Principal Matt Renwick is sharing weekly reflections about an afternoon computer club he and a teacher are sponsoring as an enrichment activity. (Here are the links to this eight-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7 and Part 8.)

My co-teacher Renee was sitting next to two students while they played within one of their Minecraft worlds on their iPads. Totally immersed, they hardly noticed that she was in their presence.

“I have watched students play this game many times, and I still don’t get it,” Renee admitted to me.

I peeked over another group’s shoulders and watched their screens, wondering the same thing myself. Our students have shown an amazing ability to sustain focus on the worlds they create, build, destroy, and create again. There is no need to develop “stamina” with Minecraft, like we might with a more school-related task such as silent reading. (Unrelated: Why do they select such weird locations to play these games?)

Matt-01

Understanding motivation

Always a teacher, I am continuously thinking about how we can guide our students toward producing authentic examples of what they are learning through this game. Our state department of education, which provided the funding for our club, would like some data to show the level of effectiveness of our activities in terms of student learning.

It is also important that we assess the potential these activities have for integration within our general instruction. We have been assigning badges for certain types of accomplishments within Edmodo, such as “Star Performer” if they uploaded a video of themselves giving a book talk. Our thinking is that these types of motivators will encourage our students to produce more tangible, project-like results.

But some students just aren’t motivated by badges. Even though we have taken time each week to recognize our most active students within Edmodo, some students are very content with playing Minecraft with their friends. Is this okay too? When we try to insert “school” into our computer club, are we also potentially sucking the passion out of this experience in the process?

Other students know how to play the game of School very well. Each time they accomplish a task, they are quickly asking one of us, “Where’s my badge?” This shouldn’t be what they are working for, but then again, we teachers created this system in the first place.

Matt-03-280Motivation has been a big focus in the education world, especially since the publication of the seminal resource Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck (Ballantine, 2006). She has coined the phrase “growth mindset.”

Summarizing several research studies she has conducted, people with a growth mindset see failures and challenges as opportunities for learning. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch” (p 21).

The other side of this coin is the term “fixed mindset.” Those with this outlook see struggles only in a negative light. They are afraid they will be perceived as unintelligent if they make mistakes, and that intelligence is a fixed trait. “If failure means you lack competence or potential – that you are a failure – where do you go from there?” (p 35).

The Mindset of Minecraft

Having this background knowledge about motivation, we reassessed the type of work we were doing. Here are some indicators that the skills the students are naturally learning while playing Minecraft might actually be helping them develop essential lifelong skills.

  • Persistence
    Besides a few minor behavior issues, not one student has come up to us and asked that we help them solve a problem within Minecraft. Not one. When a student struggles to build a shelter, or collect different items, they turn to each other for support. If they don’t find the help they need, they keep trying by considering a different strategy.
  • Attitude
    One of my favorite things about Minecraft: If you die, they don’t say “Game Over.” Instead, you get the redundant response “You Died.” Thanks, Captain Obvious! But in all seriousness, this type of specific feedback does not judge their performance or the reason for their demise. The player is allowed to “re-spawn” themselves and get back to work. This reinforces the idea that failure is simply an opportunity to learn.
  • Effort
    When they enter Minecraft, students aren’t offered options for different levels of challenge or “ability.” Everyone is on the same playing field. Also, Minecraft isn’t timed (unless you count the zombies coming out at night). You take the resources given and build what you want according to your own schedule. In addition, the feedback received by the player is not reduced to a score. It is evident in the outcome of one’s efforts, whether that be a two-story building or a simple garden.

MATT-02

The bottom line is the kids are having a lot of fun. They are passionate about their work, and this work might be paying off in developing executive skills that will benefit them now and down the road. In addition, they are creating complex worlds that require from them high levels of cognition and reflection.

What about curriculum?

But the question still remains: Is there any possibility in harnessing the motivational factor of Minecraft and instilling it within the general curriculum? For example, could the structures they are developing resemble ruins from ancient civilizations, or famous battlefields of U.S. history? If the answer is yes, how do we guide our students to realize the potential in these tools not only for creation and innovation, but also for integration within important curricular topics?

Our instincts tell us that these opportunities will present themselves when the time is right. For now, we are content with observing our students build not only complex worlds within Minecraft, but also develop key critical skills that can foster a growth mindset. The persistence, attitude, and effort observed in our students is all the evidence we need for now.

About the author
Matt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he did time as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book about digital portfolios will be published by Powerful Learning Press this spring.