Minecraft Earth is a killer AR version if it works

Microsoft has plans to debut a new augmented reality (AR) version of Minecraft this summer. The gameplay will mimic Pokemon Go in that players will have to venture out into the real world to collect resources like blocks and be able to build structures which will appear at specific places. If Microsoft can make this work, it will be the best thing they’ve put out in a long, long, time.

21st Century Skills

Minefaire Schaumburg Learning Lab Presentation

Today my ninth grade daughter is taking the PSAT test at her high school. The only thing she's happy about is that the test schedule has disrupted the normal school schedule so that she gets to go to lunch with her friends outside of school. In general that's the only ray of sunshine, the social aspects, that brightens her school day. Otherwise it's a stress-inducing academic marathon of discrete subjects, along with piles of homework and standardized tests. She is in three AP classes, which just seem to be regular classes with more homework. In my idealized classroom, there would be no grades, tests, or homework. School days would be filled with self-directed, project-based learning involving teamwork across age and subject-matter boundaries. The way I view it, the school play or musical is the ultimate expression of holistic learning, in that it incorporates reading, writing, social science, history, arts, STEM, and social-emotional skills. STEM? Well, someone needs to figure out how to make the stage lights and sound board work.

Last month, my ten-year old son was invited to give a presentation at Minefaire, a growing fan-based convention around the Minecraft open world game. For those unfamiliar, Minecraft is one of the most popular video games, especially for the middle-school crowd. It's highly likely if you know a kid who is between the ages of 5 and 12, they have probably played the game or know of it. It's also likely you won't be able to get them to stop talking about it or playing it, much to the consternation of parents everywhere. Turns out though, that this block-based 3D world where kids either figure out how to kill zombies or build fantastical creations, is also one of the more powerful educational platforms in existence today. It's just disguised as a video game.

I myself discovered this a few years ago when both my son and daughter were playing the game. Fast forward a few years and my son, shown in the picture above, is giving a high-level presentation about some interactive birthday cards he built in-game for us. He's speaking with an audience of about 50 parents and kids. This is something many adults struggle to do in their professional lives at conferences and work meetings. In the broader debates about education reform and transformation, it is often said that we in the USA are falling behind other countries in producing future workers with 21st century skills. Let me ask you dear reader; is what my son is doing above a representation of 21st century skills? He is demonstrating the ability to articulate and present complex information to a group of peers. He is adept at using technology. He is able to teach others and have the emotional maturity to keep it together during the talk. Let's ignore the content for a moment. Are the skills I just mentioned more important than knowing what the capital of Montana is? Or knowing how to simplify a calculus equation? Or memorizing the periodic table of elements? I would say yes, because all those things can be easily done by computers or found on the internet. The ability to synthesize information is something computers can't do well (yet). But our current educational system isn't optimized to teach kids these 21st century skills when it's mired in 19th century models of pedagogy.

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An Ideal Learning Day

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Today I finally got out for the first Young Creators learning day. This is the core activity I wanted to do on a regular basis over summer break, but so far it has been a busy summer. My daughter (pictured above) and I took the train downtown to the Apple store. She has been doing a lot of digital art on her new iPad, using an app called Procreate, but had run into some tech issues. One of the things I love about Apple are their free sessions offered regularly at their store on topics like iPhone photography, sketching on an iPad, and other tips and tricks for customers to do more with their Apple products. It’s brilliant product marketing, but I’m OK with that because I’ve largely drunk the kool-aid that Apple cares about education and promoting creativity with their products. The sketching class was too basic for my daughter, but at the end, she got to hang with one of their employees who was also a digital artist, and he helped her troubleshoot the issues and recommended a few other apps to try out.

From there, we strolled down to the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, where on the first floor is one of their hidden jewels, the YouMedia space for teens. In there can be found a wealth of workstations covering DIY Maker areas such as music production, digital art, STEM & robotics, 3D printing, video games, and fashion crafting. Teens are largely able to hang out, work on their own thing, collaborate if they wish, while having experienced mentors around to help them if they need or want it. Adults aren’t allowed to interfere either, so while she was there I headed upstairs to catch up on e-mails and read the paper.

I had hoped to invite and meet other like-minded families, but it was only us today. I know this will be a long-term proposition of building a community with similar ideas and vision, but for today, it was a great way to spend a few hours with my daughter. My goal is to schedule more of these, at least once a week, and invite others to join in.

Young Creators Studio

This summer I’m launching a new initiative which I’m calling Young Creators Studio (YCS). It’s an outgrowth and evolution of several ideas I’ve fomented over the past few years. I’ve been involved with groups that have promoted project-based learning, self-directed learning, out-of-school learning, maker labs, un-schooling, home-schooling, and so forth. I’ve tried to synthesize what I appreciate about all these “movements”. Most recently I sponsored a showing of an education documentary called Most Likely to Succeed, about an innovative charter school in California that among other things, has no homework, grades, or standardized tests. I am also the parent of two creative, curious kids who are doing amazing things on their own (and I am not just saying that because I’m their dad!). Allowing kids time and space to create things they are naturally interested in doing seems to me the essential tagline behind all those other important aspects of progressive education. And working with these kids, whether they are in mainstream public schools, charter schools, private ones, online ones, or are home-schooled is the main thing. Providing the infrastructure, mentors, and environment for these kids to flourish may be the best way to serve as an example to transform how we think about education.

To kick things off, I’m organizing a small book discussion group on Ted Dintersmith’s new book, What Schools Could Be.  Ted produced the MLTS documentary a few years ago and is the real-deal advocate for innovation in education. Here’s a talk he gave recently in the suburbs of Chicago.

Give it a watch if you aren’t able to obtain his book or see the film. Happy Summer!