How Minecraft can introduce students to real-world problems and solutions

How Minecraft can introduce students to real-world problems and solutions

As teachers, it’s our responsibility to prepare students for the future, and that means embracing technology in teaching and learning. But what’s the most effective way to integrate it in the classroom?

A clever approach, write Monash’s Roland Gesthusizen and Gillian Kidman, is to use to technology as edutainment. This is the first of a three-part series.

Technology can support new strategies

Research shows when technology is effectively integrated with our teaching goals, it can support new strategies in the classroom and:

  • address diverse learning styles
  • accommodate individual learning rates
  • encourage cooperative learning
  • help students accept responsibility for their learning
  • connect to other students around the world
  • improve academic achievement

When education and entertainment combine

Technology in the classroom is multi-dimensional. As a teacher, you might use technology as a simple, fun activity — perhaps a game or movie — with no scaffolds or instruction.

In contrast, technology can be used educationally, as part of one of the strategies above.

Spanning the gap between education and entertainment is the idea of edutainment.

It’s a term first used in the early 1970s describing education with an educational twist. As media tools become more affordable and available the idea has evolved. Televisions, digital projectors, YouTube, websites, online games and social media can now be part of our tool-kit.

Increasingly, teachers need to ensure edutainment does not water-down education goals, so media and technology don’t become more important than the message.

Minecraft has strong educational applications

Historically, games have been pure entertainment, with an incidental learning a spin-off.

There have been games with very real educational goals. One example is the SimCity™ series, where a player navigates and constructs objects to solve a problem, simulating the everyday life of a small family, the buildings and roads for a city or even the features of an animal within an ecosystem.

Minecraft is the modern equivalent, with educational applications in the classroom that go beyond simple entertainment. A teacher can use it to develop support strategies and encourage students to collaborate, build and share.

Minecraft for beginners

Minecraft is a rare game because it is open-ended, and can be almost anything to different players. It was conceived as a “sandbox game”, meaning people create their own experience. The graphics are simple, and there is no storyline except one that is created by the players.

In “creative mode” a player can freely create, locate and destroy objects called blocks. From these blocks, they build their virtual world within the habitat or terrain that has been given.

In “survival mode” you also need to fight for your life against hunger, danger and your enemies.

For many students Minecraft is often their first introduction to manipulating objects and modelling in a virtual world.

How Minecraft can enable learning

Support strategies How Minecraft can help
Address diverse learning styles Students assisted visually and audibly to demonstrate their understandings
Accommodate individual learning rates Taps into motivation, can address cognitive behavioural disorders like autism.
Encourage cooperative learning Easy for students to work together. Teams of up to 40 players are possible. Online conversations encourage deeper learning and thinking.
Help students accept responsibility for their learning Students tend to take responsibility due to the built-in achievement, competition, social and explorative elements of the game.
Connect to other students around the world Conversations between students encourage deeper learning and thinking. These connections transcend differences in teaching, learning styles and education systems.
Improve academic achievement Minecraft can be used to teach any number of subjects including math, history, physics and arts. It helps develop 21st century skills like creative and critical thinking.

These applications are an area of increasing interest for researchers.

A practical example in a high school science classroom

Students were challenged to build a model house from a cardboard box, to show their understanding of sustainable design.

One student, Matt, asked to build his design virtually, using Minecraft. There were technical challenges, but the game allowed unique perspectives about design that were not possible to create with cardboard.

Matt explored his house from the inside, and changed things to make the best use of natural light. He used a water feature above a skylight to reflect light into the basement.

Matt exhibited a powerful sense of ownership for his design and house — it had a TV and a kitchen — and showed deep thinking about his solutions. A virtual tour was possible and Matt was the only student in the class that linked a sustainable home with a healthy home.

Models have been used for decades to enable students to map out their designs and test their thinking. What’s new here, is that collaborative interactions in gaming environments can be adapted by students to construct things virtually.

And for Matt, that meant the exercise felt more real than a cardboard box.

Additional applications of Minecraft in the classroom

Minecraft is so adaptable, it can find a place outside of science or technology classrooms.  Students and teachers can work together to modify activities or create Minecraft challenges in a range of different subjects.

Here are some other write ups to explore.

A question to ponder

What nuances in behaviour does a teacher need to be aware of when students work in these virtual spaces? What steps need to be taken to regulate student behaviour?

References

Aluru, K., Tellex, S., Oberlin, J., & MacGlashan, J. (2015). Minecraft as an Experimental World for AI in Robotics. Paper from the AAAI 2015 Fall Symposium.

Forster, K.-T. (2017). Teaching Spatial Geometry in a Virtual World: Using Minecraft in Mathematics in Grade 5 & 6.

Garcia Martinez, S. (2014). Using commercial games to support teaching in higher education (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).Concordia University, Quebec, Canada.

Harrison, M. & Gesthuizen, R. (in press, 2018). Shared Regulatory Planning in Minecraft. Springer Encyclopedia.

Petrov, A. (2014). Using Minecraft in Education: A Qualitative Study on Benefits and Challenges of Game-Based Education. Unpublished Master of Teaching, University of Toronto.

Saito, D., Takebayashi, A., & Yamaura, T. (2014). Minecraft-based preparatory training for software development project. In Proceedings of IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) (pp. 1-9).

SeymourEducate (2016). Teaching and Learning with Technology.

Wagner, V. (2015). Informatik mit Minecraft [Informatics with Minecraft] [Article] in Projekte für London, [Projects for London 2015]. In Walsh, G., Donahue, C., & Rhodes, E. E. (2015).

KidCraft: Co-design within a game environment. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1205-1210). New York, NY: ACM.

West, D. M., & Bleiberg, J. (2013). Education technology success stories. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Zolyomi A & Schmalz M (2017). Mining for social skills: Minecraft in home and therapy for neurodiverse youth. In Proceedings of the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.