Minecraft and Concept Based Learning

The benefits of video games for educational purposes will be well-known to most of you currently reading this post. For those of you looking for more depth on this topic, specifically on how gaming develops a child’s capacity for empathy, collaborative solutions, and innovation, you may find this a useful read.

Receiving the most glowing praise for its ability to impart 21st century skills, in the context of play, is Minecraft. I recently introduced Minecraft to my grade six humanities unit on the Middle Ages. The key concepts were “Conflict” and “Innovation.” The unit question was “How does conflict lead to innovation?” The mission was to create a Middle Age castle on Minecraft that took into account the various technologies used by invaders during this time period. The kids worked in assigned groups of three to four. Those most familiar with Minecraft were grouped with those who knew least.

As I’ve indicated in a previous post, the MYP is moving towards an explicit concept-based learning model. So let me begin by emphasizing that what I wanted the kids to take away from this unit is a secure understanding of how conflict / problems in society often lead to innovative solutions. The “facts” of the Middle Ages were learned in some sense by default. It would have been impossible to design a castle without understanding the class structure– peasant huts are built beyond the gates, knights live inside, and the Lord and Lady repose comfortably in their Keep. The “system of loyalties” was therefore implicit in the design. To design the castle properly, it was also necessary for the kids to research how castle design changed between 1000-1300 C.E. They needed to avoid the earlier mistakes, and borrow from the later successes. They therefore learned by default the various technologies used for purposes of conquest. But I wish to again stress that our focus was not on learning the “system of loyalties” or that the Normans invaded England in 1066. These “facts” were indeed learned, but through the process of understanding the concept question: how conflict leads to innovation. And this concept question was explored through collaboration and play, which, for reasons that need not be elaborated upon here, among guests such as you, is a very powerful incentive for engagement.

We devoted four periods to the project. Each day, on the white board, was a reminder that the purpose of our creating castles was to understand the link between conflict and innovation. During class, I roamed among the different groups, asking them to explain the conflict that led to the innovation they were designing. I should mention that using “problem” instead of “innovation” and “creation” instead of “innovation” was useful at the start, until the kids got used to what “conflict” and “innovation” mean. By week two, they all understood: ” What problem in society encouraged you to design that moat?” ” Two walls instead of one?… what conflict does this second wall solve?” “Stone instead of wood, that’s an interesting innovation, but why?” By the end of the second lesson, I could ask questions like: “give me three examples from castle design that show how conflict leads to innovation.” All the kids could give at least one answer, which suggests the concepts themselves were starting to register.

These are sixth graders after all, and if some of you are thinking that they were more into having fun, than learning about “conflict” and “innovation” you are absolutely correct. But the two are not mutually exclusive. From the beginning, I made it clear that I’m not interested in “cool looking castles,” and stressed the fact that our summative exam is not based on the castle itself, but on the processes and innovations involved in the creation. If I would point at an “arrow loop” and ask what conflict this was designed in response to, and the student could not answer, I would let them know that they are “missing the point.. the point here is not to build a castle, but to understand why this castle is being built the way it is, the problems and conflicts that this arrow loop and draw bridge solve.” Believe it or not, it did not take long for the students to “get it.”

To gauge this understanding I did something not very nice. On the day the students were to come in and share their castles with the class, I had a question written on the whiteboard: ” With reference to castle design during the Middle Ages, how does conflict lead to innovation.” Here is a piece of paper and pencil, you have twenty five minutes to respond.

“…The architects soon found major flaws in their design. The wood from the walls could be burnt down by the newly invented fire arrow. Also, over time wood rotted. Having only one archer tower meant it could be overrun by large numbers. Later in the time-line architects re-evaluated their design and fixed their flaws, and bravo, a stone keep castle was invented. There was a moat so invaders couldn’t dig under, everything was made of stone, arrow loops, at least four archer towers, better vantage points, and a better Keep in the center….”  ( I should mention that the student who wrote this designed a water purification system for his castle, in case the enemies dumped a body infected with small pox into the water that feeds the castle well.)

” Conflict leads to innovation by making mistakes because with mistakes people make new ideas. Like for example the Motte and Bailey was made out of wood so when people attack they would use fire arrows to burn down the castle. People realized they had to build something different so because of their mistakes they developed the concentric and stone keep castles…”

” If enemies would never burn, dig under, or barricade the Motte and Bailey castles, the Concentric Castles would never be developed…”

For the Medievalists among you, these sample responses might not be impressive. There is no mention of a “barter economy” and for heaven’s sake “King John” never makes an appearance. Please refer back to the desired learning outcomes, it was to instill in my students an understanding of how conflict leads to innovation, using Medieval Castle Design as a context for exploring these concepts. The purpose was not to have kids memorize key dates and people of the time period, as, let’s be honest, they will forget most if not all, and you would be hard pressed to justify the relevance of the information in the first place. Moreover, they can learn that stuff on their smart phones if it does become relevant to their lives.

For my purposes, the real goal is longer term. In four years when we discuss the Cold War, will they more easily identify the NASA space program as an innovative response to the Cold War conflict? In English, will these kids more easily recognize how conflict with society, nature, and with oneself are what drives narratives, and the development of character? Will they more easily recognize how theories in philosophy and science are responses to existing gaps or flaws? My bet is yes, they will. And the seeds of this understanding will have been planted in a collaborative, creative, and really fun context. Minecraft, I may not see you for awhile, but it was fun while it lasted!