This post was originally a guest post on July 12, 2017 for the Minecraft Education Blog.
This likely won’t be your typical Minecraft Education blog post since I do not engage in typical teaching. Granted most teachers, given every child’s uniqueness, would say the same and even more so educators who’ve embraced Minecraft for instruction. What I mean though is that I have, for more than a decade, worked in New York City’s District 75, the world’s largest special education district, teaching students with some of the most challenging conditions from behavioral and learning disabilities to physical and developmental disorders. For that reason, I have had to seek out innovative learning tools and methods because traditional techniques wouldn’t suffice.
Into that unique environment, I introduced Minecraft about five years ago. At first, it was because it was something that engaged my students outside of school, so I sought to find out what educational value it could have. As I would find there is really no other game that exemplifies autonomy, creativity, and freedom as well as Minecraft. It is an open sandbox for creating whatever world you can imagine. Autonomy is a skill that is crucial in my teaching practice since, due to their disabilities, my students often struggle to achieve even basic levels of independence. I was then determined to incorporate it into my practice.
I had long been a believer in the power of learning through play specifically for special needs students and the research over the years has only borne that out. Recently studies have even shown the ability of videos games to improve visual acuity for low-vision students and to beat dyslexia. My biggest reasons for championing games in education though have always been two things: internalizing motivation and redefining failure. Perhaps my feelings are so strong on these because these are my students’ biggest struggles.
As for motivation, so much of special education is defined by Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) procedures and the work of B.F. Skinner. And while there is a place for it, giving Skittles has no inherent value and will eventually become less motivating because it is purely external. The best digital games, of which Minecraft is an exemplar, automatically convert the external motivators (points, leaderboards, and badges) into internal motivators (challenge, meaning, and socialization). The strength of Minecraft for this is its adaptability to be solitary or social, creative or destructive, guided or open.
My favorite aspect of good digital games (and computer science in general) is its ability to redefine failure. Many of my students, because they already feel so limited and confined, cannot handle making a mistake in class. Too often failure would lead to a shutdown. Most of those same students though didn’t experience the same feelings when gaming. Game over became try again. They would learn from their errors and adapt to solve the problem and meet their goal. Isn’t that the basic goal of education?
So I began simply with some students who were already adept at the game. I set engineering challenges that would be expanded using SketchUp. Then I began to have them build specific worlds like a colonial town, a medieval castle, and the journey of Narnia. I then began to use those pre-made worlds with my younger and more challenges students. The biggest challenge was accepting, as a teacher, that you don’t need to be an expert or have complete control for learning to happen. In fact, when students take control of their learning they are engaging the critical thinking skills and understanding required for tomorrow’s problems.
I have now become skilled enough to create Minecraft worlds to engage my students in the type of learning I want to see, but I still make sure to allow enough freedom for them to have a choice in their learning. One project that’s happening has students with autism, who struggle with personal identity, creating a Minecraft journey that begins with self-portraits and personal narratives of their life and family. Originally I had students do video walkthroughs to document and explain their work, but now I can use speech-to-text apps that can copy writing into the built-in portfolio.
I am also able to set up complex engineering using Redstone that can be made accessible using a Swifty or other accessible switch that links to the computer so my students with physical limitations can fully participate. One of the most useful ways I’ve incorporated Minecraft is in recreating local environments like the school, home, or a grocery store. Students with mobility or behavioral issues can now traverse those environments safely in the virtual world before attempting it in the real world. It has really helped students feel reconnected to a world that sometimes can feel very separate to them. I love the fact that not only did my students now not only didn’t feel confined to their wheelchairs or leg braces, but they could walk, and create, and even fly.
In a few days, I will be leading District 75’s first Minecraft Challenge Fair where students and teachers from across the city will exhibit some of what they’ve been creating in Minecraft this year. They will also be able to see some of the more elaborate worlds we have been working on like a scaled version of Manhattan or Hogwarts that will be distributed to participating teachers. Finally, students will have the opportunity to compete in game challenges that include artistic creation, engineering tasks, geocaching, and our own D75 Minecraft Breakout. I have loved having the opportunity to explore and create a world accessible to my students.