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Friday, November 28, 2014

What can Minecraft offer education?

By Matthew Banfield

t’s likely that the majority of British school pupils play video games. From smartphones to games consoles, there are a lot of games available to them. Here, teacher-in-training and gamer Matthew Banfield explores the possibilities that the incredibly popular Minecraft presents to schools.
Working in education, you have most likely heard of Minecraft. This game has captured a generation, giving people who play the game an unlimited space to explore and express themselves. The game may well have taken over your classroom through the huge amount of merchandise available, from pencil cases to books.
The game itself rewards the player’s creativity and ambition, whilst also throwing in some curveballs along the way. The beauty of Minecraft is that there is no objective, no main mission aims and no one direction in which your gaming session must take you. It is entirely up to the player what he or she wants to do with their time in the neverending, unique world the game has created for them. One minute you can be building the dream house, the next you’re mining around lava for the most valuable treasures; it is entirely up to you.
I first came into contact with Minecraft whilst working as a TA, gaining experience ready for my PGCE course. I worked one-to-one with a child who was really passionate about a few things, one of which was Minecraft. He really appreciated me sitting there listening to him telling me everything he knew about the first-person exploration game. Eventually the gamer within me kicked in and I just had to give it a go!
So now you know a little about Minecraft, and why it has captured the attention of so many young people, but you’re probably thinking – “Why does this video game mean anything to me?” As a teacher you have discovered something about which members of your class are so passionate, why not use it to drive their learning?

Video Games in Education

There is no doubt that video games can be incredibly entertaining, and are a great technological advancement for social and recreational use, but is there any room for them in the classroom? As far as popular press goes, gaming has been bookmarked as a negative subject which is surrounded by suggestions of addiction, increased aggressiveness and various medical and psychological problems. However, in both mine and many others opinions, gaming can be delivered in such a way to have a positive impact on both the young and old.
Video games have been proven to develop social interaction and self-esteem in individuals, not to mention motor control improvements in areas such as reaction time and hand/eye co-ordination. Furthermore, the challenge that can be set by video games has been proven to aid children’s learning journeys. Understanding how to set personal goals and track progress is an important skill to learn for a child travelling through their educational life. What they do not notice is that whilst playing video games, this process is happening almost autonomously. A child can play a game, receive a high score, replay the game and track their progress without even realising they’re doing it.

ICT (oops sorry… I mean Computing)

An obvious area of the curriculum to use video games in is computing. The students can look at how video games are made, and can actually discover how easily they can create something themselves. Minecraft is a prime example to children of how simple video games can be. I am not trying to say that Minecraft is an easily-produced game by any means (I wouldn’t know where to start), but if you think about it, the idea is actually quite basic. It is essentially a huge area made up of blocks, a simple concept that has gone on to grab the enthusiasm of a generation. What’s not to say that a member of your class has that next big idea locked away somewhere?
"Understanding how to set personal goals and track progress is an important skill to learn for a child travelling through their educational life"
Video games as a learning resource can also help further in computing. They appeal to a wide range of children. Gaps can be closed between genders, which is especially needed in the ICT world. In a career path so heavily dominated by men, gaming could encourage both genders to unlock a passion for the technological world that they would otherwise have never discovered.
While I was planning a presentation for my PGCE interview, I used a couple of pieces of software to help the children recreate the meeting of Mr Tumnus and Lucy from “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”. The series of lessons were a great success with the children and teachers, but I feel that improvements could have been made. The software that was available to the children was quite basic, two dimensional and a limited. The work produced using this software was staggering, but I can’t help but look back and think, if I had known about Minecraft, how much better could that lesson have been? The possibilities would have been endless, as opposed to quite constricted.
From my experience, computing is a subject that excites and engages most children naturally, but that might not be the case with all subjects. We will now have a look at how Minecraft could be used in subjects across the curriculum.

Cross Curricula use of Minecraft

Why stop with computing? Minecraft is a brilliant resource and could be used across many subjects:
Art and Design: Being creative is something that some children really struggle with. Even when I was a child, the thought of having to pick up a paint brush or shading pencil made me anticipate a bit of embarrassment. Minecraft’s Creative Mode could be used really well to help children understand something known as ‘Pixel art’, and also give these children the chance to express their creativity. The internet is full of websites where people have shared their incredible creations on Minecraft, and many youngsters would thrive at the opportunity to do this, even if it was only with their classmates.
English: As the children in your class will tell you, there are hundreds of YouTubers out there creating amazing videos telling stories through Minecraft. I found children telling me all about YouTubers such as Stampy, Vikkstar123 and Ali-A, and could retell episodes they had watched almost word for word. Children respond so well to the stories being told through Minecraft because they can easily relate to what is happening on the screen in front of them.
"Many schools now have interactive whiteboards, which could have the whole class working out a maths problem within a Minecraft world"
Most children would love to give this a go themselves, and a tie in with English is a great way of doing this. The children can write scripts, act out history or retell a novel they’re reading, all in their own Minecraft world! There are free pieces of software where you can create your own ‘skin’ for your Minecraft character, meaning recreating scenes from famous books or films can be done with extreme attention to detail. The accompanying materials, such as scripts, can be used as evidence of English work and they can also present their work through a video or even live in front of the class! Surely that ticks a few more of those boxes across much of the curriculum?
Maths: ‘Mods’ are being created by people across the Minecraft community every day, so it wouldn’t take long to find one (or someone who will make one) to fit your every need. An area of Maths that could be explored is problem-solving. Many schools now have interactive whiteboards, which could have the whole class working out a maths problem within a Minecraft world. Some examples of this could include finding the area of a shape, which could visually help a lot of younger children understand which a difficult process to learn initially.
Ali-A (A famous YouTuber) regularly uploads videos playing a mod called ‘Prison’. This mod consists of grinding supplies and selling them to gain enough money to move up the ranks. Whilst watching his videos, I can already see a lesson unfolding in front of my eyes, one where the class have to try and come up with the quickest way to earn money. They could investigate how quickly you can get certain ingredients such as wood or meat and which make most profit, their findings can then be presented in suitable graphs and tables.

Why stop there?

Minecraft is not the only game on the market that can be used as an educational tool. I believe, in reason, games such as the Fifa series could also be used as good tools. Within Fifa, statistics are constantly being produced mid-game, whether it be the possession each team has had or where on the pitch shots have been taken from. There is quite a big emphasis in the new Computing curriculum on data collection and algorithms; who says Fifa or other video games couldn’t help with these areas?
As you’ve probably gathered already, I haven’t just played video games for the purpose of this article. I have been playing video games for a long time, and most recently, I have been looking at video games in a different light. Ever since I decided to become a teacher I have been playing a wider range of games to see if I can find one that can help in education. One that I came across which really got me thinking was ‘Smart As…’
I came across Smart As… whilst working as a TA on a gap year, and it really opened my eyes to how much fun Maths and English lessons could be. Smart As… has many warm up activities for Maths and English lessons which could be put to good effect. I used these games myself every morning, and saw a considerable improvement in my Maths and English scores over the course of a couple of weeks. The game tracks your progress and gives very visual ways of displaying how you’re doing. I know plenty of children who would love these sorts of games as their warm up activities, and I will personally look into using them regularly when I am fully qualified.

Realistic Future:

Not all teachers will have an interest in video games, and might see them as more of a social and unprofessional activity. I’m in no place to say that these people are wrong; video games are a great recreational activity which stays with many people well into their adult lives. However, just because you’re unsure of an area, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a go. As a teacher, developing your own understanding and widening your skills is almost as important as teaching the children themselves. So don’t be afraid to give something new a try - you never know what might help one child understand something they have struggled with in every other lesson you’ve taught.
Another concern for schools where technology is involved is the financial side of things. Admittedly, running video games, especially on PC, is no cheap task. Despite this, Minecraft is surprisingly easy to run and many schools I have visited already possess the technology to run it. Software itself can be expensive: I looked up some of the programs I have used in schools and they can rise to a couple of hundred pounds per license. This is an area video games can gain a real advantage in, Minecraft especially, as their prices are considerably lower than that of other educational software. Minecraft can be purchased for as little as £18 on PC and even less on console.

Why not give it a go?

So who knows what the future brings? Whether video games can make a stand in educational solely lies with the teachers. If people are willing to give new things a go, I think the benefits of games like Minecraft will shine in a Primary setting. If any teachers out there have experienced using video games in their classroom, I would love to hear from you. Please do not hesitate to contact me using any of the below methods and share your story.
I wish everyone who tries video games in education the best of luck, and remember, try to not get too competitive!

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