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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Mining, Modeling, and Other Sandbox Activities to Foster Student Creativity

By Guest Blogger — March 11, 2013 5 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). First up is Curtis Chandler, an educator, staff developer, consultant, and doctoral student at Kansas State University.

Last month, I was a bit disturbed when I overheard a few students bragging in the hall about their weekend video game binges--some of which allegedly lasted up to eight hours. Almost immediately, my brain conjured up images of comatose teens on couches, hypnotized by the electric glow of enormous, flat-screen TVs and the rhythmic humming of their Play Stations and X-boxes. Their vacant expressions and blood-shot eyes displayed no evidence of human life other than their thumbs fiddling furiously on a game controller to target attacking zombies on the screen in front of them.

I approached these youngsters in the hall, visited with them for a few minutes, and discovered that they--and several more of my students--were all playing the same game online, together, over the weekend. They explained that this particular game, called Minecraft, has been around for quite some time and that it allows players to harvest, or “mine” resources from a virtual landscape such as wood, stone, food, and coal. Players collaborate to construct everything from furniture to fortresses and factories by placing their mined “blocks” together. A quick survey of my students throughout the day revealed just how popular this activity is with my kiddos: over one-third of them play Minecraft regularly (3-5 times a week), and nearly fifty percent of them play it once or twice a week.

Though not a gamer, I had to see what it is about this particular game that has grabbed--and maintained--the attention of so many of my students. After only half an hour of ‘Mining,’ I was captivated and completely enthralled in play, despite the simple premise of the game and its horrible graphics. My favorite part--oddly charming zombies that look as though they are made from spinach and broccoli, who creep out at night to test the fortitude of whatever it is that you have built.

Why would so many young people growing up in a high-definition world, riddled with ridiculously realistic games like Call of Duty and Halo, spend an inordinate amount of time on something so primitive like Minecraft? Perhaps it is because, by playing this game, these kids are participating in principles of creativity in connection with their peers. Minecraft--and others games similar to it such as Sims, Cubeland, and Incredibots--are crafted by game designers to provide a virtual sandbox for young people to experience “horizontal learning” where they are able to experiment, explore, and develop skills that augment their creative capacities.

Learners also get to experience realistic challenges, but with risks and dangers greatly mitigated. Broccoli zombies pose no real-life threat, yet within the context of a game, they create a sense of urgency for players to gather resources and solve problems.

Finally, in stark contrast to schools, sandbox games permit learners to try, fail, try again, and still feel a sense of authenticity and accomplishment. As a result, players come to view failure as a necessary component of learning, and not as a final judgment or roadblock to creative problem solving.

Like my students said... Minecraft isn’t new, but then again, neither is the use of “sandboxing.” Since the 1950’s, a wide variety of instructional approaches have been developed to facilitate creative thinking. But, at the heart of each is the core philosophy that experience, training, practice, and encouragement in using creative thinking skills can improve a student’s ability to think with fluency, flexibility, and to pose novel and inventive solutions to questions and problems.

In an effort to foster my own students’ creativity, I recently tried out some sandboxing within my classroom and modified one of our multi-genre writing units to include a design element where students wrote about and constructed their own original ideas for a restaurant out of whatever materials they could find at home. Students were not allowed to spend any money on the project and were invited to build out of recyclables, food or anything else they could find lying around the house. I also suggested that, as an alternative, students consider using a tech-based tool like Minecraft to assemble their project.

The results were incredible. Each class’s models--whether homemade or Minecrafted--exhibited tremendous effort and inventiveness. It was amazing to see the realistic, mathematically scaled restaurant designs that students fabricated from pop-cans, cereal boxes, marshmallows, and toilet paper rolls. Those who used Minecraft to design were equally impressive. One student brought in his final project on his game system and explained how he and his friends spent 3 hours on Xbox Live, just to round up cows in Minecraft and then worked collaboratively to encase them behind a wall of glass inside the restaurant, so his customers could “see that the beef was fresh.” Another student built an entire amusement park ride as part of her venue to help her customers joyfully pass the time. A class favorite seemed to be Noah’s Arc--an immense, floating restaurant that served customers “two-by-two.” But whether they were building with recyclables from home or using “mined” resources to build online--students seemed overjoyed to have an opportunity to be creative.

For nearly three decades now, I have listened to authors like Neil Postman and Nicholaus Carr predict that our young people will eventually be consumed by activities that undo their capacities to think. They are wrong, as are others who view today’s students with unwarranted pessimism. The popularity of Minecraft and other virtual sandbox games is evidence that today’s students would rather construct, collaborate, and be creative than to merely “amuse themselves to death.”

Interestingly, the creators of Sims and Minecraft have just developed and released educational versions of their games and seem anxious to capitalize on the creative capacities of young people. I just hope that, as we re-envision schools, we are as willing to foster creativity within our students.

-- Curtis Chandler

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.