When I met Grade 5 teacher Mark, he came to me with an exciting idea: He wanted me to work with him to teach creative writing through Minecraft in the classroom. I signed him up as my dissertation student in my Master of Education course, and over the following year we got to work on our project.
Minecraft is a sandbox computer game. It is a game that doesn’t have pre-set linear timelines, missions, or goals for players to follow. I like to think of Minecraft as a digital version of LEGOs. Players use base blocks to build imaginary worlds and characters.
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In fact, Minecraft is an incredibly versatile game where players can build whatever they like. One student might create a fortress, another might create a model of a fruit bowl. The control is in the hands of the learner.
Did Minecraft in the classroom help our students’ writing tasks?
To test whether Minecraft was helpful for the students’ creative writing, we conducted a simple action research study:
Stage 1: The students write a story about castles.
Stage 2: The students use Minecraft in the classroom to create visualizations of the castles that existed in their stories.
Stage 3: The students write a new story about their castles, incorporating any new knowledge they developed through their gameplay.
Stage 4: We conduct pre-tests and post-tests on the students’ written work.
After playing Minecraft, we believed the students would be more intimate with their castle ideas and therefore more likely to develop descriptive and authoritative texts. In other words, when students develop vivid insights into their topic through gameplay, their subsequent vocabulary, text structure, and sentence structure may come more easily.
So, Mark, myself, and a literacy expert at our university assessed the boys’ initial stories and their new stories on a 7-point scale on the metrics of vocabulary, text structure, and sentence structure.
Our results showed that each student’s grade saw incremental growth–or, in the case of two students, their grade held steady. Overall, students’ scores on our 7-point scale grew an average of 0.66 points, or a 9 percent overall grade increase.
These results, we hasten to say, would need to be replicated on a much larger scale for any claims to statistical relevance to be made.
We also interviewed the students after the project to gather their insights into the benefits of the project. Below are four potential benefits identified by the students for using Minecraft for creative writing.
Benefit 1: Minecraft in the classroom promotes engagement in lessons
Computer games are an intrinsic motivator for many students. The students in the class were drawn to this activity and excited to participate.
While the pre-test and post-test elements of our study were not designed to assess engagement levels, we did sit down with the students to get their take on the study.
It was very clear from our discussions with the students that the students were highly motivated by the project. As one student succinctly put it: “Minecraft made it more interesting.”
Engagement alone is a good rationale for using Minecraft in the classroom. Getting students engaged in the task is, after all, half the battle.
Benefit 2: The game helps students generate creative ideas
The students’ experiences in gameplay helped them to more clearly visualize their castles.
One student, for example, told us: “I had a lot more ideas to write about” after playing Minecraft in the classroom. Another said “I got way more experience of the castle”, while a third quoted: “it’s easier to describe things on Minecraft because I can see them.”
Therefore, we believe the creative elements of digital game-based learning helped the students to improve on their creative writing pieces.
Benefit 3: The game scaffolds thinking
Scaffolding is the art of providing support to students to help them learn. The supports should encourage students to think more deeply about a topic or give them strategies for the completion of a task.
We saw that Minecraft acted as a computer scaffold.
For example, the game provided a platter of suggestions to the students about how to proceed with their castle building project. One student, citing how the game provided suggestions, quoted that the game “made it more interesting and give me more ideas” for building his castle. Another student stated that there were “lots of things [available] and you can describe them all” in the subsequent writing task.
We therefore believe that the game provided the students with an opportunity to expand on their thinking by providing nudges and suggestions about how to proceed.
Benefit 4: Minecraft can promote social learning
Social and observational learning is widely recognized as a powerful approach to education, and this approach can be applied when using Minecraft in the classroom. For example, Minecraft can be played in multiplayer modes where students can watch others’ projects and observe their progress.
Our project unfortunately did not make use of this mode. However, the students were quick to point out to us that they would have loved to have been able to use multiplayer mode to collaborate with, observe and model ideas for their friends.
As one student told us: “if we played with other people we could go and see other people to see how we could improve.”
We therefore would encourage teachers to go a step beyond our project and try out the multiplayer mode to see how students collaborate together, observe one another, and learn from each other’s projects.
Educators are increasingly seeing computer game-based learning as being of significant benefit to learners. Like physical play, digital play has social and cognitive benefits. Our study highlighted that creative writing could be nurtured through computer gaming. When paired with literacy tasks, creative gameplay on Minecraft can be used for developing expressive and creative written work.
There are, of course, many other avenues that teachers can take in using Minecraft for learning. In fact, the official Minecraft: Education Edition website offers lesson plans for all ages and across varied curriculum topics, from chemistry to history.
We would be excited to see more teachers taking up computer games like Minecraft in their classrooms and experimenting with ways the games can engage learners, encourage creative thinking, scaffold new thinking, and even promote social skills.