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Got Game? Playing to Learn with Minecraft

By Rosie O’Brien Vojtek  
Communicator 
January 2015, Volume 38, Issue 5­

Though Robert Fulghum said, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten,” today’s elementary and middle school students are learning most of what they need to know to live successful 21st century lives from their peers outside of school, using apps, games, and social media.

Sit down at lunch with young students of any age and ask them what they did that morning in their classroom. They will probably give you a matter-of-fact answer, usually without much enthusiasm. But mention the word “Minecraft,” and watch them come alive. Suddenly, their eyes get big and they sit up tall; you know you have their attention.

In the game Minecraft, users explore and create their own virtual environment, storyline, and goals. It’s a sandbox game—as in, it’s akin to playing in a sandbox: players collect resources that they use to design and build whatever they choose in their virtual world. They can do this alone or by collaborating with other players from anywhere around the world. With this game, students construct their own knowledge, direct their own learning, and learn to share with others. Minecraft opens a new world of imagination for children and gives them the freedom to discover, create, and build.

How can we harness students’ energy for games like this and leverage it in the classroom?

Students explore the Minecraft environment. Source: Minecraft.edu.

Getting Started

A number of teachers are beginning to use Minecraft in their classrooms. Some use stand-alone apps on iPads, while others create their own Minecraft world using a desktop computer as a server. It is difficult, however, for teachers to do this without support from their district or principal.

Last spring, our school decided our theme for this year would be “Building a Better World.” Along with our usual character education, PBIS program, and service learning projects, we also decided to use Minecraft to help students learn to become global citizens.      

Our first step was to talk with our district administration to garner the support we needed and to follow district protocol. We set up our own school server and installed Minecraftedu licenses on 25 computers in our lab. (Minecraftedu is the educational version of Minecraft and provides extra tools for teachers.) By setting up our own in-house sever, we were able to assure the district and our parents that students would be collaborating with each other safely, within the confines of our own school community.

As principal, I worked closely with our library media specialist, gifted and talented teacher, and several other teachers to establish learning goals. As with any lesson, our Minecraft learning activities must be aligned to district curricula.

Exploring, Sharing

During the last week of school, we introduced our theme for next year at an assembly. I learned about a student from another district elementary school who had written an “A-Z Minecraft” book, and I invited him to be our guest speaker. We projected his book while he read to the students. You could have heard a pin drop through the entire presentation. He was an instant celebrity!

Over the next several days, every K-5 student was able to log in and explore Minecraft. The teachers were nervous, since Minecraft was new to most of them, too. We set it up so some of our fourth- and fifth-grade experts could help each class. But, as teachers quickly learned, most of our students were already familiar with the game. Students learned quickly and the computer lab buzzed with students helping each other navigate and find their way during the initial activity. I also sent home a flyer explaining the game to parents.

Our school just completed a Minecraft Scavenger Hunt created by a fifth-grade teacher and some of her students. Each student navigated through the Minecraft world to find letters of the word “RESPECT.” Our next project will be for our Book Buddy classes (e.g., older grades with younger grades) to create their own Minecraft community using certain criteria from their grade-level curricula and then present it to the rest of the school. 

Fifth-graders created this Minecraft scene of Ivy Drive School, students, and teachers. Source: Rosie O'Brien Vojtek.

Guiding Students and Teachers

Principals must make sure that teachers are not just turning students loose in Minecraft. Instead of relying on the old “sage on the stage” model of teaching, this is the teachers’ chance to truly be “the guide on students’ side.” Teachers and principals need permission to learn with and from their students by listening, watching, and talking with their students about what they are learning. There is so much we can learn from our students if we relax, realize we don’t have to know everything, and give ourselves permission to learn with and from the kids.

That said, as the guide, teachers still have the important responsibility of identifying what students need to know and do. Once the learning goals are identified, teachers must decide what and how to incorporate 21st century skills into the lesson using Minecraft as the vehicle. Some learning goals fit neatly into project-based learning activities within Minecraft, while others do not. Teachers need to carefully decide when and how to best leverage Minecraft as the tool for learning.  

Permission to Play

In a world of high-stakes accountability systems, educators may be reluctant to deviate from the core curricula and pacing guides. But by doing so, we miss the opportunity to guide and challenge the work our students are already doing outside of school in virtual worlds, such as Minecraft.

Though video games have been steadily making their way into classrooms, many districts still have policies against them (especially online games). Admittedly, most computer-based games found on apps, software, and on game consoles are competitive; there is a beginning and end with winners and losers. All games, however, are not created equal. Minecraft and other creative games like it afford students the time to “play” in school so that we can guide their explorations and help them gain the skills they need to live successful, productive lives in a global society.

Got game? Let’s play to learn!

Rosie O’Brien Vojtek is principal at Ivy Drive Elementary School in Bristol, Connecticut.

Minecraft Lessons, Resources, and Tips

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