Published in 2014 by The St. Ignace NewsDownload PDF
There’s a gentle buzz of conversation in Holly Brown’s classroom Monday afternoon. Students from kindergarten to seventh grade peer into tablets and smart phones while talking to their companions and teammates sitting nearby. They’re intently focused on a game called Minecraft, and on their shared task in that game: this week, building a skyscraper.
Minecraft is a sandbox-style computer game, meaning players can interact with everything in the world and come up with their own objectives. Textured blocks representing different materials can be broken apart, moved, and combined to create something different. It’s like the most extreme form of building blocks imaginable, where players create anything from roads and houses to computers and nuclear reactors.
More than 17 million copies of the game have been purchased worldwide, and St. Ignace Elementary/ Middle School is only one of many schools using the game for educational purposes.
“I’m not really teaching, but they’re really learning,” Mrs. Brown said. “It’s not really controlled, but they’re actively engaged for full time.”
Each after-school meeting of the Minecraft Club begins with students dividing themselves into groups of two or three — the only rule is that they cannot partner with someone in the same grade. Mrs. Brown then presents the students with a challenge. One week, each team was told to make something using wood and wool. No other materials were allowed and they only had 10 minutes.
“It’s amazing what they could come up with,” Mrs. Brown said. “Somebody made a tower with a flag on the top, one built a dock, a couple of kids made beds.”
The fact that two groups both chose to make beds was an unusual coincidence. Usually, the ideas are even more far ranging. When the students were challenged to build airplanes and runways, not even the runways looked alike.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Mrs. Brown said. “One of my favorite things is the end of class, when we all share and you can see all the different things the kids came up with. They might use some of the same materials, but everything looks different. They have to have an imagination to participate, they have to have a vision of something.”
Watching the kids in Minecraft Club has inspired her to approach creativity differently in the classroom, Mrs. Brown said. Although she has art projects in class, most of them follow a pattern. There is room for creativity, but it doesn’t offer the total creative control students have in Minecraft Club.
“It’s helping me to think more outside-the-box with creativity,” Mrs. Brown said. “If they can do this here, what can they do in the classroom?”
The program is almost completely student-run. Mrs. Brown is there, but she only offers the initial challenges, keeps track of the time, and calls on students to present their creations at the end of each session.
“I don’t even provide much technical help,” she said. “All the kids will pull together to get their devices working correctly. If they can’t get on to a certain world, or if they get kicked off, it’s the kids who solve it. They’re all helping each other.”
The combination of older and younger students plays an interesting role in the club dynamics, as well. Collaborative learning is common in classrooms, but most of the students are about the same age. Minecraft Club has students ranging from kindergarten to the seventh grade, and provides a unique opportunity for children to learn leadership skills and cooperation.
Mrs. Brown has noticed younger students pick up new strategies by watching more experienced players, and found that some older students invest more effort in group-work when paired with partners who look up to them.
“It’s very cool to see, especially because it’s 90% boys. Usually, at least in what I’ve seen, girls take the initiative and get the group started in cooperative learning activities, but the boys hang back.”
Some teachers have even commented on an improvement in classroom participation and working effectively with others.
The club is about so much more than having fun and playing games, even if the students in the club don’t realize it, Mrs. Brown said. They develop their critical thinking abilities and abstract problem solving skills, all the while gaining confidence, creativity, and the ability to work with others.
“I don’t know if they all realize what they’re actually doing here. Most of them just love Minecraft so much because they can be so creative. That’s what they want to do, is play Minecraft,” she said.
“The best part is that you get to work with partners and do challenges,” said club member Dylan Shephard. “They can do one thing while you do the other. Right now, Hunter [Brown] is making a roof and I’m doing something outside. It’s a lot faster that way.”
Minecraft Club is all about the children’s ideas. They do what they want to do, they present it however they want to present it, and express regret when they have to stop, log off, and go home.
“I’m not done yet!” one student protests as the parents begin to arrive. “Just ten more minutes! Five!”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen as a teacher,” Mrs. Brown says.