Like any tool or strategy, MinecraftEdu can be very effective in differentiating instruction if used in the right way. Using MinecraftEdu to teach content or skills because it is a new tool won’t guarantee differentiation. If anything, it will take a lot more work to incorporate the first time, because a teacher will be introducing a new learning “environment”. And any new environment requires all the same elements that are involved in a typical classroom environment – physical setup, tools or resources, behavior expectations, organization system, time frame, etc.
MinecraftEdu can be used to teach content in a fun way that also incorporates differentiation. McCarthy (2014) writes about three steps for making differentiated instruction effective; let’s consider those steps if we incorporate MinecraftEdu.
The first step is getting to know your students. Usually, we do this at the beginning of the year or semester. At the beginning of my program, my students and I create Identity Maps to illustrate what roles we play in various groups (home, school, community, friends, etc.). I tell my students that this is a starting point, a way to capture who we are at the beginning of the program. Throughout the course of the program, we reflect on our thoughts, feelings, learning, and skill-building to expand or modify the map. In MinecraftEdu, we can learn about our students’ interests, skills, strengths, and feelings by asking them to reflect on their choices and behavior in the game. In this course, we learned about other players’ skills, strengths, and feelings from the MinecraftEdu challenge last night and in our twitter session this afternoon. We didn’t complete a learning style quiz or gamer type assessment, but we still learned how other people felt about their experiences and we were able to observe each other in the game or through the chat (within and outside of the game). We could do this with the students, rather than giving an assessment beforehand, we can assign a task in the game or have students select from a list of tasks.
Outside of the game, we can have students take a self-assessment or learning style quiz and discuss our results. We can ask students how their choices and behavior in the game reflects their preferences and learning style. We could also flip the order and ask students to create a character in the game that reflects their roles, interests, or learning style (possibly after they have taken a learning style inventory). Students would select a character from the options available in the login menu, give themselves a name, and build something in the world to demonstrate their interests. They could tell a story of who they are in the context of the game and how they contribute to the community of players – are they a helper, builder, defender, explorer, provider, magician, horse trainer, farmer, etc. The possibilities are endless and we can see how students express themselves, demonstrate how they feel about their abilities, and how they would like to contribute to the community. More than likely, many students will want to have multiple roles or show a range of interests, and that can tell us even more about their learning in the game. I also expect that identities and roles might shift over the course of the time spent in the game, which can lead to further reflections outside of the game.
As you build a learning culture of reflection (for students, for you, it’s assessment), you help them build on what they know about their learning style, and you become more effective at meeting their needs and interests.
The next recommended step is one of my favorite strategies: asking students to partner with you in the planning and development of the lesson, in this case, in MinecraftEdu. It’s important that we know our students, but it’s just as important for students to be self-aware and to reflect on how they learn different content and in various contexts. Otherwise, they only learn when they are guided and it is not intentional. I use what I have learned about the students to guide them in taking ownership over their learning and the behavior and culture of our community.
Project-based learning is also another way to use MinecraftEdu, especially if you have a range of abilities with the game, students can collaborate to complete tasks. In MinecraftEdu, students can plan their course of action to achieve their learning behaviors. Many times for the sake of time and organization, we want to plan with students before we enter the game. I would also challenge teachers to plan in the game; group students into small teams and have them plan in the game based on criteria that you have laid out. Discuss the learning objective(s) and rubric, give them a time frame, and ask the teams to work in the game to come up with a plan. Students also have to interact in the game as their character which impacts their behaviors, choices, and their role on the team. This gives them an opportunity to “test” their character and make changes if needed to their team or community role and responsibilities.
One of the advantages of using MinecraftEdu to differentiate, is the ability for students to create different products to demonstrate learning. In the game, each team could write a book about their plan and place it in a designated common area. They could take screenshots and create a step-by-step tutorial on how to build something or to follow their plan. A team could also make a video of their characters walking through the plan. Teams could map out a plan or guide using the tools in their inventory, they could even create several options for others to choose from. Another strategy could be to give all teams a problem to solve and have each team show in the game how they can solve the problem. Students can choose their tools or supplies to accomplish tasks, what food to grow or animals to hunt for survival, where to build, how to maximize their daylight time to meet their survival needs, and even how to get around in their world – walk, fly, ride a minecart or boat, or tame a horse! In MinecraftEdu, we (or the students) can create entire areas or spaces to meet their needs, and manage the world through teacher tools and blocks.
At the end of each session, if we incorporate teamwork, feedback, and reflection as part of the rubric, students can have time after they log out to debrief in their teams, with another team, or with the class. You could give each student a quick self and team reflection sheet to help guide their debrief discussion, and to also set tasks for the next session. Another cool variation, is to have students debrief or reflect either in character or in the third person about their character. I often give students the option to give their own feedback or reflection, to summarize from the team, or to interview each other and share their partner’s feedback. It will also be important to log issues that players (students) encounter during their time in the game; these could be logistical – time allowed, player abilities, space given, they could be technical issues with the actual software, or even what new features or tools to use the next time students log into the game.
In Teacher mode, we can set game modes to be difficult or peaceful, allow students to experience creative mode, and then progress to survival mode. There are many sites with resources and tutorials that students can use to learn basic skills in the game or they can learn from other teams or team members. With the teacher controls, you can increase difficulty in the game by enabling different features – turning on weather, allowing day and night cycles, enabling animals and monsters, or you can give specific tools or supplies from the inventory to all students thereby “leveling” the playing field for them to complete tasks. You can even select specific players or teams to receive different supplies based on their tasks, needs, or abilities. I’ve even hidden supplies in chests in the general vicinity of a player or team of players so that they still have to make an effort to find what they need, or something comparable. You also have an option to enter assignments or tasks for students to complete that they can view in the game. As students become more familiar with the game and their gameplay evolves, you can adjust your strategies for monitoring the game and guiding their work.
This leads to the third step, which is letting go of our role as the teacher and allowing students to teach each other, learn from other teachers, or to learn in other ways than we plan. MinecraftEdu is an amazing tool for students to show their creativity in problem solving, communicating, building, writing, use of tools or resources, and in demonstrating their identity or strengths and interests in the game community. As you collaborate with students within and outside the game, it is important to foster a willingness to try new ideas, strategies, and experiences within the game. Maybe one of the teams is responsible for demonstrating an idea or skill in the game, or maybe a team can teach the class new tricks or crafting recipes. Asking students and teams to be clear and intentional in what they want to do, how they want to do it, and what they need from others is an effective way to differentiate MinecraftEdu. Students can also teach us and each other about how to collaborate and communicate as a community of gamers. If students can build consensus to establish a community agreement, they are able to choose how they wish to interact with others and foster a sense of commitment to other players and teams.
McCarthy, J. (June 10, 2014). Students Matter: 3 Steps for Effective Differentiated Instruction. Edutopia.org. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/3-steps-effective-differentiated-instruction-john-mccarthy