With its commitment to providing pathways for talent development, Center for Talent Development (CTD) is constantly thinking about how to move students along a continuum, advancing the knowledge and skills they need to pursue their passions. CTD courses serve as building blocks that help students create their future careers in science, mathematics, writing, the arts or technology.
In order to foster this growth mindset in our students, we, too, are constantly striving to learn and grow. As technology evolves and the world changes, we must build new courses and ways of communicating and connecting with you—the families and educators of bright students who will lead us into the next stages of advancement.
That is exactly how we've spent our winter—learning and growing. We've built a new website. (Please check it out!) We've filmed a video that introduces who we are and what we're about. We've also unveiled new and exciting courses for summer and beyond.
One course we're featuring in this issue isn't new, but it does embody this idea that CTD provides students with cutting-edge, research-proven building blocks. While wooden blocks continue to be an outstanding toy for young children, the older set gets to enjoy Minecraft—all the fun of creating without anyone tripping over the mess.
Minecraft, as you may know, is a video game in which players build pretty much anything, from a Babylonian city to the space shuttle, using 3D blocks. It is one of the most popular video games of all time, and it is an equally impressive teaching tool. Dana Stewart, a CTD instructor, elaborates on its value in "Teaching with Minecraft, One Block at a Time."
We know digital gaming—and how to use new technology effectively—is on your minds, so we plan to expand on this topic in our spring issue. Stay tuned!
With nearly 60 million copies sold, Minecraft is one of the best-selling video games of all time. At Center for Talent Development (CTD), though, Minecraft is a teaching tool. Through it, gifted learners become engrossed in subjects ranging from Ancient Egyptian culture to the scientific method to urban planning and design. So what's the key to turning a kid's free-time obsession into an academic endeavor? And why use a digital game over traditional teaching methods, anyway?
|Minecraft Coding Project by CTD Student|
Dana Stewart, an instructor for Minecraft courses at CTD, believes the reports on the many skills and subjects that can be learned through Minecraft. In her mind, though, one of best aspects of using Minecraft is the way that it breaks down the barrier of entry into any new activity. "If you're introducing a new math concept and you give kids a worksheet, that can seem impenetrable and scary," she says. "If you present it through a game that they are excited about and comfortable with, kids are willing to do almost anything."
Created in 2009 by Swedish programmer Markus "Notch" Persson and officially released in 2011, Minecraft is a "sandbox" style game in which players build anything imaginable out of 3D blocks. Creative, survival and adventure modes offer varying levels of challenge, but all of them can be addicting. Minecraft has gained such popularity that there are t-shirts, books, online forums, conferences, camps and YouTube stations dedicated to it.
Its following among educators is nearly as feverish. Mind/Shift calls it the Teachers' Ultimate Multi-Tool, and MinecraftEdu is a big business dedicated to bringing Minecraft into classrooms. According to its site, over 3,000 teachers in 40+ countries have used MinecraftEdu to teach subjects from STEM to languages, history and art.
MinecraftEdu is the place to go, Stewart says, for lesson plans and ideas on how to harness Minecraft's teaching potential. "The possibilities are endless," she says. "MinecraftEdu is also a great community, so you can go in and say, 'I want to use Minecraft to teach X; how should I do it?' and get great responses."
As Stewart has taught different types of courses in Minecraft the past few years, she has learned five steps toward harnessing the learning potential of digital games.
|Minecraft Town by CTD Student|
It is well accepted that Minecraft fosters visual/spatial reasoning, collaboration and problem-solving skills. While those abilities can be obtained through free play, the best way to ensure learning, Stewart says, is to prepare for it.
"If someone just sits down to play Minecraft and you ask me what they're learning, it would be hard to say," says Stewart. "You have to go into it with a plan."
The plans for CTD's Minecraft courses vary, but they always enrich student learning by not only facilitating creative Minecraft play, but also sneakily weaving in subject matter teaching. In some of Stewart's courses, she covers many subjects, while in others, she dives deep into just one. "In one of my MinecraftEdu classes, we talk about a different topic each week," she says. "One week it might be ancient Rome or Egypt; the next it's the scientific method, and the next could be learning basic computer coding concepts with an activity like MinecraftEdu’s Pixel Art Coding."
In Stewart's Design Studio: Cities in Minecraft course, offered through the Saturday Enrichment Program, students spend eight weeks solely on urban planning." One of the things we do is discuss the challenges present in turn of the century Chicago and learn about how Daniel Burnham proposed solutions. Students then use these concepts to improve on city maps in Minecraft, working with both pre-established societies and brand new cities of their own design" explains Stewart. "Afterwards, students reflect on the process and compare/contrast what they did with what Daniel Burnham did, recalling and integrating new vocabulary and knowledge."
Having subject matter objectives expands students' understanding of the possibilities within Minecraft and enhances their learning and playing experience.
Once a teacher sets the course objectives, it's important for students to follow suit each class period. Kids can spend hours playing Minecraft for fun, but playing productively is the key to learning.
On the first day of class, Stewart tells students, "If I ever stand behind your computer and ask what you're doing, please have an answer. If you say,' I don't know,' we have a problem. If you don't have a goal, how do you know that you've done anything?"
Having a goal in mind also prevents students from squandering a class period. "When I first started teaching Minecraft, I didn't know what was mind-numbing and what wasn't, but I quickly learned," says Stewart. "You can waste a lot of time changing armor and adjusting your look. I don't stand for that."
To help drive home the idea of goal setting, Stewart has students write down their plans, often conferring with peers, before setting them free in the game.
|Student-made Area for Experiments|
While many teachers have to overcome students' low expectations for a course, Stewart has the opposite problem. Kids excitedly enter her class thinking they'll get to play Minecraft just like they do at home. Ironically, it is the kids who know the most about the game who sometimes struggle.
"Kids who are well-versed in Minecraft can have a hard time because they are asked to play the game but also follow specific guidelines," says Stewart. To succeed, they need to change how they interact with the game. "They will say, 'This is different than what I've done before, but okay, it's Minecraft, so I'll try it,'" Stewart says.
One might think that Stewart would have to manage expectations classmates have of each other, too, given that some students are much more experienced with the game than others. But Stewart says those discrepancies have actually led to more learning and collaboration. "In my experience with CTD students, the kids with more Minecraft experience are very eager to share that knowledge in an approachable way," Stewart says. "This mirrors the online Minecraft community," she adds. "Minecraft doesn't come with an instruction book, so from the beginning players are encouraged to help each other out."
As students start to work together on challenges, Stewart witnesses active, engaged learning at its best. "Their eyes light up. They get really focused, and they accomplish some amazing things!" says Stewart.
The Mind/Shift Guide to Digital Games and Learning hypothesizes that engagement is "an absolutely critical condition for learning." If that is the case, conditions are ripe for learning in Stewart's courses.
Finally, to ensure the full value of students' Minecraft building adventures, Stewart asks students to reflect on and articulate what they've done and learned. They do this in writing for every assignment, as indicated by this example from a story-writing activity in Minecraft. Additionally, students give an oral presentation on the last day of class.
Stewart spends a good amount of time preparing kids for their presentations. "I typically start by asking them, 'Do you think it's possible that you would talk about Minecraft so much that it would annoy people?' and at least six people immediately raise their hands."
Next, she coaches students to understand their audience. Her biggest piece of advice? "Slow down!" she says with a laugh. "I tell them, 'Whatever you're working on, you need to move slower so that people can follow you. Secondly, think about how you're going to explain what you've done so that people will like it and want to play Minecraft, too."
Intrigued by Minecraft as a teaching tool? Want to give it a try? Whether you're a parent or educator, check out Stewart's Scientific Method activity, designed for kids in grades 3 and 4, and see for yourself what engaged learning can accomplish. Let us know how it goes for you!
For more on Minecraft, check out these blog posts on KQED’s Mind/Shift.