Teaching Literacy With Minecraft: Education Edition & Research On Game Based Learning

minecraftI spent some time this afternoon listening to this interview with with Deirdre Quarnstrom from the Minecraft: Education Edition and towards the end she referenced the work of Cross Pond Collaborations. I had checked this out previously and it’s the work of Ben Spieldenner and Simon Baddeley, two educators who teach English and are also passionate about Minecraft.

Having taken some time to reacquaint myself with their work, I decided to do a blog about this to really drive some awareness of their work because it’s fantastic and they share it openly on the internet for free:

View and download their projects here.

If you’re wondering why, or even how, you might use Minecraft: Education Edition to teach literacy, have a look at this trailer for their Verona Adventure lesson they’ve created:

Another example of their worlds is the Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and, with less than a week to go before Christmas 2018, this is a very seasonally relevant world:

Game Based Learning Is Legitimate

Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as recreated in Minecraft by Cross Pond Collaborations

In my previous capacity as the Director of ICT at St Andrew’s College, I worked with a range of awesome educators and some were exploring how they could integrate Minecraft into their teaching and learning programmes in a pedagogically robust way. Wilj Dekkers was one of these and I had the privilege of going into his classrooms to meet with his students and see the output of their work using Minecraft. Two examples from as far back as 2014 are worth reviewing:

 

I do encourage you to review the two blog posts above, but to see the student output here are the videos:

Kiwiana Theme Parks In Minecraft w. Student Narratives

Minecraft inspires creative writing in students, who compose “choose your own ending” stories in OneNote
One of the best aspects from Cross Pond Collaborations is they have already put the hard work and effort in to not only build out very detailed Minecraft worlds, but have also provided standards aligned curriculum lessons to support them. You can see all of their projects here. To give a small snippet of one example from their Verona Adventure above, here is the overview:

What happens years after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?  Did the inhabitants of Verona truly forgive one another? The Shakespeare classic, Romeo and Juliet, leaves readers with a city previously plagued by the constant fighting of two powerful families.  If the fighting ends abruptly how does Verona begin to function in this new peace? Students explore these ideas through an adventure that ultimately leads to an argumentative essay in which they attempt to regain their freedom.

Simon and Ben have also aligned this with Standards from the Common Core:

Standards (Common Core)

Grades 8-10 (Ages 14-17)

  1. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1:Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  2. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  3. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.5:Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.
  4. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.9:Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Learning Outcomes have even been provided:

Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will gather evidence from multiple in-game sources.
  2. Students will determine credible sources.
  3. Students will use evidence in an argumentative essay.

With lesson outlines and pre-built worlds and given the fact that most grade school students have had some previous exposure to Minecraft, it really comes down to teachers being prepared to be bold and give Game Based Learning a go. One example of this is a friend and former colleague Ms Tam Yuill Proctor who I blogged about earlier this year when she gave Minecraft: Education Edition a go for the first time in her class. You can read the post here, however the key quote was:

After avoiding it due to to a lack of understanding and confidence, I thought, ‘lets give it a go!’.

Well,  I was blown away with the students and Minecraft Edu.

What Does The Research Say?

James Paul Gee, an American academic, researcher and expert on Game Based Learning has published books and articles on this topic and I encourage you to read his Good Video Games and Good Learning article available online for free. In it, he outlines his 16 Principles For Good Game Based Learning:

 

  1. Identity: Players build a sense of identity throughout the video game, either through direct input or as an on-screen character they inherit
  2. Interaction: Communication occurs between the player and the game. In a good game, words and sdeedes are all placed in the context of an interactive relationship between the player and the world.
  3. Production: Players are producers, not just consumers: they are “writers” not just “readers”. This drives a level of engagement that more passive medias do not allow.
  4. Risk Taking: Good video games lower the consequences of failure; playrrs can start from the last saved game when they fail. Players are thereby encouraged to take risks in a way they might not normally do so.
  5.  Customized: Games usually offer a level of customization so that users can play — and succeed — at their competency level. Customized curricula in school would not just be about self pacing, but about real intersections between the curriculum and the learner’s interests, desires, and styles.
  6. Agency: Players have control over the gaming environment – based on the first five principles above, players develop a sense of ownership over what they’re doing that often exceeds the sense of ownership in other areas of their school learning.
  7. Well-Ordered Problems: The gaming environment contains problems that naturally lead into one another, allowing a player’s mastery to grow and evolve. Where learners are left to roam in a complex problem space, they tend to hit on creative solutions to these complex problems [something that Minecraft: Education Edition promotes].
  8. Challenge and Consideration: Games offer a problem that challenges students’ assumed expertise. Skills are developed and mastered through repetition, before the player is challenged again by a new set of problems to build on their newly honed skills. This is called the “Cycle of Expertise”.
  9. Just in Time or On Demand: Players receive information as they need it, not before, which teaches them patience and perseverance and improves critical-thinking abilities. People are generally inadequately prepared to deal with lots of words out of context e.g. reading entire text books to find a single piece of information. Games provide knowledge “just in time” – school work should do the same.
  10. Situated Meanings: Students learn new vocabulary words by experiencing them within game situations. Research suggests learners do not acquire new vocabulary when the word is learnt purely in the context of other words. By contrast, retention is highest when words are learnt in association with an action, event, or image. Gaming provides the perfect vehicle for this.
  11. Pleasantly Frustrating: The game should frustrate the student enough to challenge them but be easy enough that they believe and can overcome the problem(s) faced. School, by contrast, is often too easy for some students and too hard for others, even in the same classroom.
  12. System Thinking: Games make players think in a bigger picture, not just individual actions taken, helping them see how the pieces fit or can be fitted together. They encourage players to think about relationships, not isolated events, facts and skills. In collaborative games such as Minecraft: Education Edition, players often need to work together to achieve a common outcome.
  13. Explore, Think Laterally, Rethink Goals: Games force players to expand their situational knowledge and consider courses of action other than linear ones. Going fast and straight is not encouraged – lateral thinking is rewarded.
  14. Smart Tools and Distributed Knowledge: In-game tools help students understand the world. Through using them, they gain confidence to share their knowledge with others.
  15. Cross-Functional Teams: In multiplayer environments, players have different skills, forcing them to rely on each other—a needed soft skill for students. I have seen many teachers talk about student’s developing more inter-personal skills through the use of Game Based Learning such as Minecraft: Education Edition.
  16. Performance before Competence: Competency occurs through taking action in the game, reversing the typical model in which students are required to learn before being allowed to act. This is daunting for many adults, who acquire a fear of failure as they grow older, but many students are prepared to “give it a go” before they’ve either read the manual or developed sufficient proficiency.

Conclusion

It is always awesome when educators provide first class content online, for free. It’s a hallmark of the educator community and I applaud Ben Spieldenner and Simon Baddeley for contributing so significantly to this longstanding tradition.

There are others, of course, creating similar content and you can access a plethora of content on the official Minecraft: Education Edition Lessons page. If you’re an educator and have not considered Game Based Learning, then reflect on the 16 Principles above from James Paul Gee and consider whether an open world platform like Minecraft might help engage your students in a new form of learning to drive better outcomes.

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