A few weeks back I helped out with an outreach session in a local primary school. We took lots of different rocks and mineral hand samples and microscopes along to help teach the children to learn the basics. I love these outreach sessions because you can see the children’s amazement when they learn the secrets about such an everyday object and their enjoyment is clear to see. During this session a very excited boy, Jack (not real name) from the year 3 class came to tell “I’ve seen some of these rocks and minerals before on Minecraft!” and with that began to reel off the names of several different types of rocks. For me this was exciting because this is the perfect example of ‘stealth learning’.
So what is ‘stealth learning’?
I describe the example above as the perfect example of this concept, and that is because the game that Jack played, Minecraft, is designed with the aim of fun and entertainment and with no educational or secondary aspects. The fact that Jack learnt something from playing the game, in this case the names of rocks, is an unexpected learning opportunity and this is what we call stealth learning.
So why is this an advantage? Because the players don’t realise they are learning as an outcome of playing for fun or entertainment. For some educators this is desirable as the children and more likely to be motivated to engage with their learning experience.
For those of you not acquainted with Minecraft (where have you been?!), here’s a brief summary. Minecraft is a highly pixelated strategy game that can be played in multiplayer and comprises two main game modes: Creative and Survival. Creative is all about construction and building with unlimited resources and is only constrained by a player’s imagination and ambitions – you can literally build anything! Survival is what it says on the tin: surviving! It’s about building for necessity, like shelters to protect you from the nasties that roam the level – including zombies! It’s played by over 30 million people worldwide and having played myself, I can tell you it’s highly addictive.
A new version of Minecraft has also been produced, MinecraftEdu, but as this has been designed as a specific educational tool it doesn’t quite fit in the realms of stealth learning. Nonetheless a fantastic tool to use to motivate learners.
But does using stealth learning in video games really work?
We’ve all played video games in one capacity or another and I think most of us can recognise that we’ve experienced a stealth learning opportunity – I know I certainly have. However, this doesn’t necessarily prove that these unexpected learning opportunities are remembered or even understood. Jack could tell me the names of rocks but does that mean he can identify the real things? The answer is probably no.
To be effective the learning opportunity must be supported, as in any normal educational practice. This can be done by firstly by introducing the fundamental concepts required to play the game. Make it explicit, tell them what they will be learning. Then let the players realise the learning opportunity through gameplay, applying the concepts they have already been shown (the more times they play the better). Finally, reflect upon the learning experience. What did they learn? How can this be applied?
There are some great things out there to read about how games and in particular Minecraft are being used in education. One of my favourites is that of @MrJasonWilmot who blogs and tweets from his classroom. Check out his blog here and read what his class think about Minecraft and learning – the perfect example of supported stealth learning in action!