Monday, 21 November 2016

Blocked: Minecraft and the taboos in education

'Hello we're Ofsted'
If you want to know how to upset the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time, I can recommend saying- when asked- that you think using games like Minecraft in the classroom is a bit gimmicky and you can’t see much of a point to it. Cue: Boss level carnage on my inbox all day. And what it reveals about education is itself revealing.

Friday. I get a message from the Sunday Times asking if I had any views on Minecraft, the popular Microsoft world-building game, as an educational tool (the hook being that a special educational version was being launched. Every story needs a relevance hook). You bet I do, I said. I thought it was a bit gimmicky. I’d seen a few classes use them, and I wasn’t inspired. Students seemed to be as occupied with the mechanics of playing Minecraft as they were with the content of the lesson. To me, that seemed like displacement; rather than drilling down deeply into a topic, time in the classroom, and attention space in the students’ heads appeared to be spent on playing the game. Some content was covered, but it seemed a huge faff to get there. And there didn’t seem to be much evidence that it was more useful than cheaper, simpler alternatives, like just teaching them. I wrote a few chapters about this in my last book Teacher Proof.

And I said that. I think there are a lot of activities we use in classrooms that share this problem. Superficially they seem to interest pupils, but it’s more because they act as a seductive distraction rather than a supplement to the lesson, like turning the Gettysburg address into a Manga strip or something. Kids might spend happy hours (or not) drawing Abe Lincoln as a Japanese hero, but that’s a long road indeed to learn about the 16th President.

I have no issue with hooks; I use hooks all the time- culturally relevant landmarks that act as seasoning for the meat of what we’re covering. In my philosophy class I used to show 30 seconds from X-factor or similar, then use it as way to discuss Virtue Ethics or Kant. But that was a heartbeat. Activities that invite students to think for an extended period about something other than what is being learned- and I mean something trivial, like the workings of a computer game- is time wasted.

This matters. This really matters. Because I’m used to teaching students who don’t get a second chance at education; who (whether they know it or not) rely on education as their lifeline into alternate futures. Into literacy, jobs, opportunities. I take that seriously. Anything that wastes that opportunity is a crime against a child, against their options. And theft from the already poor is a felony. Many of them can’t afford tutors or catch-up classes, or bags of cultural capital. For them, education is their life boat.

A level Philosophy, 2046
So that’s something in my opinion I observed with many gaming platforms. I’m not anti-tech in education. I’ve seen many uses front and back of house, that help schools and classrooms operate. But this appears to me to be a serious issue. There are some brilliant tech writers in this field. Read Donald Clarke, a UK educationalist who is both passionate about tech integration but rigorous in his quest for evidence bases to back it up. Or in the US, Larry Cuban, who is a similar mix of enthusiasm and scepticism. Both are excellent and simultaneously Cassandras and Pollyannas to the tech sphere.

Secondly, there’s the issue of evidence bases. I run researchED, an organisation dedicated to the better use of research and evidence in all levels of education. And one thing that repeatedly strikes me about the ed-tech sector, is how, often, products are sold on the basis of claims of extraordinary efficacy. Remember Brain Training games? All the rage a few years back, with claims they would keep your brain healthy or something. No evidence for it, but get those units shifted boys. They often get caught our when they make claims that are too specific, so many instead move onto intangibles that people also want. Things like ‘engagement.’

Engagement is great. Every teacher wants their students engaged, focussing hard on what is being taught. We know that focus is a big part of learning. But engagement by itself is a poor proxy for learning. As Daniel Willingham says, ‘Memory is the residue of thought.’ Which means, we remember that which we think about. Which is a problem if you’re teaching, say, the Tudor Kings, but for half the time in the classroom your students are thinking about collecting digital rings and power-ups, or building a pyramid with blocks. They might look fascinated, but what are they thinking about- Henry VIII, or blocks?

From Willingham:

‘Anticipate what your lesson will lead students to think about. The direct relationship between thought and memory is so important that it could be used as a self-check for a teacher preparing virtually any assignment: Always try to anticipate what students will be thinking when they are doing the assignment. Doing so may make it clear that some assignments designed with one purpose in mind will achieve another. For example, a teacher once told me that, as part of a unit on the Underground Railroad, he had his students bake biscuits so that they would appreciate what escaped slaves ate most nights. He asked what I thought of the assignment and my reply was that his students will remember baking biscuits. In other words, his students probably thought for 30 seconds about the relation of the baking to the course material, and then spent 30 minutes thinking about measuring flour, mixing dough, and so on.
 Another example comes from my recent observation of my nephew as he completed a book report. The teacher asked the students to draw a poster that depicted all of the events of the book. The purpose of the assignment was to have students think of the book as a whole, and to consider how the separate events related to one another. This purpose got lost in the execution. My nephew spent a lot more time thinking about how to draw a good castle than he did about the plot of the book.’

And from Professor Rob Coe from Durham University:

'Poor Proxies for Learning:
• Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
• Students are engaged, interested, motivated• Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
• Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
• Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form)
• (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently)' 

In other words, these things might be desirable in themselves, but by themselves they don't tell us if students are learning.

So we should select our activities with care. If we use a game platform we need to ask ‘Will this benefit my students in a tangible way that can be measured?’ Grade increase, attendance, something. If the answer is ‘no’ then how do you know it’s working? The second question, just as important is, ‘Even if something is happening, is it worth the time spent on it that could be spent doing something else?’ In other words, maybe your students all leave the lesson knowing the Tudor Kings off by heart. But if it took a whole term to get there and you could have done it through other methods, then the cosy may outweigh the benefits.

I spent a lot of time being told by people that ‘This works you idiot! Go back to the 1950s!’ but very little time being directed to evidence beyond ‘I say so.’ But the burden of proof lies with the claimants.

Show me the Bit Coin

And as far as I can see, there just isn’t a solid evidence base to substantiate the claims that many of these platforms make. Saying ‘My kids love it though’ isn’t nothing, but it’s not substantive proof either. When I was a rookie teacher, I had a brainwave: when we were studying Mandalas (a religious symbol or art piece designed to be impermanent), their homework would be to go home and make one. Some would come back with cakes shaped like Jesus and Buddha and so on. Delicious, and they adored doing it, but terrible, terrible homework, a complete waste of their time. Just because they love it, doesn’t mean they’re learning. It’s fine to have strong gut feelings about what is and isn’t working in your classroom, but in order to avoid these biases, we need scalable, replicable research to guide us. 

I might be wrong. Minecraft might be the saving of our kids. They might all go out and colonise Mars with their mad Minecraft skills. But until there’s any evidence base to suggest it, it’s wise to be sceptical. And I thought my scepticism was pretty measured. I wouldn’t  ban it in classrooms, had I even such a Genie-like power, but I think teachers need to have these kinds of conversations, otherwise we don’t deserve to be called a profession.

Digital Dummies and Cyber Prams

The online reaction was extraordinary though. For the second time this week I’ve been struck by how passionately some people cling to their beliefs, and how viciously they’ll defend them from the slightest scrutiny. The kick back was breath taking from where I sat, I assure, you. ‘You must be a fucking moron’ was the general (and in some cases literal) thrust. Once again, people were ‘reporting me’ to the DfE, even though I don’t work for them (their hotline staff must be getting pretty sanguine about it. ‘Yeah hello DfE? No….no he doesn’t work here….noo…’). ‘Unfit to work with children’ ‘Completely out of touch’ ‘Gradgrindian bollockry’ etc. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, like a ticker tape of people demonstrating the 21st century maxim of ‘I disagree with you so I am entitled to speak to you like dog shit.’

It made me pretty sad, again. Most of the worst comments were from non-teachers (am I surprised any more?), gaming enthusiasts who had a strangely robust confidence in their opinions about teaching and learning, and people with kind of scary avatars. Fair enough; I used to read a lot of comics and play Dungeons and Dragons, I get geek subculture. Even a childhood hero, Ian Livingstone (legend of Warlock on Firetop Mountain fame) had a pop, which marks, I think, the last leaf falling from the tree of my innocence. Journalists for gaming magazines, CEOs of edtech firms, edupreneur digital gurus, a huge, apparently infinite conga line of people who love both computer games and calling me an idiot for disagreeing with them.

Well it works for me

I had a lot more time for the teachers who used Minecraft and told me how useful they found it. I had even more time for people who told me how much impact it had on their autistic pupils or family members. It’s still personal anecdote but it least it suggests areas of enquiry, possibilities for the future. I was pretty clear: I’m not anti- all uses of this kind of tech, and I’d be delighted to see it help people. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as either Hume or Hitchens used to say, and claims made for these kinds of platforms are often extraordinary.

I’ve often felt that you know you’ve touched on a real problem when nobody wants to discuss it, or wants to let you criticise the status quo. And that’s what I found here. Some tech claims are so wild, so na├»ve, so radical, that people are scared to contest them. The ever-increasing integration of tech into classrooms is assumed. And I think teachers need to query that; need to say ‘where’s the evidence?’ a lot more. That shouldn’t be controversial. But it was. It really was. I stood in a wind tunnel of scorn today that made Storm Angus seem like a squall. Just for saying that we needed to be more sceptical of yet another platform that promises big and costs dollar. I wonder why that is?

There is a lot of money in education. Tech firms would like some of it. And that’s not entirely a bad thing- if they can come up with products with utility that are efficient and appropriate. But I won’t apologise to anyone for asking for better evidence, and for a better deal for teachers and students in the classroom. I hope we can have this conversation without such pointless controversy and pearl clutching. I think it's a debate worth having, because I think what teachers do is valuable, I think children's lives are priceless, and it matters what we do to make a difference to them. 

Game Over. 

Further reading:

Here's an interesting blog from Greg Ashman to suggest some ways why it might not work as well as its proponents hope:


  1. I do believe much more discussion is needed on the use of tech in classrooms. I'm a proponent, but only if used intelligently.

    I've seen some benefits in gaming driven education; SumDog and Lumio at my son's school, the latter being quite impressive at visualising the conceptual stuff, rather than just practising simple arithmetic.

    I see the visualisation of abstract concepts as a central opportunity with the Minecraft (or similar) platform. Voxel technologies were, as I understand it, specifically designed to help the medical profession to see the hitherto unseeable. Why would this not also be enlightening for students?

    Even just the Minecraft map teaches a cartesian coordinate system, number lines including negative numbers. Surely -3 is pretty believable when your character is standing right on it, and -5 seems like a realistic place to head to. It suddenly becomes a lot less abstract.

    More broadly, aside from Minecraft, but an interesting example, most people would consider General Relativity a difficult subject to grasp intuitively. This isn't surprising, since we live our lives more or less stationary relative to the speed of light. I saw a 3D demo that allowed the player to drive around a world where the speed of light was simulated at something like 30mph. It was fascinating to see relativistic effects on (virtually) real-world objects.

    I'd be inclined to believe, had I studied physics, that such visualisations would have played a fundamental role in my subsequent understanding of the equations of Einstein & co.

  2. I'd like to eduFolk to think of the parents i.e. do more than pay the usual lip-service to [partnership | engagement | involvement | whatever] on this and some other school-side uses of tech which affects us at home.

    My child is in Y9 so all of the gadgets and online stuff began arriving in her KS2 and although some parents might not care, every one of the many parents I now know is struggling with it. From a child's perspective the use of a game like MineCraft in lessons is a strong, authoritative endorsement (ye olde "But my teacher Miss Faddish says...") of something many of us are finding difficult to time-limit at home and that can involve some serious domestic ding-dongs. Not what you want after both parents have had hard days at t'mill in order to stay on top of 21st century mortgage sizes etc. I think there needs to be enough credible evidence of enough efficient and genuinely educational benefits to also offset at-home cries of "But it's educational!" and the occasional “I HATE YOU!” when it has escalated to parents just switching things off.

  3. Hi Tom, I did ask on twitter ...
    "confused. Are you saying MC is no good, there is no evidence that it is good or we should only do things when evidence is here"
    "if you could ref your original comments it would be helpful"

    but I can understand that you were inundated with a wide variety of comments you were handling (even if it was simply 'filing' them in an appropriate place).

    This blog post does give far more depth to the background of the story and raises again that whenever anyone talks to someone else, who intends to publish what you say, you can never trust them to give the same focus that was in your head at the time.

    Part of the problem is the risk-taking approach that happens within education that ranges from people looking for a magic bullet without putting the effort in to find out if they have a gun to fire it with all the way through to those who take the risk on a hunch because they have found that their hunches work out pretty well in the long term.

    I tend to sit in the latter area, but coming from a service management and project management arena now I also wrap it with measurements to see if the actions had impact and whee they what was expected (this also plays on my background before working in/with schools though).

    It is not a research-based approach but something more agile and that comes from the sectors I now work with, delivering tools to schools instead of helping schools choose them.

    With no Becta ICT Test Bed, or Becta Research Network, the central focus goes to personal agendas set up by those running the grass roots generated groups and this is what I see in many places.

    However, a thing that frustrates me is where I see the term non-teacher as a reference point and knocking others for their opinions. I'm not saying this is how you have used it, but I can see that his is how others cold take it (either as an insult or as something reinforcing a particular viewpoint in a negative way).

    Sometimes it is used for someone working in education doing roles other than classroom teaching, whether tech support, pastoral support or even librarians ... sometimes it is used for people not working in schools at all, as if schools are the only place that learning takes place, forgetting the range of coaches, instructors, CPD managers that are both qualified and experienced.

    In the same way I would agree that people need to think more carefully about responding to soundbites, ensuring that the headlines actually portray the full context of what was said, I usually ask people to think about the skills, knowledge and expertise of those not based in the classroom day in, day out ... and consider what they say before stereotyping.

    Finally I would say that a balance is needed between evidence-based adoption and innovations. Technology changes so quickly, but the goals we are trying to achieve either jump too much due to political instigation or move very slowly because the world is still trying to adapt to changes.

    Is there a balance to be had? Do we have to look at other sectors to get some ideas on how it is done? If we keep it purely within education, and those at the chalk-face at that, are we risking it becoming a silo?

    Ideas on a postcard (or email or tweet).