“I teach today in honor of teachers everywhere who have ever given a moment, and the right words, to change a child’s life.” – Stephen Reid, Scotland

Games-based learning innovator Stephen Reid knows what it’s like to be an outsider. As a young child, Reid withstood both bullying and an uninspiring primary education. But when one caring high school teacher recognized his potential, his course was set.

Reid’s organization, Immersive Minds, works with clients to bring technologies like podcasting, animation, filmmaking, mobile and tablet, coding, games and games-based learning to the forefront of educational thinking and practice. His ultimate objective? Impacting soft skills development and the overall health and wellbeing of his students.

To achieve those goals, Reid often uses gaming – and specifically Minecraft – as a tool. “Minecraft is easily the most flexible, creative and engaging classroom tool of this century,” Reid says, and his latest project, designed to help students understand the European refugee crisis, demonstrates why.

“A Minecraft map is designed to help children empathize with refugees and explore some of the political, demographic and humanitarian triggers for it,” he explains. “From being bombed from their homes, a journey across a minefield and a struggle to find a boat to escape in, to the choices made about the value of each human life, reasons to migrate to one place or another, life in a refugee camp and the inevitable border crossings, children explore life as a refugee, challenging common misconceptions about a difficult social subject.”

Reid runs a Minecraft server dedicated to teachers and parents all over the world. His work focuses on all areas of curriculum learning, as well as the development of skills for life, work and social mobility. He’s  also developed learning materials for alcohol awareness, outdoor learning, study skills, motivation and goal setting and environmental awareness, and he’s a frequent presenter and panelist, discussing Minecraft as a learning tool.

How does Reid see technology and gaming playing out in education going forward?

“Through innovations such as Mystery Skype and Skype Virtual Field Trips, to the massive Minecraft servers connecting children in virtual environments across the world, and even the emerging Virtual Reality technologies, the learning environment is set to change,” he says. “The human mind isn’t set out in corridors and classrooms with bells between subjects — why should the way we learn be?”

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Here’s today’s inspiring, gamified Daily Edventure with Stephen Reid.

What inspired you to become an educator?

I remember many moments from school that defined my life’s course. But the first and most prolific is this: I was largely an outcast at school, bullied heavily for a variety of reasons…and one particularly low day during my transition from primary to secondary school, my first high school teacher, the wonderful Mr. Nicol (imagine a kind, white-haired Professor Snape) approached me in my seat and said, “What’s your name?”

I replied and he said, “You know, there was another Stephen who sat in that very seat and went on to do great, great things with his life. He was Stephen Hendry (our national Snooker World Champion at the time). And like him, you will go on to do great things of your own…because anything is possible, regardless of the seat you start in.”

That brief interaction set fireworks off inside of me and instantly undid all the negativity of the last seven years of an overall poor primary education and bullying. I teach today in honor of teachers everywhere who have ever given a moment, and the right words, to change a child’s life. Thanks, Mr. Nicol. (I hear he is retiring after the summer of 2016.)

What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator?

Like many educators, I’m lucky to feel [proud] almost daily. The work I do involves bringing teachers, students and technology together to create amazing experiences. However, my proudest moment is not a technology moment.

During a visit to a school Craft and Design department, I noticed a boy had a different piece of wood to work on from everyone else. A smaller, more ragged piece, which clearly wasn’t part of the overall project build. When I asked the teacher why, she said, “He’s useless at this, he ruins every piece I give him, so I gave him a bit to play with while the rest finish their model.”

I couldn’t let that rest, so I approached him and we talked. He felt generally left out and had resigned himself to [the situation] and “didn’t understand why” he kept splitting the wood. We talked about the wood he was working with as a living organism, as a plant or even like flesh. We compared it to his own arm, with the bark of a tree like skin; how important it is to think of it as a living thing and respect what it once was, ultimately alive and vulnerable, despite the perception a tree can be hard and lifeless. To see the beauty in it. Its texture, its smell, its colors.

He was on his third attempt at a “housing joint” with little to no assistance and the same split-wood results each time. I showed him how to use the chisel and the saw gently, respecting the softness of the wood. To be patient and take pride in each action. To visualize the finished result at the start of every step. At the end of just one 50-minute lesson, he had created a perfectly formed housing joint and could be heard throughout quietly repeating the mantra, “Gently does it, one small step at a time.”

When it was time to leave the school, he thanked me openly, and asked me to come back and get a job there. I was flattered.

Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?

I’ve been using technology as a tool for education for many years now, from early audio recording and podcasting to filmmaking, animation, mobile technology and a wide variety of great websites.

My real education technology passion, however, is games as a tool for learning and teaching. From the original Tomb Raider (1996) and early Myst series, to the more recent Papo and Yo and Little Big Planet. However, probably the most defining tool of my career as an educator is Minecraft.

I first saw it in its alpha release, and knew I was going to be able to use it to reach so many children across so many subjects – both curriculum and soft-skills focused. To date, I have developed dozens of education-specific worlds with hundreds of individual lessons. This has allowed me to facilitate the learning of hundreds of thousands of teachers and students combined, over five continents.

Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?

In Scotland, the UK, and globally, we have an issue with accessibility to and connectivity of technology in schools. Both are often curtailed by issues such as a lack of funding and IT policy.

In many cases, there are good arguments for making sure technology is purchased and used wisely. I myself was never a fan of the almost nation-wide, mass purchase of “interactive whiteboards,” or the more recent blanket purchases of tablet technology in schools. I couldn’t count how many classrooms I’ve visited over the years in which the whiteboards are used as no more than glorified poster boards and plain projector screens, while racks of tablets have been put in a cupboard and never used. That’s not to say these technologies don’t work in education, but simply that they are not utilized nearly enough to justify their cost.

It’s also not to say that there aren’t good reasons for being vigilant about what our children can and can’t access in schools. Internet safety and responsible use, as well as virus awareness and hacking threats, are important factors when considering accessibility in school environments.

But in my experience, there are still too many “blanket bans,” rather than considered and selective whitelists. The best technologies are often free to access or very cheap. Podcasting with Audacity, animation with Windows Movie Maker, websites like Wordle, worldometers, Wix and Incredibox, and of course, Microsoft Office 365 Education.

In these times of deep austerity, cuts to education mean that accessibility to engaging, cost-effective technology is more important than ever. And yet, despite great leaps in this area in some ways, I still find we are struggling to allow teachers and students access to excellent web speeds and varied, cutting-edge web tools, and even the most cost effective technologies; usually in the name of funding. Minecraft, despite its all-around excellence in learning and teaching, suffers from this now, with complaints about cost, bandwidth and Internet access for multiplayer. These excuses are all too poor in a 21st century western education system.

In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future?

Beyond the education technologies we see today, I believe we are about to witness a fundamental change in the way schools and learning operate, both physically and digitally. A change to the way we envisage, create and then use learning environments.

My biggest hope is that we see these learning environments develop as a direct result of a new-found freedom in education, in which students are eager to learn like never before, but on their own terms, in their own way, facilitated by the system and not simply moving through it.

About Stephen Reid
Creative Director
ImmersiveMinds
Edinburgh, Scotland

@ImmersiveMind

  • Birthplace: Dunfermline, Scotland (the ancient capital)
  • Educational background: A. Honors, Art and Design
  • Website I check every day: I use Twitter every day, which leads me to so many brilliant and useful websites and other teaching resources.
  • Favorite childhood memory: I used to wander an abandoned quarry near where I lived every summertime. I loved the absolute silence 400 feet below ground level. The sun-bleached rock face, the birds of prey and wild flowers in an otherwise post-apocalyptic setting. It’s where I took the time to learn to draw, leading me to my first passion, storytelling through art. Fond, seemingly endless summers.
  • Favorite book: Alice in Wonderland (a tale of the beauty of childhood and the absurdity of a grown-up world) by Lewis Carroll.
  • Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: Minecraft
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Always follow a path that fulfills you, beyond money and belongings…never compromising, never settling…and be kind and generous along the way.
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