Minecraft in the Classroom

  • Minecraft in the Classroom

While crushed candy, fruit ninjas and birds of the angry or flappy variety come and go, there’s so much more potential beneath the surface of Minecraft, says James Hannam...

Firstly, don’t be afraid that you might not ‘get’ Minecraft. Having used Minecraft for the last seven years in education, I can honestly say it is one of the easiest games to get to grips with, and the proof comes from teaching it to my nan!

Because of Minecraft’s sandbox-style environment in which players can build their own worlds, there are virtually unlimited possibilities to use this game in your classroom. And since it’s available across all platforms, students can access it on most devices available to your school.

Let’s look at the headline benefits. Firstly, engagement – all students are aware of Minecraft; even if they’re not already playing it, they’re probably aware of the game’s mechanics. By simply theming lessons around the concepts held in Minecraft (survival, monsters, and building materials) you can hook students into engaging with the most dry topics.

Secondly, there’s the old ‘boys and literacy’ issue. By recreating subjects such as the Amazon, Aztec pyramids or the Great fire of London within Minecraft, you can tap into a relevant and interesting medium boys typically enjoy.

And thirdly there is a buzz around using game or challenge-based learning to foster independent thought and problem-solving skills. Students can construct buildings and machines, test ideas, and work to solve Minecraft-relevant problems – all camouflaged within a computer game. Here are a few quick lesson ideas to get you started.

1. Mathematics – Area and volume

The whole class will build a village together, so each student is given a plot of land. However, they all have to abide by a set of rules - ‘You have to build a house with floor area no greater than 20 square metres and no more than 20 blocks high’, for example. Children are given all the in-game resources they need (so that they don’t waste time choosing a nice-looking block) and once the house has been constructed they must place a sign on the front door to say how big they think it is. You, or other students, then act as the planning inspector. Planning inspectors check the floor area to see if it matches the builder’s calculations and that it doesn’t break the rules outlined at the start of the lesson. Children who are successful on both counts are given a reward (a diamond, gold bar or pork chop – coveted Minecraft resources). This can be linked very easily to paper-based exercises on squared paper, so the skills are transferable.

2. Literacy – Build your own story

Do you remember those ‘choose your own adventure’ books? Basically, you had to read a page, make a decision at the end of the paragraph, then turn to a particular page depending on your choice. Well, you can using Minecraft for similar story setting. Students can re-create their stories in the game, or use Minecraft as a starting point. You could give students screenshots of three different environments from the game, e.g. jungle, cave and beach, and ask them to construct a story based on those areas. Or, create the story by getting them to walk around the Minecraft world, placing signs where they want the players to choose between two paths. The story is then written on the signs, which students have to place as markers en route.

3. Coding – Virtual Bee-bots

Most schools have invested in devices such as the Bee-bot (a programmable three-wheeled robot that is used on a playmat to teach the principles of coding). In Minecraft, you can re-create these Bee-bots as ‘turtles’ (taken from floor turtles, the original version of the Bee-bot product).

Where does the programming come in? Searching for diamonds is a really time-consuming, yet fundamental, part of the Minecraft game. (Most students, when asked, will say that mining for diamonds is really, really frustrating). So what if you could show them that using the same programming skills from Scratch and Bee-bots, they could save time by programming a robot to do the mining for them?

Students build a turtle robot, then look at some simple code similar to the Bee-bot programming language, and test out their program in the game. If they make a mistake, or lose the robot, they simply build another one.

4. Mathematics – Multiplication and division

At the core of Minecraft is the ability to craft or make objects from raw materials. Ask your students how they would create ‘sticks’ from a ‘woodblock’, and not only could they tell you, but they could also say how many are made. For example, in Minecraft, one woodblock makes four planks, and two planks make four sticks. So straight away you can see the opportunities for multiplication grids, and division exercises. Giving students problems to solve based on the block, where they can use the game to check their answers, is a great variation on typical maths problems. A great example is making block cards. With a value on the back of each card, students create problems for each other to solve like ‘How many sticks can be made with X blocks of wood?’

5. Geography/History/RE – Virtual Field trip

Obviously, there’s no real substitute for a good old field trip. But what better way of checking learning than to ask students to construct their own version of a building they are studying? A great example is to look at castles; students can re-create one they have studied, and put signs around the building showing its key features. This can be a stand-alone task, or lead into a presentation for IT, where students take screenshots of their castle to show to the class.

Founded by Jay Ashcroft and James Hannam in August 2014, LearnMaker’s mission statement is simple and straightforward: “Making technology useful.” Having worked with over 300 schools in previous job roles, Jay and James noticed that many schools struggle to benefit from the technology they have available. Through LearnMaker, they aim to maximise the impact available technology can have on a student’s learning, while also working with the school to build a cost-effective, long-term strategy. Visit learnmaker.co.uk to find out more.

Igniting passion

Worried that you kids will know more about Minecraft than you? Use that to your advantage by having them create your resources for you…

Hopefully, through reading this overview of ideas, you can see the potential that can come from using Minecraft in your school. You don’t necessarily need to have a deep knowledge of the game, as you can get the students to create the resources for you? Ask them to create screenshots, or photos of their work to use in class. For example, if you are studying The Great Fire of London, why not ask them to create their own version in the game, then show you what they’ve made? It’s great for extending learning outside of the classroom, and engaging students who may not typically want to get involved.

About the author

After a 10-year teaching career as head of design technology, James Hannam now leads technological change in schools across the UK. He has worked on a number of large-scale iPad 1:1 projects and delivered keynote speeches at BETT.

Pie Corbett