Minecraft and the Value of Deeper Learning

By Steve Fitzpatrick, Hackley School History Teacher

The students were shouting across the Hackley Middle School computer lab, barking orders to teammates as they navigated the open world of Minecraft. For three days in October, using Minecraft as a tool, my 7th grade class worked collaboratively to construct their versions of schools based on one of the Chinese philosophies (Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, or Buddhism) we were studying during our unit on Ancient China.

One Daoist group made elaborate tree house dormitories and outdoor classrooms centered around a large lake to emphasize the Daoist connection to nature. A Confucian school was highly organized and traditional, with large, well-lit classrooms, faculty dormitories, and other touches indicating hierarchy, order, and respect for the past stressed in Confucian texts. The Buddhist schools all had variations of temples and meditation spaces to demonstrate peace, harmony, and introspection, many weaved within breathtaking vistas, mountains, valleys, waterfalls, and caves. When they finished, each group gave a virtual “tour” of their school to the class on the whiteboard.

I confess I was a little lost during the creative process. Though familiar with the basics of Minecraft (having had two Middle School children), I did not know the ins and outs of all the commands, materials, and techniques in the application. Hackley Director of Information Technology Jed Dioguardi set up our Minecraft world, which was pared down from the original version and could only be accessed through the Middle School lab.

My colleague Jared Fishman and I had covered this unit in prior years, but we decided to expand the assignment a bit for 2018, incorporating a school mission statement (using Hackley’s own Portrait of a Graduate as a template) as well as a visual representation of the school based on the Chinese philosophy of religion.

Originally, the idea was to have students use a poster board to draw or outline the school in a rough sketch. During one of my classes, one student asked whether we could use Minecraft to complete this aspect of the assignment. I hesitated. While I knew on some level that Minecraft would be ideal to bring these schools to life in a more three-dimensional way, all of the typical logistical obstacles immediately popped up. Did enough students know how to use it? Could we even set it up to work? How much time would we need? And, most importantly, would this be worth the time and effort to make it happen? Ultimately, I decided to take the leap and I did so predominantly based on the summer conference that I attended last July with Middle School director Cyndy Jean at Harvard.

As the former Curriculum Director for the Middle School, I had attended many summer programs and was familiar with the current buzzwords in education like backward planning, design thinking, and growth mindset. But when I came across a 4-day Harvard Graduate school summer workshop entitled Deeper Learning for All: From the Classroom to the System, I knew this was what I was looking for.

Over the course of the conference, more than 80 educators from around the world learned about how many schools are adapting to the new challenges of the 21st century. While we covered a lot of interesting and relevant concepts through the assigned readings and individual workshops, three in particular stood out and informed my decision to take the plunge with Minecraft: Engagement, Mastery, and Creativity.

Engagement

Any teacher knows that students who are engrossed in an assignment are far more likely to put forth their best effort. We all have our go-to projects that, based on previous experience, we roll out knowing that students will generally welcome enthusiastically. Whether due to the content, structure, or the specific way the lesson and goals are set up, these tend to be favorites of both teachers and students. Deeper Learning simply asked the novel question — why aren’t these assignments the norm rather than the exception? Why is it that, once the project that consumed students’ interest and passion is over, we return to less engaging and more rote models? Further, when a project is working and when the opportunity to dive deeper presents itself, why doesn’t the educational system allow for teachers to take the extra time to exploit these moments? Using Minecraft last fall seemed a perfect opportunity to put that idea to the test.

Mastery

Within any given task, students recognize immediately where they fall on the continuum of mastery. Are they novices, intermediate, or advanced performers in the skill or competency being developed? Do they see a path to improvement and safe opportunities for failure? Can they see and reflect on their progress? The idea of mastery reflects real life because no one can be expected to be good at everything. Students, particularly Middle School students, need at least some area where they feel especially competent. The Minecraft activity was unique for me because I was in the role of novice while the students, especially those with a lot of experience, were the masters. Needless to say, they relished that role and I was quickly reminded and humbled by their expertise and how much I needed to learn. Some of the most gratifying elements of the Minecraft exercise was seeing students come to life in ways they had not within the more traditional means of the curriculum. Watching the Minecraft “experts” rise to the occasion to take on the role of teacher, advisor, and facilitator within the class was transformative.

Creativity

Students want some ability to exercise a degree of choice within the general parameters of an assignment. Projects that allow for creative responses to meaningful questions tend to elicit interesting and thoughtful work. In a school setting, tension revolves around whether the creative approach adopted by the student meets the criteria of the assignment as outlined by the instructor. Creative work can be notoriously difficult to grade. During the Minecraft portion of the project, I found myself constantly reminding students to make sure their design choices reflected the ideas and values identified in the mission statement they had written. A rollercoaster could be really cool inside a school, but how did that further the goals of Daoism? Ultimately, the schools created by the students did demonstrate an understanding and awareness of the major themes of the Chinese philosophies and religions, but getting there with 7th graders required oversight and review.

What I found when reflecting on these three big ideas was that they really resonated with my teaching and work with students over the years. Thinking back on activities and experiences where I felt students learned best, all three elements were present to some degree. The work I’ve done with our school’s debate program over the past eight years definitely connects directly to these concepts, especially since debate is a voluntary activity. My most serious debaters are incredibly engaged during debate tournaments and the ideas and arguments they create are their own. Their success in debates gives them immediate feedback regarding their mastery and the skills they have developed over the years are easily recognizable.

While none of these ideas will be a surprise to veteran teachers, my most valuable takeaway from the conference and my work with students this fall was simply a reminder to keep these concepts at the forefront when designing and creating lessons. As we move forward in Hackley’s strategic plan and efforts to expand learning beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom and academic disciplines, I hope we will continue to find creative and engrossing opportunities to introduce Deeper Learning experiences for Hackley students.