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Teaching in the Sandbox

I was never much of gamer. My brother had the latest PlayStation console on pre-order, whilst I was busy binge-watching The West Wing. However, I remember getting hooked on a game called Skyrim. I couldn’t understand exactly what it was about the game that was so addictive. I’d barely spent more than an hour at a time on the PS4 and here I was playing for hours into the early hours of the morning.

It was what my brother described as a “Sandbox” game. It is essentially a game where a player isn’t constrained to achieving specific goals. Players are given a large degree of freedom to explore, interact with and even modify the game.

Imagine if learners were given the opportunity to do the same. Given the freedom to explore, interact with and even modify the learning. What would need to happen in order to achieve this?

First, we need to talk about self-efficacy. Psychologist Albert Bandura defined self-efficacy as people's beliefs in their capabilities to exercise control over their own functioning and over events that affect their lives. Building self-efficacy can provide the foundation for motivation, well-being, and personal accomplishment. So how do we enhance the self-efficacy of both staff and students?

Emphasize Peer Modelling

Students need to SEE what effective learning looks like. The concept of peer modelling is most effective when a teen’s direct peers (brothers, sisters, parents, teachers, friends) set the example (Bandura, 1988). Ever had students show each other something they have learnt or watched two students teach one another? This is peer mentoring. As teachers we need to set clear examples for our students around what good learning looks like. We cannot assume that students have the tools to navigate learning.

The same principle applies to our colleagues. We need to practice what we preach around engagement strategies. We cannot expect staff to model effective teaching practices if our own Professional Learning Development programmes do not reflect that. I’ve been to enough webinars where I’ve sat bored, as I’ve been ‘shown’ the functionality of digital programmes. The offer of “Any questions?” always comes through the mic; unsurprisingly it is not taken up by anyone present. The problem is that ‘vicarious learning’ or being shown what to do, whilst helpful, is not effective unless it is paired with opportunities to gain mastery or active participation.

Encourage Participation

Participation is crucial to learning. Encouraging opportunities for learners to actively take part and engage in the learning correlates to higher level thinking and critical thinking skills. Participation requires the learner to move beyond simply comprehending a text to becoming the teacher. In Maori, this concept of reciprocal learning is called Ako, where teacher and learner are one and the same. For the teacher, this involves letting go of control and our ego, realising that we may not be the expert or keeper of knowledge. Again, we are essentially providing the tools to allow students to navigate information. In gaming terms, we would be like a ‘guide’, showing students how the controls work. Ultimately though, the gamer has to engage with the controls, learning what works and what doesn’t, often through failure.

When I recently ran a PLD session on Google Docs Tips and Tricks, it was with vigour that I announced we would be treating Google Docs as a “Sandbox”. Participants were encouraged to play around, try new things. I knew participants were engaged when one teacher asked “Oooh, can I show you something cool I learnt?” What followed was an authentic learning experience, as I handed over the controls and let them take the lead.

Allow People to Make Their Own Choices

Students need to feel as though they are responsible for their learning decisions. When they do, they learn from their own mistakes. They learn not just from their peers but from themselves. Advice is not enough. I can tell you the buttons to press but you need to decide what to do with said information. This is why a peer - although very helpful – is not enough; the person needs to understand that at the end of the day – the only person capable of taking action is themselves.

The lesson of the sandbox and building self-efficacy applies just as much in the digital world as it does in kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face) learning. If anything, our digital pedagogy is both a replication and amplification of our in-classroom practice. My challenge is to review the week ahead.

Where in your teaching have you provided opportunities to play in the sandbox?

Where have you given students the opportunity to make their own choices, make their own mistakes and to learn from them?

If, like me, you have spent the majority of your time, providing the tools, and showing students how to use them, it might be time to get out of the sandbox and let the students build their own world.


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