Minecraft World Building: Lessons for the Classroom

This year I have the privilege of being a Global Minecraft Mentor. As part of being a mentor, we have monthly meetings to share best practices and collaborate ideas.  January's meeting involved the amazing Stephen Reid. Stephen outlined in his Scottish brogue, the critical characteristics of an effective Minecraft world, which allows students to learn and express that learning. 

As Stephen was presenting, I thought, wait a minute, these are not just critical aspects of a Minecraft world, but also key to any successful classroom. Now I am not one for silver bullets in education, except maybe if your Minecraft world is under attack from vampires, but I think considering these ideas and personalizing them will allow a teacher to consider the design of their lessons for the benefit of their students and lead to better learning outcomes. So what is the secret sauce?

The Importance of Play

In a Minecraft world and in the classroom in general, give students the space to play and explore. Play is multi-faceted, complex, and dynamic, eluding easy definition. Play can be characterized by engagement with high levels of involvement and intrinsic motivation. It is imaginative, creative, non-literal, directed by the students or the teacher, the former is free from rules set by the teacher (something that can make teachers uncomfortable). Play is fluid and active but also guided by rules and high levels of metacognition which give it structure. Play is process-driven rather than product-driven, so give students a space to play.

Play supports exploration and discovery, the use of abstract thought and symbols, communication and oral language skills, verbal intelligence, imagination, and creativity. Play also encourages important learning dispositions, engagement and participation, and the integration of different cognitive processes. Play develops self-regulation skills such as flexibility, redirecting thought and behavior, holding and using the information in working memory through problem-solving. Play also enhances social skills such as empathy, expressing emotion, and conflict resolution. Play can also build resilience.  Play is a powerful learning model and central to learning. Play integrates students’ experiences, knowledge, and representations in order to help them create meaning and sense and to understand the world.  

The Environment

When designing a Minecraft world the environment is critical to how the student experiences the world. Just as in Minecraft, the choice of the environment will determine how students interact with the environment and also with each other. In Minecraft, the choice of the flat world for example allows for maximum opportunity for creation but is bereft of learning prompts. Old worlds allow teachers to create a world with set prompts in which students can interact and further develop. 


The same flexibility also applies to the classroom environment. The design of the classroom space can contribute to how students interact with each other as well as lead to increases in student engagement and learning. When teachers give careful thought to how the environment is arranged, authentic learning is enhanced. An organized, uncluttered space is free from distractions and keeps the focus on the learning. This allows students to move around the space quickly and access resources easily.

Visual aids are necessary to help students organize their environment and how to use it, huge amounts of visual stimulation are distracting and do not add to the learning. Consider what you need to display and what is unnecessary.

Likewise, be aware of the environmental factors, and proximity of students to each other in various settings. Decide how each of these elements contributes to the learning environment for your students and how it can be improved.

Most traditional classrooms were set up with the desks lined up in rows facing the teacher with very little interaction with other students. This physical layout mirrors the idea that the teacher is the font of all knowledge and that learning occurs by listening to the teacher and taking in the information. Learning spaces should promote a balance of learning together

Experiment with different desk configurations, make open spaces for students to sit together, create areas for quiet reading or thinking, and design spaces for individual and small group instruction. Think about the variety of ways that students can access learning and provide a physical environment that supports problem-solving. Introduce collaborative learning so that students learn effectively from and with each other. Classrooms should be spaces that students don’t want to leave. See my blog post on these ideas here

Storytelling

The next critical factor in a Minecraft world is the creation of a narrative. When it comes to storytelling, Minecraft has it all, a protagonist (the student), a setting that students can literally create themselves, and a plot that is down to them as well. Playing in creative mode, students are free to build their own world without the threat of zombies attacking and destroying what they’ve created. In survival mode, storytelling elements are added to direct players along a journey and make a great story with the antagonist, there to foil the student's plans.

Storytelling forges connections among the members of the classroom, and between students and ideas.  Good stories do more than create a sense of connection. They build familiarity and trust and allow the listener to enter the story where they are, making them more open to learning. Good stories can contain multiple meanings, so complex ideas can become more accessible. Stories are also more engaging than a discussion of abstract ideas. Consider this:

In classroom A, the teacher presents the results from Rutherford's gold foil experiment. In classroom B, the teacher tells a rich story about what went into the experiment and the ramifications of the experiment. Classroom A students come away from the lesson knowing the result of the experiment. Classroom B students learned about the nature of science, where the work of scientists over the ages came together to secure a major change in how we view the world. Students now have new knowledge, new thinking, to draw on. They’ve been engaged. They’ve learned.

Storytelling also helps with learning because stories are easy to remember. Because students identify so closely with stories, imagining how they would have acted in similar circumstances, they’re able to work through situations in a way that’s risk-free. The extra benefit for teachers: with a simple personal story they’ve conveyed underlying values, offered insight into the evolution of their own experience and knowledge, presented themselves as more approachable, AND most likely inspired others to want to know more.

Game Mechanics and Agency

The final critical factor in an effective Minecraft world is the introduction of game mechanics to provide students with choice and agency. The choices that students can make are a defining element of Minecraft: Story Mode, since the decisions students make may change the outcome of the game or a certain section of the game. Choices ensure that each student gets a unique learning experience, depending on what choices they make.

In the classroom, student agency can be fostered by not focusing discussions about assessment based on marks and grades and moving the focus of these conversations to student learning. Grading often feels final to students. They may not review the comments on marked assignments or take the time to learn the problems they missed on a test because they don’t perceive that learning this information will have any impact on their future grade. 

The use of purposeful assessment dispels student passivity associated with academic results. For example, a quiz can clearly denote which learning objectives the student has mastered and which they have yet to master. Clear formative assessment supports student agency by communicating a student’s specific strengths and areas of growth. A student in this classroom is better able to determine how to improve their grade based on the most important aspect of education—how well they comprehend and can apply the content.

Agency can be developed by providing supportive scaffolding with autonomy. By regularly gauging student understanding, teachers will be able to positively give students a degree of autonomy in their learning while providing instruction for students to move forward. For example, in a physics project looking at determining the mathematical relationship between two variables, a teacher may step in to provide explicit instruction on a particular scientific principle in order to allow the student to move forward with their hypothesizing and problem-solving. This kind of support allows students to continue to work independently or collaboratively towards their learning goals without being held up by a gap in their knowledge.

The following two instructional models optimize agency development by encouraging students to decide what they need to learn and how best to learn it in order to be able to accomplish their project. Students discover for themselves the gaps in their current knowledge and seek out resources in order to progress.

Problem-based learning creates opportunities for students to develop agency by making sense of a problem at the edge of their current understanding. 

Student-designed units involve students employing a framework provided by the teacher to develop their own units. Students then pitch their units to the class and everyone votes on the topics that the whole class will learn about. 

So in conclusion, the techniques that can be used to create a truly immersive learning environment with Minecraft can also be used in your classroom to let your own students succeed. 

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