Vygotsky’s learning theories in Minecraft
A couple of months ago I saw this video of the Colour 3D printer in Minecraft, and whilst initially I was a bit dismissive (what’s the point?!) I started to wonder if there wasn’t something deeper going on. I believe that the kids playing Minecraft today are developing some astonishing skills that are going to shape the future.
What we see in the above video is a complicated device built using simple blocks, some of which have on/off abilities and which are laid out in a pattern to trigger other activities. Cool, but pointless perhaps. But imagine that the blocks were made of different kinds of proteins, that are either inert or behave in this on/off manner. Even with a “large” device like this the actual physical size would be tiny. This could easily be a microsocopic machine that conducted cell or tissue repair, or manipulates RNA like this one.
There’s also a lot of logic and processing going on there, and indeed, emulating processors in Minecraft is nothing new. Players are going further, creating word processors and pushing their ability by creating small machines that complete specific actions.
Another side of Minecraft is that it is highly collaborative, so in addition to these individual components or devices we see massive projects to build scale models, such as the Star Trek Enterprise-D.
The version shown above is the second iteration of the Enterprise – a group of people looked at the original work and decided to do their own version, creating a wiki, defining roles and responsibilities, rules for membership, work tools and the division of labour. All for fun. Another project, which you can see being built in this video, is the Wall and dozens of Nights’ Watch castles from Game of Thrones. This and other Westeros projects are planned and coordinated by many individual players, pretty much open to anyone who can demonstrate their building chops, with access levels and work managed by some kind of heirarchy.
Building their own future
Modern educational theories of learning suggest that play is an important part of learning, and Vygotsky in particular believed that the social and collaborative aspects of play were powerful forces in transforming children’s learning. Children initially follow the example of adults or more experienced peers, and this peer play is defining “functions that have not matured yet, but are in a process of maturing, that will mature tomorrow, that are currently in an embryonic state” (Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development)
I believe that the skills being developed by children and young adults as they play with Minecraft will be absolutely transformational for future science, engineering and even knowledge work. To reference another of Vygotsky’s theories, there is a particular objective to the activity, but there are additional, unanticipated learning outcomes. Minecraft players are developing a natural, instinctive aptitude for problem solving, logic, complex machinery, visualising in 3D and collaborative working, skills that today’s workers have developed only after years of training. I think that once they leave school and start their careers we’ll see an explosion of creativity that will rival anything seen before.
Some interesting comments from Headteacher Matt Chappel, who knows much more about these learning theories than I and puts them into practice:
“I think you’re right that features of Minecraft exemplify ‘constructivist’ learning theory in which learners build their own knowledge and skills, working in the zone of proximal development.
In some ways it goes further than Vygotsky in that learners define their own ZPD by stretching themselves and accessing the support (‘scaffolding’) only when they need it – Vygotsky I think implied greater dependency on adults or peers when working in the ZPD or at least that the adult or peer would control the amount of support given.
Vygotsky suggests a linear progression from scaffolded and collaborative learning to independent learning – Minecraft seems to move back and forward between independent and collaborative learning.”
I’d also alluded to, but not specifically mentioned Communities of Practice, but that’s certainly a factor to consider:
“I wonder whether Minecaft-type learning environments also have something in common with the ‘community of practice’ model in which professionals/learners come together to build and share expertise collaboratively with a sense of purpose and mutual challenge – independent and collaborative learning reinforcing each other.”
Matt also reckoned that Minecraft seems to embody experiential learning cycle, or perhaps the Deming cycle of Plan, Do, Check, Act, but also continuous feedback, critical reflection and peer assessment, albeit focused on very specific, self-generated success criteria.
An interesting area – will have a look for further research about Minecraft in Educational use, but if you have any suggestions, please add a comment.