Over the past few months, we spoke with several educators and experts in K–12 education to learn how gaming—a technology that can often seem more isolating than interactive—could actually boost social and emotional outcomes for students as young as those in kindergarten.

As part of a research project focused on Minecraft, we found that regardless of the subject matter being taught, the game provides an opportunity for students to hone skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, negotiation, delegation and even empathy. Accordingly, teachers serve as guides, coaches and facilitators, encouraging independence and student agency.

Let’s hear directly from a school leader, national PBL expert and teacher about how gaming has impacted students and teachers in schools they work with:

Dr. Michelle Zimmerman, Renton Prep Christian School

Dr. Michelle Zimmerman is Executive Director of Renton Prep Christian School, a Microsoft Showcase School in Seattle, Washington. Zimmerman earned a PhD in Learning Sciences and Human Development from the University of Washington’s College of Education, and has conducted extensive research in the area of gaming.

Zimmerman says, “When educators intentionally work on the classroom culture using a game like Minecraft as a vehicle for that learning—when students are already intrinsically motivated to play—it can serve as a powerful learning tool.”

In a 1:1 device environment, gaming can still be a very collaborative and interactive experience. Cultivating empathy through gaming isn’t a given; rather, it occurs as part of a guided experience.

“As educators, we have the opportunity to help students develop empathy through gaming and imagine how they’d like to be treated, talk through scenarios in gaming and in their personal lives, and discuss how they would do something differently (or have wanted to be treated differently), then practice those skills.”

Technology doesn’t impede our ability to build relationships; conversely, with regard to gaming in the classroom, it can serve to further bolster them.

“We know that human connection can be powerful in many settings and environments. Gaming is no exception. Relatedness speaks to a social and emotional impact that occurs through relationships with others. Games that allow a collaborative or cooperative mode provide the opportunity for an increased sense of belonging through relatedness inside of a game environment. When learning design is built into a classroom setting with games that already intrinsically motivate students, that relatedness can extend and transfer outside of the game as students discuss and interact with each other in person as well as in the game environment.”

Rody Boonchouy, Buck Institute for Education

Rody Boonchouy is Senior Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at the Buck Institute for Education. An expert on Project-Based Learning (PBL), he recognizes that the principles and underlying values of PBL and game-based learning are very similar.

Both offer a way to engage learners of all ages in working toward clear and relevant objectives, weaving in conquerable obstacles and formative feedback in the process. Games, in fact, are often used as a supplement to PBL experiences, providing a digital and visual vehicle for reflection on learning.

Boonchouy sees an obvious intersection between SEL and the use of video games—specifically, Minecraft—in the classroom.

“It isn’t a secret that games are popular and engage kids. They’re able to fail forward in a risk-free environment. When playing Minecraft, kids must have a level of coordination and cooperation in order to accomplish shared objectives. They’re negotiating with one another, strategizing about resources and next moves, and delegating responsibilities. It’s really quite remarkable to see.”

While Boonchouy works with the K–12 set, he also has a unique window into the world of Minecraft and its educational benefits: his children, ages nine and six.

“As a parent, I had trouble finding games that weren’t gender-specific. Minecraft appeals to boys, girls, teens—it’s a whole phenomenon, and the flexibility of it allows kids to become creators, designers, planners and, yes, at times, even failures, all within the context of a virtual world they’ve built themselves.”

One of PBL’s essential elements—the notion of ownership—arises in Minecraft as well.

“How do these global communities, created and driven by kids, evolve in such a productive and civil way? It’s simple: they feel like they own this world. They built it, they develop it and they evolve it. That sense of ownership that’s not arbitrated by adults or by the adult world encourages deep buy-in. We call this ‘voice and choice’: they’re actively engaged and they’ll lean on their assets and how they can contribute to the learning experience. When you have agency and ownership over your environment and your contributions, that’s an engaging space to be in—and definitely opens kids up to learning.”

Jeff Gearhart, Brinnon School District

Jeff Gearhart has seen firsthand in his classroom how engaging the use of Minecraft can be for students. A technology instructor in a small, high-poverty school district, Gearhart acknowledges that his students—part of a total school population of 60—are in an unusual situation in American K–12 education.

They live in an area on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula that’s ridden with high unemployment due to shifts away from industries like forestry and construction. Nearly all students qualify to receive free or reduced lunch, and Brinnon School District relies solely upon external funding through grants and donations for its technology resources and training.

In his three daily classes, Gearhart instructs mixed-level groups of kindergarteners and first and second graders; third, fourth and fifth graders; and sixth, seventh and eighth graders. In his lessons, he grapples with significant developmental differences, in addition to the fact that each student has a unique learning style and challenges. Gearhart cited the game’s versatility as a means of encouraging collaboration regardless of grade level.

Other teachers, along with the school superintendent, observed how focused the students were when visiting Gearhart’s classroom. “They’re collaborating quietly, learning teamwork and other valuable skills (mathematics and geography/navigation) that they will be able to use 20 years from now,” he said. “Minecraft is a learning platform with transferable skills.”

Gearhart has witnessed a change in his students, a level of emotional maturity that has spurred academic growth and a sense of agency among students who, at the beginning of the year, would have asked questions. Now they take initiative and forge ahead, even designing their own lessons within Minecraft and associated assessment measures.

“There are going to be jobs available to these kids that are not created now—and that’s huge,” Gearhart said. “We’re helping to prepare them for that.”

These observations make a powerful argument for the ways in which gaming—and, more specifically, Minecraft—creates opportunities for transformational learning experiences.

Stay tuned later this week for a full research report on Minecraft and SEL from the Getting Smart team.

This blog is part of a research project made possible with support from Microsoft. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of Getting Smart and interviewees.

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