Friday, 13 February 2015

Engaging Students in Minecraft.

Today the year 8 math class and I began our journey in MinecraftEdu towards making Mathlandia the project I always hoped it would be. I am so excited, and so are the students. I explained that there would be a base world where students would just be able to play, in survival, however they wanted. Their response was palpable excitement at the prospect of this, and I mentioned my hope that I can let them into the computer room, and the world at recess at least once a fortnight, hopefully every week.

I went on to explain how we would have a portal to another server where we would do our learning activities, and they would be rewarded with undecided rewards at the conclusion of each task(their first reward they can decide, within reason). Many of these students play Minecraft at home, so that got a stir of excitement as inter-server portals are probably not something that they would have explored before. I then introduced them to our Moodle page, where they will get their tasks, links and what ever else is needed for the lesson and we joined the tutorial world.

The students were off like a rocket, they knew how to play, so once I was sure that everyone had the basics down, we loaded up Mathlandia and I just let them play, gather and begin building their houses. I left night off for the session today, just so that they could get set up and not get frustrated by dying over and over at night.

Now if you are a regular reader, you know that I have been thinking a lot lately about how to make lessons fun and engaging for students. What is it that makes Minecraft fun for students, and how can I utilise that in lessons? Today I received yet another wake up call, which brought about the rest of this post. The engagement in that lesson today was off the charts, every student was working towards whatever goal they had in mind, they were working in small groups towards a common goal and individually towards their own, no arguments, no issues whatsoever.

I've heard lots of similar success stories from other teachers, but it sadly does not seem to be the universal experience in all classrooms. This got me reflecting on how my own practices with Minecraft might differ from those of other teachers. I am a big proponent of the "Minecraft at home is different to Minecraft at school." In fact I regularly use that line when I talk to students and teachers about Minecraft in the classroom. I think the distinction needs to be clearly made in terms of what students expect, however I don't think that the experience in school needs to be completely locked down and so far removed from what makes the game fun for them. In fact I think it would be way better if their learning experience used their knowledge of the game mechanics to complete the lessons the teacher has set.

I feel that if a student doesn't actively play the game at home and the game is ‘locked down’, chances are their experience will not be as negative as a student who is an active player and who knows ‘what they are missing’. So a big part of this year for me will be trying to use the ‘game’ to help me teach, rather than just teaching within the game. But when I hear or read teachers saying that students are disappointed that they cannot reach their 'goals' in Minecraft for whatever reason. I think to myself, why can they not do that, why can the teacher not negotiate with the student to make a valuable learning experience where the student can do the ‘thing’ that will engage them while still reaching the learning goals? So another goal I am working towards this year is to get students feedback on my lessons much more, with pre-lesson and post lesson surveys, focussing on the learning they achieved and what they liked and disliked about the activity, so I can work to improve my lesson design and delivery.

I dont want to be an educator that uses Minecraft in their classes as a 'baby sitter', a 'silver bullet' or just because everyone else is raving about it. I want to use what is a very powerful tool for education in my ‘toolbox’ in the best possible way. I want to use it in my classes because of the engagement, learning and flexibility it can provide. I want to give students the opportunity to learn in a way that they have not before, at least in a formal classroom. Wish me luck and thanks for reading.

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