When you hear the words “tears of joy” you may think of a wedding, graduation, or some other emotion-laden event, but probably not an elementary school classroom and definitely not in the context of a school assignment. That was recently the case however in Chris Hanna’s fourth grade class in Goleta, California, where a student was overcome with emotion at the opportunity to use Minecraft for a class assignment on making a model of a California mission. One Minecraft mission project created by a student a few years ago has had over 22,000 views on YouTube. The California mission project has stepped into the 21st century!

But how does Minecraft connect with learning goals? Is it just the latest gaming fad or does it have real benefits for teaching and learning? If it does have benefits how might teachers and teacher education programs learn how to leverage it in spite of not fully knowing how it all works?

Still from Minecraft-San Diego Mission Project by Peter de Tagyos

First, a little background. Minecraft is akin to a digital sandbox where players “mine” to find desired resources, and “craft” to create and modify desired builds in a block-based environment. As the official Minecraft trailer (with over 110 million hits on YouTube) states, “with no rules to follow, the adventure is up to you.” My 11 year-old son seconds this notion by saying that he likes Minecraft because, “It can be anything you want it to be. There is no guidebook.” My 8 year old enjoys it because you “can make different things that you cannot make in real life.” Beyond that, Minecraft tends to be one of the leading causes of collaboration among my three sons as they talk, laugh and work together on various builds and adventures.

At this point you may be thinking “that is great that your kids (and millions of others) like the game, but what exactly does Minecraft afford for formal learning opportunities in schools and how does it connect to learning outcomes?” Perhaps you are also considering your own experiences with games in school like the classic Oregon Trail (death by dysentery anyone?) or others like Lemonade Stand, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Math Blaster, and the like that were supposed to transform teaching and learning, but have ended up like the floppy disk in the round file of digital history and wonder if Minecraft is just the latest “gaming fad” along those lines.

To explore these questions a bit more I reached out to three teachers with extensive experience using Minecraft in their schools. As a point of clarification, most schools are using MinecraftEdu which is an educational version of the enormously popular game.

Photo by Kevin Jarrett, Creative Commons License

James Pike, formerly a 3rd grade teacher at Ascension Catholic school in Los Angeles, used Minecraft with Math, Science, Computer Science, and English Language Arts. Students created models of cells starting with DNA, learned about area and perimeter and algebraic concepts and built “sets” related to the books and plays they are reading. Pike indicates that Minecraft changed the culture of his class. “Students were so engaged in learning, they would complain if they had to go to recess or DID NOT get homework. They were learning for their own reasons, not just to get a grade. When we took the final benchmark test of the year the class average was 84% in Math and 81% English Language Arts,” which was significantly greater than the school average.”

John Miller is a 7th grade History teacher at Chalone Peaks Middle School in King City, CA. He has spent extensive time with his students using Minecraft to support the development of literacy in his students, particularly English Language Learners, with learning experiences on Vikings, and the Tang Dynasty. Upcoming units will look at the Middle Ages, Crusade, and the Renaissance among other topics — all in a way that incorporates Minecraft and student developed creations. While they are “in Minecraft” students connect to other resources such as videos, websites, and documents that they interact with via reading and annotating. By the end of the year each of student “will have created a 40-50 page ‘historical novel.'”

As to the value of Minecraft, Miller sees it as “a 21st century version of experiential learning, or the learn by doing philosophy where students can experience a novel or develop and engineer an idea alone or collaboratively in an expansive virtual world with endless possibilities.” Because of these possibilities Miller has shifted his planning and pedagogy from being on the “front of the stage” to being a “designer behind the stage” working to “design lessons so that I get out of the way as quickly as possible” so that students can construct meaning through interactive approaches. That said his class use of Minecraft is not a free-for-all, but a highly structured and scaffolded exploration that has resulted in the most successful unit that he has taught in over twenty years of teaching.

Ancient Roman Bath House-Minecraft Tour, Moss Pike Harvard Westlake School

Moss Pike (no relation to Jim) had his Latin IA students at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles build their own versions of Roman structures with Minecraft. This was in order to understand how the Romans would have used them and to consider how public structures worked together. The project culminated in a digital tour of their structure shared on YouTube. Additional pictures and information are detailed on Pike’s blog. While some might wonder what does making a structure of a Roman bath have to do with learning a language like Latin, Pike argues that “project work and game-based opportunities of the sort provided by Minecraft are great ways for students to explore culture in active ways, especially if the projects have a social focus. By spending time on cultural fluency and people, we help our students to learn how to be more creative, collaborative, empathetic, etc., which in the long run is far more important than linguistic fluency on its own.” Based on the high levels of engagement and the quality of the work his students produced Pike believes it is just a matter of time for educators to “witness firsthand the power that game-based learning has within the classroom, I think we’ll see more experimentation with it. That’s not to say that everything will soon be game-based, but I think we’ll be able to find uses for it where we would have otherwise thought not possible or appropriate.”

Although these three teachers and others are highly favorable about Minecraft as a tool to engage students and give them opportunities to be collaborative and creative, there are others who think it is no more an educational fad and lacks alignment to standards. There are also concerns that Minecraft requires too much time for teachers to learn and takes too long to use in classroom settings. These concerns reflect many of the questions that K-12 education currently finds grappling with and exploring related to the role of teachers, the use of technology in teaching and learning, and issues of student engagement and achievement. These include questions like:

  • Should teachers have a solid understanding of how to use educational technology tools or is it ok for students to know more than them, or for it to be a co-learning experience?
  • To what extent should teachers work to connect to and leverage popular culture and tools that might be highly engaging to students as they plan lessons and learning experiences or should students conform to teachers notions of what is necessary?
  • How might teachers make shifts in their identity from being content experts and disseminators of knowledge to becoming more of a designer, activator, and coach of learning?
  • Should schools focus on achievement or work to find ways to get students excited about learning first with the hope that that will lead to academic growth?
  • How do teachers curate the ever increasing plethora of technological tools and how might teacher education programs and school districts support that process?

In the end the debates about Minecraft reflect tensions over educational values. Different teachers value certain teaching and learning experiences, probably based on their educational and cultural backgrounds and personal abilities and proclivities. This in turn leads to the prioritizing of particular skills that they seek to develop in their students. Whatever the priorities may be, schools and teachers need to deeply reflect on the learning experiences they are providing for students in a world where content is no longer limited to what can be found within the walls of schools and where the risk of disengagement is increasingly a threat due to the competition from technological alternatives both academic and non-academic. While the jury is still out on game based learning, and Minecraft is but one option for schools to utilize, educators should strongly explore its potential to foster in the areas of engagement, problem solving, collaboration and communication, and creativity in support of larger learning goals across content areas. While these thinking practices and skills may not be on any standardized test, they are on the test of life for the world that our students are being “prepared” for. All the content we teach students will not matter if we do not prepare students to learn how to learn and to do so in a community of learners.

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