“This smacks to me of another gimmick which will get in the way of children actually learning. Removing these gimmicky aspects of education is one of the biggest tasks facing us as teachers. We need to drain the swamp of gimmicks.”
Tom Bennett, Nov 2016
The number of educational institutions embracing games-based learning has grown in recent years. Researchers and educators are increasingly finding ways to extract the elements of video games that can possibly promote real learning. For example, children can potentially learn about authoring platforms with Star Craft, familiarise themselves with engineering basics using Bridge Builder, and discuss probabilities in Dungeons and Dragons.
Some people, however, remain sceptical. Indeed, Tom Bennett, Chair of the UK Department for Education’s behaviour group, is of the opinion that the use of such games in classroom settings is “gimmicky” and it falls into the trap of using the latest “shiny thing.” Other sceptics also point out that in any case, merging video games with schoolwork makes the games regimented and takes the fun out of them – making the process somewhat redundant.
Proponents counter this by pointing out that video games capture an intense level of engagement from children that could elevate the learning experience.
The value of this may be demonstrated by looking at one popular example – Minecraft – which is finding its way into more and more classrooms, particularly since the launch of a dedicated ‘Education Edition’ by tech giant Microsoft, current owner of the game, last year. Minecraft involves the mining and assembly of ‘blocks’ that represent various materials, including stone, dirt, water and wood, to create three-dimensional objects and worlds – much like forming structures in a sandbox.
Players need to build their own shelter, gather resources for survival, and accomplish special activities. As the game progresses, the structures the players create become increasingly elaborate, creating a platform for numerous learning possibilities.
Holding attention and fueling creativity
While prejudices against using video games in the classroom exist, the educational benefits of Minecraft are undeniable. Prior to any official involvement from the game developers, thousands of classrooms had already been exploring Minecraft’s potential educational functions.
“Interest is a very difficult thing to achieve among pre-teens and teens. They have a short attention span and technological tools like Minecraft or other education-based games can be really effective in keeping them engaged,” says Cora Mesiona, a middle school educator for over a decade. By requiring them to build and explore new worlds, Minecraft also fuels creativity and imagination.
Navigating, building and surviving the virtual world hones important skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and concentration. Students also tackle complex team-based projects and practise time management, task management, leadership, collaboration, and communication.
As Greg Toppo wrote in his book, The Game Believes In You: How Games Can Make Our Kids Smarter, “What looks like a 21st-century, flashy, high-tech way to keep kids entertained is in fact a tool that taps into an ancient way to process, explore, and understand the world.”
Strong educational support
So, interest in using video games in class is growing, but many teachers still don’t know where to begin. “One of the challenges of integrating video games is that not many teachers are familiar with how they work, much less how to apply them in the classroom appropriately. Making a lesson plan in itself takes time, and including a video game in the mix can take more,” says Mesiona.
And this is where it becomes clear that the launch of Minecraft: Education Edition – specifically designed to support educators in facilitating the learning process in the Minecraft world – is no gimmick.
This version provides tutorials for educators using Minecraft for the first time. It is designed to make project/assignment set-up easy for teachers. Microsoft has also created downloadable lesson plans such as ‘Exploring factors and multiples’ and ‘Effects of deforestation.’ These plans come with learning objectives, progress criteria, and reflection questions for students.
A companion app called Classroom Mode is also available, enabling educators to observe the entire class through a map of the virtual world, a student list, and a chat window where the teacher can individually communicate with pupils.
The game also has a camera and portfolio feature to gather evidence of learning and track student progress, which aids one-on-one sessions with students. Additionally, for parents who become sceptical upon hearing that their child plays video games during school hours, teachers can email them screenshots of their child’s learning progress.
The teacher is always in charge
Video games like Minecraft offer a novel approach to effectively reach out to students and help them retain knowledge, but teachers need to remember that it is only one tool among many. Control of the classroom and the role of educating remain in the teacher’s hands. “Tools like Minecraft have positive applications, but the teacher of course needs to use them under the right circumstances – with proper planning and valid intentions,” reminds Mesiona. “Educators must set learning objectives and boundaries from the very beginning so that students keep in mind their ultimate goal of leaving the Minecraft world as a more knowledgeable version of themselves.”
Unsure how you might be able to make use of Minecraft across the secondary curriculum? Here are just a few examples of what can be done within this digital world:
Teachers can import pre-built replicas of historical structures such as the Roman Colosseum or Eiffel Tower or require students to build them. Students could then engage in role-play to explore the replica and write about it from their own character’s point of view.
Students are able to build three-dimensional models that represent graphs and quadrants to solve for area, volume, distance, etc. Teachers can also use blocks in the game to practise algebraic problems, budgeting and resource allocation.
English and MFL
After reading a story, students could be asked to build their interpretation of what they have read through Minecraft. The game also comes in more than 10 languages, which can bring a fresh vibrancy to MFL lessons.
Teachers can build biological models of body parts so that students can virtually explore their structures and processes.
Students might select a piece of art from a gallery, exhibit, or book, and recreate it within Minecraft, also adding their own personalisation.