Bloxels Builder: Innovative Instructional Tool or Toy?

Bloxels Builder images and description from Worthpoint.

It was several years ago, during my first session of summer school in my current district, that I first encountered Bloxels Builder kits and fell in love with them because they are just such a fun idea. Why play a video game when you can actually create your own? Instantly, I could see the fun of this tool. I had no doubt it would be highly engaging for my students, but I had one nagging question: Would it provide more value as a learning tool than simply engagement and fun? I wondered how Bloxels could be used if they could be used as an effective tool to increase learning outcomes as well as engagement in my classroom. I wanted to know if Bloxels was a legitimate tool or was it only good for fun and games. This post is all about how I began answering those questions.

My district makes innovation and access to technology for all students a priority even when dollars are shrinking ways are made to keep teachers informed and technology available to students. It is one of the reasons I love working here so much. If we are preparing students to be “Future Ready”, then we need to teach them using tools that will help prepare them by giving them skills to envision, articulate, and create the tools they’ll be using many of which do not exist yet. Enter the iiCadre Team and the Future Bus. Our district’s iiCadre (instructional innovation cadre) Team is comprised of mostly self-selected teachers from around the district who are interested in exploring ways to be innovative in our classrooms and to act as resources at our schools and the district for innovative instructional approaches and tools. We are led by a small group of TOSAs (Teachers on Special Assignment) who are exceptional leaders in this area.

An aside. I just have to take a moment and plug iiCadre. As a new teacher in the district, but not new to teaching (I had nearly 20 years in when I started four years ago with this district), joining the iiCadre when I did immediately put me in touch with teachers from around this district who were “tech savvy” and who weren’t afraid to explore and try new approaches and to experiment with new tools. It immediately put me in touch with others who had similar approaches to instruction that I did, who weren’t afraid of taking risks in their practice, and who definitely were not the kind of teachers who said, “this is the way I’ve always done it”. When you’re the new person to a very large organization, it is so easy to feel lost and disoriented because you don’t know anybody and you’re learning how things go. The iiCadre experience helped put me in touch with my tribe and has given me exposure to ideas, tools, approaches I would never have otherwise encountered. I’ve learned so much about my new district, about technology and about what it means to be innovative (it’s not just about the toy, folks) than I have through any other form of professional development. Further, it has put me in touch with the people in this district (and state) who are are on the cutting edge of instructional innovation. I know who to contact if I need support using a particular platform, software, device or strategy. It would have taken years for me to figure all that out if I hadn’t had this opportunity. This group energizes me and renews my enthusiasm for exploring and creating what can be with students. No where else in my career, have I felt completely free to take risks and learn from them without the fear of reprisal should things not work out as I envisioned. Where ever our educational dollars go, I personally think more of them need to go into creating more experiences like this for teachers because it is nothing but the very best thing for students when they have teachers who are so empowered.

That first summer I was teaching summer school was the first time I encountered the Future Bus. The Future Bus is a school bus that has been painted and converted to a mobile tech lab. There are a variety of innovative STEM activities that students can participate in. Essentially, it is one way our district brings the technology to the schools for students to have exposure to hands-on technologies and STEAM activities. On this particular occasion, the Future Bus staff brought in the Bloxels kits and students had a great time exploring with them. I was immediately intrigued. Here’s a toy that can be used for students to create their own video games. It’s bright, color-coded, hands on and involves the use of technology and communication (if students work together on projects). What wasn’t to like about it? It just looked fun. I immediately saw potential for this to be very engaging in the classroom. And, judging from the responses of my soon to be 5th graders that summer, they thought so too. Since that time three years ago, I have been thinking about ways to get my hands on some Bloxels for my classroom so that I could see for myself if this cool toy had some legitimate academic muscle as a learning tool.

In an effort to continue my quest, I checked out the Bloxels kits and some extra iPads from our district technology library last spring. In my classroom, students used the Bloxels to create video games that told the story of their Fantasy Book Club reads. Each group read and discussed a different book as we worked our way through the Lucy Calkin’s Fantasy Book Clubs Unit of Study. As a culminating project, students worked in groups to create video games that showed the hero’s journey and told the story of their group’s book. I learned a lot through that experience and I hope to write complete post explaining that process, but for now, suffice it to say, that experience and what I learned and observed with my students only piqued my curiosity. I saw some incredible things going on with my students, especially those who tended to be less successful in more traditional instructional approaches. I wanted to spend more time and explore this tool more deeply in different ways to see if those results were real rather than just a one-time beautiful moment in my classroom.

That brings us up to this current year which is my third year of involvement with iiCadre. This year in order to participate we had to present our ideas for an “action research” project that we wanted to explore with our students. I chose to explore Bloxels more deeply. Here is what I’m hoping to investigate with my students:

  • Can Bloxels be used across the content areas? I’ve used it to support reading comprehension, but what about writing, science, social studies and math?
  • What projects will I use to explore each of the content areas and will they be significantly different from each other in spite of using the same tool?
  • How will I control (or do I) process/outcomes when so much of this is learner determined? I really feel at some points like I’m throwing the tool out there and seeing what happens. I don’t want to under-control and create chaos. I also don’t want to over-control and thereby limit possibilities for learning to occur and ingenuity to express itself.
  • Is the time involved in using Bloxels worth the outcomes?
  • What soft skills do students develop as the result of working with others on a Bloxels project?
  • What do the students think? Do they feel it is helping them learn these subjects more deeply?
  • What am I noticing? Is the locus of control for learning in my classroom shifting from a teacher-directed to a learner focused place. Are my students owning their learning? How do I see this demonstrated? How do I or will I know?

At the time of writing, here is what we have accomplished thus far:

  • I’ve introduced the tool, explained the color coded blocks and students have all completed the tutorial.
  • I’ve set up expectations for behavior and care and treatment of the kits, iPads, etc. We will continue to revisit these expectations as we proceed.
  • Students have had ample time to just play and explore the Bloxels kits. I allowed them opportunities over several weeks during a “free choice” time at the end of the week. I’ve learned from past experiences that this exploration time is critical to setting students up for success. They need to know how the tool works before they can expect to perform with it.
  • We have begun our first project which is Science related. Students will create a video game that takes the player through all the stages of the life cycle of the Pacific Salmon.
  • Students have done some individual thinking and planning.
  • Students have participated in an activity that helps me know who they believe they can work productively with and who they feel most inhibits that productivity.
  • Groups of two and three have been selected.
  • Students have met in groups and are working on storyboarding their video game and drafting what they think the characters will look like. This is the planning stage.

That’s as far as we’ve progressed so far. In upcoming posts, I will share what we are learning, both from my perspective and from the students’ perspectives. My goal is to truly discover whether or not Bloxels is a viable instructional tool that helps students solidify their learning or is it just more fun and games without a great deal of use beyond being a fun, highly engaging experience. I don’t want my biases to skew results. I’m willing to accept the possibility that they might be ineffective as a learning tool.

I still have a lot of work to do and writing this post reminded me of even more that I must do. I’m excited about where we are so far with this portion of my project and look forward to sharing more here as we proceed through the rest of the year. If you have questions about what I’m doing or have experiences with Bloxels, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear what you’ve done with Bloxels if you’ve used them. I will also try to answer any questions asked.

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