Friday, 20 June 2014

Should Teachers Use Minecraft in our Classrooms?

Up like a lark taking my daughter to work at 6am for the start of her shift in the gym. When I got back home I tuned in to the morning news. As always there was an education story. Now, education stories generally  provoke one of two reactions in me - interest or sheer outrage. But this story was different in that it provoked both... At 6am in the morning I might add!

The story was about how teachers across the country are beginning to use computer games in the classroom to develop creative writing skills. Primary teachers are great at digging around and doing a bit of homework on our kids: we find out what makes them tick and use that furiously to spark their interest and get them learning. In my view this does not seem to happen so much in high school, and it's a shame.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27936946

In my role as EAL (ESL) Teacher, talk is absolutely crucial to develop oracy, and when my kids want to talk I like to let them go for it. At every school I teach at (around 12 a week), my kids love to tell me the latest news on fads, fashions, sport - you name it I get it... One topic that keeps cropping up is Minecraft. Kids absolutely love it! Now, I don't see the attraction myself, but I've never been in to gaming, and let's face it, I'm not 11 anymore! For some reason the kids love the primitive graphics (this is not one of your fancy all singing all dancing glossy CGI computer games that looks so realistic it could be nominated for an Oscar...).

Using IT in the classroom is not new. Things have moved along so quickly since the first interactive whiteboards were introduced (a godsend!). Now, there are all sorts of initiatives in place geared up to using technology in the classroom - mobile phones, iPads, apps. For a long time we have used interactive software to inject excitement into our lessons and spark the interest of our kids. So why not latch onto something that the kids now and love and turn it to our advantage?

Why was I both interested and outraged at the same time? Well, while I love to grab the opportunity to use new initiatives to develop my own practices, I guess I still have one foot firmly planted in the traditionalist school of thinking. How can a language be learned properly if the individual components are not taught? For me, language is parallel to maths - both draw heavily on pre-determined formulae. For example, we talk about calculations as number sentences where each part of the calculation has to be in the right place and performed in the right order to arrive at the correct answer. The same situation exists with language where sentences have to be constructed in the correct order for them to make sense. It's all about outcomes and the journey involved to get there. Everywhere I go I come across children who do not know what the basic components of grammar are - basic stuff like nouns, verbs and adjectives. How can they perform the "maths" if these are not present or children remain unaware of them? To be oblivious to nouns is akin to not knowing what an even number is. You get my drift...? So....

Recommendation 1: teach the basics first - and I don't mean terms like "a describing word" (what does it describe...?). Let's stop prettying it all up and get down to cold, hard facts and teach the proper terminology!

If you're still with me, read on...

 
What exactly is the purpose of teaching Literacy? What do we hope to achieve? And is our curriculum fit for purpose? Going back to my maths analogy again, we spent hours slaving over complicated tables and writing complex calculations, but how often in our lifetime do we actually use logarithms...? It's a similar story with Literacy. We spend hours, weeks, terms, years teaching the finer points of descriptive writing, characters, setting, plot etc. Not to mention poetry - limericks, haiku, tongue twisters. Why? To what purpose? How many of our kids will actually need to write descriptive work brim full of wonderful metaphors, creative language and rhyming couplets? What the majority of our kids need is to be able to read and write instructions, reports, notes, to decipher timetables, find their way around a dictionary, and interpret brochures and booklets. Yes, of course we need to develop young writers, but perhaps the curriculum leans far too much towards descriptive writing rather than non-fiction. Go on, be honest - which do you prefer to teach...?

Recommendation 2: focus less on descriptive writing and more on writing that is fit for purpose and has a use in the real world.

If after all that you're still interested in my ramblings, then here's the final instalment...

Boys.
It is a sad truth that boys lag behind girls in Literacy. Many people have tried to work out why, many reports have been written, many initiatives put in place. And still they continue to lag behind. Please don't take this in any way as pandering to stereotypes (I'm definitely not that sort of person!), but, controversial as it may be, has anyone ever stopped to consider that the human brain is wired up this way? As teachers we strive to get the best out of all of our children - and sometimes this is painful, both for us and the kids! So, going back to this morning's news report, this is the part that interested me most. Boys love football, Playstations, X Boxes - and Minecraft! So if there's a way that can be exploited to get them engaged, let's use it for heaven's sake!

I have two caveats:
  • that English teachers do not revert to IT overkill in the same way as we had "death by worksheet" a few years ago.
  • that Minecraft, or whatever game, app or anything else is used, is properly adapted to become an educational tool and not just an excuse for kids to waste their time playing games in school time.

Recommendation 3: use whatever resources you can tap into to engage your kids, but make sure that the learning experience is a meaningful one and not an excuse for the teacher to switch off and enjoy a sneaky cuppa in class time...

What do you think? Do you agree with the use of computer games as a teaching tool? Or do you think that the emphasis has shifted too far away from the basics of writing? I'd love to hear your comments.

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