My acquaintance with Minecraft was made approximately three years ago when my oldest son started with it. Over this time, his fascination with it has not waned; if anything, he is more into Minecraft than he has ever been!
What is Minecraft?
Minecraft is an open sandbox game. The graphics are rather crude, and many people compare it with an online version of Lego as it is mainly made up from square blocks. Once you start looking into it more deeply, the comparison with Lego quickly fades from your mind as Minecraft offers much, much more. In addition to the original ‘vanilla’ version, a multitude of modification ‘mods’ and ‘mod packs’ are available that offer endless variations. It is available on multiple platforms, with the PC/Mac version being the most versatile. Minecraft can be played offline and online on servers, and MinecraftEdu is a version especially created for use in schools.
Players have a 3D figure, the skin (texture) of which can be modified (the default skin is called ‘Steve?’), and in its simplest form, they mine blocks, gather resources, and build structures. Depending on what mode they are playing (creative, survival, adventure, spectator) they have to cope with hunger, scarcity of resources, battle hostile mobs etc. You can use redstone logic to create many things such as logic gates, farms, mine carts on tracks, even down to calculators etc.
Using Java, it is possible to modify the game to create ‘mods’; because you are dealing with the code here, it is possible to create anything you want. Groups of mods are called ‘mod packs’ and these are usually designed in a way that they provide a unique experience per mod pack – one may focus heavily on automation, while another focuses on magic. You might encounter different-looking blocks, tools, creatures – or they might have different properties or functions. It is not out of the question for students to create their own mod packs or even their own mods.
Minecraft as a school tool
My experience with Minecraft has mainly been observing my own children. My oldest son, now 14, has taught his youngest brother, now nine, how to use Minecraft. Together they can spend hours collaborating in their shared world – not many 14- and 9-year-olds would find anything constructive to collaborate on for any length of time. In overhearing their conversation, I can observe their application of our five key competencies: thinking; using language, symbols and text; managing self; relating to others; and participating and contributing.
My observations of my own children have led me to do some research on its use in the classroom, and in November last year I was able to put this to the test when I ran a Minecraft option at one of the local schools. Students (only boys in this instance) had opted in; therefore, the high engagement was to be expected. The language of collaboration within the room was incredible; students asked for and offered each other help, made suggestions, solved problems together, and so on. It was interesting to see how not all of them had developed sufficient maturity to continue collaborating like this when we explored a survival world. This in itself could provide a very powerful lesson to go through with students.
Like many parents, I worry about my children spending too much time in front of the screen. I am somewhat reassured, though, when I listen in and observe what they are doing – creating, collaborating, applying and practising numeracy skills, learning about coding, and so on.
One of the option students’ mothers called me prior to the session and expressed concern. She was not concerned about her son participating on the day, she was concerned that her son might need to install the software on his laptop, and she did not want him to have Minecraft at home.
It is important that we take parents’ concerns seriously, and in this instance, it was not necessary for this boy to have the software on his machine anyway. However, I did talk to her about the positive aspects of Minecraft, and I think having provided her with this information helped her to see how Minecraft can be educational when used well.
Advice for teachers
For teachers who are considering the use of Minecraft, think about what your vision is: what is the learning in your context? Minecraft could be one of many tools that help students access an area of learning. It might provide engagement with a topic or it could be a way for a student to demonstrate their learning.
Being a completely open-ended tool, there is much scope for using it in almost any context at school. Don’t discount the value it might add to your classroom programme. However, ensure that the learning is what matters first and foremost, with Minecraft being just one of the many useful tools in your kete.
Monika Kern is Learning with Digital Technologies Facilitator, Te Toi Tupu, Cognition Education.
Editor’s note: this article was originally mistakenly attributed to Kassey Downard, who also has some great experience with using Minecraft in the classroom! Education Review apologises for any confusion. We hope to explore the topic of Minecraft in the classroom further in a later issue, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with your experience, opinions, examples and ideas. firstname.lastname@example.org