“Minecraft is an ideal medium for teaching the SMSC… that is the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development of our young people.”
And you thought it was just a game that your kids play, and watch on YouTube. But the quote above comes from Donna Comerford, teacher turned educational co-ordinator for the Brighton Digital Festival.
She was introducing a session at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield this week, looking at how Minecraft is being used in the classroom and at home for educational purposes. Apps Playground was in the audience to find out more.
It’s a topic that’s getting talked about a lot more in 2016, with Minecraft owner Microsoft having launched a new version of the game for schools.
Comerford pointed to a recent (excellent) feature in the New York Times which described Minecraft as “an almost perfect game for our current educational moment”, although she warned that even though millions of children are playing the game, taking it into classrooms isn’t a simple task.
“The main thing that I think educators need, which is the same for all software and new bits of kit, is the time to play. Teachers are currently under a lot of pressure, and there is no time for play or reflection to be able to bring in new things for young people,” she said.
Comerford is optimistic though. She hopes that ultimately there will be resources linked to Minecraft in our national curriculum, but she also thinks that “school leadership teams and senior leaders” in the education system need to buy into the idea that it can be more than just a game.
“They need to understand where this fits,” she said.
Kids are the real experts
Stuart Ball, STEM programme manager at Microsoft – which paid $2bn for Minecraft and its developer Mojang last year – was on hand in the conference session to explain how they might be convinced, as well as to elaborate on some of the challenges.
“This is a media that children own themselves. It’s a completely alien world to a lot of adults, and a lot of parents. Children have been able to develop this mastery, and the things they’re doing are extremely complex,” said Ball, a former teacher.
There was a comic moment when he asked the audience how many of them could build something in Minecraft. Most put their hand up (including me!) but when he asked whether they could build something faster and better than a seven year-old, the hands all shot down again.
So, how can teachers and their bosses get enthusiastic about Minecraft? “I’d like to propose to you that we start from where the children are, because they are doing some amazing things with Minecraft, and it’s a world that often sits outside the classroom: a world they’re engaging with online, and with YouTube,” he said.
“They show me stuff on Minecraft that i have no idea about how they’re doing and what they’re doing… With this Minecraft phenomenon, it’s not just that it’s a fun thing to do, a game. There’s something else happening around it as a learning tool.”
There’s a but coming, though. “But as soon as we ‘educationalise’ this, kids will get turned off,” continued Ball.
“I’ve had teachers ask me ‘How do I teach Minecraft?’ and that’s the first mistake you’re making. You have 30 Minecraft experts in front of you! Your job as a teacher is to build a learning opportunity for them in the classroom by using the resources out there, but not feeling that you have to have mastery.”
Ball gave an example of how not to do it: a class studying the Romans with a teacher who creates a Roman villa in Minecraft, then gets the children to stand round it while answering questions about the Romans.
“It becomes a Minecraft version of a worksheet,” said Ball, adding that a better approach would be to give children building challenges like putting some irrigation in for a villa, or building a temple with a certain amount of pillars.
Ball admitted that another barrier to putting Minecraft in schools is convincing the technical staff to support it.
“Technical managers are very nervous about putting something like Minecraft on their precious systems. Who knows what those kids will be up to?” he said. That’s a challenge that Microsoft will be trying to solve with its version for schools, of course.
Ball also talked about the many children who want to make Minecraft videos and upload them to YouTube, just like The Diamond Minecart, Stampy and other online stars. He introduced one child who’s doing exactly that – ‘Solly the Kid’ – who is closing in on 1,000 subscribers for his channel, with videos that have had tens of thousands of views.
“I watched YouTubers like Wizard Keen and Stampy, saw how much fun they were having, and just thought i’d try it,” said Solly.
It’s a desire we’ve seen here at Apps Playground from our own children too. In fact, earlier this year I wrote an article for the Guardian about my sons’ YouTube debuts as ‘Percy Panther’ and ‘Chickeny Chap’.
“I believe we should have an education system where, if a child imagines something, they should be able to build it, create it, write about it,” said Ball, as he finished his speech.
“Don’t educationalise it. Don’t turn it into something that becomes ‘another educational piece of software’ because they will suss us out. They will turn away and find something else to do.”
Keen as mustard
One of Solly’s inspirations, Wizard Keen – aka British Minecraft creator Adam Clarke – was sitting next to him during the CMC session, and followed Ball with his own talk about Minecraft’s potential for education, and some of the projects he’s worked on.
They include a collaboration with Stampy on the latter’s Wonder Quest series – a show filmed within Minecraft which saw the pair exploring various scientific concepts, complete with a spin-off cartoon explaining them in more detail.
“It’s an American show, so we looked at common core grade two [the US equivalent of our national curriculum] and created stories out of that,” said Clarke. “Each of the episodes is story-driven first, but each has a common-core element.”
If your children are massive Stampy (or Wizard Keen) fans waiting for the second series of Wonder Quest, they’re not the only ones.
“Season two is coming out… Every day I get asked by maybe 50 or 60 children about it. There’s even a hashtag: #BringBackWonderQuest,” said Clarke. “It is there, it’s just been a bit delayed.”
Clarke talked about some of his other projects as a digital producer using Minecraft: for example, making a series of Minecraft maps based on famous paintings for Tate Britain, and other maps for the Royal Foundation to encourage children to explore conservation.
The We Are The Rangers maps for the latter feature some surprises: animals like elephants and giraffes, which aren’t in the main Minecraft game.
“The Java version allows us to retexture some blocks. The giraffes are zombies with some retextured pieces of wool attached to their heads to make them giraffes!” he said.
— WeAreTheRangers (@rangercraft) June 20, 2016
Minecraft: home from home
Clarke also showed a project called My Childhood Home, which saw him recreate his childhood home in Minecraft. He uses this in schools, encouraging children to go further with the idea.
How? By talking to an older person and asking them all about their own childhood home, writing down the details, and then building it in Minecraft and showing it to the older person, before telling one another stories about it.
“It’s not so much about the build itself, but about the real-life dialogue happening with other people in the room,” said Clarke. “It’s at that moment that you get gorgeous, juicy little bits of learning.”
Clarke also showed a project called The Body, which involved creating a giant human body in Minecraft for children to explore.
“It shows how Minecraft can be used to engage in bigger and broader ideas. It can be used to do art. It can be used to do science. It can be used to do things that are unexpected. We expect things like architecture, but this [The Body] is about medical imagery.”
The final speaker in the session was Joseph Palmer, director at BlockBuilders, a company that works with young people using Minecraft to talk about public engagement and the environment.
For example, BlockBuilders did a project in British town Lewes with a group of children. “We took Lewes, the town, turned it into Minecraft, then managed to get it back out into the real world as a neighbourhood plan,” said Palmer. “It’s actually got the potential to create some impact.”
— Becky Parry (@BeckyParry68) July 7, 2016
He also showed a slide with research suggesting that by the time they reach the age of 21, children have spent 10,080 hours playing online games (Minecraft included) versus 9,938 hours of education – school and homework.
You can imagine parents and teachers worrying about these figures, as well as how much that 10,080 hours of game-playing has eaten into time spent playing outdoors.
“Video games aren’t the cause: they’re arguably the symptom,” said Palmer, pointing out that parents’ attitudes towards letting children go out to play on their own has been a big factor too: perhaps kids kept indoors have simply been finding something to do that – particularly with Minecraft – gives them a sense of the freedom and creative play of the outdoor world?
The conference session finished with questions from the audience, including one asking Comerford to explain succinctly what benefits Minecraft brings children.
“They’re working in a social space, so they’re communicating with other young people. But then it’s the creativity, it’s the problem-solving. It’s all of those sorts of skills that employers are looking for,” she said. “It’s that real teamwork that happens,” added Palmer.
Stuart Ball had the last word, pointing out that there is still work to do to convince many teachers about Minecraft’s educational merits.
“Teachers see it as a game: how can it possibly have educational value? But also, how do you mark a piece of Minecraft work? If you’ve built something and it fails, does that mean you’ve failed?” said Ball.
“That’s more a problem of our education system, that sometimes opportunities like Minecraft throw up. My passion is to get every teacher to understand…”