Today I had an amazing experience of teaching and learning in a virtual world. The world is MineCraft. I am the learner. The teacher: the 10 year old son of one of my students (a teacher).
My teacher, we'll call him Bear has been present on and off throughout my graduate course for teachers. He helped his mother make the transition from Second Life to World of Warcraft. And though he hadn't experienced WoW before, he knew enough about virtual worlds and gaming to offer suggestions for how to locate and activate inventory, navigate a map, and overcome the short term effects of game-death. He served as an expert discussant during a class meeting about gaming and schools. And while precocious and articulate he is very much a bubbling active curious kid.
Bear sits at the laptop on his kitchen table while his Mom looks on. I sit in my office 100 miles away. For this first session we each have a single player version of the game open, and Bear shares his screen through Skype. I occasionally ask Bear to slow down, but his instructions are impeccable. His explanations are thorough. He has decided, correctly, that I need to know some things to get started and that other things can wait until I have more experience. (How does he know that? Does he intuit it? Has he taught this course before? Or has he modeled his teaching after some similar experience he's had as a learner?). I follow along setting up my new world as he creates his.
My first impression is about the representational nature of the game. Every object is a variation of a block. Like legos there are cut-away pieces to make trees and plants. And like legos most things are made of cubes. If it is a white cube it is snow, a light blue cube is ice, a dark blue cube is water. Minerals are more interesting but look nothing like the rock, coal, precious metal or stone that it represents. This is a game that demands you to see with your imagination, to identify small color changes in a pixilated pattern to distinguish gold from coal.
Next I notice that the game is layered with complexity. It is apparent that to learn to play you need intellectual resources. Bear reports that mostly he uses trial and error to figure stuff out and is usually right, but he does turn to websites and online friends to help. There is a set of knowledge that must become automatic in order to move on to higher levels of crafting and battling, click combinations, early tool recipes, effective use of the world resources.
The boy comes out.
Bear is patient. He slows down, repeats himself and answers my questions without apparent annoyance. And from time to time his excitement overwhelms him and the boy-teacher becomes a boy. He zips around the screen slashing, building, digging and cooing "Isn't this so cool." I hold back my questions to allow the wave of enthusiasm to take me up. This teacher is passionate and he is able to share that with me - his student. Even if, at those moments, I cannot learn to do what he is doing, I can learn to want to do what he is doing.
As teachers, parents, researchers we can speculate about what young people are doing in these new digital spaces. We can try them out (we must try them out) and uncover what we might do in the spaces. But we also must talk to, play with, learn from kids. They are now operating in a collaborative world where they are often learner and teacher. They are developing new ways to learn and we can learn from them how to teach.