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#MinecraftLA: Teaching vs. Learning

Slowly working my way through the questions raised at #MinecraftLA, but I’ve been putting off answering this query:  Q3: Is there a difference between being a teaching tool and a learning tool?

I believe it is because it gets to the question at the heart of what my blog is about:

Is there a difference between teaching and learning?

This morning, I came across two videos on The Brainwaves Video Anthology that address this question.

Vanessa Rodriguez shares a story from her early years of teaching when she followed a student’s lead to make a lesson more meaningful. Her Principal was not happy with her decision and told her to follow the “experts” who design curriculum. She was further challenged to defend, “What is teaching?” That set Rodriguez on her own journey to understand “The Teaching Brian“.

In this interview, Rodriguez digs deeply into the relationship between teaching and learning. She articulates something I have been struggling to describe:

“Teaching is a human interaction. Teaching is not something that can happen in isolation, whereas learning can.

I am fascinated to hear her talk about her journey. We both share curiosity about the same questions surrounding the intersection of teaching and learning. While I’m following the learning to look for answers, Rodriguez is following the teaching.

Rodriguez seeks to understand the ability to teach and how that develops. She explains humans start teaching others as early as 1 1/2 – 2 years old. While she recognizes all humans can teach, the heart of her research is looking at expert classroom teachers. She notes they are at the peak of their teaching development because they are able to teach in an artificial setting. They’re given content and expected to teach it within a specific timeframe. And, they can make what they teach seem seamless and relevant to learners.

The one question I want to ask Ms. Rodriguez is what does the teaching brain look like outside of the artificial construct of school?

When I look at the learning embedded in play, I also observe the informal teaching Rodriguez describes. It’s obvious in makerspaces, hackathons, game jams and social gaming spaces. Both children and adults are absolutely fluid in their roles between teacher and learner without regard to age or status. If you know, you share. If you don’t know, you ask. It’s a beautiful dance.

Can this culture of community-driven informal learning transform formal teaching practices in school?

In his interview, Eric Mazur demonstrate that it can. He shares how he stopped lecturing and started asking questions. Like John Hunter, he talks about the importance of being quiet and letting students grapple with problems themselves. Mazur recognizes the value of peer to peer teaching in mastering content.

I appreciate what both of these scholars bring to this discussion in terms of understanding the relationship between teaching and learning.

How does this all translate to whether Minecraft is a teaching tool or learning tool? Let’s look at the difference between what happens outside of school and compare it to what often happens in school.

Minecraft is a phenomenally successful game with students outside of school. Looking at this success, we observe a self-driven community of learning thriving without any adult supervision or formal construct for instruction in place. Players freely teach each other the ropes. They exchange information, ask questions and share what they know. There is a robust culture of creating tutorials which are posted and shared publicly. Does the lack of a teacher driving the learning diminish the robust learning that is taking place on this space? Of course not!

In fact, when parents complain to me that their child is obsessed with Minecraft, I respond, “Cool! Your child is obsessed with learning!”

What happens when Minecraft goes to school?

As teachers, we too often colonize this game without regard to the native Minecraft culture. We claim it to teach our curriculum without fully investigating or understanding the learning already embedded in that culture.

I recently saw a teacher post a lesson plan to teach graph coordinates by creating art in Minecraft. Pixel art is a long established component of the Minecraft culture. If you don’t believe me, Google it. You will find tons of tutorials created by players of all ages. More importantly, Pixel art is considered a baseline skill.

The problem using Minecraft as a teaching tool is that it constrains the learning to what the teacher understands.

Youth and adults alike are deeply invested in a culture of extreme creativity, experimentation and iterative learning in Minecraft. I’m blown away by the complexity of building, engineering and social organizing I observe. How do we bring that kind of organic teaching and  learning into what Rodrigez refers to as an “artificial” setting? That is the critical question!

Dr. Mazur and Ms. Rodriquez both hold clues: Ask questions, give students space to figure it out for themselves. Respect that everyone can teach. That will help us, as teachers, create the same model of learning and teaching in school that is happening naturally in the culture of Minecraft outside of school.

Don’t take my word on any of this. Cue to: 5:52 to hear what students have to say about bringing this extraordinary game into the classroom.

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