Immersive Engagement in Minecraft: Education Edition

Guest post by Simon Baddeley: Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert.

For fifteen years, I have taught English in some of the most economically deprived schools and worked with some of the most disaffected learners that main stream education has to offer. Learners that face significant social, emotional, behavioural and developmental barriers to learning, with low self-esteem and even lower aspirations for their future. My absolute driving educational principle is that education is the key to unlock a world of opportunities beyond the cycle of social and economic deprivation that some of my learners are currently trapped within.

For my learners, education is often a scary experience which triggers a “fight or flight” response. From their perspective, English was very much “Here’s a bunch of words that I don’t understand and can’t read.” If my lessons are to have any kind of lasting effect, I have to overcome this emotional response and engage the mind of the young person before their body has time to formulate an escape plan.

My planning became driven by a simple but crucial question: How can I make this learning feel less like work? The hunt was on for approaches and strategies that could sugar coat the learning pill or immerse learners so significantly in a scenario that the learning could get close enough to my learners for them to engage with it before it scared them off. I transformed my learners into “genuine fake” expert movie makers, interior designers, zoologists, astronauts and game designers. We explored technology, got messy with play and experimented with failure in the pursuit of learning.

Then I discovered Minecraft and my world changed yet again.

Here was an environment within which my learners could become immersed so that they experiment without fearing the failures, create without fear of judgement and explore without fear of getting lost. They failed to trigger an explosion many times before they succeeded but, when they did, their explanation of how they did it was written from the perspective of an actual expert not one I’d engineered for them. They created and iterated characters, settings and story structures in Minecraft without the fear of their ideas being judged by their peers. They explored polar ice caps, developed sustainable living solutions, visited historical settings and wandered freely without fear of getting lost, getting hurt or getting it wrong.

Ask them what they had done in those sessions and their response would have been “We played Minecraft” not “We learned how to write a persuasive speech”.

Learners were so significantly immersed within a Minecraft world that the emotional “fight or flight” response hadn’t had time to take hold before the engagement had drawn them in. But the learning was very real, quantifiable and measurable.

I structured the sessions and projects carefully, without being overly prescriptive in how things were to progress. There was room for flexibility, creativity and individuality without leaving gaps for deviation and distraction. Simulation and exploration were key elements of the sessions to try and maximise the potential for immersion. I found there were far greater outcomes when learners had a base on which to build their ideas. Giving them a central village to expand and anchor to,  created far more purposeful sessions than simply starting with a blank canvas world. But I always structured the learning around a central “expert” scenario which empowered learners with credibility and purpose. Learners took risks, experimented and eventually collaborated like I’d never seen before and none of it ever felt like “work” to them.

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So how should you go about creating Immersive and Engaging Learning in your own Minecraft learning space? Here are my top 5 tips:

1. Set up a scenario.

The power of immersion within Minecraft is huge. Add a little back story and role play to take immersion to the next level within the environment. Don’t just explore geographical features in the terrain; turn the learners into geologists studying a new land and reporting back to a panel of “genuine fake” experts.

2. Keep the core thing, the core thing.

Plan your project with the key learning in mind from the outset. Never approach a project with what you want to do in Minecraft but with what you want to learn as the core driver. Then add a scenario with a back story giving purpose and direction to the learning and an added layer of immersion.

3. Failure is Fine.

If we want experimental learners that take risks and try out new things we need to model that behaviour ourselves. Engineer situations in which failure is a key factor towards success. And don’t worry about things going wrong with the Minecraft project; identify, iterate and move on.

4. Don’t be the expert in the room.

Empower learners with a scenario in which they are the expert or with a journey that will result in them feeling like an expert when they emerge. Guide them from the side of the learning rather than leading by the hand. And always add a role for yourself within the scenario which you can fulfil without breaking the immersion factor.

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5. Ask and promote the asking of questions.

A curious mind is a great thing and inquisitive learners are a joy to work with. For some it comes naturally but it is also a learning behaviour which can be modelled and developed in those that find it less easy. So question everything from “why have you chosen that place to build?” to “what would happen if..?”. Model the asking of iterative questions that promote growth and development. It never ceases to surprise me how quickly learners pick up on this and begin to use the language of iteration with their own work as well as with their peers. Make the questioning part of the scenario.

As always, if your classroom feels much like mine, feel free to reach out and connect if you want to collaborate on an immersive learning project or if you want any advice or support adding these elements to your own practise. Your comments would be gratefully received and engaged with!

Article originally posted on Simon’s blog. Simon Baddeley is an English Teacher, Minecraft: Education Edition Mentor Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert  and Surface Expert .