year that I came to love it even more. Don’t pretend you don’t know the chorus!:

The hopes we had were much too high;
Way out of reach, but we have to try.
The game will never be over,
Because we’re keeping the dream alive.

In view of the recent storm around Tom’s critical observations of what he describes as the ‘gimmicky use of games’, and in particular Minecraft in schools, I thought that this lyric was most apposite. Let me channel the spirit of Freiheit in to the debate; is it wrong to have dreams in education, to have high hopes for ourselves as teachers and for our learners? Aren’t there those of us in education who also add rigour and realism to the dreams we have about ensuring better outcomes for our learners? Can we not be trusted to make appropriate professional judgements about new ideas we may want to explore without the need for an established research base to affirm and validate it? Is it really, as Tom says, Game Over for the debate or can we keep the Minecraft dream alive?

A few years back I talked at a number of international events and conferences about the game based learning initiatives that I was leading in Scotland in which we partnered a large number of schools in the use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) games such as Nintendogs, Guitar Hero, Mario Kart and Professor Layton.  Our methodology was to position COTS games as a ‘contextual hub’ around which a skilled teacher would appropriately craft and structure the learning. To inform this methodology we established a rationale that was embedded in theoretical perspectives such as Gee’s semiotic domains and situated learning, Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Shulman’s Signature Pedagogies.  At these conferences I would always be asked, “Do you think Nintendo will ever make an educational game?” My response was that they already did and that what was at the heart of the matter was that we as educators were so set in a dynamic that positioned us as the dominant partner in the learning relationship in such a way that we looked on learners’ digital interests as frivolous and trivial, as Tom stated. I feel that this is the very same with Minecraft. Minecraft was already educational so why do we feel the need to add the EDU or Education tag to such resources? You know, learners of all abilities have owned this domain for years now and therein have been building the Taj Mahal, Minas Tirith and Hogwarts in breathtaking detail. The low-floor and high-ceiling level of complexity in this trivial game is quite extraordinary but the associated learning culture that seems to have grown from Minecraft is what interests me most as an educator. We are seeing primary aged children utilising the web to connect and learn with and from their peers, hosting their own servers, learning how to mod and to programme redstone; they are using video capture cards to create their own tutorials and managing their own YouTube channels. This rich learning culture that has grown over the past few years, independent of the intervention or guidance of the teacher, is what we should really be focusing on, not teaching teachers to last the first night in survival mode!

Secondly, the recent colonisation of the Minecraft domain by the, well- meaning, ed tech adult and edupreneur consultant is, in my view changing the nature of what Minecraft is. Although there are some really interesting and dare I say good uses of Minecraft out there such as our recent Massively Minecraft inspired Minecraft On the Waterfront project in Dundee, the BBC Build It Scotland initiative and the Mindrising project in Ireland I do think that Tom has a point about ‘gimmicky’ uses. For example, have you seen the 1940s London terraced street Minecraft Education download that asks learners to build an Anderson shelter or the 100 number square download that would have learners fly to the answer of 6 x 8? Or to ask children to write out their times tables in blocks or to use blocks to show what 2/3s of a whole looks like. For me, such examples are not just gimmicky but evidence of how we can’t help but culturally appropriate and possibly denature such learner owned digital spaces in our hard wired desire to reframe and assimilate them into our established expectations of learning. In this regard, I do sometimes wonder if Minecraft, brilliant as it is, will ever fit the paradigm of learning in school.

Tom asks for the research evidence to support games such as Minecraft’s use in schools but surely he will acknowledge that the nature of educational research can be slow and when you consider the pace of change with technology and how resources can come into and out of vogue pretty quickly it does mean that there might not specifically be a research base to validate and affirm your choice to use a game such as Pokémon Go or Minecraft. What teachers can and will do though is establish, as we did, a theoretical frame that helps inform their skilled crafting and appropriate use of a game.

Tom also asks for the research evidence for those Brain Training games that ‘were all the rage a few years back and that were meant to keep your brain healthy or something’. Well to help him in this regard I ask that he read the two papers from myself and Professor David Miller about our interventions with Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training that were published in the British Journal of Educational Technology.  The second one was a randomised-control-trial that we did in an effort to explore the scalability issue he raised. We did this work in schools that were mostly in areas of multiple deprivation because we too, like Tom, believe that our children are priceless and we want to do what we can to contribute to better outcomes for all of our children. 

I don’t think that the hopes the education community has for the use of games like Minecraft are too high. Maybe the most effective practice is out of reach for many us, at this time, but we have to try to get there and I’m sure many teachers will. Critical engagement in the debate around how we do this is fundamental to our growth as a collegiate education community and the questions raised by Tom, in my view, are a much valued and important part of this.

Game over? I don’t think it is, and to paraphrase Freiheit, the game can never be over because there are far too many teachers out there keeping their informed dreams for the use of digital tools such as Minecraft alive.



The Shape Detective says Teacher Education is Good

In the not so distant past, I, as a fresh faced teacher education student was introduced to the idea of context creation as a way to create a framework that could make learning accessible, relevant exciting and purposeful. At that time there were two documents that were being used to articulate the thinking behind context creation and that explored the tensions between and benefits of a thematic approach to learning and a subject specific one. These documents were Mr Togs the Tailor and Some Aspects of Thematic Work. These inputs proved to be hugely influential for me and I came away from them convinced of the efficacy of the arguments for context creation and captivated by the prospect of creating the conditions for learning where I could ‘suspend children’s disbelief’ in order to take them places with me as we all learned together. I subsequently made this approach an integral part of my professional practice and from the mid 1990s onwards I created contexts such as the Ghost of Charles Dickens which then led on to a whole host of ideas based around, amomngst other things, contextualising computer games and learning

It was with some delight then that I saw, what I think, was a very good example of context creation when I went to carry out an MA4 (Hons) summative visit (a crit in old speak) as part of our assessment procedures. The student in question, Emma Hopkirk, was placed in a P.1 class at Hillisde PS in Dundee. Emma has kindly given me permission to share what I saw with you.

I was ushered in to the class first thing on a Monday morning and took my place at the back to ensure that I had a good view. The professional files were all ready for me to review and I watched as the student (Miss Hopkirk) welcomed the children in to the class. It was clear to me that a very strong relationship had already been established by the student as their was a lovely atmosphere in the room. She sat them on the carpet in front of the whiteboard and then she began her carefully crafted lesson:

Miss Hopkirk: “I was looking through my emails last night and do you know something, I received another email from…
P.1 Class: (Children looking at each other wide eyed and excitedly whispering,”It’s the Shape Detective, it’s the Shape Detective…”)
Miss Hopkirk: Can you guess who?”
P.1 Class: (all in excited unison) THE SHAPE DETECTIVE!!!
Miss Hopkirk: “Yes, the Shape Detective. Will we have a look at his latest video message?”
P.1 Class: (all in excited unison) YES!!!
Miss Hopkirk: “I wonder what he’s got to say…”

At this point I too had bitten the contextual hook that Miss Hopkirk has thrown out to her class and watched intently to see what the Shape Detective has to say in the latest of his video messages to this class…

The video (created by Emma and hosted on her own YouTube channel) appears, tastefully done in a mysterious 1940’s style of flickering black and white. The central character ( a friend’s partner played the Shape Detective) is dressed up as if in a disguised and mysterious fashion with hat, dark glasses and a detective coat! He then proceeds to speak to the children. Here is the video that I saw…

The children were totally captivated by what the Shape Detective had to say. Each and everyone of this P.1 class hung on to every word that was said and their eyes did not flinch from what this mysterious but valued partner in their learning had to say to them.

The video finished and just as it did there was a loud knock at the door. In came the class teacher holding a parcel wrapped in gold (the letters being returned by The Shape Detective)…

Class teacher: “Excuse me Miss Hopkirk but a parcel for P.1 has just arrived.”
P.1 class: (excitedly talking) “That’ll be from the Shape Detective!”
Miss Hopkirk: “Shall we open it?”

You can guess the response.

The lesson then proceeded as Miss Hopkirk then took the children round the activities that she had set up that, just by chance, were exactly linked to what the Shape Detective was asking from them on this latest 3D shape mission! Magic! The children were so on board with what was going on and I even saw some of them jumping up and down and clapping their hands with glee at the prospect of finding out more about 3D shape.

This was teaching.

So many of our students, like Emma, are about to embark on their induction year already at the stage where the are using a range of digital tools and other resources in a confident, thoughtful, creative and purposeful manner to enrich the learning experiences of the the children in the classes they teach.  As our students Graduate from the University of Dundee today I wish them all the very best for their future in teaching. The example of Emma Hopkirk’s practice and so many more of what I have seen from our student teachers affirms my confidence in teacher education and tells me that we are doing so much that is right and that our new teachers will make a huge contribution to ensuring better outcomes for all learners.

If Vygotsky played Minecraft

A post from my first ever blog 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.

Is video freeing us to learn in the way we are meant to?

As part of our efforts to embed purposeful opportunities to explore and develop digital literacy skills in the on-going professional experiences of our MA students at Dundee University we have introduced the eportfolio via a WordPress blog. I talked about this in an earlier post however what I have done since is create and publish a series of video tutorials on a YouTube playlist on my account. The actual process in the creation of these video tutorials is quite straight forward. In essence, if I can create them – so can you.

The University of Dundee has access to ther suite of software that comes via Microsoft’s Dreamspark initiative. Part of the offerings that come with this is Expression. This allows me to screencast  a screen based video tutorial with an audio commentary. Once this is finished the programme encodes the captured video. I then import that into a free programme called Handbrake and export the movie as an .mp4 file. I then simply upload the videos to a playlist on my YouTube channel. Here is an example of one of the videos that I created from my UoDedu MA ePortfolio playlist:

I find that putting yourself in a  conversational frame of mind allows you to take the time to explain what you are doing in a clear and personable fashion – well I hope so!!! In order to do some learning about techniques and approaches to screencasting I logged in to my account via the University Library’s webpage. There I found some great video tutorials about effective screencasting. Well worth a visit and look.

The rise of the medium of video is of great interest to me as both an educator and a learner. Just the other night I watched a video on how to mine for diamonds in Minecraft and then how to measure the frame of a bike (was selling my daughter’s)!!! Both times I watched and I learned – I could do what I had set out to do. The explosion of the Khan Academy, and the culture of YouTube tutorials (many of the kids I worked with recently on my Minecraft research project have capture cards to create their own video tutorials for their YouTube channels) presents us with questions about how we teach children  to be effective communicators in a contemporary world…

Maybe we are hard-wired to watch and learn from each other? Maybe the brief hiatus of the dominance of the written word has briefly interrupted the learning dynamic of showing, demonstrating and watching each other do things? Maybe the technology has finally found itself in concert with how we really learn? If this were the case just think of the ramifications for schools – unblocking YouTube, resourcing the technology to do this, changing the established cultural framework of the written word to the moving image… challenges, challenges, challenges – but challenges we must reflect on.

Screencasting is quite an easy thing to do and I am finding it helpful to access screencasted tutorials as a learner and I am looking forward to finding out if the ones that I create have any impact on learning with my students.

Glow blogs syndication and a new eportfolio

Today I spent some time with John Johnston from Education Scotland (ES) looking at how we can use the syndication feature of WordPress in Glow Blogs to help set up a central sharing hub that would pull in the posts from our MA students new eportfolios. My motivations for this partnership approach with my colleague from ES was three-fold:

  • To mine the expertise, knowledge and support that is afforded by people, like John, who work at a National Level. Support like this from individuals such as John and Con Morris is very much appreciated;
  • To look to use the tools and spaces available in Glow so that we can purposefully embed them in relevant experiences that enrich and enhance professional learning and pedagogical awareness and in so doing help showcase and frame the benefits as opposed to the deficits of a national intranet such as Glow;
  • To help realise the vision that we have within the management team of the MA programme at the University of Dundee to go beyond a professional learning framework system that does not move with the student once they graduate and that also helps develop their digital literacy skills, their ability to professionally reflect and to become a constructively critical collegiate colleague to others.

Learning about the technical possibilities today via a range of plug-ins, themes and other facilities within WordPress was a most enjoyable and worthwhile experience. I now have a clearer vision of how I am going to manage this eportfolio change (away from Blackboard – our University VLE) and what I will need to do to help frame this strategy in such a way that we will be able to address cultural, behavioural and attitudinal change towards digital collegiality in our next cohort of MA1 teacher education students.

The next step for me is to ensure that I am aware of the help materials for Glow Blogs that are available and to ensure that these are embedded in the support materials that I make available to students. More to learn no doubt…

What’s in a Box?

A wee professional lesson learned the other week when talking about the new online storage service Box that the University is making use of. My colleague was suggesting that the staff should use it to access and edit documents however I was saying to stick with Google Drive…not really appreciating what Box offered. Now that I have looked at Box I am convince that it has lots to offer us. Will look at things more closely in future and not rely on just what I know…