Learning with Minecraft

KtY_j6AOsD-q1yz_wcNkcSISjTJjKjjf0dDJDijUQ77YwKH8s0SO6xqP_aztdxP7IaYauw=s2048I am often asked about the Center Grove Middle School North (MSN) Minecraft Club.  “What do kids do in Minecraft Club?  What can kids learn playing a game?”  As often is the case with education and learning, the answers to questions are often complex and with some surprises.

The MSN Minecraft Club is a group of students and teachers who enjoy game-based learning.  Minecraft is a sandbox game where players can create and build, fight off enemies and explore vast landscapes. As is the nature of sandbox games, players can roam free, choosing objectives as they go. Because Minecraft has such open possibilities and potential, the teacher and student can choose how he or she wants to use it.  I have students who like to build.  I have some who like to explore.  I have some who like to mine and manage resources.  Students have the freedom in Minecraft to make choices and explore the consequences of those choices.  Some good, some bad; but in the end, they can start over to try again and try it a different way.

Here are the main things I think my students learn playing Minecraft:

Builds creativity, problem solving, research skills and spatial reasoning

When I was a child, I loved building with Legos.  We would get a new set almost every year for Christmas.  We would build the set following the directions once, then dump the entire set into the collection of all the other sets we had accumulated over the years.  My brothers and I would spend hours building new things with the parts of multiple sets.  It was a very creative experience and required a large amount of spatial reasoning.

Minecraft is similar to this experience in that the world is basically made of blocks that can be broken down and rearranged into something new. Some blocks can be combined or processed in some ways to change them into other blocks.  The game encourages players to try new combinations and recipes to learn more.  In order to make some items, you might have to craft new tools or objects from rare materials.  To be successful in Minecraft, students have to be creative and determined to learn new things from trial and error, collaboration or through research.

Resource management

When you begin the game, you have very little if anything.  You need to make everything (or find it).  This often begins with finding wood to make a crafting table and wooden tools.  These tools are easy if you are lucky enough to start in an area with lots of trees.  If you start in a desert or mountain biome, you could be in for a rough start.  The goal is to quickly make some simple tools and gather as much wood as possible before night falls.  When the sun goes down, bad monsters begin to spawn.  If you planned well, you should have enough resources you can move underground to avoid the bad guys.

This general theme continues throughout the game.  Players need to learn to plan ahead and manage their resources.  Before they leave for a trip to explore, do they have enough food to survive away from their crops?  Should I use these seeds to plant more crops or should I feed my livestock to get meat and leather?

We have also added an economy system into our server so students can set up small shops to sell game items for in-game currency.  This teaches them simple economics principles like supply and demand pricing.

Teamwork – Communication Skills

As a lifelong player of massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, I know the value of teamwork in games.  Many of my students also play multiplayer games like Call-of-Duty, HALO and Team Fortress 2.  While we can debate the type of communication skills kids learn from these “public” arena games, those who are very successful in these games are effective at communicating with others.  The depth of these games’ universes requires that players communicate with other players effectively to be successful.  Even in short-term games, teammates need to know the role they play in the team for the team to win.  Teams that are effective at working together in collaboration will win every time (even against a stronger opponent that fails to work together).

In Minecraft, the world is the opponent.  It will often seem the world is working against you.  That diamond block is across that pool of lava.  You will need just one more iron bar to craft that new piece of armor.  How do I craft bread from the wheat I grew?  Players in Minecraft act like a small community to help each other out.  I have seen seasoned players helping new players on our server by walking them around the village to show them where to find things.  Some have even built “welcome to the server” starter homes.

Students can be whatever they want to be

The last thing I think my students learn playing Minecraft is choice.  I have some students who only mine.  They have learned the most effective tools and geographic arrangements of mines to optimize their success of finding rare ore and minerals.  I have others who are farmers.  They have learned about how to build farms and irrigation/fertilization to help plants grow better.  I have students who are merchants, fishermen, crafters, explorers and civil engineers.  I am constantly amazed at how effective they are at identifying a need in the community and filling it.

In closing, I would be neglectful if I did not mention that not everything about Minecraft is good.  There are public servers where the play style is player-vs-player games (Hunger Games servers) and the language is adult.  Anytime you have interactions with others you run the risk of someone not playing well with others.  Also, as with any video games or the internet, addiction can also be a problem and playtime should be monitored.  All these said, I think with sufficient safeguards, mentoring, and training, the Minecraft Club at CGMSN has been a great success.

Reposted of a blog I wrote for #cgi3 in 2015.


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