Making a game of learning

| 15 Mar 2016 | 10:46

“Hi, welcome to Caedmon School,” said Dylan Fingeroot.

Dylan, a kindergartner, has been his class' ambassador at the East 80th Street school for the past few weeks. He takes great pride in that responsibility. Caedmon, a Montessori-inspired pre-school and elementary school where students are made to feel at home and as if they could accomplish nearly anything, is incorporating video games into their teaching — at the suggestion of students.

Nolan Crohn, a science and technology specialist, heard about the adventure game Minecraft from his students. After wondering what they were talking about, he played, and discovered, on his own. He took a liking to the game, and concluded that it could be a useful teaching tool. Shortly after his discovery, librarian and technology specialist Mary Beth Vrazel, who has had less experience in Minecraft, also decided to bring Minecraft into her classroom.

After just two weeks as part of class lessons, the game became the subject of much conversation among staff, students and even parents. Several students are, however predictably, enthusiastic about playing the game in school. Just as significantly, teachers are thinking through the game's permutations and how those can be further assimilated into the school's mission. Crohn and Vrazel hope to become “Minecraft ambassadors” by the end of the school year and, in turn, help teachers incorporate the game into math, social studies, language arts and science lesson plans.

“The enthusiasm that the teachers have for it, and the kids clearly have for it, is indication of a true learning experience. I think every learning experience should be fun and there should be joy, and working with young kids is all about joy and experience and discovery,” Caedmon's assistant head of school, Lisa Oberstein, said.

Oberstein had heard of Minecraft from her nephews, but when she heard about the game's educational version and the experiences that Crohn and Vrazel had with their students, she became all the more intrigued about the teaching possibilities.

“Looking at digital citizenship as being digital leaders and recognizing that when you are doing something online, it's a real reflection of who you are in real life,” she said. “So, giving kids opportunities to try things out in ways that are not just like Facebook or Instagram ... but really integrating education into something that they've already been studying is super powerful because the kids already love it.”

Minecraft was created by a Swedish video game programmer in 2009 and eventually grew into a multilayered venture that invites players to work together to create complex, imaginative worlds. Recently, a version of the game expressly designed for use in the classroom, MinecraftEdu, has provided an educational remix to the already popular game. MinecraftEdu, composed by teachers for teachers, provides already created worlds and lesson plans. But the site gives teachers free range to create their own worlds, lessons and even rules to the game. Some lessons include learning about volume, recreating stories or settings from novels, crisis management and coding, just to name a few.

Crohn uses the game during a lesson he created about the Inca. Via Minecraft, students are challenged to inhabit the Inca's day-to-day lives in the pre-Columbian empire. The students are set assignments and usernames at the beginning of the class, which, depending on the lesson, change often.

Fifth-grader Karolina Kocica said that she particularly enjoyed the game's “infinite amount of possibilities. “

“You're not just learning, you're learning about nature and the environment. For example, they take the forest so you can access it in your school and you can learn about it like you're there,” she said. “I look at it as a white canvas that you can fill with any color and do anything with”.

Another fifth-grader, Camille Norman, said she was discovering things about Minecraft she had no idea that one could do within the game.

“Mr. Crohn has created a world for us to go and live like the Incas and it's fun and creative,” Camille said.

Crohn says that there are so many possibilities and parallels that match students' interest in Minecraft that the learning aspect sneaks up on them.

During a recent third-grade lesson, Vrazel's pupils were hard at work building longhouses to complement their social studies lesson on Northeastern Native Americas when one was set on fire. An initial moment of chaos and panic turned into a lesson in problem solving and crisis management.

“Some of the things the kids come up with, it's like, 'well, that's a clever way of doing it.' It's really fun. You never know what's going to happen, it's sort of like a real life experience in a virtual world,” Vrazel said.

The game can provide a sense of community for students, who interact with one another inside the classroom as well as within the game's universe. It also inspires teamwork, with students taking different roles and responsibilities within their Minecraft worlds.

Crohn said that when students leave the Caedmon School and further their education elsewhere, the biggest lesson he hopes that they take with them is about digital citizenship and digital community building.

“What you do technologically can effect people just as much if not more as what you do in interpersonal relationships. My hope is that when they are on social media, or texting, or commenting on anything else, that it's not a faceless or anonymous thing,” Crohn said. “It's just like it is if you're working together on Minecraft, there is a real person behind the computer.”

MinecraftEdu proves itself as an easy, fun and exciting learning experience, not only for the students, but for staff. It is a combination of creativity and learning, with few restrictions or limitations. Minecraft could just be the game changing answer to a real learning experience.