Minecraft in the classroom 2014.04.09

minecraft.recessBy DAVID GREEN

Morenci teacher Melissa Elliott remembers handing out the social studies assignment to her fifth grade students—make a poster to advertise a colony such as Jamestown in Virginia—and she clearly remembers the response from some students: Can we use Minecraft?

Looking back on that day, she admits that perhaps her assignment wasn't all that inspiring, but her students found a way to make it just the sort of challenge they were up for. They wanted to use the video game Minecraft and she couldn't come up with a reason to turn them down.

"Until I found a reason to say 'no,' I kept saying 'yes,'" she said, and that continues today.

Elementary school principal Gail Frey thought it sounded like an interesting approach, but she did have one request. She wanted students to make a presentation to the school board, to justify their use of the video game in the classroom. That will happen Tuesday night when the board gathers for its April meeting.

"It's just really exciting to see the students learning," Mrs. Elliott said, "but as a parent, I would want to know where it's going and if the students are using their time wisely."

She can easily tell you where it's been. This winter has brought an excess of inside recesses and students have been hard at work on Minecraft projects. Between the tablets, iPads, Kindles and phones that students own and the limited equipment in the classroom, recess has not resembled anything that looks like a break from work.

A Swedish video gamer and programmer developed Minecraft in 2009 and more than 35 million copies of the game have been sold across a variety of platforms. The game has been described as a digital version of Legos in which players harvest building materials to create shelters, and later mansions, towers, villages, etc.

The Minecraft landscape has a crude, blocky appearance, but beneath that is a complex system of resource management, construction and creativity—lots of creativity.

Mrs. Elliott arranged for a classroom visit from Greg Marten, Educational Technology Consultant for the Lenawee Intermediate School District who also helps lead a Minecraft summer camp. He was impressed with what he saw in Morenci.

"This is very exciting," Marten told Mrs. Elliott after his presentation. "I'm really anxious to see where it goes."

Marten told students about the school version of Minecraft that has a disadvantage in that kids can't log in from home. On the other hand, it allows teachers to send out assignments, block certain events from happening, and access some controls not available to students.

At the summer camp, virtual worlds were created ahead of time and students were presented with challenges to meet, such as devising ways to increase trade between two countries separated by water and creating a cross view illustration of a volcano.

Mrs. Elliott's students explained how they have used Minecraft, in addition to their social studies project. One student builds ships at home with his Xbox. Another has learned about oceans and another mentioned math concepts such as area and volume. 

"It teaches about life," a student said, "how to feed yourself, to care for your dog."

When Marten's talk ended and kids were finished showing him their achievements, students dispersed into groups around the room, most of them with an electronic device in their hand and Minecraft loaded.

"It doesn't look like a typical indoor recess," Mrs. Elliott said.

And it doesn't fit the image that many people have of video games, Marten added.

"People say that kids become isolated in a virtual world," he said. "What they don't understand is that it can be just the opposite. It's not only robust but it's focused."

With Minecraft, Mrs. Elliott said, students often see how things happening in a virtual world have bearing on events in the real world. They learn to respond to real life occurrences.

"I really appreciate how they have to work together as a community," Mrs. Elliott said. "It's an excellent way to learn on-line collaboration."

Digital citizenship is part of the state's educational standards, Marten pointed out, and these kids are quite familiar with state standards. It's not uncommon to see students with copies of state requirements for science and social science in their hands, Mrs. Elliott said. 

"They're not just covering them," she said, "they're understanding them."

These students have a vested interest in proving to the school board that Minecraft can play an important role in their education, Marten noted. 

"What the board will see is the cool end product," he said, "but they need to know that students had to understand everything that went into the production of it."

Marten left the school impressed with what he saw and with what he heard from the Morenci kids.

"Every time I meet with students, I learn new things," Marten said. "Students are teaching teachers."

What others say about Minecraft in schools:

• Students learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, planning for the future. — Swedish teacher

• Minecraft is being used to educate children on everything from science to city planning to learning a new language. – New York City teacher 

• Minecraft offers an invitation for creativity, for customization. – University professor from Toronto

• Minecraft holds some obvious advantages over traditional blackboard instruction, which can be "dry as chalk for kids." – literacy expert from Ontario who was inspired by his son's elaborate Minecraft amusement park