Building the Future
Minecraft. It is surely the one game from the past five years that requires absolutely no formal introduction, because you have already been introduced to it by children in your family or by students at your school. As one of the best selling games of all times, and the app that is perpetually at the very top of the App Store best sellers list, Minecraft is an omnipresent cultural gaming force. It introduces itself in conversation over breakfast as children talk of diamonds and portals, during the car ride to school as the latest updates are discussed, and, steadily, within classrooms across Australia the Minecraft dialogue is being actively encouraged. It is a rare thing these days for an education technology conference to pass by without a Minecraft workshop not just listed on the program, but confidently taking centre stage. For all the years of educators talking about how games can help students in the classroom, along comes this game that ticks pedagogical boxes we never even knew existed.
This week at the #FutureSchools conference in Sydney, Heath Wild and I will be presenting a workshop on how Minecraft on the iPad can be powerfully used and implemented in the education of children on the autism spectrum. It is with a great deal of excitement too that we launch a brand new textbook for iPad, ‘Minecraft In Your Classroom’, that is available now as a free download on the iBooks Store: itun.es/au/Cosg6.l
I often tell a wonderful story that illustrates so much of the strength that is contained within utilising Minecraft with our students on the spectrum. As part of the English literature curriculum, many of our classes will read the chapter of a novel as a whole group and then will move into a phase of the lesson where students use Minecraft to create the scenery, the characters and the context of the chapter just read. On one of our classes there was a student who had limited emerging expressive communication skills, and a limited capacity to write and express a comprehension of the literary elements of the texts presented in class. However, being able to use Minecraft as a tool in literacy lessons, this student was able to provide the most detailed, accurate representation of the world that the novel was describing. For the first time, the teacher of this student was able to accurately assess just how they were comprehending and engaging with the text.
Special Interests and Minecraft
There is an interesting paper, ‘Circumscribed Interests In Higher Functioning Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Exploratory Study [i]’, in which a number of special interest areas are described and categorised for the purpose of highlighting how these areas relate to particular talents that some individuals on the autism spectrum possess. For example, the paper notes that some children with autism show particular strength in categorising and ordering information, such as having a natural affinity to relating types of dinosaur to particular geological periods, or to categorise and list differing breeds of dog, for example.
I became interested in the findings of the paper in relation to the large number of students with autism I was working with who were fascinated by Minecraft. While it certainly appears that most children and young people the digital world over are very much interested in Minecraft, it was nonetheless an abundant feature of the work we were doing with many students with autism that sooner or later the conversation would eventually turn to Minecraft. In some ways the link between Minecraft and autism is, on a surface level, immediately clear: it is a very visual game in so far as it directly mirrors the sort of first person processing that could almost be described as direct experiential video modelling, and it taps into so many of the classic logical, sequencing interests that many of our students have, such as would have been applied formerly to Lego and building blocks and train tracks and other concrete, orderly creative acts. But there is more to it than just this surface level conjecture that aligns with the processing styles ascribed to autism. Consider the following three categories of special interest I have picked out from the research paper in relation to Minecraft and how some of our students with autism experience and engage with this game.
Visual and Verbal Memory and Learning
There is a deep understanding that students demonstrate regarding the collections of facts that compose the working world of Minecraft. There is a concentrated understanding of which elements must be combined to achieve success in certain tasks, or the way in which particular actions need to occur under certain set conditions to elicit successful causal reactions.
There is a sense of order that comes about through creating pattern based environments in Minecraft. Students in our classes have noted how they feel calm playing Minecraft for periods when they are simply placing block after block in a pattern in order to compose the structure of a building, or to slowly reshape the topography of a vast green landscape.
Dates and Times
There is a fascinating relationship between Real Time in our world and Minecraft Time in the game. One day in Minecraft Time is twenty minutes in our Real Time, hence one hour in Minecraft Time is fifty seconds in our Real Time, and different segments of the day-night cycle proceed at different speeds. Much of the strategising that comes about through the game rests upon recognising when nightfall is coming and the sort of structures that are required to be created in order to stay safe when the sun sets. There is an interesting utilisation of executive functioning planning skills that I observe our students engaging in when comparing and working within the two time realms.
Better Learning through Boxes
With these areas of strength that our students can excel in, and the functional links they connect with in relation to playing Minecraft, we can clearly see a valuable opportunity to capitalise on the high motivation factor that Minecraft has with the chance to build in our children some valuable skills. In our book, ‘Minecraft In Your Classroom’, you will see that we provide lesson plans, learning activity ideas and work samples for all the learning areas across the Australian Curriculum, with a specific focus on building on the learning strengths our students with autism have. We also explicitly address the Core Competency goals that students in Aspect Schools work towards, and how, for example, students can develop emotional regulation tools within Minecraft that can then be translated into real world emotional intelligence skills.
I very much hope our book is useful to parents and educators who are working with children on the spectrum that are fascinated with Minecraft and can utilise the learning ideas presented in the text. With creative ways of focusing the special interests of our students, we are providing them with incredible new tools to build the future with.
Downloadable Minecraft lesson plans from the book (as PDF):
A blog post written by Craig Smith, an Aspect Practice Specialist and Apple Distinguished Educator
[i] Klin, A., Danovitch, J. H., Merz, A. B., & Volkmar, F. R. (2007). Circumscribed interests in higher functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders: An exploratory study. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities,32(2), 89-100.