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Strong Emotions about TOK

photo: Adam Clark

photo: Adam Clark

I started the year feeling slightly worried about IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK). This is the first semester I’ve been incorporating some of the recent changes to the program, including the addition of “Indigenous Knowledge Systems“, a new Area of Knowledge (AOK) which I felt strangely uncomfortable about or perturbed by upon first hearing of it. I’ve spent a lot of time (too much, probably) trying to figure out just what made me skeptical about that particular new AOK. Was it the potentially divisive idea that “modern” and indigenous peoples use completely different systems of knowledge? I’m still not sure.

However, as the semester has gotten rolling, I’ve been reminded repeatedly that TOK is one of my very favorite classes ever. I was asked to give a presentation on History as an Area of Knowledge to the Grade 12s yesterday (picture above), which was quite energizing (for me, that is – the students might differ). Another of the exciting things happening this year is the development of a blended learning / online course platform to accompany the TOK curriculum by my colleague Adam Clark. It’s been quite interesting to be involved even peripherally in this new endeavor.

Then there are my students, who have already impressed me with their insight and ability to make interesting connections – for example, last week we got into an impromptu discussion about why people think some houses are haunted; I think the discussion probably involved serious consideration of all the Ways of Knowledge and Areas of Knowledge at some point (yes, even Indigenous Knowledge Systems). It’s great to use TOK as a chance to step outside of the narrower perspective of a single academic area to get the chance to hear what students think about topics they’re personally interested in.

Students investigating forced perspective and visual illusions as part of a look at Sense Perception

Students investigating forced perspective and visual illusions as part of a look at Sense Perception.

I don’t have any big point to make here – I just wanted to share the fact that I’m really enjoying TOK so far this year and some of the reasons why. I’m even starting to warm up to my old bugbear, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and in any case my grappling with it is sure to turn out to be an opportunity for learning. My main emotion (an often underrated Way of Knowing) on the topic of TOK this year is definitely excitement.

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Fieldwork and Classwork

I’ve been extremely impressed by the variety of uses we’ve already found for the iPads in a very short time, and by how meaningful and constructive those uses have been. I don’t have a lot to say that wasn’t covered by Rebekah’s excellent post, but here are a few Vines of the 7th graders (and a few curious 6th graders) using their iPads for assorted acts of learning and creation.

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Minecraft Mania – Course 5 Final Project Reflection

I’d like to briefly describe the project under consideration at the start here: it’s a narrated video tourist guide to a virtual structure based on a real-world building or artwork from the Renaissance or an important historical empire, for Grade 7 MYP Humanities. However, due to technical issues involved in setting up server space for the students, none of the video reports are finished yet, so these reflections will be mainly about the process of setting up the server and beginning the modeling.

UBD Unit Planner for Project

1. What were your goals for your lesson/project (Standards)?

The academic side of this project, while I think it’s solid and interesting, is not really the heart of this initiative’s innovation, and I’ll try to explain the reason for that now. The academic goals of the project were focused on meeting the standard MYP criteria for a Humanities (a.k.a. Individuals and Societies) project about Empires and the Renaissance.

Although the goal of this final project was to plan and implement a unit/project/lesson which used technology in a way that would be “redefinitive” on the SAMR model, for this project it would be possible for students to reach almost the same outcomes by not using Minecraft at all, by making a slideshow or other type of model of their building. This was, however, by design – due to the unusual nature of the tool being used (Minecraft), I planned from the beginning to make the academic side of the project something that could be completed by students who – for technical reasons, parental refusal, etc. – weren’t actually proficient in Minecraft, and it would be possible to meet most of the project’s academic goals by making a slideshow or other visual representation of the structure.

In other words, the use of Minecraft in this project – considering only its academic goals and standards met, and not its wider possibilities – is not necessarily redefinition, but could be seen as mere “substitution”.

However, I think the redefinition aspect of this Minecraft initiative is definitely present and has great potential, but it’s not on the individual project, or even unit level. The use of technology here which I think is most interesting, powerful, and “redefinitive” is three-fold:

1) The opening of a shared virtual space for physically or temporally separated students to work on models together; and

2) The possibility of mixed use of the space as a place for both expressly academic work and free creative expression and play; and

3) The maintenance of the same virtual project space into the future, to be added on during future projects.

It’s the third one that most intrigues me – I think would be amazing for a particular grade level to have a Humanities “world” strewn with construction projects which had been tied in to different units, at different times, throughout the year, and this project was the first step toward that.

2. What tools did you use? Why did you choose this/these tools for this/these task(s)?

Minecraft, of course! Reasons for the choice were:

1. Student interest.

Over the past year several of my students have made models in Minecraft as supplements to their project work without being asked (pyramids, temples, volcanoes, biome simulations, etc.). When we’ve shared these extra-curricular models in class, the interest and excitement level was always very high. I want to find a way to let students have the chance to make similar models as “official” parts of their Humanities projects.

2. Educator interest.

At the same time, many people in my extended personal learning network of educators have been discussing the game and gaming in education in general, and I’ve seen high interest in Minecraft expressed by educators around the world.

3. Personal interest (the less said about this, the better)

3. How did you go about introducing your lesson/project?

First, I had to lay the groundwork for the acquisition and setup of Minecraft in an academic setting. This started with meetings w/ my amazing admin and IT department last year. The introduction of the project involved a lot of intermediate steps after that, some planned out well in advance, some less so. Here’s a list from an e-mail I sent out a few days after the project was official underway. It details some of the steps that led up to the actual project start:

    • Parent letters for signature went out last week for 7A and 7B, and an e-mail version went out earlier this week to 7C. 
    • I set up accounts with numbered usernames for everyone in G7, named which are all linked to one e-mail account so we can reset the passwords and take them away from students if necessary (or for reuse next year).
    • I requested server space for educational use from a recommended hosting service – We can theoretically have up to 100 users on each server at any one time. In a rather surreal development, several dozen squatters from around the world were holding deathmatches in one of the servers before I had the chance to change the security settings, but I’ve successfully evicted them, changed the server to private, creative mode, and re-booted the world they were using.
    • I’m planning to only have the G7 multiplayer server on from about 5-10 in the evenings, and if there are any parent complaints or any issue of people spending too much time on it, I can change the hours.
    • We designed a Humanities project where students, in teams, will propose to study an important Renaissance or imperial structure or work of art, write a report on the structure and its importance, model it in Minecraft, then conduct a virtual tour while narrating their report. Students who aren’t experienced in Minecraft will still be able to pick a structure and complete the project regardless of their modeling skills.
    • Rebekah and I used about one class period each to get students set up with their accounts earlier this week, but this will mostly be a project to be worked on entirely for homework. One of the neat possibilities about this is that students from all 3 G7 classes can collaborate on the same buildings during the hours when the server is on in the evening.
    • The G7 students have been using the server for the past 3 evenings, and have already built dozens of separate buildings – not all are historical, but everyone seems to be having fun, and construction on 5 or so major historical buildings has started already. Attached is a shot of the Colosseum, Big Ben, the Parthenon, and Juulia’s cathedral as of yesterday.
    • So far there have been an average of 10-15 students from all three classes online, building things peacefully, during the evenings. However, since the virtual world includes things like fire and lava, there is the possibility for vandalism of others’ buildings. I see these issues as a chance to explore evolving digital citizenship issues in a new space, and aside from a few hiccups I think the G7s can be trusted to share this construction space in a…. well, constructive way. There are hourly and daily backups of the world that we could restore from in an emergency, but so far I think most students have been regulating their own risky behavior and learning to share space with their neighbors.
    • I’d be glad to take anyone on a tour of the current state of the server if you’re interested. We have a few extra account codes – if any teacher or admin wants to set up an account and look themselves that’d be really cool. If any teacher already has an account, I would just have to add them to the “whitelist” (the list of people who can go on the server). Rebekah was on for a while last night, and the students seemed to really enjoy showing her around their buildings.

4. How did the students react? Include actual samples of student reflection (video, images, etc)

[long story short, reaction was overwhelmingly positive and resulted in an immediate and enormous construction spree – see the relevant section of video presentation above]

5. Outcome? Did you meet your goals?

As described above, the academic side of the project is still in progress, but server has been a success overall (but with issues of digital citizenship and responsible behavior still being explored), and the three main “redefinitive” aspects outlined in section 1 seem to be creating some powerful interest in the server both from students and other teachers.

6. Evidence of learning? Remember to include student evidence like video, images, reflections.

[Again, please see the relevant section of video presentation above, which includes a lot of student feedback, including: ]

Student Feedback:

I think overall it is going well. We are able to work on a lot of the project in a short period of time. However, there was some vandalism that made the server a bit unsafe to use. Sort of like the medieval time!

I prefer minecraft because it’s a game and easy for us to learn how to play the game. It’s motivational if it’s a game. 

I think Minecraft is a good source for students to make buildings connected to Humanities. But I do not like about people burning and breaking buildings down because students take a lot of time building it. But it is a good idea to cooperate with other students and friends to make a historical building. 

I think the renaissance report would be best because we can all have a video about our building and we could all have something different to say in each of our videos. Also making a slideshow would not be very fun and you maybe cannot show the whole building itself with moving around. 

I think so far this minecraft project is going well because we are all working hard and I think we should continue this for a while. I really don’t like all the griefing that is going on and we should somehow fix them.

Students are still working on their academic reports, and have already shown some great learning about their historical structures being modeled, and evidence of learning in other ways has been tremendous. Students have learned and demonstrated new skills of digital negotiation of a shared space, finding each other and figuring out how to deal with the problem of numbered usernames. They’ve had virtual events like parties, come together to put out fires and stanch lava flow, taught each other construction techniques, figured out etiquette for visiting other peoples’ houses, used Skype as an additional communication tool for times when Minecraft’s chat function wasn’t sufficient, and any number of other things.

7. What would you do differently next time? What did you learn? (Reflection)

A lot of these reflections are on an ongoing process. The first thing I’d do differently would be to set things up more collaboratively and with more input from others. I tried to meet and ask for advice from several people, and I got some terrific advice from friends on Twitter, but I also did a lot of the planning on my own and think some aspects of the setup could have been stronger if I’d sought more advice. Another thing would be to have set up the timetable of this rollout differently. I think things have worked out OK, but as it turned out I set up the server quite quickly once the space became available, and wish I’d have had more time to plan the project, meet with my teaching partner and IT department to set things up beforehand, etc.

In terms of how things have progressed since students have had access to the server, I think the biggest issue has clearly been “griefing” or vandalism. The game includes things like TNT and fire, and it’s relatively easy for someone to use them undetected. I think dealing with these issues, however, has resulted in some of the most powerful learning and reflecting on digital citizenship both for the students and me, and I am glad we’ve had to struggle so publicly and openly with the issue of destructive behavior on the server.

It’s been an interesting journey. However, since student feedback overwhelmingly identified vandalism as the biggest problem with the server by far, I’ve recently taken steps to turn off TNT and fire by using mods and plugins. Destruction remains an issue, but it’s less likely now that someone will lose an entire building to fire, and I think some traumatic events could have been avoided if I’d modded the server from the start.

One thing that has been extremely interesting about all of this is the social simulation side of it. I – as the overlord of the server – found myself becoming suspicious of students, following them around to see if they were behind the vandalism. I also deputized some students by making them “OPs”, which gives them access to more commands, and I quickly found that my OP brownshirts had constructed a jail for incarcerating suspected “griefers”.

This whole social microcosm of crime, suspicion, punishment, and rebuilding after tragedy has probably been the most interesting side of going on the server for me, even if it has been slightly unpleasant in its moral and ethical implications at times. I wanted to create a place for peace and creativity, but found myself spending a lot of time thinking about rules, punishments, and banishments. I think I’m starting to reach a balance between accepting that the students will do crazy things on the server, but also doing what I can to minimize uncertainty or conflict so that it won’t – in the words of one of the students – be like “medieval time”.

8. How do/did you plan to share this with your colleagues?

Here, on Twitter (hashtag #yisminecraft), through a Pecha Kucha talk I recently gave (video to possibly follow soon), and by inviting people to tour the server.

9. What was your greatest learning in this course?

I think it was the realization of just how much more productive, cooperative and organized the students are when they’re passionate about something they’re doing. It’s something you hear all the time, but watching entire cathedrals rise in just a few hours really demonstrated the power of motivation to me.

10. Did this implementation meet the definition of Redefinition?

As explained above in section 1, in terms of the goals of this pilot project in Humanities (integrated into the curriculum) itself, no – but in terms of the collaboration between all sections of the grade, the ongoing digital citizenship negotiations and combination of academic pursuits and play in the same space, and the creation of the shared space for possible future use, a resounding “yes”.

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Project Reflection, Course Four

For this project I decided to (retroactively) apply the UbD planning process to a recent project from Grade 8, in order to help me reflect on how its design might be improved if we use it next year. The project was part of a unit on Globalization, and involved students making a fictional news documentary about a factory being opened by a transnational company in a less economically developed country.

UbD planner for Globalization Interviews project

Reflections on adapting the project to look at it from a UbD planning perspective: I don’t think much had to be changed in terms of the project’s overall goals and approach to make it fit the UbD schema, really. This project did already contain what I think are pretty good inducements for students to consider roles and audience and to be empathetic and show perspective, for example. One aspect that could be made a bit more authentic in the future is audience – we showed the final products to each other and shared them a bit between different class sections, but didn’t officially display anything to a wider audience. In any case, while I’m pretty happy with the project’s basic ideas, I do have some more specific reflections on how the project played out, which I’d like to briefly delineate.

There was a real bottleneck at the stage where the groups assembled their video segments. Everyone finished shooting their interviews, then, for one technical or human-error reason or another, we all had to wait nearly a week for most groups’ iMovie expert to combine and upload their finished documentary. We had to move onto other activities in the meantime because of this. Next time I think I would have each student be responsible for shooting, editing and uploading their own section of the documentary. We could then simply just watch them all in sequence, or combine them at end if possible. But having the whole group waiting several days for one person to finish video editing was a bit inelegant.

Students’ research needs to be more guided in some areas. I think certain of the student roles for this project led naturally to easier research, and I’d like to try to make that aspect more balanced somehow in the future. We were able to find and share dozens of real-world interviews, news stories, documentaries, etc. on the subject of factory labor, particularly in China and India. It’s also pretty easy to find material on what some CEOs have to say when challenged about factory conditions. However, one of the roles in particular – that of a citizen from a more-developed country who has opinions about foreign factories – seemed harder for students to get a handle on. We had to do some pretty heavy-duty searching for articles and videos about people’s thoughts on outsourcing, brain drain etc. Having more of a resource bank or case studies ready for the students to get into this role in particular might help in the future.

Encourage more creative filmmaking. The assignment was really about interviews, not realistic simulation of a news documentary, but I would have liked to see more groups come up with things such as blue-screen work, establishing shots of factories, views of the factory floor, scenes of the CEO driving his or her limo around, etc. I think next time it would be good to go more carefully over some real-world examples of news show tropes, documentary filmmaking cliches, etc., and more explicitly list and explain these and other common techniques so that students are challenged to include them in their projects.

Students’ self-developed interview questions could have been better. Similarly, I’d like to go more explicitly into pre-investigating what makes a good interview question and answer, and look at things like follow-up questions, avoiding leading questions, etc. The assignment gave each student two questions they definitely had to answer and left the formulation of the follow-up questions to them. Most students’ questions of their own were acceptable, but they still could have overall been a bit better in terms of eliciting the interviewees’ thoughts on controversial issues. Next time I’d like to provide more explicit prep, examples, and guidance in this area.

Find ways to get the reporter’s role to include more commentary and analysis. The assignment mentioned that the reporter in each group was supposed to give a concluding commentary after the interview sections, but many of the reporters didn’t really do this part successfully. I think part of the problem was that they saw the reporter’s role as objective, and didn’t want to “take sides”. To avoid this in the future we might need to more explicitly preview and analyze the investigative journalism or commentary genre, and look at specific segments where reporters give analytical conclusions and don’t simply report on events.

So in terms of reflecting on the technology used during this project, my main thoughts are that we need to avoid the single-editor iMovie bottleneck, and that students need to be more explicitly guided through considering video resources used for research. Also, I’d like to think of useful ways to share the students’ work with an audience outside of the school. Overall, I think the above ideas for improvement are not necessarily indications that the project itself is seriously flawed, but that my implementation of it could use some serious refinement. This list seems to me to be typical of the sorts of things that I find myself regretting or reconsidering after I do a project for the first time. Luckily, I’ve been able to teach the same classes for a couple years in a row now, so I feel I’m getting a lot of opportunities to make, and then actually enact, these sorts of reflections in a useful way. Which is very nice.

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