Can Minecraft help improve critical thinking in students?

Global initiative to improve the teaching of logic in schools launched by University College Cork in celebration of George Boole

Teachers should be trained to exploit technology such as MinecraftEdu, a school-ready remix of the smash hit video game Minecraft, to increase their students’ ability to use logical argument, urges Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at University College Cork (UCC), Patrick Fitzpatrick. 

Professor Fitzpatrick is heading up UCC Brings Boole2School, a major global education initiative being launched in the UK this week, which aims to improve the teaching of logic in schools. The initiative is the first of its kind and will see school students across the globe carrying out lessons in logic, all on the same day, November 2, the bicentenary of George Boole’s birth.

On registering for the UCC Brings Boole2School initiative, teachers receive free age-appropriate lesson plans, puzzles and worksheets, developed by Maths Circles Ireland in consultation with teachers, and available in English, Irish and Mandarin, for students aged eight to 18. More than 35,000 school students across twelve different countries are already signed up to take the lessons. 

Millions of children are already playing Minecraft at home, whether on computers, consoles or mobile devices, with increasing numbers of classrooms worldwide using the game as an instruction tool. Earlier this year Minecraft was made available to every post-primary school in Northern Ireland, and in 2013 the Viktor Rydberg School in Stockholm hit the headlines after it introduced compulsory Minecraft lessons for 13-year-old students, as part of its curriculum. 

According to Professor Fitzpatrick, “logical thinking is a central element in the learning process and for more than two millennia logic has been the basis of rational argument. Using simple truth tables and logic puzzles, students taking the Boole2School lessons learn how statements or situations may be combined and manipulated using the logical operations of AND, OR and NOT.” 

“In this way students are introduced to principles on which they can build clarity of thought and understanding of complex ideas, thus providing them with essential tools towards successful learning.”

George Boole hailed from Lincoln in England. Although he had little formal education, the self-taught mathematical genius became the first professor of mathematics at University College Cork (then Queen’s College Cork) in 1849. Widely regarded as the forefather of the information age, Boole’s theory on logic and probability laid the foundations for the system that now bears his name – Boolean logic.

The subject of logic is rarely taught in the modern curriculum, and it is often regarded as rather lifeless and uninteresting, says Professor Fitzpatrick. “However, the overwhelming majority of school students play computer games, and these provide an avenue for the study of elementary logic in an environment that is both familiar and enjoyable.”

A recent OECD report Students, Computers and Learning; making the connection, makes a link between student performance and the use of computer technology in schools, stating – perhaps contrary to popular wisdom – that those students performing best at school are the ones who use technology sparingly. According to the report “we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching”. Professor Fitzpatrick says, “With careful monitoring of the quality of their experience, children’s interaction with technology can be hugely beneficial.”

The OECD report states: “building deep, conceptual understanding and higher order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions.” Professor Fitzpatrick argues that more support is required to enable teachers to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms.  He points to the BBC’s micro:bit initiative, which will see a pocket-sized codeable computer being given free to every child in year 7 or equivalent across the UK, as an excellent way to encourage a new generation of digital savvy pioneers. 

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