Student Well-Being Opinion

Building on Minecraft’s Educational Potential

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — August 29, 2016 3 min read
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In a promotional video, teachers talk about their experiences with Minecraft in the classroom. I haven’t quite felt the glow yet.

In my last post, I had wandered into the tablet version of Minecraft only to become substantively stuck. I knew that I should light torches when night fell. (As far as I can tell, there is no time of rest in Minecraft, and no second-shift pay differential either.) But I was still stuck, my little hammer banging against rock, but I couldn’t back up to get any perspective.

JC, my tutor, showed me how I had the game set up wrong and how I could change my perspective. It’s a lot clearer now, and I am whacking away at the earth, building a flat place to create my first building. It’s working better, but I still don’t have much feeling of accomplishment.

Meanwhile, JC and his siblings are in thrall with Pokémon GO, which is a story (actually many, many, many, many) in itself. And my Minecraft app has gotten balky again, so I’ve turned my attention to trying to understand why people find Minecraft so irresistible and what it implies for teaching and learning.

Minecraft began seven years ago as a home brew startup in Sweden. Since, it has attracted more than 100-million registered players, some like JC, who would rather mess around with the game than eat. (He needs to get over that.) He is not alone. It’s been reported that 160 million viewers have watched 5-billion hours of Minecraft videos on YouTube.

In 2014, Microsoft bought the game and Mojang, the company behind it, for $2.5-billion, and this spring it announced the acquisition of MinecraftEdu, an education version that is now Minecraft Education Edition. Microsoft offered a free trial to educators this summer.

According to New York Times Magazine writer Clive Thompson, Minecraft is the third most popular computer game in history, but it’s not a game in the conventional system; it’s more of a platform. It’s been likened to old-school Lego, when it invited kids to be creative with blocks rather than to construct a model from a kit. It gives kids free range to build things and has produced examples ranging from the Taj Mahal to a battleship. But it’s not a bunch of inanimate blocks. In survival mode, various monsters roam, resources can be used up, day turns to night, and things can get very dark until you light a torch or two.

It’s all amazingly clever. JC schooled me right away on the power of Redstone, the game’s virtual wiring, which works like an electrical circuit. As Thompson writes,

Switches and buttons and levers turn the redstone on and off, enabling players to build what computer scientists call "logic gates." Place two Minecraft switches next to each other, connect them to redstone and suddenly you have what's known as an "AND" gate: If Switch 1 and Switch 2 are both thrown, energy flows through the redstone wire. You can also rig an "OR" gate, whereby flipping either lever energizes the wire.

These AND and OR gates are, in virtual form, the same as the circuitry you’d find inside a computer chip. They’re also like the Boolean logic that programmers employ every day in their code. Together, these simple gates let Minecraft players construct machines of astonishing complexity.

Thompson tells about 11-year-old Jordan who used the game’s wandering cows to create a random number generator.

Scientists think it may be the way to teach quantum physics or get students interested in studying it. The chief information officer of General Electric says that, “When I see my son and his friends play Minecraft, I see the future of engineering and technology.” Minecraft is predicting the future of collaborative work, says Jim Fowler, and “kids are the ultimate beta testers.”

And it may be uniquely suited to teach students with autism, as Keith Stuart writes of his son’s immersion in the game. “If people with autism crave order and control, Minecraft provides it, only within an environment that also allows and rewards discovery.”

But I am still quite a way away from grandiose uses or even total engagement. JC intervenes and talks me through my stuckness. I’m able to complete my first structure. It sits by the water, which I thought might be handy. I put in doors and windows. But in my haste, I neglected to seal up the structure tightly, and two pink pigs are wandering around in my new house. I killed the pigs with my axe.

So the question is: what do I do with them?

Note: If you are a teacher who has used Minecraft, I’d like to talk with you. Just click on my name at the top of this post and send me an email.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.