Keeping the Dream Alive

I was asked to write a response to Tom Bennett’s comment piece in the TES about how he thought that the use of computer games such as Minecraft in Education was ‘gimmicky‘. My response was written in early December 2016 however it was published in the TESS today. Here is the unedited version:

My Christmas playlist will soon be pulled out and its number two track (you can’t top Mario Lanza’s command of vibrato in It Came Upon a Midnight Clear) is the 12 inch version of Keeping the Dream Alive by Freiheit. Twitter can be a most useful place to share ideas, resources and perspectives and it was through Tom Bennett’s sharing of the extended version of this song last year that I came to love it even more. Don’t pretend you don’t know the chorus!:

The hopes we had were much too high;
Way out of reach, but we have to try.
The game will never be over,
Because we’re keeping the dream alive.

In view of the recent storm around Tom’s critical observations of what he describes as the ‘gimmicky use of games’, and in particular Minecraft in schools, I thought that this lyric was most apposite. Let me channel the spirit of Freiheit in to the debate; is it wrong to have dreams in education, to have high hopes for ourselves as teachers and for our learners? Aren’t there those of us in education who also add rigour and realism to the dreams we have about ensuring better outcomes for our learners? Can we not be trusted to make appropriate professional judgements about new ideas we may want to explore without the need for an established research base to affirm and validate it? Is it really, as Tom says, Game Over for the debate or can we keep the Minecraft dream alive?

A few years back I talked at a number of international events and conferences about the game based learning initiatives that I was leading in Scotland in which we partnered a large number of schools in the use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) games such as Nintendogs, Guitar Hero, Mario Kart and Professor Layton.  Our methodology was to position COTS games as a ‘contextual hub’ around which a skilled teacher would appropriately craft and structure the learning. To inform this methodology we established a rationale that was embedded in theoretical perspectives such as Gee’s semiotic domains and situated learning, Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Shulman’s Signature Pedagogies.  At these conferences I would always be asked, “Do you think Nintendo will ever make an educational game?” My response was that they already did and that what was at the heart of the matter was that we as educators were so set in a dynamic that positioned us as the dominant partner in the learning relationship in such a way that we looked on learners’ digital interests as frivolous and trivial, as Tom stated. I feel that this is the very same with Minecraft. Minecraft was already educational so why do we feel the need to add the EDU or Education tag to such resources? You know, learners of all abilities have owned this domain for years now and therein have been building the Taj Mahal, Minas Tirith and Hogwarts in breathtaking detail. The low-floor and high-ceiling level of complexity in this trivial game is quite extraordinary but the associated learning culture that seems to have grown from Minecraft is what interests me most as an educator. We are seeing primary aged children utilising the web to connect and learn with and from their peers, hosting their own servers, learning how to mod and to programme redstone; they are using video capture cards to create their own tutorials and managing their own YouTube channels. This rich learning culture that has grown over the past few years, independent of the intervention or guidance of the teacher, is what we should really be focusing on, not teaching teachers to last the first night in survival mode!

Secondly, the recent colonisation of the Minecraft domain by the, well- meaning, ed tech adult and edupreneur consultant is, in my view changing the nature of what Minecraft is. Although there are some really interesting and dare I say good uses of Minecraft out there such as our recent Massively Minecraft inspired Minecraft On the Waterfront project in Dundee, the BBC Build It Scotland initiative and the Mindrising project in Ireland I do think that Tom has a point about ‘gimmicky’ uses. For example, have you seen the 1940s London terraced street Minecraft Education download that asks learners to build an Anderson shelter or the 100 number square download that would have learners fly to the answer of 6 x 8? Or to ask children to write out their times tables in blocks or to use blocks to show what 2/3s of a whole looks like. For me, such examples are not just gimmicky but evidence of how we can’t help but culturally appropriate and possibly denature such learner owned digital spaces in our hard wired desire to reframe and assimilate them into our established expectations of learning. In this regard, I do sometimes wonder if Minecraft, brilliant as it is, will ever fit the paradigm of learning in school.

Tom asks for the research evidence to support games such as Minecraft’s use in schools but surely he will acknowledge that the nature of educational research can be slow and when you consider the pace of change with technology and how resources can come into and out of vogue pretty quickly it does mean that there might not specifically be a research base to validate and affirm your choice to use a game such as Pokémon Go or Minecraft. What teachers can and will do though is establish, as we did, a theoretical frame that helps inform their skilled crafting and appropriate use of a game.

Tom also asks for the research evidence for those Brain Training games that ‘were all the rage a few years back and that were meant to keep your brain healthy or something’. Well to help him in this regard I ask that he read the two papers from myself and Professor David Miller about our interventions with Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training that were published in the British Journal of Educational Technology.  The second one was a randomised-control-trial that we did in an effort to explore the scalability issue he raised. We did this work in schools that were mostly in areas of multiple deprivation because we too, like Tom, believe that our children are priceless and we want to do what we can to contribute to better outcomes for all of our children. 

I don’t think that the hopes the education community has for the use of games like Minecraft are too high. Maybe the most effective practice is out of reach for many us, at this time, but we have to try to get there and I’m sure many teachers will. Critical engagement in the debate around how we do this is fundamental to our growth as a collegiate education community and the questions raised by Tom, in my view, are a much valued and important part of this.

Game over? I don’t think it is, and to paraphrase Freiheit, the game can never be over because there are far too many teachers out there keeping their informed dreams for the use of digital tools such as Minecraft alive.



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