This reflection attempts to explain children's motivation and interest in Minecraft using a lens which in the past has been reserved to eLearning and constructs of adult education. My experience as a player, parent and teacher keeps me looking for deeper rationales than "it's like lego or it's fun and part of pop-culture".

Minecraft has many potential benefits in education. I believe these are being under-estimated. While some seem obvious -- building a sustainable house, making a replica of a ancient monument and so on -- it's important for teachers (and parents) not to miss a very important process which is happening.

Using John Keller's ARC's model of motivational design, let me explain why Minecraft is teaching kids a really deep skill that seems un-noticed in the controversies around screen-time.
  • Attention - Get the learners interest and curiosity
  • Relevance - Show the importance and usefulness of the content to the learner
  • Confidence - Including challenging, but do-able activities (tasks and sub tasks)
  • Satisfaction - Make the experience worth it (ie Why should I care about this?)

Using computers to assist learning only really works when the learner feels satisfied and commits what they learned to long-term memory. As a parent, it's totally frustrating that my children seem to remember a thousand items in their favourite video game inventory -- yet can't remember what todays homework is. Keller's model is the foundation of many eLearning and classroom activities. What I'm saying is that we can see kids doing this without any adult prompts or motivators. The brilliance of the game design is that it allows humanistic learning.

  • The major problems of our age deal with human relations; the solutions can be found only in education. Skill in human relations is a skill that must be learned; it is learned in the home, in the school, in the church, on the job, and wherever people gather together in small groups. - Knowles.

Minecraft doesn't have 'rules' on how to accomplish a task other than the machine-rules about the properties of objects in the virtual work and the players ability to interact with those objects. The game itself has an 'idle' state where by the player can do nothing. Time passing is marked by the sunrise and sunset. The first task learners perform is how to create a personal space -- where they can be safe from harm. The classic hierarchy of needs becomes realised almost immediately. She builds a shelter by analysing her performance constantly to race again time and if successful in that task -- starts to think about deeper task analysis.
This is hugely powerful stuff. A four year old is undertaking constant task analysis more often than they are reacting to tasks set. To me this represents a significant alternative view of "flipping the classroom". Among the questions she's asking herself (and seeking media information to answer) are:
  • What's the complexity of the task?
  • How often does it needs to be performed?
  • Is the task critical to the end state (performance) I want?
  • Is this task separate, connected with or linked to other tasks?
  • What does the overall task-relationship look like?
  • What are the risks associated with not being able to complete the task?
  • What background skills to learners need to perform these tasks?

It's critical to acknowledge that kids playing Minecraft are developing two fundamental skills. They are working towards developing the kind of reflective, critical "self-directed" skills previously associated with adult learning. This immediately creates new challenges and opportunities because Minecraft allows kids to be humanistic informal learners by becoming self-directed learners, maintain deep motivation towards their own goals. I think Knowles would have liked Minecraft. This will, to some, clash with many EdTech's assumptions about what kids can/should do with computers. In particular who benefits most from using them - students, system or teachers. When we then add the power of connectivism and network culture, we begin to see kids as part of a new and vast network of learners .
I think that using this lens, what kids are doing in Minecraft is quite staggering. The objects they make are not the measurement of their achievement, but simply a landmark on their increasing ambition, skill and knowledge. As I said at the beginning of this post -- I question the need to create lessons for Minecraft because simply allow kids to play for a few hours a week has benefits which so far, EdTech has really not achieved despite vast investment and enthusiasm.

Minecraft is not just a game -- it's a sandbox for self-directed learning which is probably the key skill children will need in the years ahead.