Photographs, video clips, poetry, personal experiences, objects, memories. Not an exhaustive list but a sample of some of the things English teachers use every day to try and engage students and immerse them in writing tasks. The problem we face is that, for many students, writing feels like work. Not academic work (solving a maths problem or working out an engineering problem) but actual work more attuned with digging the garden or washing up. My job as an English Teacher is to find a way to overcome this and motivate my learners so that they are willing to disregard the work feeling and actually want to write something.
My son is a typical 9 year old reluctant writer. He struggles with his handwriting which makes him slower than his peers at producing written work. He becomes frustrated that his writing doesn’t look like theirs and that he hasn’t written as much as them. As a result of this he becomes distracted and distracts others as an avoidance strategy. I’m sure you recognise him in your own classroom.
At home he plays Minecraft. He loves the open world sandbox nature of the game. It doesn’t tell him what to do, where to go or how to play. He is free to create his own experience within the game. One evening, early last year, I noticed my son had stopped playing and was huddled over the table. He had several sheets of notepaper in front of him filled with writing. When I asked him what he was up to he barely looked up. He explained that he had just explored a ruined shipwreck on a tropical island and a band of zombie pirates had tried to capture his treasure. He had decided to write the story down because he had enjoyed creating it and playing it.
That moment was a real lightbulb moment for me. He had been so motivated, enthused and immersed in his creation that the writing didn’t feel like work. It had become an extension of the game experience. So if it had worked for him why couldn’t it work for others?
The reasons I chose MinecraftEdu over “vanilla” Minecraft are many and varied but I will leave those for another day.
The idea behind my StoryLand is simple and was suggested to me by the amazing Adam Clarke (@thecommonpeople). Starting from a Central Library floating above the world students are transported to various different experience zones. After 20-30 minutes in the zone they are frozen in-game and complete a writing activity. The writing is then transferred into in-game books and stored in chests within the library for future visitors to read. The writing can be anything from a story to a news report depending on which areas of weakness the student has.
I have 2 groups set up, during lunchtimes, to facilitate this world. The first is the user group. They are the students typified by my son. The reluctant writers. This groups membership changes periodically based on needs. They need no previous Minecraft experience and are using Minecraft as an experience and immersion tool to try and harness their enthusiasm for the game and translate it into motivated writing.
The second group is made up of more experienced Minecraft users. These are the driving force of the project; they create buildings, landscape features and hints at storylines within the game; they search the map for new areas that could host a story; they place strategic signs with adventurous keywords that could be used in a description of the area; they rebuild when things go wrong. They give their time freely and love the responsibility they share.
There are of course some serious issues raised by the use of video games in any learning environment. Our first ever live session with students was filmed for BBC Breakfast and Tim Muffett asked some probing questions surrounding concerns over gaming addiction. I have also been asked whether or not Minecraft has any intrinsic educational value at all or whether it is just a digital box of Lego for children to play with. Minecraft is like a blank sheet of paper. It can be folded into amazing creations; it can become a canvas for spectacular works of art; it can host incredible immersive stories; it can be whatever your imagination can make it. A sheet of paper has no intrinsic educational value but in the right hands it can be an amazing learning tool. Any enjoyable activity can become addictive unless it is moderated. MinecraftEdu has teacher controls at its core to allow absolute control over the time and experience in game. Harnessing an enthusiasm for a particular thing and using it to engage and motivate learners however is entirely different to feeding and fuelling an addiction.
For those that look at a bucket of Lego and see a pile of brightly coloured bricks MinecraftEdu will one one of those innovations you pass over and move on. If you’ve ever looked at that pile of bricks and seen a castle (maybe with jet boosters and a split level couch) MinecraftEdu might just be the medium you have been looking for. I took the plunge and got blocky. The adventure has only just begun!