The Minecraft Teacher

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Mar 7

Trending Topic: Structured vs. Unstructured Play

Recently some spirited debate has unfolded between several teachers whose work I admire and whose opinions I respect.  And there seems to be a rift forming about the “correct” way to use Minecraft in the classroom.

I’m going to oversimplify things a bit, but here is the crux of the debate.

One camp argues that teachers should take a “hands off” approach and just let the kids play the game the way they want to.  There is plenty of self-directed learning to be found and kids will constantly amaze you with the ingenious things they come up with. There is a belief that play has its own intrinsic value which can become diminished when a teacher imposes his or her own goals and restrictions.  Minecraft worlds that support this approach tend to be large and the students return to them over and over.

The other camp sees value in using Minecraft as a platform for more structured lessons. They will place restrictions on where the students can go and what they are allowed to do. The teacher creates content and customizes the world before the students ever see it, and then outlines goals that the students will attempt to achieve.  There is usually a specific set of information that will be communicated and/or skills to be learned and practiced before the lesson is over.  Minecraft worlds that support this approach tend to be small and the students spend a shorter, more focused, amount of time in them.

And of course there are teachers whose opinion falls somewhere between these two extremes.  I guess I’m one of them.

How a teacher chooses to interact with a class is such a personal decision.  There are so many factors to consider.  The age and genders of the students.  The culture of the school and its philosophy.  The teacher’s comfort level with the subject matter and teaching tools. The objectives of a given lesson. And of course there’s that intangible and organic social dynamic in the room that forms with any group of human beings. No one would dream of saying that there is one best teaching practice. This applies to game-based learning just as it would to any other methodology. 

I have a (bad?) habit of treating each group of students I teach as test subjects to be experimented on.  I modify my approach for each class.  Sometimes it can be as simple as explaining things differently.  Sometimes I design an entirely new activity for a class.  And after all this experiemntation, I still can’t claim to have figured out what works best.

Some of my students thrive in an unstructured environment, each rising to self-imposed challenges, finding ways to leave their own personal mark on the world.  However, other kids tend to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available to them in an open world, and need constant direction.  These students respond much better with clearly defined limits to work within. In fact, these students are more likely to approach the activity as a self-contained adventure or quest and proudly speak of “winning” Minecraft. (A concept I find amusing… but I’m not about to question their feelings of triumph!)

I’m starting to believe that the best designed lessons and activities provide options and multiple paths to success, catering to various play styles.  This lines up nicely with traditional classroom practices of embracing a wide variety of learning styles.

We are all in uncharted territory here.  Never before have teachers had a game with the breadth of experiences and malleability that Minecraft offers.  If you are using Minecraft in your classroom, you should be paying close attention to how other teachers implementing it.  Especially if their approach is very different from your own!