Minecraft: a textbook teaching tool

Earlier this year, the Atlantic published a great, if academically written, article on the value of the game Minecraft as a teaching game.

This idea isn’t new – some New Zealand kids convinced their teachers that Minecraft was the best tool for redesigning their classrooms back in 2012 – but it’s powerful. A game like this offers a heap of benefits for classrooms, including giving kids the ability to:

  • design environments, both freely or to a teacher’s specifications
  • work collaboratively on a big, real goal
  • create without real world limitations on environments – cloud houses that are only accessible by waterfall are alarmingly common in the games I’ve played
  • create as a group without having to fight for materials

If you’re working with kids at all, the story is worth a look. Just be prepared to forgive the author for phrases like “Visuospatial reasoning is the basis for more abstract forms of knowledge like the ability to evaluate whether a conclusion logically follows from its premises.” Minecraft is worth the pain.



3 ways to speak English

What does ‘being articulate’ really mean?

Jamila Lyiscott’s spoken word piece really challenges me. I pride myself on being articulate, but she’s pointing out that the entire idea’s skewed by some pretty class-based assumptions. These go right from the idea of a British accent ‘showing’ someone’s smarter than someone with an American accent, to connotations around the accents of minorities or specific ethnic groups being less articulate, educated or intelligent.

I don’t expect this will change the way I speak, but it will almost certainly change how I listen to other people.

Four points in one

A group of Canadian academics have found a unique way to protest at the extraordinary pay being offered for the next President and Vice Chancellor at University of Alberta.

Seeing the $400,000/year salary on offer, 56 academics currently working at the university have applied for the job. But they’re applying in groups of four.

The protesters’ logic is that the salary would be a very comfortable amount for the four of them to split, and they’d do a much better job than any single person, even if it was just because they had so much more time to dedicate to the work.

You can see the full story over at Slate.

Games that teach

The education industry is currently getting very excited about the potential for games as a teaching tool. Watching this unfold (especially at the PAX game conference last year), I’ve seen a lot of attempts to combine two distinct categories: educational games that bore people to tears and fun games that only teach by accident.

For a big step in the way we think about a third category: games that teach people how to play the game.

While there are a few fantastic games that do this, two come immediately to mind for me: Portal and Braid.

While Portal is excellent at teaching players about physics (conservation of momentum for the win!), it also carefully teaches each new player how to move, jump, place portals and correct for orientation and useful angles. Most importantly, it does so with humour and story, keeping experienced gamers engaged while it makes sure that new players have a chance to make sense of the system before they’re thrown into the action.

The opening of Portal 2 is a perfect example of this. While new players are learning to jump, Wheatley (the round robot) is entertaining the experienced players, ensuring that both audiences are engaged as the game continues.

In contrast, Braid teaches you to jump, and to move, and expects you to work everything out from there, including the mechanisms for the different types of time travel that you use through the game. While this sounds infuriating (and, I’ll admit, is something that occasionally drives me into the welcoming arms of walk-throughs), it’s an excellent fit for the game style, which is driven by the satisfaction of problem solving. Once you’ve conquered the early levels, you know there’s a solution to the level that you’ll be able to work out with the tools they’ve taught you to use.

When building educational games, we need to harness this approach to teaching in games, using the learning elements as keys to success within a fun game, rather than expecting players to automatically enjoy the lessons as an end in themselves. Doing so will give the player the guarantee they need that there is a solution in sight, and will support useful tools like ability to adjust difficulty based on a student’s previous achievements. More importantly, it will help to make learning easier for students of all ages.


P.S. Mulling this over with a friend today, I’m convinced that one of the biggest barriers here is getting the games part of educational games taken seriously so that they’re a) actually fun! and b) are designed to be excellent games as well as educational tools. I’ll be musing on this in the next few weeks.