In recent years, researchers and educators alike have reminded us that our students are digital natives and thus, learn accordingly. The big push is to create educational computer games and apps that teach content, skills, critical thinking, and creativity. The thought is that children today have video game mindsets, which means that they crave immediate attention and instant gratification. They need to be noticed and heard and desire constant feedback. Our students want to constantly know their progress. Are they learning or not? So, companies and organizations are designing computer games that offer genuine learning opportunities in disguise. Is this really the direction education is leaning towards? Are our students so motivated by these games that their learning modes have changed? While you could argue both sides of this debate and still lose, as teachers, we need to reflect on how we teach to be sure that it is best meeting the needs of our students.
To test out this theory of gaming as a way to engage the students in learning, I tried something new in my class today. It being the final day of classes before our winter vacation, the boys were already in a state of excitement. So, I scrapped my original plan of having them share their weather projects with their peers and decided to get the students primed for our next unit starting when we return from break. As the students watched and discussed an interesting documentary on how the Earth formed, they needed to create a model of Earth and its layers. One of the options for creating a model was to use the computer game Minecraft on their laptops. Although I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of this program, I know the basics and also know that the students enjoy using it. I’ve also begun to familiarize myself with the ways many teachers are using this program in their schools to teach various topics and skills. I figured, why not try it out and see how it goes. So I did. Of course, the students had other choices available to use as a way of demonstrating their understanding of the content covered. While many students did of course take advantage of using one of their favorite games as a teaching tool, a few students realized that it wasn’t the best way for them to learn. In the sixth grade, we promote self-advocacy and self-awareness in terms of how the boys best learn. We want them to own their learning and be responsible students. As life will constantly throw multiple choices at them, they need to be equipped to make the best choice for themselves. It was a very interesting experience.
Throughout the class, I meandered around to make sure they were indeed, appropriately using the educational program. Everyone seem focused and made effective use of their time. They were taking in the auditory and visual facts from the video and incorporating them into their Minecraft model of Earth and its various parts. While they worked, I asked them to explain their model. Most of the boys were very descriptive and used specific details and facts from the video when describing their model and its parts. Many of those same boys were able to demonstrate a clear and thoughtful understanding of the material. A few of the students even made connections to previous content. They used the appropriate materials that matched Earth’s actual composition. They explained how the layers formed and why they used particular materials to build their model the way they did. It seemed that many of the boys had the opportunity to process the information delivered in the video in a way that helped solidify its meaning and grow into an understanding within their brain through the use of Minecraft. Awesome! Who knew it would have gone this well? I was so proud of the boys and the way they took on something new and ran with it.
I left a few minutes at the end of class for interested volunteers to share and explain their models with the class. They were captivated by the differences they noticed between models. The boys did a fine job describing and explaining how they pictured Earth and its evolution. Despite being hesitant about trying something new before a big vacation, I’m so glad I took the risk. The boys seemed to thoroughly appreciate it. I had one student comment at the end of class, “You are the only teacher to let us use Minecraft in the classroom as a way to learn.” Clearly, the boys respected what I’m trying to do as I grow and develop as a teacher. Although today’s activity wasn’t formally assessed, in viewing their models and having discussions with each of the boys, most of them seem to now have a basic understanding of the material we will dig into come January.
While I still have much to learn about how to use Minecraft as a teaching tool, I now have data to support my claim that Minecraft is a valuable teaching vehicle. My goal is to learn more about how to better use it as tool in the classroom, try using it again with the boys, and then craft a unit or lesson around the educational game. Again, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help my students engage with the curriculum and make learning fun. I want my students to be excited to come to class each and every day because of what we are learning about and how we are learning it. Today marked another adventure in my quest to become the best teacher my students need.