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Digital games-based learning in the classroom

  • Written by Julie Gray, Instructional designer, CCEA

    Julie Gray details how the CCEA team introduced digital games-based learning into the classroom, engaging children with tech using a more fun and interactive approach.

    CCEA (the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment) developed ‘STEM in Minecraft: The Vikings’ - a resource to inspire cross-curricular exploration in an environment that motivates and engages learners.

    Available at, it demonstrates how one subject can unlock multi-layered learning. Offline STEM enquiries are coupled with purposeful in-game Minecraft tasks that allow learners to experience authentic simulations of Viking life.

    Here we discuss how the team came together and the skills we needed on our journey into digital games-based learning in the classroom.

    Harnessing the captivation of the gaming world

    The Northern Ireland Curriculum emphasises the development of 21st century skills. When the curriculum is implemented effectively, it has the power to develop young people who can make responsible, informed choices and decisions as effective contributors to society, the environment and the economy.

    Our role at CCEA is to develop resources that support teachers and learners. Teachers told us that they lacked confidence to find ways of connecting learning in History with Science and Technology. In response, we developed the ‘STEM in Minecraft: The Vikings’ resource.

    According to Business Insider, nearly 112 million people play Minecraft each month and its popularity is not fading. Young people are already immersed in the games environment. We saw this as an opportunity to harness the captivation of the gaming world and bring it to schools in a structured way that supports the STEM agenda, CCEA’s Digital Skills Framework, primary teachers’ confidence and learners’ skills and knowledge of Minecraft.


    Based on these objectives, we set out our vision and maintained our focus on this at every stage of development. This is where our STEM in Minecraft team started, initially growing from two to four women from CCEA’s Curriculum and Multimedia teams. We are very proud of advocating women in this primarily male-dominated area.

    We are a diverse group with different experiences, backgrounds and skill sets in education, STEM, special educational needs, educational technology, multimedia development, digital games-based learning, 3D skills and, of course, Minecraft. The interdisciplinary approach has been key to the innovation and success of the project, which was fully developed in-house with our existing staff in Curriculum and Multimedia, guided by research, along with game development and curriculum expertise.

    Design thinking

    Throughout development, we applied the quality assurance process CCEA adheres to in all production work, including gathering feedback from teachers and learners, and using that information to further refine the resource. This iterative design process highlighted how tech savvy the learners were and how much upskilling the teachers needed. We updated in-game quests, giving learners more autonomy, and teacher resources to include explicit teaching strategies and deeper guidance on the software.

    The importance of purposeful play

    We selected a popular and familiar topic (the Vikings), which most schools teach during Key Stage 2, and combined it with an area less familiar to teachers: digital game-based learning. The role of the teacher is vital and we highlighted teaching strategies throughout the resource to enable explicit skills development in the gaming environment. These skills include problem-solving and creativity, as well as spatial ability, which is a major skill for STEM.

    Most learners will have had some experience or knowledge of Minecraft and we have been mindful in maintaining the integrity of the gameplay, connecting what young people do outside of school with learning. Using the tools of Minecraft, we created a sense of ‘we’ through the in-game quests and sign posted co-operative digital gameplay for the teacher to cultivate.

    In designing the ‘STEM in Minecraft’ resource, we very carefully considered the emotions we wanted to create and maintained a focus on the benefits of purposeful play at every phase. These include the cognitive benefit of drawing on learners’ imaginations, the social benefit of developing learner interaction and the emotional benefits of providing a safe context in which to take risks and try new ideas.

    We wanted to produce a resource that would encourage learners to lose sense of time, resulting in increased involvement. When we see learners using ‘STEM in Minecraft’, we see this in action. This is what Jane McGonigal, researcher of games and Director of Games Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, calls ‘blissful productivity’. It has been a powerful experience seeing learners get excited about their learning. The proof is in the practice. Teachers are telling us how their pupils ‘have enjoyed Vikings more than any other topic they've ever done’ and that ‘it is amazing how their language and communication is so ‘on task’ and focused’.

    Building a community of practice

    The ‘STEM in Minecraft’ project is a great example of how collaboration and design thinking are vital to creativity, problem-solving and innovation, which are all key components of STEM careers.

    By creating a culture of collaboration, both internally across CCEA teams and externally with teachers, learners, agencies such as C2k (who deliver the managed network for Northern Ireland schools), Microsoft Ireland and the Minecraft Seattle team, we continually strive to remove barriers to learning for both teachers and learners. As part of C2k provision, all schools in Northern Ireland now have free access to Minecraft: Education Edition software and we are really excited to see how teachers plan to implement the resources innovatively in their classrooms.

    As women in tech, we are proud to be part of a field that is fast-paced and changing. Each day brings opportunities for new challenges, learning and problem-solving.

    To learn more about CCEA’s STEM in Minecraft resource visit

    This article first appeared in the Women in Tech special edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download a FREE copy here.

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