Minecraft vs. Learner Autonomy

Minecraft is a ‘sandbox’ game that emphasises resource gathering and creativity. It was published by Mojang in 2011 and is available on most platforms.

When I was a little kid, my mum loved that I loved Lego. Although the toy wasn’t easy on the wallet, I ended up with a box of bricks that she encouraged me to play with over my plastic horses, Barbies and other stuff. When I recently asked her why she was so fond of Lego, she told me it was ‘to make me intelligent’.

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Muuum! So embarrassing!

We all know what she means (not the bit about me being unintelligent) about Lego; the ‘free-play’ aspect of the toy, where you build what you have the resources to build, and then improvise games with the resulting object, is said to improve your thinking skills, spatial ability and much more. Minecraft is the next generation of that toy.

In Minecraft, you start off in a world that is full of resources that you need to collect. You need to build a shelter to keep you safe. You need to begin scavenging for food from the beginning, or you’ll starve. The process of creating a farm so that you can start working on other projects involves a lot of trial and error, but the joy of stepping back and admiring your first wheat field is real.

In the PC version of the game, all of this is done without a guide. You have to craft everything, but does the game tell you how? No! Does the game give you projects and goals? No, you do what you want! Is there an ending to the game? Kind of, but not really!

minecraft-house-styles-i7Minecraft is the zenith of player autonomy. And it teaches us some tricks that we can steal to help our students develop into autonomous language learners.

Setting your own goals

It’s typical for a Minecraft player to begin by making a home base. Whether it’s a tiny mud box, a Tudor-style house or a stone palace is up to the individual’s preferences, resources and motivation. Similarly, students should be given the chance to set their own learning goals. This isn’t something that a teacher can develop in her learners overnight, but you can start by getting your learners to regularly go through a routine like, “What am I doing? How have I been doing it? What am I doing next?” Start by asking it at the end of classes and expand from there.

Enjoy being curious

The reality is that it can be difficult to indulge learners’ curiosity when you’re trying to get through a syllabus. However, there are some things you can do that wouldn’t take a very long time.

You can encourage learners to look things up in a dictionary you trust. This may be an English > English Learners’ Dictionary, or a translating app/website. After the learner has done this, be sure to check their understanding of the new lexical item.

Another approach to try is inductive teaching. As most of my experience is with a monolingual (Chinese) classroom, I found it really helpful to give the learners a few examples of language with a recurring pattern and then have them discuss the rules in their L1. However, for a multi-lingual classroom, it might be more beneficial for the teacher to use a system like Jim Scrivener’s guided discovery.

Try new things

This is really about bravery. In Minecraft, if the player has built something she hates, she can demolish it and collect most of the materials back. This means that resource loss is not a big consideration when building. Teachers should aim to foster this kind of feeling in the classroom as well. If a learner tries, fails and is penalised for their failure, they’re likely to become more reserved in the future.

Teacher feedback is therefore a big factor here. As a teacher, specific praise can be really meaningful for learners. Conversely, if a learner makes an error, you need to consider how you approach the feedback (and even if you approach it at all!).

There are so many more approaches and routines that a teacher can use to build this most important 21st century skill, learning autonomy. What have you tried with your learners?

All pictures courtesy of Mojang or my mum.

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