Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere

Literacy, Learning & Minecraft

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Having your assumptions challenged is an odd experience; it’s a little like grief. At first you cling to the ideas upon which you built your practice, possibly even your world (shock and denial), you may even rail against the new way of seeing (anger), and then you begin to drift into the languid grip of the new perceptions like slipping into a warm bath or dropping off to sleep on the sofa (release). Ultimately, you come back, hopefully twice as strong with a new way of approaching what you do that builds on your previous thought processes (acceptance). In essence, the conversion doesn’t erode what existed before, it’s almost built on those foundations. This is true, in particular, of my approach to literacy.

MinecraftThis week I have marveled as my seven year old navigates his way through figuring out how to play Minecraft. I have revelled in watching him use Youtube walkthroughs, pausing and trying out the techniques, failing, then trying again and squealing with delight and excitement when he is successful. He’s teaching himself. Because he can read, because he is becoming literate, he can decode enough texts to indulge his growth mindset and grit in the game he’s currently loving. It’s a beautiful lesson.

To me though, Minecraft looks a tad “retro”, a slicker version of a ZX Spectrum game I might have played at his age, just without the cassette tape loading. In actual fact:

Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks. At first, people built structures to protect against nocturnal monsters, but as the game grew players worked together to create wonderful, imaginative things.”

I had to look that up.

But it struck a chord in me. It is a neat approximation of the accumulated knowledge about improving literacy that I have been able to soak up over the past two years of widening my CPD experience using Twitter and the various opinions and steering provided, for free, by the multiple blogs which open up new ideas and explain the pitfalls that others have experienced as they implement new systems and put new ideas into practice. In order to learn and, indeed, become “literate”; knowledge matters. Not just an accumulated set of disparate facts and ideas: propositional, personal and procedural knowledge. They all work in tandem: in Minecraft and in becoming literate and, potentially, in becoming a learner.

For the uninitiated, the world of Minecraft is made up of cubes. Everything is based on that one shape. You control a character who uses a range of blocks to build structures, some to live in, some to bring to life and some that transport you to another world. The more adept the player becomes with the “blocks”, the more outlandish and interesting the game gets. (I think. After all, I’m learning this from a seven year old.) It’s beginning to sound like a clumsy metaphor. It’s E. D. Hirsch and the “Matthew Effect” rolled up into a neat “cube”. The basic building “blocks” allow you, once you have knowledge of how to place a block, to create more, almost exponentially than you could previously. As it is with words, the connections between words and the associated meanings and accumulation of knowledge that this allows.

This is what will drive my approach from now on.

Many years ago, in an early foray into staff training, I led a session for a cross curricular group of staff around approaching writing. I spoke about the need for students to know who they were writing for (audience), what the writing was intended to do (purpose), the genre or type of writing and the level of formality this all dictates no matter what subject was being taught. I stand by this. All kids should be actively taught to write – it won’t just “happen”. It has to be modelled, examples should be explored and analysed. However, when I discussed with the staff the need to re-write tasks to ensure an audience that isn’t an examiner or the teacher, I feel I lapsed into the educational fashion of the time for engagement as opposed to substance with tasks being written for visiting aliens etc. as opposed to developing and academic vocabulary. The intention is there, clearly, but it all feels a little ill-advised looking back. The subject specific vocabulary, the field in which we were studying needed to take precedence.

Moving forward, I want subjects to be subjects, after all:

Literacy depends on shared knowledge. To be fully literate means to understand a broad range of knowledge taken for granted by speakers and writers. For example, when sports casters refer to an upset victory as “David beating Goliath,” or when reporters refer to a “threatened presidential veto,” they are assuming that their audience shares certain knowledge.”  (“Core Knowledge: What Every Child Needs to Know”, p.1.)

I’m not a slavish stickler to factual information. In fact, I have my concerns about the selection of knowledge that is presented at any given time. It is fraught with issues unless they themselves are driven by a curriculum. The idea of exposing kids to, “…the best which has been thought and said” (Matthew Arnold not Gove) is, in itself a value judgement. Therefore I want the selection of the background or foundational knowledge to be driven by the “gateway” knowledge, e.g. for a Historian this might be key watershed dates which allow access to chronology. Essentially, the curriculum dictates the background knowledge. And knowledge precipitates knowledge.

Have a go at the following questions:

  1. When was the Battle of Hastings?
  2. Who said, “I’m not in Kansas anymore”, and to whom was she speaking?
  3. How did David defeat Goliath?
  4. What are the 4 layers that make up the structure of the earth?
  5. When did the First World War start and end?
  6. Who said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”?
  7. Name the famous mathematical rule, “that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.”
  8. Who said, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”?


Let’s take a few as examples. One and five simply allow the participant to demonstrate that they are aware of aspects of a basic chronology of British and European History. Digging deeper, with the precept that knowledge precipitates knowledge, you begin to build a context in which you can layer information about the history of the English language, the monarchy, the class system. The list goes on. I love question five because, when you ask a cross section of Historians when the second world war really started, and you give them the option of, the period of the First World War, many of them will make the case that this is really when the destabilising of Europe began. Importantly, it opens a discussion about much more than the dates or years themselves, as well as an important piece of cultural knowledge it allows a context to be built around social history, literature, values and morality.

We could deconstruct the rest, but I’m guessing you get the idea, as simplified as it is here. My personal favourites are question two and question six. Question six uses a quote that I have previously used to introduce the context of “Lord of the Flies”. It was said by Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists who worked on the first atom bomb as part of The Manhattan Project, which in turn ended the Second World War and, in many ways, started the Cold War. The quote itself is actually from the “Bhagavad Gita”. Knowledge is layered. Knowledge begets knowledge.

With this in mind, I envisage a curriculum that runs concurrent with that which we deliver every day. I’m not sure what to call it and/or when exactly it should be delivered and in what structure. To begin with, I have asked subjects to choose an aspect of what they deliver and develop a simple, ten question, background knowledge “quiz”. And now here comes the fine dividing line. How do I create a curriculum that runs alongside the curriculum that drives us and complements it, that is composed of nuggets of factual information, that isn’t reductive? My initial thoughts were along the lines of the “QC” or “Quiz Curriculum” but I’ve since thought better of that. I don’t want accusations of a “pub quiz” element creeping in.

The name will evolve I’m sure. What I’m certain of however, is that, without the background knowledge, the building blocks can’t be broken or placed, people can’t build structures to protect or better themselves. As knowledge grows however, maybe they’ll work together to create wonderful, imaginative things.

Author: Gordon Baillie

I am an Advanced Skills teacher in a large comprehensive school in the North West of the UK. Trained in Scotland, I have worked in a number of different settings in my almost fifteen years of teaching. I have been working with both my own and other local schools and their teachers to both enhance and improve learning and teaching for a number of years now. I am an experienced trainer of both trainee and experienced teachers and have contributed to both local and national conferences around learning and teaching, particularly around Assessment for Learning as well as being asked to contribute to keynote addresses around other, more generic areas of teaching. I believe that teaching and particularly learning are deeply creative pursuits and that the only way to continue to enhance them and the practice of teachers is to collaborate.

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