On Sunday, as Microsoft launch their new Education Edition of Minecraft, Tom Bennett (widely referred to as “the government’s behaviour tsar”) called the game a “gimmick” which will “get in the way of children actually learning”. He called for teachers to “drain the swamp” of such distractions in order to support their pupils’ ability to stay on task; a turn of phrase which, in light of recent events, has worrying political connotations.
At London CLC we have been using Minecraft in our workshops for several years, since before the game was acquired by Microsoft and before they launched their new (and sadly rather expensive) edition for schools.
It’s clear that corporate interests can conflict with what is best for teaching and learning, and of course a healthy dose of skepticism is required whenever a school considers investing in a heavily promoted technological tool. However, Minecraft was originally created by a small, Swedish studio called Mojang and the classroom version we use, MinecraftEdu, was not developed by the global tech giant Microsoft, but by a group of Finnish and American teachers and programmers.
MinecraftEdu established a community of teachers who contributed to an extensive library of Minecraft worlds and resources designed to scaffold learning and promote creativity. They vary in their quality, but the rating system on the website makes it easy to work out which resources are worth trying, and after a bit of tweaking and experimenting we’ve used MinecraftEdu worlds submitted by educators all over the world in our workshops and training sessions.
Unfortunately these wonderful, user-generated resources will not be compatible with Microsoft’s new edition. Schools that have already purchased MinecraftEdu can continue using it, but after Microsoft took over it was taken off the market to make way for their own product. Those purchasing the newly launched version will have to rely on the new content Microsoft decide to make available. This content may of course be excellent, but it’s a great shame that educators like ourselves, who have put work into materials, can no longer share them with the wider community.
In light of all this I can understand why someone might be feeling cynical about the new release. But whatever may be changing within the Minecraft community, to claim that the tool is devoid of educational value altogether is an affront to the many teachers who have and will continue to use it in a way that empowers and engages their pupils.
And there is a growing body of evidence beyond the anecdotal. A 2014 study at the Max Planck Institute found that adults who played Super Mario for 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks experienced an increase in brain plasticity. A 2013 conference paper found that Minecraft players exhibit a much higher level of curiosity than the average person, and place a lower level of value on wealth and social status. In 2014 SRI Education released research showing that cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal learning outcomes could all be significantly improved by the use of digital games. This is not to say that any of these studies proves that the moment you run Minecraft in class your pupils will become geniuses, or that Minecraft lessons don’t require careful planning to achieve their value (which is true of any lesson), but it does suggest games have potential to enrich children’s learning.
And here at the CLC we have seen Minecraft meet this potential across a huge range of curriculum areas. In our Minecraft and City planning workshop, for example, children begin their building project by researching real life examples of given buildings from around the world. Through their research they build contextual location knowledge and think about cities in terms of both human and physical geography.
Once they’ve considered the design of their own building they work as a class to decide on the layout of their city. They debate and vote upon the placement of different buildings, taking into account economic activity such as tourism and the environmental impact of buildings like parks, factories and recycling centres.
This pupil made a colour coded recycling centre
Only then do the children begin building, by first finding their own chosen plot of land using a set of coordinates. We’ve worked with classes who have never seen coordinates before, yet are so motivated to find the correct square and start building that they embrace the concept immediately, laying the groundwork for a deep understanding of this KS2 mathematical concept. As they build they also enrich their understanding of geometry and even times tables, placing blocks within Minecraft’s block-based grid structure.
Lauren took inspiration from her class topic, ancient Greece
And this is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what children can learn from Minecraft. We have other workshops focusing on different curriculum areas such as programming in computing (using Python with Raspberry Pi) and habitats in science (connecting a Minecraft world with Google Streetview). There are plenty of ways we could teach those aspects of the curriculum without the use of Minecraft, but using it gives the children the enthusiasm to really push their own understanding, applying it in a context within which they feel free and happy to express themselves creatively.
It is patronising, both to teachers and to children, to suggest that when we teach with Minecraft we run the “risk of children focusing on the wrong thing”. When we teach our City Planning in Minecraft workshop we don’t necessarily expect, for example, that a child will use her recent topic work on Nelson Mandela to inform the task of designing a prison, or that a group of children, upon finishing their individual tasks, will decide to team up and create a working public transport network around their city. But were those children learning the wrong thing?
This year 5 class built a working mine cart rail network to connect their city
Any good teacher can distinguish between a class that is simply messing around on a game they like and a class that is thoughtfully applying their learning to a creative project. This applies to Minecraft just as much as it does to any other educational activity; of course there is classroom management involved in keeping pupils on task, but that is something we can and should expect our teachers to be trained and experienced enough to do in any lesson.
Tom Bennett is perfectly within his rights not to teach lessons with Minecraft. And other teachers, who are willing to put a bit of time into learning about its many and varied applications within the classroom, are also entitled to find great ways of using it with their children. We encourage teachers to keep an open mind, and above all trust their own professional judgement in determining which tools best suit the needs of their pupils. There are a million ways to use a pencil in the classroom, most of which probably lack pedagogical value. That doesn’t mean we should throw away our pencils; just that we should learn to use them well.