minecraft

Could Minecraft disrupt traditional instruction?

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Nov 12, 2019

Minecraft, which hit its 10-year anniversary this year, is currently the second best-selling video game ever—only beat out by Tetris. The game is what’s called a “sandbox,” where players move around freely and use pixelated “blocks” to build whatever they want, from functioning virtual computers to a replica of the entire country of Denmark. Over 100 million people play the game, and estimates suggest that kids under 15 are the biggest demographic.

As with many trends that become massively popular among kids, K–12 educators can’t help but take notice of the game. And yet, Minecraft generally hasn’t gone the way of Tamagotchis and other fads that get banned from school. Instead, ideas abound for integrating Minecraft into the classroom. 

Disruptive Innovation Theory explains how rudimentary products and services take root at the margins of a market, and improve over time to compete in the mainstream market by enabling greater access, affordability, and flexibility. In light of Minecraft’s migration from outside school walls to inside classrooms, could Minecraft disrupt traditional instruction? The answer hinges not only on the game itself, but on how and why educators leverage it to shift instruction.

At the classroom margins: not your standard edtech tool

When Minecraft took off as a popular game in 2011, it racked up players, and also began to gain a reputation as a space where kids were learning together. Parenting experts lauded Minecraft’s subtle ways of helping kids learn about resource management, patience, perseverance, and teamwork. Informal learning communities launched Minecraft summer camps or library-sponsored competitions. Minecraft was emerging as a learning platform that was never designed to compete with edtech—in many ways because its first priority was to appeal to players’ own interests, not to teach them something predetermined by the creators. 

By the standards of our formal education system, Minecraft was far from a high-performing learning tool. It fit none of the traditional hallmarks of the education system. It contained no standardized content or assessments. It didn’t offer teachers useful data to inform instruction.  Kids could roam free creating everything from random number generators to replicas of the Parthenon, rather than learning fixed content at a fixed pace. Because it featured none of these traditional elements of performance for an education tool, there was no reason to expect it would make its way into classrooms.

The move to the education mainstream: hybrid innovation, or disruption?

Of course, Minecraft has made its way into classrooms, despite never being designed as an edtech tool. From a disruption perspective, the critical question is: how? Is it enabling educators to disrupt conventional methods of teacher-led, “sit and get” instruction? Or is it being used in ways that reinforce those methods?

In the business world, once disruptive innovations are perceived as competitive by incumbent companies, those companies frequently introduce hybrid innovations. A hybrid is a combination of both the new, disruptive technology and the old technology, and represents improvement along traditional metrics of performance (a sustaining innovation relative to the old technology). Hybrids don’t compete on cost or access like pure disruptive innovations because they build on the company’s existing business model. For example, the automobile industry has developed several hybrid cars along its way to transitioning from gasoline-fueled engines to engines with alternative power sources. The leading companies want to offer their customers the virtues of both, so they have developed a sustaining innovation—hybrid cars that use both gasoline and electricity. 

There are upsides to hybrid innovations. They can introduce important sustaining improvements on traditional metrics of performance, giving customers the ‘best of both worlds’. However, they can also lead traditional systems to cannibalize new technologies in ways that stymie their transformative potential. Indeed, as Minecraft moves from the margins into the mainstream classroom, it can easily become “school-ified.” Lesson plans abound for 50-minute class periods where students perform prescribed tasks in Minecraft. In one example currently showcased on the Minecraft Education website, a teacher created a model of the school in Minecraft and wrote math exercises on the boards in each virtual classroom. Engaging? Perhaps. Disrupting traditional instructional methods? Not quite.

In other cases, however, teachers are using Minecraft as a vehicle to break away from traditional equations of how learning happens and how it’s demonstrated. Traditionally, a teacher (or tool, like a textbook or software) would transmit information to a student, who would then be expected to learn that information and prove it on a test. But in some classrooms, students use Minecraft as a platform to develop their ideas or demonstrate their learning. For example, some teachers are inviting students to use the game to design for accessibility and inclusion or show their understanding of symbolism in literature. Could these things happen without Minecraft? Certainly. But in the absence of an affordable, easy-to-use, sandbox platform for creative production, the barriers to creation-oriented learning and assessment might well be higher, with greater demands for human capital, materials, and space.

So, could Minecraft disrupt traditional instruction systemically? The answer is, not yet. That’s because so long as traditional modes of assessment dominate, Minecraft will either not appeal, or be force-fit into a traditional paradigm. For educators to harness Minecraft and similar tools as part of creation-oriented instructional models, a new set of assessment strategies and models need to evolve around those tools. 

Beyond Minecraft: technology for constructing knowledge

Framing Minecraft within a narrative of disruption is an invitation for K–12 leaders to pay closer attention to technologies that enable and scale instructional models focused on student-driven inquiry and production. In Disrupting Class, we identified online learning as a potentially disruptive force that could drive more student-centered learning in K–12 education. At that time, online courses were quite rudimentary. While they enabled flexibility in time, pace, path, and place of learning, they generally modeled the same kind of transmission of information from teacher to student that governs conventional classrooms. 

Today, we see some wider variation in the tools being adopted in classrooms, including more experiential edtech like virtual reality field trips or digital science labs. But does the story of Minecraft signal something different, breaking beyond a relatively narrow set of available actions for students and creating the conditions for open-ended inquiry and exploration? I’ll be on the lookout for learning and assessment tools like these that invite student creativity and initiative, and position students as producers.

Chelsea is a research fellow at the Institute focusing on blended and personalized learning in K-12 education, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the design of new instructional models.