Minecraft in the Classroom
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2016 Issue
By Saima Zaidi
Toronto teacher Kristin Matus had been mulling over engaging ways to tackle social studies lessons when she suddenly had a brainwave. Why not teach the mundane units using Minecraft—a wildly popular computer game her elementary students were already playing?
She enlisted the help of Diana Maliszewski, a teacher-librarian and gaming expert. The two of them worked together to bring topics like landforms and government to life. Soon, Grade 4 students were zooming around the landscapes of Minecraft to find biomes similar to those in Canada.
“The kids went on a scavenger hunt within the game and found things like lumber, fresh water, cows, minerals, and fossil fuels that helped consolidate their understanding of natural resources found in Canada,” says Maliszewski.
Grade 5 students, meanwhile, toured the virtual world on their school server and zeroed in on the services needed there—a hospital, a community centre, a farm, and a food distribution centre. The students planned and justified their choices, identified the level of government responsible for such things, and built these structures in Minecraft.
“The students were excited about topics which can sometimes be hard to access and understand,” says Matus. “Beyond the subject-specific knowledge that they gained, I was thrilled to see them taking initiative and working collaboratively on the tasks.”
Minecraft—the blocky virtual world game—is a smash hit not only with children, but educators too. Matus and Maliszewski are part of a growing community of educators who have adopted it as a powerful engagement tool in mainstream subjects like math, science, social studies, and even language arts. The open-endedness of the game lends itself to teaching concepts like area, perimeter, and volume on the one hand, and plot structure and characterization in literature on the other.
Minecraft begins with players dropping into randomly generated landscapes—deserts, lakes, mountains, and forests—all made of digital blocks. The players can choose creative or survival mode and explore the virtual world to gather raw resources by mining, harvesting, collecting, etc. For example, to build something simple like a house, you need wood from trees, but to obtain the wood you need a pickaxe that you fashion from stone found in caves.
“Within the game, you can make things, break them, mix them with something else and turn them into something else, all with the help of simple blocks,” explains Liam O’Donnell, founder of GamingEdus—a platform to introduce teachers to the learning potential of the game. The company also provides a free Minecraft server shared by schools across Canada.
If you choose to play the game in survival mode, you need to find food and stay safe from monsters that spawn at night as well. In the process, players draw upon real life skills such as critical thinking, strategic planning, and problem solving.
What makes the experience of Minecraft so enriching is its immersive environment, according to O’Donnell. Unlike other games, where players pass through levels of a pre-fabricated world that they cannot touch or change, Minecraft offers the freedom to create things of your choosing and interact with them. Block by block, whole worlds rise in 3D that you can enter and investigate—a space station, a modern city, a marine ecosystem. It is this unlimited freedom to create and explore that makes Minecraft such a powerful tool in the hands of teachers, he says.
An innovative way of using Minecraft involves allowing students to find answers to problems that might crop up in the game. O’Donnell recalls a former student who wanted to know what would happen if lava and water collided in his Minecraft world. He urged the student to find out more about underwater volcanoes, form a hypothesis, and conduct an experiment to answer his burning question. The result? When the student went back to the game, he predicted correctly what happened with the lava and water, and why.
“Much of the learning happens outside the game when students are researching and testing their theories, drawing maps of their area or labelling things to be better players,” says O’Donnell, “and teachers need to tap into that excitement and guide the moments when such authentic learning can take place.”
When used in this student-led, inquiry-based manner, the game offers unlimited possibilities for engaging learners. Teachers succeed with a game like Minecraft because they make use of this intrinsic motivation connected to activities that happen outside of school, according to Dr. Rob Simon, associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and principal researcher in the Minecraft Project—an ongoing study about game-based learning.
“If we give children the space to be brilliant, a blank canvas to project whatever they might be interested in, they often end up surprising us,” he says.
In one phase of the study, Simon invited eight children between the ages of 9 and 18 to participate in building a scale replica of their school library using Minecraft. The young gamers worked as a team for several months, bringing different kinds of talents to the project—creative imagination, programming ability, architectural know-how—to build an astounding structure complete with matching colours and textures, and even computer terminals for book searches.
This kind of collaborative work provides a lot of opportunities for socialization and meaningful communication. “One of the major concerns with [a] digital game is that it’s a solitary activity, that the child is hunched in front of a screen all by himself for hours,” says Simon. The flexible gaming environment of Minecraft, however, allows children to engage with others in a variety of ways. They can build projects together, compete against each other, invite their friends into virtual worlds, and be invited in return.
Jessica Bonin, a teacher-librarian in Prince George, BC, took advantage of the social nature of the game to bring a rather shy, but highly skilled student out of his shell. When the others in her group encountered a problem within the game, she directed them to him. To her surprise, he enjoyed helping them out and they, in turn, enjoyed his company. “He became more confident and sociable. Now he even talks in the corridors with his new friends,” she says.
For teachers looking to use Minecraft, Maliszewski suggests playing it first. It can be quite bewildering for teachers unfamiliar with the game to hear students talk about exploding creepers and attacking mobs, she says, and while the violence is not as graphic compared to other games, it can put off those not used to the gaming environment.
“While you don’t have to be an expert, you do need to understand how the game is played,” she advises. Not a difficult proposition these days with MinecraftEdu, a customized classroom version of the game that also provides a hosting service. It allows you to download readily available worlds from its World Library such as MolCraft—a molecular playground populated by protein structures used to teach the basics of chemistry, or Symmetry City for lessons in geometry.
There’s also the official education website launched by Microsoft, who acquired the game in 2014 from the Swedish company Mojang for $2.5 billion. The site is intended as a forum where teachers can share ideas and swap lesson plans based on Minecraft.
With the software giant’s entry into the fray, however, educators are wary of what the future holds. Like all good things before it, the game runs the risk of losing its novelty factor and hence its effectiveness if not used wisely, cautions O’Donnell.
“Minecraft works because it was not created for teaching,” he says. When teachers bring it into the school space, students react enthusiastically because it is something awesome that essentially belongs in their private worlds, outside school. But when the same teachers make students walk through educational versions of the game, which they cannot claim for their own, some of the magic is lost.
The only way to sustain interest is to loosen the reins, give up tight control, and not be afraid of letting the students lead, says Simon. This will allow for more meaningful learning experiences for kids and prevent disenchantment, he concludes.
Saima Zaidi is a freelance writer in Edmonton, Alberta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.