Homework, Projects and Minecraft

We are all the product of our genes and life experiences and I suspect that my largely conservative views on education reflect the fact that traditional teacher-led, knowledge-rich education has had a transformational effect on my life.

The fact that education has been so kind to me means that I take it seriously – probably too seriously. So when I was driving in to work this morning listening to a discussion about homework on Newstalk Radio, I could feel my blood pressure rising. Then, as I sat in the Mater Hospital waiting for a blood test, flicking through Twitter as one does, I could feel it rising even higher.

Let’s take the Newstalk conversation first. The conversation centred on homework and whether it should be discontinued at primary level. Now, I’m not sure what the current state of thinking is regarding homework but aspects of the conversation worried me. The main guest who was herself a primary school principal (and, I think, head of the association of primary school principals) was suggesting that homework needs to challenge students in ways that the school day doesn’t and it should encompass things like physical exercise and especially the avoidance of screen time. She also raised concerns about the fact that disadvantaged students are, as you might expect, at a disadvantage when it comes to homework because they are more likely to lack the family supports and the home environment that more advantaged pupils have. She then suggested that the solution to the homework ‘problem’ was to make it more project-focused (building volcanoes was mentioned) in order to complement the more traditional learning done in class.

Now it seems to me that if you want to level the playing field, or if you want to limit screen time, assigning projects is the last thing you should do. Project work, which these days amounts to Googling and cutting and pasting, is likely to be far more problematic for kids from a disadvantaged background and is also likely to put far more stress on busy families.

What was also interesting about the discussion was that the word ‘practice’ was never mentioned. We take it for granted that homework in the form of practice is a key part of learning a musical instrument. Likewise, we accept that to become expert at any number of sports, practice is absolutely essential. Yet, when it comes to arithmetic, writing, spelling or reading or even art, we never use this word. I find it really strange that ideas and practices with which we are very comfortable in many walks of life, become ‘problematic’ when mentioned in the context of education. For some reason, many educators seem to be convinced that learning is a completely natural process that shouldn’t require the discipline and practice that music, sport, dance and art forms of all kinds require.

Having calmed down after the Newstalk interview, this article came across my timeline on Twitter. The conclusion of the article is that Minecraft helps children to:

  • To think things through.
  • To concentrate and develop a deep focus.
  • To use logic, problem-solving and goal-setting.
  • Learn from their mistakes.
  • To experiment.
  • To bring new pieces of knowledge together and use them in different ways.
  • Enjoy creativity because the game rewards it.
  • Co-operation and work with others.
  • Increase computer literacy.
  • Multi-task.

Now, I observe my son and his friends play video games all the time and I can safely say that all of the above apply equally to Super Mario Brothers, Clash of Clans, Clash Royale or any of the many games that he downloads onto my phone when I’m not looking. (Incidentally, the fact that kids develop a “deep focus” when playing computer games is a problem, not something to boast about.)

But here’s my view and I stress that it is a very personal one: play-learning with video games or Lego is not education. It’s the sort of thing you get your kids to do in a Summer camp. It’s a way of having your kids minded while doing something stimulating and vaguely educational. It doesn’t belong in the classroom. The skills you learn constructing worlds in Minecraft and completing levels in Super Mario or building Lego robots are very unlikely to transfer to other areas of life and there is a huge opportunity cost when using this approach to teaching and learning. But unfortunately we live in a time when engagement is equated with learning and this is no more evident than in the new super-discipline that we have decided to call STEM, a mish-mash of science and engineering where making structures out of spaghetti and marshmallows or making a metre-cubed out of toilet rolls is seen as an efficient and effective use of class time.

Of course, active play-learning is not necessarily all bad and only last week I saw a good example of it when my son attended an art summer camp. The theme of the camp was to create a comic-book character and what was good about it was that drawing time was interspersed with explicit instruction on developing characters, the use of fonts, shading, story-telling etc. The whole thing was focused and Leo came away having been ‘engaged’ but also having acquired very specific and tangible skills that will help in his development as an artist. Can we say such things about Lego or Minecraft or even Pokemon Go and fidget spinners? I don’t think so.

PS Leo is a doing a Lego Camp this week. He’s finding it engaging but the take-home…?

And meet Perry the Platypus



About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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