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'Minecraft is an education gimmick with no hard evidence to prove it helps learning'

'Teachers should be skeptical of claims that computer games will help their students learn - but saying so landed me with dozens of abusive messages from those who disagree'

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'Teachers should be skeptical of claims that computer games will help their students learn - but saying so landed me with dozens of abusive messages from those who disagree'

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If you want to know how to upset the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time, I can recommend saying - when asked - that you think using games like Minecraft in the classroom is a bit gimmicky and you can’t see much of a point to it.

Cue: Boss level carnage on my inbox all day. And what it reveals about education is itself revealing.

Friday. I get a message from the Sunday Times (of London) asking if I had any views on Minecraft, the popular Microsoft world-building game, as an educational tool, the hook being that a special educational version was being launched. You bet I do, I said.

I thought it was a bit gimmicky. I’d seen a few classes use them, and I wasn’t inspired. Students seemed to be as occupied with the mechanics of playing Minecraft as they were with the content of the lesson. To me, that seemed like displacement; rather than drilling down deeply into a topic. Time in the classroom and attention space in the students’ heads appeared to be spent on playing the game. Some content was covered, but it seemed a huge faff to get there. And there didn’t seem to be much evidence that it was more useful than cheaper, simpler alternatives, like just teaching them. I wrote a few chapters about this in my last book Teacher Proof.

And I said that. I think there are a lot of activities we use in classrooms that share this problem. Superficially they seem to interest students, but it’s more because they act as a seductive distraction rather than a supplement to the lesson, like turning the Gettysburg address into a Manga strip or something. Kids might spend happy hours (or not) drawing Abe Lincoln as a Japanese hero, but that’s a long road indeed to learn about the 16th President. 

I have no issue with hooks; I use hooks all the time- culturally relevant landmarks that act as seasoning for the meat of what we’re covering. In my philosophy class I used to show 30 seconds from X-factor or similar, then use it as way to discuss Virtue Ethics or Kant. But that was a heartbeat. Activities that invite students to think for an extended period about something other than what is being learned- and I mean something trivial, like the workings of a computer game- is time wasted.

This matters. This really matters. Because I’m used to teaching students who don’t get a second chance at education; who (whether they know it or not) rely on education as their lifeline into alternate futures. Into literacy, jobs, opportunities. I take that seriously. Anything that wastes that opportunity is a crime against a child, against their options. And theft from the already poor is a felony. Many of them can’t afford tutors or catch-up classes, or bags of cultural capital. For them, education is their life boat. 

So that’s something in my opinion I observed with many gaming platforms. I’m not anti-tech in education. I’ve seen many uses front and back of house, that help schools and classrooms operate. But this appears to me to be a serious issue. There are some brilliant tech writers in this field. Read Donald Clarke, a UK educationalist who is both passionate about tech integration but rigorous in his quest for evidence bases to back it up. Or in the US, Larry Cuban, who is a similar mix of enthusiasm and scepticism. Both are excellent and simultaneously Cassandras and Pollyannas to the tech sphere. 

No evidence for edu-gimmicks

Secondly, there’s the issue of evidence bases. I run researchED, an organisation dedicated to the better use of research and evidence in all levels of education. And one thing that repeatedly strikes me about the ed-tech sector, is how, often, products are sold on the basis of claims of extraordinary efficacy. Remember Brain Training games? All the rage a few years back, with claims they would keep your brain healthy or something. No evidence for it, but get those units shifted boys. They often get caught our when they make claims that are too specific, so many instead move onto intangibles that people also want. Things like ‘engagement.’

Engagement is great. Every teacher wants their students engaged, focussing hard on what is being taught. We know that focus is a big part of learning. But engagement by itself is a poor proxy for learning. As Daniel Willingham says, ‘Memory is the residue of thought.’ Which means, we remember that which we think about. Which is a problem if you’re teaching, say, the Tudor Kings, but for half the time in the classroom your students are thinking about collecting digital rings and power-ups, or building a pyramid with blocks. They might look fascinated, but what are they thinking about- Henry VIII, or blocks?

Professor Rob Coe from Durham University in the UK has also written about this issue. In other words, these things might be desirable in themselves, but by themselves they don't tell us if students are learning.

So we should select our activities with care. If we use a game platform we need to ask ‘Will this benefit my students in a tangible way that can be measured?’ Grade increase, attendance, something. If the answer is ‘no’ then how do you know it’s working? The second question, just as important is, ‘Even if something is happening, is it worth the time spent on it that could be spent doing something else?’ In other words, maybe your students all leave the lesson knowing the Tudor Kings off by heart. But if it took a whole term to get there and you could have done it through other methods, then the cosy may outweigh the benefits. 

I spent a lot of time being told by people that ‘This works you idiot! Go back to the 1950s!’ but very little time being directed to evidence beyond ‘I say so.’ But the burden of proof lies with the claimants. 

Show me the Bit Coin

And as far as I can see, there just isn’t a solid evidence base to substantiate the claims that many of these platforms make. Saying ‘My kids love it though’ isn’t nothing, but it’s not substantive proof either. When I was a rookie teacher, I had a brainwave: when we were studying Mandalas (a religious symbol or art piece designed to be impermanent), their homework would be to go home and make one. Some would come back with cakes shaped like Jesus and Buddha and so on. Delicious, and they adored doing it, but terrible, terrible homework, a complete waste of their time. Just because they love it, doesn’t mean they’re learning. It’s fine to have strong gut feelings about what is and isn’t working in your classroom, but in order to avoid these biases, we need scalable, replicable research to guide us. 

I might be wrong. Minecraft might be the saving of our kids. They might all go out and colonise Mars with their mad Minecraft skills. But until there’s any evidence base to suggest it, it’s wise to be sceptical. And I thought my scepticism was pretty measured. I wouldn’t ban it in classrooms, had I even such a Genie-like power, but I think teachers need to have these kinds of conversations, otherwise we don’t deserve to be called a profession. 

The online reaction was extraordinary though. For the second time this week I’ve been struck by how passionately some people cling to their beliefs, and how viciously they’ll defend them from the slightest scrutiny. The kick back was breath taking from where I sat, I assure, you. ‘You must be a fucking moron’ was the general (and in some cases literal) thrust.

It made me pretty sad, again. Most of the worst comments were from non-teachers (am I surprised any more?), gaming enthusiasts who had a strangely robust confidence in their opinions about teaching and learning, and people with kind of scary avatars. Fair enough; I used to read a lot of comics and play Dungeons and Dragons, I get geek subculture. Even a childhood hero, Ian Livingstone (legend of Warlock on Firetop Mountain fame) had a pop, which marks, I think, the last leaf falling from the tree of my innocence.

Journalists for gaming magazines, CEOs of edtech firms, edupreneur digital gurus, a huge, apparently infinite conga line of people who love both computer games and calling me an idiot for disagreeing with them. 

Well it works for me

I had a lot more time for the teachers who used Minecraft and told me how useful they found it. I had even more time for people who told me how much impact it had on their autistic pupils or family members. It’s still personal anecdote but it least it suggests areas of enquiry, possibilities for the future. I was pretty clear: I’m not anti- all uses of this kind of tech, and I’d be delighted to see it help people. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as either Hume or Hitchens used to say, and claims made for these kinds of platforms are often extraordinary.

I’ve often felt that you know you’ve touched on a real problem when nobody wants to discuss it, or wants to let you criticise the status quo. And that’s what I found here. Some tech claims are so wild, so naïve, so radical, that people are scared to contest them. The ever-increasing integration of tech into classrooms is assumed. And I think teachers need to query that; need to say ‘where’s the evidence?’ a lot more. That shouldn’t be controversial. But it was. It really was. I stood in a wind tunnel of scorn today that made Storm Angus seem like a squall. Just for saying that we needed to be more sceptical of yet another platform that promises big and costs dollar. I wonder why that is?

There is a lot of money in education. Tech firms would like some of it. And that’s not entirely a bad thing- if they can come up with products with utility that are efficient and appropriate. But I won’t apologise to anyone for asking for better evidence, and for a better deal for teachers and students in the classroom. I hope we can have this conversation without such pointless controversy and pearl clutching. I think it's a debate worth having, because I think what teachers do is valuable, I think children's lives are priceless, and it matters what we do to make a difference to them. 

Game Over.

Tom Bennett has been a teacher in the East End of London for ten years. Currently he is the Director and founder of researchED, a grass-roots, teacher-led project that aims to make teachers research-literate and pseudo-science proof.

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