Several weeks ago I was watching Charlie Rose interview Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones, discussing their film “The Invisible Woman” which told the story of Charles Dickens’ secret relationship with a younger woman during the height of his fame. In the interview, both Fiennes and Jones said they’d never read Dickens in school, which they found puzzling. But then Jones said something I found truly insightful. She said she was kind of glad that Dickens isn’t taught in school (at least in Britain) because then kids don’t associate his writing with something they don’t like, as often happens with Shakespeare. On the contrary, they can discover his books on their own, when they are ready, and really enjoy them.
I bring this up because recently I’ve been hearing a lot about Minecraft Homeschool. My son Ben loves Minecraft, and more than one person has asked me why I don’t sign him up for the classes that Minecraft homeschool offers.
The short answer is, “Because that would take all the fun out of it.”
You see, from my point of view, the best thing about Minecraft is that it is organic, and a different experience for each person. You can learn the options as quickly or as slowly as you like. Ben started out on a creative server set up by someone he knew, and spent weeks discovering all the different building materials and how best to use them, as well as how to create with redstone. (The Minecraft equivalent of electric circuits.) He watched many YouTube tutorials as well as watching videos by and about people who had built detailed replicas of real buildings. A year later and he has his own server, creates mini-games, plays in survival as well as creative and has friends all over the place with whom he routinely skypes while they play.
The homepage on the Minecraft homeschool site says “Proof that LEARNING IS FUN!” (The caps are theirs, not mine.) These are the kind of statements made to convince parents. The kids already know that playing Minecraft is fun, and that they are learning a lot while they do. So why mess that up? Why feel the need to enroll a kid into a class on something he or she could easily learn on his or her own? Oh sure, they have classes that focus on different eras in history like “Viking Victories” and “Mysterious Maya”, but to my mind, these only serve to reduce the amount of overall creativity and learning. Introducing out of game assignments – required videos to watch and quizzes to take – mean that you’ve turned Minecraft into just another class where someone else tells you what to learn, how to do it and then quizzes you on it. It’s Dickens relegated to the classroom. (Don’t even get me started on the invite only server party which is only open to those who scored 75% or higher total on all the quizzes. “Do well on the quiz or you can’t go to the party!” Ugh.)
Does this sound harsh? I suppose it does. I’m sure the people behind Minecraft homeschool had all the good intentions, but honestly I can’t imagine any kid choosing the type of classes offered, with all the requirements they entail, over being given free reign to learn and discover and build on their own or with their friends. Which means the classes are really a way for parents to feel better about their kids’ gaming; a way for them to see it as “educational”.
But it is educational, all on its own, just as Dickens is great literature even outside the classroom. And far more appreciated.
Making a class out of Minecraft does not give the game more value, it just drains it of a bit (or a lot) of the joy of discovery. I don’t want to read Dickens because someone is going to quiz me on it. My son doesn’t want to be graded on his redstone circuitry or whether he watched the History Channel companion piece on Mayan architecture.
Minecraft grows with the user. The only limits are those of the imagination, which is to say, there are no limits.
If your kids enjoy Minecraft, let them. No need to make it school.
Thank you to Lisa Nielsen for suggesting I write this piece, and for the title.