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Messy learning with Minecraft

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Messy learning with Minecraft

May 23, 2011

Morning Minecraft crew ready to dig

It’s barely 9:15 in the morning and already two students have fallen down a mine shaft, one burst into flames when he swam through lava and another just killed his best friend with a pork chop. It’s going to be a messy morning but one packed with learning. This is learning with Minecraft.

For those of you who don’t pay attention to such things, Minecraft is the uber-successful indy, lego-style building game. But it’s much more than that. It’s whatever you want it to be: an epic zombie-dodging wilderness survival game, a “if you can think it, you can build it” construction zone or a virtual space where players can run wild, break stuff, build stuff and do a whole lot of learning in the process. I’ve done a bit of the first two, but it’s as an environment for learning where I (and many others) see the potential for Minecraft.

Minecraft isn’t a learning game. It’s not designed to teach you math, problem solving skills or community building, but it has the potential to do all three.

The premise of Minecraft is simple: dig up resources (like wood, stone and dirt) combine them together to make other things (shovels, swords, armor and much more) and use the resources to build stuff (homes, rollercoasters, boats, castles, and anything else you can think of.) For teachers, Minecraft is the ideal game to use in the class because it is so open-ended, totally flexible and affordable (currently $20)

For me, it was the perfect vehicle to build the literacy skills of seven grade 5 and 6 students who come to me for reading and writing support three days a week. For these students, motivation to read and write is a big challenge. Previously, we had done a writing unit around their Nintendo DSi’s, specifically Pokemon, where they had drawn maps of the game areas, profiled their favourite Pokemon and written strategy guides for specific Pokemon fights.  I knew they loved video games and after screening a few Minecraft videos on youtube, they were totally eager to play.

Playing with Water

It took about a week to get a server set up on the school computers and then we were ready to start. Lucas Gillespe’s Minecraft in School Wiki was a great help with the technical stuff and with lesson plan ideas.

At first, I wanted to plan an entire narrative for the students, one that would unfold as the weeks went by. But I quickly scrapped that idea as too limiting for them.  Who am I to tell them what to do with their time in game?  What if they didn’t want to participate in my narrative? What if they just want to play with lava? What if they wanted to just run and run and run to see where the world ends? I know that’s what I wanted to do when I first started playing. Why should they be any different as gamers?

For that first day in Minecraft, I did very little planning. I build a roofless shelter on a hill. I put a few axes and shovels in boxes and clearly labeled them with signs. And I wrote one short introduction text (inspired by Lucas’ own “Washed Ashore” theme), to set the mood. Each student got a piece of paper with this written on it:

You don’t remember much.
A ship. A storm. And waves. Big, curling waves that washed over the deck of your ship. The captain steered the ship as best he could but the storm was too fierce and the night too dark.
With a bone-breaking crunch, the tall ship mast snapped and all control of the vessel was lost. The screams of your fellow passengers echoed in your ears. One final wave slammed onto the deck and swallowed you whole. Your world disappeared in a sea-green blur. Then all went black.
When you awoke, you found yourself on a beach. Around you, stood your fellow travellers.
A word floats through your mind: <Player name here>. You recognize it as your name. That is all you can remember.
You do not know where you are. This land is yours to explore. But you must hurry. It will be dark soon and there is much to do. What you do and where you go is up to you.
Welcome to Minecraft.

This simple premise, was all the structure I planned to give them. With a final word from me about the importance of working together and sharing, they logged into Minecraft.

And destroyed the place.

Two players ran into the water and immediately drowned. One player found the boxes, scooped up all the mining picks and then destroyed the boxes. And the others ran, jumped and discovered they could dig. So they did just that: digging up the one structure I built for them.

The only shelter gone in 30 seconds of digging.

It was amazing.

Suddenly, the library was filled with their voices asking each other for help, shouting out their discoveries (“I can swim!”), getting themselves into danger and figuring a way out.

There’s no in-game tutorial or training zone in Minecraft (yet) but my students (and I suspect many others) didn’t need one. Being the gamers and digital citizens they are, they came pre-loaded with the literacies needed to navigate this virtual space (wasd keys for moving, spacebar for jumping, etc.) And while they might not have shared in game (yet), they shared their knowledge out of game. They taught each other how to dig, swim, open your inventory and much more.

Digging your way out of a hole. It can work.

After 30 minutes of chaotic gameplay, I called the students together to reflect on what they just did and write about it in their Explorer’s Journals.

Fresh from their lava-burning, friend-ganking adventures, each student had a story to tell.  For the rest of the class, there was relative silence as they documented their first steps into this new land.

A land that is theirs to shape how ever they want. I’ll be there to encourage them and advise them along the way. But they’re in charge. They might not be playing Minecraft the “right” way or even the way you would play it. And that’s exactly the point.

Without rules laid down from the top, without a structure that must be followed where everyone is learning how to build with stone today and crafting tomorrow there is room for mistakes, failure and danger. And in that space there is authentic learning. And no amount of planning can guarantee that.

More from the mine pits in coming weeks.

Thanks, as always to:  Melanie and the whole crew on the EDGE Lab server for inspiring me to ignore the Rules Lawyer inside.

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