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A Co-learning Environment: The Birchwood Minecraft...

A Co-learning Environment: The Birchwood Minecraft Club

Three years ago a student approached me to ask if we could have a Minecraft Club at our school. There was certainly a lot of buzz within the professional learning network about this game and its potential use as a classroom learning tool. Inspired by the student’s apparent initiative and exuberance, I immediately agreed to facilitate the after-school club. Somehow, I have been blessed, or cursed, with a creative brain and skills, the ability to be open to risk-taking and to seize a teachable moment when it arises, and I have a compilation of management strategies balanced with years of experience under my belt. I am confident and comfortable with releasing ‘control’ to youth, to allow them the freedom to make decisions, to make mistakes, and to be responsible for directing their own learning. Teaching and learning does not need to occur in a school at a desk within classroom walls. I am committed to making learning relevant and meaningful. The digital environment opens a realm of possibilities for co-learning and is an environment that youth are perhaps more comfortable with than their teachers.

Again, I knew very little at the time—more like nothing—about the game and had never actually played it but I was curious and wanted to learn, to understand what it was about the game that was so alluring for youth. Admittedly, there were initial imaginings of a group of adolescents peering into their monitors, foraging through random virtual worlds, searching for food and resources, fighting for survival and killing each other off, and scrimmaging and scrounging for materials to build shelters before darkness. I soon realized there was so much more to learn.

Tyler, a 13 year old club member, poignantly described Minecraft as;

“an interactive game involving three-dimensional cubes, which players can use to break and build whatever they want using multiple blocks or if a student understands logic and knows his or her way around mechanics, can create complex machines and devices. We can meet up with our classmates in a virtual space and create any environment that we imagine or can envision. We can play together in creative mode, where we have access to infinite resources, or we can play in survival mode, a more competitive and somewhat more ‘dangerous’ environment that requires additional skill to survive.”

Over a weekend, I purchased a ‘how-to play’ version of the book and read it, online resources were accessed and reviewed, international colleagues were consulted, and the software was acquired. A student and his parent volunteered to assist with the installation of the software. They arrived at school on a Sunday morning and together we installed the game on the individual computer workstations—a process that we have refined over three years. The sign-up sheets that a student had created and posted around the school were collected, a database of the membership was generated, and the following week the MinecraftEdu Club at Birchwood Intermediate officially launched.

The club is student-led and student-directed; that is, students set and achieve their goals while collaborating on projects they’ve designed. They engage, problem-solve, explore, learn, and play together in an environment that supports, promotes and encourages real-world skills such as sociability, integrity, resilience, resourcefulness, empathy, and digital and global citizenship.

Prior to the first session in the computer lab, students came up with the idea to build our school virtually. Nick, a grade 8 member and a self-proclaimed Minecraft expert, and R.J., a visiting high school student, located a floor plan of the school online and lay the foundation, to scale, for other club members to build upon. The club members decided that each person would take an area of the school to work on. Very soon an impressive replica of the foyer, cafeteria, gymnasium, and several classrooms took shape.

A local architect visited the club one afternoon with a model of a residential structure. He shared with students elements of his profession and provided insight as to things to think about as a designer and builder when creating a structure.

“Not only are we learning about the X-Y-Z axis and area and perimeter in math class but we are able to apply them in the game,” Oscar, a new grade 7 registrant, shared. “We also learn and develop mapping skills such as using coordinates of latitude and longitude.”

The first collaborative project was not without technical glitches or incident. While most of the issues that came up, such as discovering that the bathrooms were not large enough to accommodate necessary stalls and sinks, were resolved through peer-group discussion via the text chat feature, there were occasions when students felt the necessity for peer-to-peer communication via shouting to each other across the computer lab, “Get out of my room!” or “Leave my stuff alone!” or “That’s not the material I was using to build the walls, what are you doing?”

While there is a chat element to the game and students do converse to discuss and to problem-solve, most of the communication is non-verbal and interaction occurs visually through the movement and manipulation of objects in the virtual world.

Observing the interaction and collaborative process has been incredible. While I am the teacher in the room, I’m not really the teacher in the room. I am learning a great deal about social interaction, collaboration, communication, and conflict resolution strategies that adolescents implement when left to strategize and to ‘work it out.’ And they do, impressively at that! They also let me in to play with them, which I enjoy. The playing field, albeit it an alternate learning environment, is leveled when students see teachers as learners too. This is co-learning at its best and is empowering for students.

When discussing the benefits of the Birchwood Minecraft Club and its allure for students, Oliver, a grade 9 student and senior club member, said, “Our club is a fun, hands-on, learning-by-doing-and-making-things adventure. Some people have a three-dimensional brain. I mean, I am able to view and manipulate objects to see things from all sides. I can’t always do this realistically or in the real world. It better helps me to understand how things look and work when I can see things from different angles. We are all from different classes and grades, we are different ages, and from different cultures. The best thing about the club is being able to come together after school and play a game with our classmates and with our teacher. It’s nice that you learn to cooperate with others, to make things together, and learn to troubleshoot problems.”

In life, we are presented with many experiences and challenges that require collaboration, sharing, empathy, self-awareness, cooperation, negotiation, and sensitivity. We must learn to consider how individuality and individual actions affect a group or the group mentality, to think about and consider how our rational and emotional reactions when problem-solving affects self and others, and discover how these play out as we navigate through the world.

Currently, over 20% of the students at Birchwood are registered in the Minecraft Club, a free after-school program for adolescents in grades 7-9. The club has expanded this year to include electronics, robotics, and other making activities to meet the varied interests of its growing membership.

Photo credit: Wesley Fryer on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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“A brief tour of the work-in-progress Minecraft version of Birchwood Intermediate School in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, created over the 2013-2014 by the school’s Minecraft Club.”


Frances Ann Squire

Frances Ann Squire is an educator, Human Rights Program administrator, project-based learning proponent, community volunteer, youth advocate, artist, and writer living on the north shore of beautiful Prince Edward Island, Canada. She can be found on Twitter @fasquire or at Birchwood Intermediate @BirchwoodCobras