Accountability Opinion

Minecraft Offers Lessons in Building a Strong Learning System

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 09, 2015 4 min read
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JC is my Minecraft tutor. He’s 7. He’s taught me about the game, and policy makers can learn from it, too. Earlier, I wrote that California needs to balance its investment in Common Core standards and tests with an investment in powerful, deeper-learning pedagogy. Otherwise, I argued, the teach-to-the-test practice is likely to take over again. Minecraft points the way forward.

Of course, the game can be used directly in schools. A growing corps of teachers is adapting Minecraft for instruction. Last month The Atlantic told the story of Joel Levin, who introduced his second graders to Minecraft and then founded TeacherGaming, a company that has customized the game for classroom use. Even Scientific American has extolled its virtues as an “excellent platform for making almost any subject engaging.”

But for us policy wonks, there are obvious lessons to be drawn from Minecraft about how to build a deeper learning pedagogy. New learning systems need to join with standards and assessments to support student achievement. Without its third leg, the stool of school improvement falls down. Thus, lessons from JC.

Start with the resources you have

JC taught me that in Minecraft you need to start with the resources you have. You can’t wait for some golden tomorrow. You begin as a hunter-gatherer whacking trees, building shelter, and hoping to make it through the night when the monsters rise.

California’s practice of subsidiarity has returned money and authority to districts and schools. Building stronger, deeper learning will need to start with the power and resources they already have. This means that ordinary practices, such as the Local Control Budgeting Process and negotiating labor contracts, need to build instructional capacity.

High stakes and many chances

JC also taught me about the food bowl; when yours runs out, you die. Filling the food bowl requires work. There are lots of clever ways to fill the bowl. JC liked whacking pigs and turning them into pork chops in the oven he built fired with the coal he’d mined. But as he told me, “You need to fill your own bowl; the game won’t do it for you.”

In Minecraft you can die (fail) but you can reboot; in education terms, there is high stakes testing but many chances. Failure has consequences, but it is not permanent. You can learn from failure.

Peter Senge, who has made a civil religion of systems thinking, poses the question, “Does your organization have a learning disability?” Schools (and from experience, universities) often fail to learn from their experience. Curriculum and prescribed teaching practice often lurches from one thing to the next shiny promise without much understanding of what worked well and what didn’t. Linking the Common Core with deeper learning provides an opportunity for teachers and schools to individually and collectively learn from experience.

Network, network, network

In Minecraft, the key to learning is to connect with people who already know how to play the game. In JC’s case, he had two friends, Ava and Daniel, who got him started. JC also showed me that there are lots of places to go when you need help. There are a wealth of resources on YouTube, so many that JC’s parents have limited his screen time.

There are 280,000 teachers in California, whose collective experience should guide the development of deeper learning connected to the Common Core. As in Minecraft, the design challenge is to create networking opportunities that attract use. Although there are lots of teacher networks, and historically teachers like them, policy makers don’t respect their potential leverage. We have not yet created a simple and elegant solution to pooling teacher efforts and knowledge.

To say JC likes Minecraft is an understatement. He’d rather play than eat. He gets up early and finds his tablet. And he loves to show off his skills. Several times, he physically removed my fingers from the keyboard so that he could show me the way forward. “Here’s the ‘cheats (cheets in JC-spell),’” he said as we were parting, and he produced a half a page of instructions that work at the code level that controls the game’s rules.

For teachers, JC’s insight translates into a need for deep knowledge of pedagogy. Essentially, JC is saying “if you know enough about the game, you can control it.” Consider this alongside most packaged instructional programs that are sold as teacher proof.

Minecraft draws kids like JC because it is a non-game, game. It’s not Candy Crunch, Angry Birds, or other form of mental chewing gum. It’s also not a conventional simulation game where the designers create “a hero’s journey, solving riddles, advancing through levels and unlocking prizes.” In Minecraft, players build their own world. Minecraft’s designers made the game interesting to the point of compulsion by building in lots of user controls. Although the game doesn’t look realistic—the graphics are remarkably clunky— the worlds that JC and fellow gamers create are highly compelling and very complex.

The goal is to make the game irresistible, which is a long way from most conventional professional development or teacher education.

JC and I will continue to play Minecraft. I am a little behind in watching the YouTube instructional videos, and I know he will be impatient with me as only a 7-year-old can be. But the larger lesson for me is to draw insights from Minecraft about how to construct a learning infrastructure that will support deeper, practice-based learning. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to whack some trees and dig for coal.

(If you are a teacher, particularly one in California, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences with Minecraft.)

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.