Make way for Minecraft

More and more Kiwi teachers are logging on to the internet phenomenon Minecraft– to use it as an educational tool. Diana Clement reports. Minecraft has been likened to virtual Lego:…

More and more Kiwi teachers are logging on to the internet phenomenon Minecraft– to use it as an educational tool. Diana Clement reports.


Minecraft has been likened to virtual Lego: children mine virtual materials and build things online. The sandpit-style game allows open-ended tasks with relevance to many areas including maths, geography, reading, science and history. Teachers say learning can be faster in Minecraft than by traditional methods.

The learning outcomes for the game, which was created in Sweden and now has some 40 million users worldwide, have been well documented by academics, educators and enthusiasts alike. In New Zealand, schools are adapting the game to their classroom learning. Tracy Tindle of Wellsford School uses a Minecraft app; for her year seven and eight class as an aid to teaching maths. A recent mission involved researching and designing an ancient Greek village.

“We used ratios to determine size and cost. For example, if one block equals one metre what would be the perimeter and how would the size change if one block equalled five metres or if one metre was two dollars, or how much would your temple cost to build?”

There were also other questions about distance and money. The class, as is common, had to collaborate.

Tindle says teachers don’t need to be experts when they first start out with Minecraft and their skills are still needed. Her blog can be found at http://misstindlesclass.wordpress.com/

Incredibly engaged

Education consultant Rebecca Allcock says that Minecraft students are incredibly engaged in their learning. It comes in creative and survival modes and when children work in survival mode they might be attacked at any time, she says. As a result there are always threats, which require students to develop survival strategies and good time management skills.

When Mokoia Intermediate’s deputy head Annemarie Hyde announced a Minecraft lunchtime club, 60 students turned up even though one-third of the 270 students were away on camp. After a successful lunchtime trial, the school now uses Minecraft in its four one-on-one laptop classes. The programme is run by digital teacher Kassey Downard.

Downard’s most recent project with the children was to get them to build an underground world as they read The City of Ember. It enabled the students to visualise the world they were reading about in the book.

Out with the plastercine

Whilst some parents and teachers have difficulty getting their head around the use of Minecraft in schools, Hyde likens the Minecraft world to her building a city in cardboard or plastercine back in the pre-internet days. The children are more engaged with the electronic world, however.

It’s adapting education to the modern world, she says. “It’s no longer the best thing for many kids to sit on the mat and listen to a middle-aged woman for 45 minutes.”

Minecraft, too, has helped put behavioural learning in to practice. On the very first Minecraft day, one of the children at the PB4L school went into another school’s virtual building and burned it down. That led to a discussion on the school’s values and how they were also relevant online.

Mokoia Intermediate has chosen to host its own server, which can only be accessed offline, meaning children are only able to work on it in the classroom and not from home.

In fact, this is the most common way for schools to use Minecraft app;to buy discounted educational licences through MinecraftEdu.com and create a school server.

Key competencies

Mike Shorter of Greerton Village School in Tauranga was pleasantly surprised by the results of his school’s very first Minecraft challenge, carried out in a year five classroom.

“It initially had a maths focus as the students had to measure the school with metre rulers so that they could get their map to scale. The information was transferred on to a master map and then children were divided into teams to work on different areas of the school,” he says. Shorter was begged by the students to use every available free lunchtime to work with them.

Shorter noted the key competencies used in the activity. “They were able to communicate with each other verbally and in the game, helping each other and organising who was going to do what.

“Leadership qualities and organisational abilities were demonstrated by children who normally would not take a leadership role in class,” he says.

Designing a new theme park

In a challenge, students at Springston School; in Christchurch had to design and build a new theme park for the city that showcased kiwiana. Students were set tasks for the mission, which included thinking about why people would want to visit the attraction and what made it interesting or exciting and informative.

They had to form a team and work collaboratively. They were charged with placing information/signs inside the building to explain the different aspects of kiwiana and why it’s important to New Zealanders. The teams contributed to a Minecraft blog and at the end created a narrated video tour of the building.

At Kaikorai Primary, Dunedin, year one-to-four teacher Sue Graham had a major focus on the “underground”, including rocks, minerals, ore and mining. “So it was a bit of a no brainer to get into Minecraft.” The Minecraft challenge was tied to the school movie.

Graham says the level of enthusiasm shown by students was transferred to other curriculum areas.

Not all schools are using Minecraft to its full potential, says Allcock, whose company provides workshops and virtual learning to teachers and their students. It needs a teacher who both understands the game and is motivated to use it in class.

How to make it work

But before teachers leap in boots and all, they must consider where the game fits into their curriculum and school community, says Monika Kern, a facilitator of learning with digital technologies at Cognition Education . Minecraft is a tool. A ‘what’, that needs to be preceded by a vision or purpose, the ‘why’, and by a’how’, the curriculum or the principle.” Nonetheless, she adds that schools should embrace new ideas and consider the potential.

The decision needs to be aligned to the curriculum and key competencies, says Caroline Bush, director e-Learning at St Ignatius Catholic School, and founder of the Minecraft Teachers group on the Virtual Learning Network (VLN).

Once the decision is made to use Minecraft, the first thing to do is to sit down with students who use it regularly and learn from them. Kern did this with her then year seven son and has been very impressed with the learning outcomes from the boy, who now mentors his year five brother. “He displays all the key competencies in the way he relates to his brother,” she says.

It’s a good idea, says Kern, for teachers to do some background reading about gamification in education and find out what Minecraft could add to learning.

Teachers have a vast array of material available to assist in their Minecraft journey should they choose to follow it. An educamp is planned for later this year at Mokoia Intermediate and will be useful for both newbies and experienced Minecrafter educators.

Help for teachers

Popular forums, such as those from MinecraftEdu.com and New Zealand’s own Minecraft Teachers group on the VLN, help teachers share ideas as well as providing inspiration and solving problems faced by schools. YouTube is a great source of learning with many lessons and challenges recorded.

Many Kiwi teachers have attended online courses and seminars. A number of New Zealand teachers have studied Penn University’s free Mooc gamification course online, details of which can be found at: www.coursera.org/course/gamification

Also worth following are teachers such as Joel Levin on twitter (@MinecraftTeachr), blogs, the Minecraft Teachers’ Google group at https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/minecraft-teachers and the MinecraftEdu Wiki.