I quite like the Minecraft computer game. I like the way that players build something of their own rather than chase after the limited objective of most games. I hadn’t realised that Minecraft was owned by Microsoft through a subsidiary but, if I had, this wouldn’t bother me.
Education is often characterised by a debate between those who favour child-centred methods and those who prefer a teacher-led approach. I’ve noticed a tendency of the former to accuse the latter of being in cahoots with big business. They point, for instance, to Pearson and its role in testing. But business is really just there to provide stuff that people will buy. For every company selling us tests and textbooks there will be one selling Minecraft as an engaging activity that you can guide students through from the side. Business is neutral. It is up to us as a profession to decide if, when and how to use these products.
Microsoft has an Australian Twitter account dedicated to education. This account recently tweeted a link to a blog post by an English teacher about how he uses Minecraft to create ‘immersive engagement’. I responded to this:
This is relatively mild criticism. Notice that I link to my own post on engagement being a poor proxy for learning. So this isn’t just snarkiness: I have a certain amount of thinking to support my scepticism. It is possible that using Minecraft to teach English results in highly engaged individuals who are motivated by the game scenario but who are not learning much English.
To be fair, the author of the blog post does suggest that the use of Minecraft led to better writing. I just find it hard to see why this would be the case. If students are spending time building stuff in the Minecraft world then they are not thinking about writing or constructing an argument. There may well be elements of narrative that are addressed by assuming particular roles but that’s still not the main activity.
It reminds me of the activity that Dan Willingham outlined in ‘Why don’t students like school?’ Students were meant to be learning about the Underground Railroad – a route used to escape slavery in the Southern U.S. The escapees often baked and ate biscuits and so the class teacher thought this would be an engaging activity to do. The problem was that this caused students to think about flour and water and baking times rather than the Underground Railroad.
I also think that the idea that we should motivate students through engaging activities and that this will lead to learning places the cart before the horse. We know that people are motivated by mastery: getting better at writing will motivate students about writing. If we focus on mastery then we need to focus on the teaching strategies that most directly address a student’s ability to write.
You may have noticed something odd about the screen-grab above. The tweet by @MSAUedu that I am responding to does not appear embedded in my own tweet. This is because the Microsoft account has now blocked me, presumably for this single interaction. So Microsoft want to engage our students with Minecraft but they don’t appear to be interested in engaging in a discussion about the value of this.