Minecraft Fueling Creative Ideas, Analytical Thinking in K-12 Classrooms
One of the world's most popular video games has made significant inroads into K-12 classrooms, opening new doors for teaching everything from city planning to 1st graders to physics for high schoolers.
The game, of course, is Minecraft, a 21st-century version of Legos in which players use simple 3-D digital blocks to build and explore almost anything they can imagine.
"It's no longer a farfetched idea that Minecraft could be useful for teaching and learning," said Joel Levin, the co-founder of TeacherGaming LLC, a 4-year-old company based in Tampere, Finland, that has sold MinecraftEdu, its customized classroom version of the game, to more than 6,500 schools, libraries, and museums. "The conversation has shifted to taking a closer look at the types of experiences that are possible."
While the game's power to engage children has made it a compelling draw inside schools, there have been hurdles to its growth.
Three-quarters of teachers now report using digital games in their classrooms, but many remain uncomfortable with integrating open-ended games such as Minecraft into instruction. Minecraft is also not free.
And the game's surging popularity—a Warner Bros. movie is currently in development, and legions of children spend time watching YouTube videos of other people playing the game—has led to some concern that Minecraft's creative elements are slowly being replaced by more passive forms of consumption.
Still, Levin said, the game is providing a growing number of teachers and students with opportunities to make profound connections.
"It's a powerful moment when you take something kids love and are passionate about, and you bring it into the school day, and you say, 'Show me what you can do with it,' " he said.
Millions of Players
Released in 2009, the commercial version of Minecraft is a virtual sandbox, with no set narrative or goal. Players are given tools and opportunities to build, create, destroy, and interact with each other. (In Minecraft's "survival" mode, which is separate from its "creative" mode, players must find food and avoid animals and monsters that are trying to eat them.)
In March 2014, the computing and software giant Microsoft Corp. bought the game's creator, Swedish developer Mojang, for $2.5 billion.
If that seems like a lot of money, consider: A June 2015 report by international gaming-research and -analytics firm Newzoo tagged Minecraft as the second-most-played computer game in the Western world. Newzoo estimated last fall that in North America and Western Europe alone, 36 million people play Minecraft.
The experience of Sara Richards, an instructional technology specialist at Laurel Mountain Elementary in Texas' Round Rock school district, offers a window into how the game has gained a foothold in schools in the United States.
Richards, a self-described techie and gamer, was introduced to Minecraft by one of her students in 2011. She quickly saw the game's educational potential, but was unsure how to proceed.
"All the kids played it at home, but they like killing monsters and putting armor on their guys and throwing potions on people to turn them invisible," Richards said. "None of that fit with the lessons [Laurel Mountain] teachers were teaching."
So, during the 2013-14 school year, Richards started an after-school tech club that included heavy doses of Minecraft play.
Club members figured out appropriate ways to use the game in school. They collectively chose their goal (building a medieval village) and worked together to set ground rules (no flooding someone else's Minecraft house with digital lava).
The experience was a hit.
Laurel Mountain's principal and the district's administration—which had previously blocked student access to Minecraft, because too many children were trying to play the game during classes—approved Richards' proposal to buy a MinecraftEdu package for the school. For less than $400, the school received enough game licenses to outfit a computer lab. MinecraftEdu now also offers access to cloud-based classroom servers, which allows teachers to limit access to the game to their students.
The first Minecraft classroom lesson at the school took place with 3rd graders who had just learned about perimeter, volume, and area in their math class.
After a brief demonstration, the students set about building Minecraft houses with floors (for which they had to calculate the area), multiple stories (to calculate volume), and fences (to calculate their property's perimeter). When the students were done, they created a Minecraft sign, complete with the results of their calculations, to hang in front of their houses.
The lure of the game was powerful motivation for some students who might otherwise have been uninterested in the math content, Richards said.
"But the part that surprised me was how well [Minecraft] lent itself to differentiation," she concluded. "The kids who totally got the concepts were able to build these elaborate structures and challenge themselves to find the area and perimeter and volume of something more complicated. The kids who were unsure of themselves could build something smaller."
Richards has since expanded Laurel Mountain's use of the game to include eight classrooms and hundreds of students, including 1st graders who built an entire Minecraft city as part of a lesson on city planning last school year.
The game's growing popularity inside schools nationally can also be seen at events such as the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education. The group's most recent gathering, in June in Philadelphia, featured no fewer than two dozen different sessions on Minecraft in the classroom.
As the game takes off, some educators are working to ensure it is used to reinforce the academic and technology standards educators are increasingly held accountable for teaching.
Take Laura Israelsen, a teacher librarian at Hulstrom Elementary School near Denver, and Michelle Pearson, a language arts and social studies teacher who is on leave to work as an educational staff member with the Colorado State Historical Fund.
The duo has spent the past two school years developing, implementing, and sharing a three-week Minecraft unit on historic preservation.
In their unit's initial rollout at Hulstrom, 4th graders learned how to access a public database typically used only by professional preservationists and read primary documents from the national and state park services. The students then prepared presentations that included virtual replicas of Colorado's significant architectural sites, constructed in Minecraft, as well as written arguments on whether or not a site should continue to be preserved.
The game is excellent for helping teach the state's digital literacy standards, such as preparing students to use Web 2.0 communication tools and learn new software, Israelsen said.
Pearson said that Minecraft can also be used to help motivate students to tackle two of the more challenging standards associated with the Common Core State Standards: reading challenging informational texts, and writing for an "authentic" audience.
For Connor Smith, now a rising 6th grader, the unit was memorable, mostly because it represented a rare opportunity to use his imagination in school.
"Minecraft is a way to express how you think," he said, describing how his desire to get every detail correct in the Minecraft reproduction of the site he chose, as well as the opportunity to show his creation to real historic preservationists, prompted him to do more in-depth research and preparation than he otherwise might have.
"They didn't believe that you could play Minecraft in school and build something historic," Connor said. "Proving them wrong was great."
For all the excitement, it can still be a challenge to get many classroom teachers to embrace teaching in such a newfangled way.
Israelsen, Pearson, and Richardson all suggested that many teachers are willing to take on such an unconventional tool only with outside support—from a technology specialist or a teacher librarian, for example.
And though MinecraftEdu is not prohibitively expensive for most schools, it does cost money. Software licenses to use the game for educational purposes cost $14 to $18 apiece, depending on how many are purchased, and the game's server software costs schools $41.
While Microsoft has trod lightly so far, there is also uncertainty about what the future holds now that the game is owned by a corporate titan.
In June, the company launched a website that is intended as a destination for educators interested in using the game, and that seems to parallel much of what MinecraftEdu already offers.
Ultimately, though, observers from the gaming and education sectors predict continued growth inside schools, both of Minecraft itself and of other games that seek to harness its open-ended approach.
"We're at the beginning of creating new kinds of virtual-reality learning spaces," said Jordan Shapiro, an instructor at Temple University and an author and speaker on game-based education. "I think Minecraft is the beginning of that."
Vol. 35, Issue 01, Page 12Published in Print: August 19, 2015, as Teachers Use Minecraft to Fuel Creative Ideas, Analytical Thinking