There are two related reasons why using Minecraft as a teaching tool is unlikely to be very effective.
The first reason is that it relies on a folk theory of motivation that probably isn’t true. We assume that by providing a motivating hook like Minecraft, we will get students interested in a subject like geography and they will then learn more geography. In terms of interest theory, we are relying on situational interest – an interest in the particular tasks that we ask students to complete – to lead to personal interest – a long-term interest in geography.
The flaw in this idea is that we have done nothing to foster a love of ox-bow lakes or flood plains. We’ve not made the geography more inherently interesting – we’ve switched it for something else.
A really useful study took place in Canada that tracked long-term motivation and achievement of Canadian maths students. It found that the level of motivation in Grade 2 did not affect achievement in Grade 4. However it did find that the level of achievement in Grade 2 positively affected Motivation in Grade 4. So if you want students to develop long-term motivation – perhaps a personal interest – in a subject that the best thing to do is help them to master it.
This is not a new idea. A key plank of self-determination theory is competence – getting better at something is motivating.
The second problem with Minecraft is that is seems less likely to lead to mastery of the subject than other teaching methods. It is hard to make the game-play of something like Minecraft coincide with exactly what you want students to learn. The question that needs to be asked is whether the narrative element of the game is intrinsic to the learning or a motivational bolt-on.
If it’s the latter then it is likely to lead to less learning. Think of asking students to complete a poster on erosion – without additional guidance, you will have some students who spend all their time beautifully rendering the word ‘erosion’ as a title and no time thinking about the concept. Similarly, in a Minecraft learning environment, you will have students manipulating blocks and doing cool things largely unaware of the wider point about climate change that they are supposed to be learning.
This idea seems to have been confirmed by research. In a series of experiments, Deanne Adams and colleagues found that learning concepts from a narrative game was actually less effective than being taught those same concepts through a slide-show (of all things). They also found that removing the narrative component of the games had little effect. The games were less effective teaching strategies.
This should not lead us to abandon all computer games as learning tools. Instead, we need to ensure that they cause students to think about the concepts that we want to learn rather than something additional and irrelevant. A quizzing app, for instance, could work extremely well for retrieval practice. A driving simulator might help improve driving skills. The point is that you need to spend the game-play engaged mainly in the thing you are trying to learn.