Last month, the New York Times Magazine gave some prime real estate—its cover—to a computer game.
Regular readers of this blog might not be surprised to hear that the game was Minecraft. Users of the wildly popular activity design and build complex landscapes out of virtual blocks, avoiding monsters and competition along the way. The level of problem solving and creativity the game demands has earned the admiration of educators as well as parents who might otherwise shun video games.
In his cover story, writer Clive Thompson presents Minecraft as a tool for 21st century learning. It challenges players to tackle any problem that comes their way, employing out-of-the-box ideas and persevering in the face of challenges.
“It’s a world of trial and error and constant discovery,” Thompson writes. The game is so open-ended that players can do something akin to programming it themselves. “Minecraft encourages kids to get under the hood, break things, fix them. … It invites them to tinker.”
Last month we wrote about the potential and perils of putting kids in charge of their own learning. Some iconoclasts claim kids can go it alone so long as they have the right tools, while others see promise in self-directed learning that is guided by adult mentorship.
Minecraft is a testament to what kids can do on their own. Thompson gives us snapshots of an 11-year-old boy who exploits the random movement of a Minecraft-world cow creature in order to booby-trap his friends, and a fifth-grade girl who solves a circuitry problem that was inhibiting her gameplay. (With 40 percent of its players being female, Minecraft has reached an audience that is typically underrepresented in the tech scene.) There are no instructions or “help” sections in Minecraft, Thompson explains, so kids are forced to explore and trouble-shoot themselves. It’s an empowering task most game players aren’t given in an era of sleek, user-friendly tech.
But the complex game has also given rise to a different dynamic. Beyond just teaching themselves, kids are taking the initiative to teach others. The game “offers many opportunities to display expertise, when you uncover a new technique or strategy and share it with peers,” Thompson writes. It is common for young players to record their own tutorial videos, upload them to YouTube, and share them with their friends.
“Connected learning,” a new model that capitalizes on a young person’s immersion in digital technology to encourage curiosity, also promotes “peer-to-peer learning.” The theory posits that putting students in the role of the teacher—be it for a single activity or an entire semester—builds confidence and social bonds. It is empowering for a young person to realize they possess knowledge or experience that is valuable to others. And the advent of social media has made it especially easy for young people to share advice and pose questions to their peers.
In an authentic learning environment, young people are given opportunities to pursue their interests, which requires a reevaluation of traditional teaching structures, said cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito in a CLTV webinar in 2013.
“Kids talk about how different it is to get critiqued by someone in a more formal position versus a fellow passionate obsessive about their area of interest,” said Ito, co-founder of Connected Camps, where hundreds of kids play Minecraft together.
In California, high school student Shilpa Yarlagadda found that she best understood a confusing concept when it was explained to her by a friend who had struggled with it as well. The teenager co-founded Club Academia, a site where students could upload their own tutorial videos. (The videos were vetted by teachers before they were published.)
“I really believe that the best people to solve problems are the people who face them,” Yarlagadda told KQED. “In the field of education, those people are students, and I think it’s unfortunate that we’re often left out of the conversation.”
On the CLTV webinar moderated by Ito, educators discussed the challenges of bringing peer-to-peer learning into a classroom. When students have the steering wheel, one teacher said, they tend to drive a bit off the curricular course. Another said educators have to make sure the same students don’t always dominate the lessons.
Regardless of what it looks like, peer-to-peer learning requires some scaffolding from adult mentors, said Paul Oh, then a senior program associate at the National Writing Project. But when it is well-organized, he said, it is a powerful framework.
Most adults have also had the rewarding experience of teaching something to a colleague or friend. Maybe you have to re-teach yourself something first, or recall how it first clicked for you—but in the process of explaining it, you are likely to understand the concept even better yourself, get a confidence boost, and feel good about spreading your knowledge.
For kids, who are rarely in positions of authority, these feelings are magnified.