We are finally doing it! Playing MinecraftEdu in school! Like many things in my life, I can't remember when I first heard about Minecraft. I think I just began absorbing thoughts about it when reading game based learning articles or hearing educational technology gurus giving talks. I know I introduced my kids to it about three years ago when they were 5 and 8 and our home has never been the same. They quickly surpassed my skill with building, exploring and creating. I quickly learned that this was a powerful game that empowered kids and gave them a world to shape unlike any other. (I also quickly learned to set the timer when they were playing so that their little eyes didn't turn into grass blocks). And while I loved watching them play, I wasn't sure how to bring it into the classroom.
Just in case you haven't hear of Minecraft or seen it being played, it is a virtual world where students can use virtual blocks to build stuff. In many ways, it is like playing with building blocks, plastic animals, and dolls in your basement, except because it is digital, you have endless choices of blocks, plastic animals and dolls. And the animals and dolls move. And you can fly. And you can dig underground. And a hundred other things that you can't do in your basement with blocks, animals and dolls. (For a more detailed description, check our "What is Minecraft All About?" by MineMum)
While I was holding back from a school implementation and just watching my kids play, loads of other educators took the plunge. As Minecraft rose in popularity in the lives of my children and their friends, it also was embraced by innovative teachers that came up with brilliant ways to teach content using Minecraft. Therefore, when I signed up for a MOOC this fall on teaching with MinecraftEdu, I realized that there were tons of materials to support me and that teachers far more talented than I had already created wonderful lesson plans that the teachers and students at my school could try. For some great stuff check out: EduCrew YouTube Tutorial Series, Joel Levin's lesson plan on EduCade, and the MinecraftEDU Wiki.
But just because the resources are there and other teachers are doing it, isn't enough of a reason to start. So, why did I decide that our kids should be playing MinecraftEdu in school?
1. It is active. Sometimes when I am visiting classrooms, I realize that students are spending a lot of time listening or passively completing worksheets. When you see students playing Minecraft, they are busy. They are leaning forward, they are intent, they are engaged in the actions they are taking. Using a game like MinecraftEdu in the classroom takes students out of the" sit back and soak it in" mode and into a create, experiment and take risks mode.
2. Kids become the experts. In every classroom, there is a student who is a phenomenal Minecraft player who is not a phenomenal student. When you introduce Minecraft in these classrooms, this student comes alive. They are able to explain how to play to other students, they suggest new lesson plans to the teacher, they take on leadership roles in the classroom. I believe that when students are able to be experts in the classroom, they become better learners. They come into class believing they are valued there and are more open to learning.
3. Tinkering. In Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager's Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, they define tinkering as "a way of controlling the environment and a vehicle for intellectual development" and advocate that "children should engage in tinkering and making because they are powerful ways to learn." This becomes evident when watching students play MinecraftEDU. Instead of finding the only right answer to put in the blank, MinecraftEdu has lots of right answers. In the Genetics lesson I watched, there were hundreds of choices for students, from what color to dye your sheep to what shape your fence was to how you named your sheep and your ranch. When we can tinker, experiment and take risks, we learn by doing.
4. Content connections. I work in a school that has to meet state standards on testing. We can not afford to ignore our required curriculum or assume it will be taught another year, in another course. Minecraft is so open-ended that you can easily teach your content while letting the students play. Teachers and students can and should be able to tell what new content or skills they learned while using Minecraft in schools. The math, science, social students, world language, language arts standards can should be carefully considered and directly relate to the Minecraft activity the students do.
5. Simulated worlds. The lesson I watched gave students a way to apply what they were learning about genetics. They could certainly never actually breed sheep and complete Punnett squares, but in Minecraft, they could simulate this in a class period. Student generated questions arise during simulations that can lead to deeper understanding of the content being taught. For instance, in every class I observed, some student noticed that pink and purple sheep made pinkish-purplish sheep. This lead to a spontaneous lesson on partial dominance, which never came up during the direct instruction part of the lesson.
I would be interested to collect more quantitative data on Minecraft in the classroom and I wouldn't want to see students playing every day or all day, I do believe that Minecraft should be added to the learning toolbox as a innovative, creative way to get students to interact with content in a meaningful way.