Every week or so, I happen upon articles promoting Minecraft as an invaluable instructional tool for teaching everything from reading to history to math. I’m all for innovation in education, but I feel like I’ve seen this story play out before… and the results weren’t great.
What They’re Saying About Minecraft
Google “Minecraft” and “Classroom,” and you’ll happen upon a bevy of articles with titles like:
- Ideas for Using Minecraft in the Classroom
- Why Educators Should Use Minecraft in the Classroom
- Minecraft in the Classroom Teaches Reading and More
These articles mostly contain similarly vague lesson plans and integration strategies coupled with unquantifiable claims that Minecraft increase student engagement. Here’s a quote from the third article in the list above:
“If the teacher wants to use games to learn history, using Minecraft in the classroom won’t throw students into a fully fleshed simulation of the American Revolution. It will start with a plot of land and students will write the story, cast the characters, create the entire 1776 world.”
But starting students with a plot of land, allowing them to write the story, and cast the characters doesn’t teach them anything about the world in 1776. In fact, none of the above steps teach students anything. This activity might offer students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning at the end of a lesson or unit, but seldom do I see these articles framed in this light.
Remember Second Life?
Remember that immersive virtual world where you existed as an avatar of your own choosing? Remember how you could interact and collaborate with other avatars from all over the world? Remember that one episode of The Office where Dwight was so depressed after losing Angela that he built a “Second, Second Life” to further remove himself from the realities of his own existence? Remember how, in 2005, Northern Illinois University built an exact replica of its campus in preparation for offering real classes in a virtual environment? Remember when universities everywhere followed suit and started offering their own virtual classes via Second Life and transformed higher education forever?
Wait… that last one never happened.
All of the other ones did though. However, after a few years, everyone came to their senses and realized that Second Life was actually more cumbersome and impersonal that human interaction and traditional online/distance learning and served little-to-no purpose in education.
I see A LOT of the same going on here with Minecraft. How many times do we need to learn this lesson?
But I Already Use Minecraft and It’s Great!
This post isn’t for you. If you’ve found a way to align your course objectives with Minecraft, great! Keep on doing what you do. My guess though is that you’re finding success not because of Minecraft, but because you are a creative, self-reflective instructor with a contagious enthusiasm for learning. If you’re currently using Minecraft in your class and you’re being honest, you could probably take just about any game, topic, hobby or interest and find a way to make it connect to your class – because you’re a good teacher, not because that thing is an inherently good instructional tool.
Some of the best teachers I know use their personal interests as gateways to learning. When teachers teach with compassion and genuine enthusiasm, it’s really hard for students to not feel similarly. This is why one of the most popular business classes in my high school is… Honors Accounting.
This post is for the teacher that has never played Minecraft and happens upon the myriad of articles promoting it and thinks, “Well maybe I should do that.”
You probably shouldn’t. Introducing an instructional tool that you don’t really understand and probably don’t care about is a recipe for disaster.
What To Do Instead?
Jessica Lahey recently interviewed Teller of Pen and Teller, who before entering show business taught high school Latin. In the article, Lahey quotes Teller as saying:
“The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject.”
Figure out what you love. Then figure out how you can connect that to your curriculum. If you love Minecraft, then fine teach with Minecraft, but if you love knitting, ham radio, or woodcarving, find a way to connect your passion to the content you teach and you’ll be one step closer to helping your students fall in love too.
Do You Disagree
I am entirely open to the possibility that I’ve overlooked something and just don’t get it. If that’s the case, I would love to hear how Minecraft, or Second Life for that matter, is an inherently great instructional tool. Please leave a comment below. I’m open to reshaping my thinking.