My son, Reilly, is a fairly typical 11-year old. He is into Pokemon, his Xbox, iPads, and sees school as valuable because it connects him to his friends and the library, but little else. It’s not that he is not a ravenous learner, mind you. Give him something challenging and interesting, and he is all in. It’s just that school is rarely either for him. He puts out the minimum effort he has to to make A’s, generally. At least to this point, he’s the polar opposite of my “valedictorian or bust” daughter, who applies laser focused effort no matter how mundane the school task.

If you want to see effort from Reilly, relevance and intrinsic motivation are where it’s at. For instance, he got engaged in an idea and ending up winning the award for the top 5th grade science project at his school this year. The project involved burning things and was completely his own invention. Fire and personal choice. Can’t miss.

Reilly's alter ego.

Reilly’s alter ego.

For consistent apex effort, though, you need to observe him working with and learning about Minecraft in all of its 8-bit, retro graphic beauty. His teachers would be insanely jealous. If allowed, he will spend hours researching, studying, creating, re-creating, collaborating, and communicating with, in, and about Minecraft. On occasion, I have been known to sit down and play Minecraft with Reilly. I tell people that the conversations go something like this:

Me: “Look, I made a house!”

Reilly: “Awesome, daddy! I made a city with a solar-powered, aerial tram system that is activated by this pressure plate inside the passenger cars. Each tram station also has an anti-creeper and zombie, redstone-powered security system and is designed to look like a natural part of the landscape and have zero carbon footprint.”

Me: “My house has windows.”

So last night I went into the living room to watch him play. He was in creative mode (meaning limitless resources, and you can fly) in an online Minecraft server. The last time I checked his game out a few days prior, he was creating a house he described as a “modern design”. Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved of the glass and lines, the big-screen television, the modular sofa, and the ground-level bed. He had since finished the 3-story house using blueprints found only in his mind and helpful tips from another community member whose structures Reilly had admired.

His next project was astounding to me. He had created an underground shop next to his house. Inside, visitors could find a collection of amazing and creative Minecraft character heads (Reilly referred to his store as a “head shop”. I internally giggled and decided that was some learning that could wait for much later.). There were at least 40 varieties of heads, as I recall. Visiting Minecrafters were actively browsing the store as I watched. Reilly had set up a brilliant system for visitors to order their own Minecraft heads:

  1. Visitors browse the collection of numbered heads, hanging on the shop walls.
  2. They next visit the order box and fill out an order form with the number assigned to each desired head. Return form to the box.
  3. Reilly reads the form, copies each desired head, and places the filled order into the filled order box.
  4. Visitors pick up filled orders.
  5. Reilly files filled order forms in another chest for safe keeping.

He explained that he could charge something like silver or gold or diamonds, but prefered to give the heads away for everyone else to enjoy. A “customer” messaged him as I watched and invited Reilly to visit his Minecraft home to see the collection on display. Reilly obliged and gave the inquisitive and grateful user a few tips on how to “rank up” before returning to his virtual home.

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/eXMx43

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/eXMx43

After dealing with several visitors back at the store, Reilly decided to post instructions on his shop wall, telling visitors how to make their own free copies using a combination of keyboard keys and mouse buttons. This would allow users to enjoy their own heads even while he was offline. It was a hoot watching him direct a pixelated customer over to the instructions, see the character reading them, and then heading over to copy a couple dozen varieties of heads.

If we don’t pay attention, we might miss all of the value here. Reilly created, he applied economic principles, he collaborated. He solved problems, designed, and redesigned (He tore the modern house apart numerous times as I watched, meticulously trying to get it just right.). He showed initiative in seeking knowledge from experts and shared his knowledge freely with other learners. He was organized, open to criticism, and willing to make mistakes. He demonstrated patience with others and their myriad questions and generosity with his resources. I observed him engaging in communication, science, art, and math.

Reilly calls this fun, a game. I call it worthwhile. I call it inspired. I call it amazing. I call it learning.