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The man who dared call educational Minecraft a "gimmick"

Do games belong in the classroom?

What happens when you go up against Minecraft? What happens when you dare suggest gaming's golden child not belong in the classroom, then call it "a gimmick", then say "we need to drain the swamp of gimmicks"? It does not involve being sent nice flowers I'll tell you that.

Tom Bennett stirred the hornet's nest with those comments last week. Who's he? A behavioural adviser to the UK Department for Education, someone with a perceived level of clout and influence - enough to be quoted on the topic by the Sunday Times at least.

"I am not a fan of Minecraft in lessons," he told the paper. "This smacks to me of another gimmick which will get in the way of children actually learning. Removing these gimmicky aspects of education is one of the biggest tasks facing us as teachers. We need to drain the swamp of gimmicks."

It's a rhetoric that goes against the good we believe Minecraft stands for, the barriers it appears to be breaking down for video games in the wider world. It's a game I evangelise to parents all the time because it's peaceful and creative and co-operative. But all of a sudden here's some government guy using a phrase coined by Donald Trump, trying to shut the door on Minecraft in education. Who does he think he is?

Bennett copped it on Twitter as a result. He was inundated by angry remarks, called an idiot, even a "Luddite" by one of his childhood heroes: Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Games Workshop and Fighting Fantasy, a national treasure as far as the UK video games industry is concerned. "Oh! That broke my heart!" Bennett tells me on the phone.

So a week later does he regret what he said? "Absolutely not. We should get rid of all gimmicks in education," he says, defiantly, "and if anyone says 'no I support gimmicks' then they can get the hell out of the classroom."

But there's more to this, more to him, than meets the eye. Tom Bennett does not hate games, he's not an old man with a vendetta against a younger generation's form of entertainment. He's 44 years old. "I used to be a gamer myself when I was a younger man," he says. "I love games."

He also emphasises that he has "nothing" against Minecraft. To him it is a piece of technology he is assessing the effectiveness of in a classroom - his turf for around fourteen years now (he teaches 11-18 year-olds). Minecraft is a game he's seen used in education firsthand and not in a way he liked. But even though he's not a fan, he's not strictly against it being used at all. "I'd happily see it being used for five minutes in somebody's lesson or maybe as a homework task that wasn't necessarily compulsory," he says. "I'm not, I hope I've convinced you, universally set against it being used at all times, because education doesn't really work like that."

What Tom Bennett is wary of is "fads", he says - of the tech industry swaying school budget-holders with "overcooked" claims about products they're selling. He is passionate about people backing up claims with research and evidence, hence the ResearchEd project he runs, hence his blog, hence his stance on technology like Minecraft.

"Only an idiot would say that technology doesn't have a big part to play in how we educate children," he says. "This isn't a Luddite regression where I want to get everyone back on chalk slates and so on. But what I am trying to advocate is some kind of caution, because schools are under huge pressure to improve their results, often very quickly, and we have people who make big claims trying to sell their products to schools. When you put those two things together you get a very dangerous situation.

"I, like everyone else in this conversation, wants what's best for the pupils," he adds. "There's no one in this conversation that doesn't want the best for pupils - we take that as a given. But I've seen firsthand the way that technology can sometimes obstruct learning by acting as kind of a spoonful of sugar to what the children are supposed to be learning and overtake the whole recipe."

Bennett remembers a lesson about Tudor ships where Minecraft was used. "The big danger, and it's a huge danger I've seen time and time again in classrooms, is that the children focus a lot more on building the ships from Minecraft blocks, and only about five minutes of the lesson thinking about what's on a Tudor ship," he says.

"If you teach kids for two hours a week, you could spend an hour-and-a-half of that moving blocks around, which isn't history, which isn't geography. In the same time it takes to do a Minecraft lesson on Tudor ships you could probably deliver the same lesson content in about five minutes: this is what a ship looks like, label the diagram and so on.

"We haven't got much time with these kids," he goes on. "For some of these kids, particularly the kids from poorer families, they don't get a second chance at this. They don't have tutors, they can't re-sit. They get one chance at a free education. So I take it very seriously that we make the best use of their time."

This is one of Stephen Reid's videos.

But that's a bad use of a game in classroom, Stephen Reid from ImmersiveMinds would argue. He uses Minecraft as well as all kinds of games - LittleBigPlanet, Kerbal Space Program, Journey, From Dust - in classrooms. That's what he does, fits technology into the curriculum, then a school buys him in. He's even used the old Tomb Raider.

"We started with the original Tomb Raider getting children to go into Egyptian Pyramids. We understand Tomb Raider is not historically accurate - you're not going to get an exact replica of a tomb - but what you do get, first of all, is children's engagement. Immediately," he says. "'Oh my god I'm going into a pyramid, in Tomb Raider! This is so cool!'

"The second thing you get is more questions than answers. You start getting them saying, 'Is that what it was really like? Is that what they did? Did they really trap people?'"

That's when Reid moves the lesson away from Tomb Raider and onto the internet for research. Or onto making Egyptian jewellery, papyrus, counting machines and sandpit pyramids. "We were doing science, maths, literacy... all of the stuff a teacher yearns to do with their kids. But we started with Tomb Raider. It's a huge, huge tool."

But, he emphasises, games are also just that: tools. They are a means to an end, not the end itself and so need to be used accordingly. "Games-based learning can never just be about the game," says Reid. "If a teacher picks up Minecraft and thinks that's all he or she is going to use for a year then he or she is making the same mistakes that just using pen and paper would be."

I hear similar stories from teachers in Norway, where games are more commonly used in classrooms. Pawel Miechowski from Polish developer 11 bit relays a handful of accounts from Norwegian teachers who use his studio's renowned civilian-focused war game This War of Mine in lessons. The game acts as a springboard, or gateway, they say, into discussing complex sociological topics with older students. Discussing questions such as who decides what is right or wrong in a society? Where do societal norms come from? Which norms do we follow when the fabric of society breaks down? Students cannot go on a field trip to Syrian warzone Aleppo but they can take a virtual trip there.

Nevertheless, all of the teachers agree playing This War of Mine does not constitute a lesson in and of itself, and they support Tom Bennett in his call for caution about implementation in the classroom (in Norway there are websites with lesson plans and advice for using certain games in classrooms).

"I am as you know very positive about the use of games in schools," writes Jørund Høie Skaug, a senior adviser to the Norwegian Centre for ICT in Education. "But that does not mean I think games should be used all the time, and by any teacher. Tom Bennett actually has a point in that game mechanics and gamey stuff often will overshadow content, or curricular goals.

"It all depends on the teacher. A reflected and smart teacher like Gaute Hauge from our workshop will use This War of Mine as a scaffolding for learning, and point his students to ethical theories and discussions. His class will study actual urban sieges like Sarajevo. He will have them write essays and see the game's narrative and dilemmas in different perspectives. And he will know the value in using a game instead of watching a documentary or reading a book.

"But," he adds, "if a teacher throws TWOM into a class and is unprepared, the result may be of little educational value. And perhaps it would be better if this teacher had their class see a documentary or read a book instead."

Norway has been successful in using games as a gateway to learning, Jørund Høie Skaug believes. "The learning rarely happens in the games themselves but in the processes the teacher facilitates in the classroom. And this is very difficult to understand for a person like [Tom Bennett]," he writes. "If he can't see the learning takes place, he thinks there is none."

But that's Norway. How does the UK go about getting the evidence Tom Bennett wants if he's putting teachers off trying it? As Stephen Reid puts it, "If you close this down, which you're about to do because your opinion will do that, then how do we ever get evidence? And if we never get evidence by innovating and trying things in schools, we'll never change the system.

"Don't kill the argument," he pleads, "help us to get the evidence that is needed, and if in six months or a year's time or two year's time we realise it was a waste of time... It won't be the first and it certainly won't be the biggest mistake education has ever made. But we're not going to know unless people like Tom, who are influential ... help us to make this happen rather than killing the argument stone dead."

"I don't recognise this enormous power that people seem to be ascribing to me," Tom Bennett responds. "I'm just one person saying my piece. I'm an independent behaviour adviser to the Department of Education, and I write reports for them on how schools should run their behaviour, and then they can accept or reject them. That's as much power as I have. I have a large social media following to some extent but so what? So does the average pornbot. People are free to listen to me or not. I have no power over anyone whatsoever."

Minecraft is already in "thousands and thousands" of schools around the world, he says, and spreads unchecked. "There are very, very few people like me who are advocating any level of scepticism whatsoever." Let's not forget that behind the just-launched Minecraft: Education Edition is a business making money; Microsoft isn't supplying schools out of the goodness of its heart.

"Technology and its adoption in classrooms is almost unquestionably assumed to be a good thing by schools and classrooms and by budget holders. [But] hold your horses, let's test these things out first of all," he says. "That's not a bad thing, nobody should be scared of that."

It's not enough to rely on anecdotal "my class loves Minecraft" evidence, although that is "not nothing", he says, particularly what he's heard of Minecraft and autistic children, or those with Asperger's. "That suggests avenues of research that we should definitely explore, and I certainly wouldn't want to shut that down. That's incredibly powerful and potentially very, very useful."

But he wants to see pilot studies and large-scale randomised controlled trials conducted by experts, by scientists and statisticians. Use the services of universities and charities who carry out this work, he urges. Don't burden already overstretched teachers with it who are unfamiliar with the research involved. "It might take a couple of years to do a proper experiment but I'd rather take a couple of years, and then maybe it will roll out nation-wide, than get it wrong."

Tom Bennett isn't singing the song we're used to hearing but he has sparked a discussion nonetheless, and with the prevalence of social media we're better equipped to join the discussion than ever before. So what will we say? How do we want to be seen? We should think carefully about it, because what happens next could depend on it.