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Fighting, talking, learning – the joys and perils of a Minecraft education

Education

Fighting, talking, learning – the joys and perils of a Minecraft education

It’s school holidays. Exuberant 12 year olds shout – ‘what’s in the chest? ; ‘there’s a creeper’ . Clear signs it’s a Minecraft day.  I can distinguish four happy voices – although there could be more – cooperating as they explore todays chosen server. Skype facilitates somewhat. ‘Guys I need help – they’re spawning all around me’; ‘Ok guys, that area is clear – we need to move on. Everyone move up to that volcano place – top of the map’; ‘It was an accident, I’m sorry’; ‘Quick, move!’; ‘No don’t do that; don’t break it – can’t kill a skeleton’; ‘Oh I’ve found the jackpot. Teleport here. There’s two chests – tons of stuff here. Lets make it our base.’

Sound familiar? Minecraft is mainstream. Most children between 3 and 16 recognise the Minecraft block. Many spend hours creating, or surviving worlds. As parents we use Minecraft as a reward, we moan about the number of hours our children expend gaming. My sons regularly ponder how they too can have a career like the Yogscast Lewis & Simon, more recently PewDiePie.

We’ve been a Minecraft family since late 2010. Quieter experiences tend to be during creative gaming.   There is no doubt that Minecraft is limited only by the player’s imagination, and YouTube quite neatly scaffolds learning. Today’s game though is not quiet: the boys have moved onto our server. Joyous voices and gleeful shrieks resound as each boy builds a fort, then waits for the others to find and attack.

Yes, today I am smiling as their life forces ricochet. So I can reflect just how much my sons and their fellow Minecrafters have taught me by default, and no doubt with intent, to appreciate Minecraft as a community, akin to the schoolyard. Populated.

My first lesson came during a particularly intense schoolyard-bullying period. Rumblings had emerged around the dinner table but until the child’s mother approached me at the school gate, I hadn’t appreciated the ferocity of this racially based bullying. Warily I listened to her. As she spoke I recalled my son’s indignation at his peers treatment of her son. He probably didn’t know the school had belittled her concerns, denied the racists taunts, while the classroom teacher labeled him a troublemaker because he attempted to hit back, physically.

My 8-year-old son was fierce that afternoon. ‘They pushed him over then jumped on his head’, he blurted furiously. ‘Then they kicked me when I told them to stop.’ He harrumphed contemptuously when I suggested talking to the teacher on duty. We walked home; we talked – well I made suggestions, and he countermanded them. ‘They won’t listen’, he said.

Later that afternoon a multiplayer Minecraft survival game took over the sitting room. There were about seven children online using Skype group video and those who couldn’t, communicated through Minecraft. Within five minutes, teamwork and shared goals had dissolved into a frenzied screaming match as one boy griefed another, raiding treasure. Then the same boy went on to kill a friend’s character, then my son’s character – ignoring the group objective. Heated voices mingled through Skype; frantic typing in staccatospeak littered the bottom of the screen. Tears rolled down my son’s cheeks; anguished cries echoed between computers in the vain attempt to stop one player. At least one other child joined in with the griefing. The game was lost. My older son returned to his novel – Lord of the Flies – muttering to his weeping brother, well if you insist on playing with those kids, what do you expect?

All I wanted to do was save my sobbing son. I wanted to make the children discuss what they had done and why. His sudden helplessness was very hard to watch. I had to: between tears he pushed me away.

But you know, I was live! I was observing both sides of this story. I was party to almost the same group of children here, fighting on Minecraft that my son was trying to navigate in the schoolyard. Online gaming had let me into the world of peer competition. My son was right. No-one listened. Empathy was not part of their means of interaction. I can’t teach empathy to his peers, but I can help my son develop empathy and resilience.

We don’t provide many opportunities for our children to sort out these challenges. We tend to jump in and solve the problem frequently at best having one perspective to draw on. Within schools, a didactic teaching approach limits group activities that can facilitate learning how to listen and communicate.

The second lesson took me longer to learn. Yes, Minecraft can become an obsession – have you finished your homework? No. And exactly why are you on Minecraft? I haven’t heard you practice your music? I just need to finish this building … you get the picture.

My lanky teenager was resisting the looming deadline. He had a discussion essay due: something to do with his understanding of theatre stages. He was defiant, furious with any questions and generally obstreperous. Exasperated, I said ok build them in Minecraft! And so he did. And he built the sustainable island for his cross curricula task too.

Minecraft provided the platform for breaking down his huge challenges into manageable chunks. Minecraft is more useful for him than the white board. Once the question is translated into Minecraft, he comfortably moves onto concept maps and use the scaffolds provided to either write the essay, or explain his solution. Thank you Notch!

Lesson one had provided me with a new helicopter perspective opportunity for family discussions, but I still viewed this particular school email with considerable trepidation. Year 5. New School. Task: Human Society and Its Environment (HSIE) project designed to encourage collaborative and cooperative teamwork simultaneously exploring Australian gold fields. The students would imitate life on the Australian Goldfields using Minecraft.

Classwork combined with online construction and interaction. My son was so excited – unrestricted time on Minecraft for school! Whoa. I was going to observe this one closely! How would the school manage gaming dynamics?

And you know, within this forum, it was just another learning activity where the students had to develop and practice their social skills of interaction. The engagement demanded to complete the task required listening skills, sharing and the development of a deeper understanding of not only the subject but democratic skills.

My sons have created amazing sites, fought battles, lost amassed treasure, screamed at opponents, and typed faster than thought possible to defend their house. They have explored YouTube, developed impressive internet research skills, hosted games, built life-sized cardboard creepers, gamed with significantly younger cousins in ways a movie afternoon could never achieve. I have seen tears, boys yelling, all in my sitting room. But I have also heard raucous laughter and observed incredible jubilation.

We need to let our children explore.  So, how amazing to be able to see them explore new worlds and relationships at home. You can set the ground rules, be a guide, use challenges for starting conversations. Over time, I have seen how my boys have built friendships around the creation of townships, sustainable villages, gold fields – and I have also seen how children can learn from being part of survival games. Yes, we’re a Minecraft family but I had to learn how first.

Mother of two sons who negotiates being taught new technologies in exchange for free (almost) computer time.

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