A Beginner’s Guide to Minecraft in an Elementary Classroom

“What’s it called again, Craftmine?” I wondered aloud with a confused look on my face to a classroom full of nine year olds, playing dumb the whole time. “It’s MINECRAFT!” they all yelled back in unison, smiling and laughing at how out-of-touch their teacher was with their world.

The truth was, however, that I was playing them from the day I first mentioned any knowledge of Minecraft’s existence. We had just begun discussing what the students already knew about persuasive texts and convincing others to change their perspective. I begun, “You know, some students actually believe that video games can be used for learning? Can you believe that? I’ve heard some students say that there’s this game out there where you can actually learn stuff from it and not just play around?” I looked around at the windows and ceilings as if trying to find my words, “What’s it called again…Craftmine?” I modeled a dialectical think aloud about the potential benefits and drawbacks for using videos games, specifically Minecraft, in schools. Then, I introduced the first learning engagement, which was to write a persuasive text on whether or not games could be used for learning. Throughout the next two weeks, I continued to play dumb and conveniently forget the name of that game learning tool they loved so much.

The seed had been planted and the path I was about to lead them down had begun. At this point, the kids were set. Their teacher, however, was not.

The Research Phase:

The impetus for experimenting with MinecraftEdu in my class started three months prior, as I set myself up for a task that I thought would be challenging, but manageable. There was no one at my school who had piloted it or used it before, so I was on my own in teaching myself. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and the initial challenges that lay ahead of trying to self-teach myself a computer game that I had absolutely zero knowledge about.

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

For months before uttering the word Minecraft in front of my students, I had been searching for anything related to Minecraft to give me some background knowledge with the game, as I had none. I am not a gamer, and the last video games I played with regularity were original Nintendo and Atari. I had seen photos of Minecraft on the Internet, but had never seen it played live before.

I started this research process by using my PLN to learn about how and why MinecraftEdu could be used in education. Reading these articles was the easy part, as one could easily see the potential for its inception. Next, I moved onto watching tutorial videos and YouTube playlists to get a better idea of how to start and implement MinecraftEdu. These collections of tutorials created by experts who have come before me were extremely helpful and I ended up watching them several times over in order to wrap my head around it all. By this point in the research process, I had created a vision in my head of what I wanted my students to experience. It was just a matter of finding a way to make that vision become a reality. In order to do this, I needed to get into our recently installed MinecraftEdu server, become comfortable with what teacher controls existed and experiment with what worlds I could create for my students.

It was at this point that I experienced the steepest ascent in my learning curve, as I had to not only learn how to complete the simplest of movements within the game, but also learn how to create the vision I held in my head. This was very time consuming, and I was quickly humbled with how easy it looks on the tutorials and how difficult it actually is to do on your own at the beginning. What I also noticed was that all of the tutorials I encountered demonstrated what you could do in MinecraftEdu, but did not always express how to do it. They all assumed that viewers came in with a basic level of background knowledge with Minecraft, which wasn’t the case for me. The struggles I had learning how to complete the simplest tasks were starting to break my will and I found myself gradually letting go of the vision I held for the students. None of the worlds that were generated randomly looked like the landscape I held in my head. Some randomly generated worlds were so mountainous and filled with trees that it was difficult to move and see around you, other than extreme close ups of pixilated tress and uneven terrain. The completely flat worlds were great for building, but were so empty and devoid of landscape that they felt like you weren’t in a real-world context. The frustrations were building up and I felt like I was out of control with creating the vision I held in my head.

Despite these initial limitations, there was something in me that didn’t want to give up, that wouldn’t allow me to give up. I knew I didn’t want a Superflat world, but I also felt I couldn’t rely on a randomly generated world functioning well enough to meet our learning outcomes. This was when I began to look at the Customize World Code option, which allows world builders to have more self-determination in the biome or landscape a world contains. After several hours of YouTube videos, various websites and trial and error to teach myself how to write the proper codes into the generator, I finally stumbled upon a website which worked accurately enough for me. In a very user-friendly and visual manner, not dissimilar to introductory coding apps, you can choose the ground layers and biomes of the world you would like to generate.

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

I had finally found a landscape and biome that was close enough to my vision that I was happy moving on. The landscape, for these learning outcomes, needed to be flat so students could easily move around. The flat landscape also facilitated the laying of MinecraftEdu’s border blocks, which kept students corralled within a certain area so they could not wander off into the never-ending horizon and miss the learning intention. I highly recommend introducing MinecraftEdu to students with a flat world, in the biome of your choice, with a border around the region you want them to collaborate within.

Building the World:

When using the Superflat Generator, my priority was not as much on the layers of earth that were below the surface, but rather on what landscape looked like and offered to my students above it. I did not want the students digging endlessly and creating cave systems, so I kept the terrain layers at only 5 blocks deep. I wanted a biome that contained water, had a mix of grassy plains and trees and was flat. I chose the river biome, but when I entered the world, everything was there except the river. I flew around in all directions looking for the river, but never was able to find it. Not deterred, I went into the features section of the Superflat Generator and clicked on lakes and decorations. This gave me the water I needed to provoke a variety of real-world applications such as irrigation, energy and basic needs along with the tress I needed to make the world seem more life-like and facilitate crop consideration.

After the landscape had been generated, I needed to build a border wall around the section of land I wanted the students to cohabitate within. This can be done with increased efficiency by using a function within the MinecraftEdu teacher menu that allows you to lay multiple blocks at once. After the border was built, I began to strategically place information blocks, which are blocks with teacher-written messages that students can read, around the enclosed area. Information blocks, in my opinion, are where so much potential power lies in MinecraftEdu. The creative designs and collaborative interactions students take on can be enhanced through guiding questions, provocations and clues written on these information blocks. This ensures that learning in MinecraftEdu is always purposeful, intentional, reflective, inquiry-based and rooted in the curricular outcomes.

While watching screencasts and tutorials of how MinecraftEdu had been used by others, I began to see the conceptual learning potential this digital tool offers. I realized that so many of the concepts our class had already learned this year could be applied to this one particular learning engagement. I work in a PYP school where conceptual understanding takes precedent over content knowledge. To access these key concepts (form, function, causation, change, connection, perspective, reflection and responsibility), students learn about them through the lens of related concepts that are more contextual.

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

To ensure that students’ experience in MinecraftEdu was rooted in learning outcome and conceptual understanding, I spread more than 20 information blocks throughout the world that connected back into the majority of related concepts we have learned throughout this year. These related concept blocks contained reflective questions for them to consider as they navigated, interacted and created their world. They provoked students to start being the concepts and acting through them rather than simply learning about them.

To learn more about the basics of starting MinecraftEdu, check out these tutorials I put together, which attempt to highlight step-by-step explicit instructions for what I’ve described above. It is intended for those teachers who, like me, have had absolutely no experience with or no knowledge of Minecraft or MinecraftEdu. It will walk you through the steps it took me several days to learn in less than an hour.

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Putting the Plan Into Action

Now that the world was ready, it was time to set the tone for introducing Minecraft to the students. It was time to surprise them with the fact that their teacher wasn’t as out of touch as they thought, and was ready to enter their world and learn through it.

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

After students finished their persuasive texts, they did a gallery walk and read each other’s perspectives on their iPads. We found out that about two-thirds of the students were initially in favor of using video games for learning and one-third were opposed to it. Students then partnered up with a student who had an opposing perspective to theirs and had a mini-debate in an attempt to persuade their counterpart that their perspective was more valid. I remained stoic, indifferent and inquisitive to both perspectives and continued to play dumb through the entire process, confusing the name of the game one last time. Finally, after months of preparation, it was time to put my plan into action.

I wanted to set the context for learning through MinecraftEdu in an intentionally dramatic way to build enthusiasm and tension after all of their impassioned persuasions. A clip of their reaction can be found in the video at the end of this blog.

After the excitement settled down, we broke into three self-appointed groups: experts in Minecraft who could teach others, those who had played Minecraft before and complete beginners to the game. We matched up differing levels of expertise in triads that would work together to help each other learn. Next, students got their feet wet by going through the tutorial world provided in MinecraftEdu, which acts like an exploratory obstacle course for students to learn the basics of how to maneuver and control themselves within the world. The experts coached the beginners and a communal feel began to take over the lab as students were very enthusiastic and willing to help their classmates learn the game they were so passionate about. After all students had a more clear vision of what Minecraft was, we needed to start putting the use of this tool into context and introduce the learning engagement.

Learning Outcomes:

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

How We Organize Ourselves: An inquiry into the interconnectedness of human-made systems and communities; the structure and function of organizations; societal-decision making; economic activities and their impact on humankind and the environment.

Central Idea: People adhere to governing systems that impact their behavior.

Lines of Inquiry: The actions and choices we make as members of society; Governing systems; Our awareness of the consequences of these choices and actions

Key Concepts: Form, Perspective, and Reflection

Related Concepts: Governing systems, Interpretation, Opinion, Behavior and Beliefs

GRASPS:

Goal: You are to build a functioning and organized society based on systems.

Role: You are a group of refugees who have come from various countries, cultures and backgrounds.

Audience: You are the community members that will live in this society.

Situation: You have just stopped migrating and have decided to start a community here in this space.

Product: A Minecraft model of a functioning, organized and realistic society.

The Reflective Process:

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

After the tutorial world introduction, students returned to the classroom buzzing with energy and enthusiasm about the prospects that lie ahead of them. During the entire Minecraft process, we used Philosophy 4 Children (P4C) as a guided inquiry model that served as a community forum for student voice, choice and collaboration. Our first P4C examined what moral dilemmas or community problems might occur in Minecraft. Students discussed what system of governing laws and behavioral expectations they should agree to as a society while I took notes from afar. After documenting the summary of their conversation, I shared the Google Sheet with students so they could review and reflect upon trends and valid points that were expressed during their first “town hall meeting.”

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

Next, we set up a Padlet wall for students to brainstorm and exchange ideas for what systems they could create in their society. One student wanted to take it further, so she requested we start a Today’s Meet backchannel with a set time each night for students to join in and discuss ideas for their society.

The next day, students were introduced to the Minecraft world I had built for them using the Superflat Preset Generator, along with border walls and information blocks. They were instructed to simply wander around the world (I enabled creative mode to allow them to fly and see the world from an aerial perspective), get to know their surroundings and locate as many information blocks as possible.

Students were not allowed to build at this point (you can control this in the teacher menu), but only were supposed to reflect upon the related concept questions and consider strategic placement of systems.

Later in the hour, I gave the students the ability to practice building, but let them know that in this first session nothing was going to be saved. Once again, students happily coached each other to ensure that everyone was up skilled as efficiently as possible. Several times during the session, I froze the students (teacher menu option) and gave them certain instructions, such as to fly around the world from an elevated perspective and consider community planning. Students later were encouraged to stop working on their own test building and visit each other’s in an attempt provoke greater creativity and innovation.

After seeing their soon to be inhabited world for the first time and experimenting with sharing a limited space in a practice build, we sat down and inquired through another modified P4C: What moral dilemmas and problems did you observe while going through the practice build? How could we avoid these problems in the future? Students had another discussion that examined relevant issues that were affecting their MinecraftEdu community and proposed many ideas for how to solve their societal problems. Students later reviewed the summarized notes I took and continued their reflections in small, organically formed groups.

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

Next, we brainstormed other systems, aside from individualized shelters, we might need to have in our community and students began discussing who might be responsible for the creation of those systems. I printed out aerial maps of the world so students could start thinking about how they could use the natural environment to their advantage and build efficiently in space (a form of city planning). During these discussions, students realized that there might not be enough space for all of the communal systems and their individual houses. That was when a student asked if they could build houses together and become roommates so they would have more space for the other societal systems. In the previous P4C, students also requested that the related concept information blocks not be scattered throughout the community area, but rather condensed into one space to facilitate creative building. The class then created a System Sign Up Sheet where students self-selected societal systems in small groups and agreed upon their roles. After modifying the previous day’s world based on the students’ requests and organizing system responsibilities with each other, students entered the world and the societal design began.

The Societal Design:

The entire societal design occurred over an eight-day span, with approximately 60 minutes spent in MinecraftEdu each day. Students required little to no guidance in building their systems, as student collaboration and peer coaching was prevalent throughout the process. Students focused on one system at a time and worked in small groups to complete the shared vision they held. They also helped each other build their homes, and in many cases decided to live together under the same roof. As students finished one system, they moved onto constructing the next system without pause. They had the option of building successive systems with the same group members, or finding new peers that shared a similar passion for the next project to be introduced into society. The design phase became a very organic and free flowing evolution of a community. 

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

Before students began building each day, they were expected to visit the related concept (information block) zone and read some of the reflective questions. Additionally, I would often freeze students in each design session and give them some guiding questions to consider. This was to ensure that students were staying on task within the learning outcomes and using their time efficiently.

During the creation and design phase, students who were more versed with Minecraft began to take advantage of some of its known potentials in creative mode. They started to push the boundaries of what was acceptable behavior within educational aims inside MinecraftEdu, and this started to cause problems for others. Some students began to get off task and use their MinecraftEdu time for more play-based wandering than learning. Initially, I would redirect these students through guiding questions. Later, the class started to self-police each other and would let me know if their peers were making choices that were not educational in nature. Although I did not want to get involved in their society, I felt I needed to give consequences to those students who were knowingly making poor choices and not using their time effectively. If not, the learning outcomes would have quickly deteriorated and the learning tool would not have been as effective. Students who were disrespectful to others or who were playing with inventory items not conducive to purposeful learning were taken off their computers and had to watch from the sidelines for a designated period of time.

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

Eventually, through P4C conversations, more community dialogue began to emerge about laws and forming a government. This helped shift the perception of the teacher having the power and authority in their society and empowered students to evolve into the owners of their world.

When students struggled with proposing a government system that would be effective, I guided them towards democracy and voting. The society was divided into three districts, based on where students lived and worked. Students nominated themselves to run for office as council members and each district elected one leader to government. These council members then proposed a set of bills that their constituents advocated for. The bills were voted on through Google Forms and those that passed were enacted into law.

Wayfaringpath Photography

Wayfaringpath Photography

From that point on, the non-educational behaviors that were becoming increasingly commonplace began to stop. Many of the subjective and questionable applications of MinecraftEdu were clarified and students knew what was okay to use and what wasn’t. If there were any laws that needed to be changed or additional bills proposed, students could contact their district representative and a new round of voting would take place.

In the end, students designed a detailed and purposeful society that demonstrated conceptual understanding of our learning outcomes. Using MinecraftEdu as a learning tool was a resounding success. The societal build became more than a learning engagement for How We Organize Ourselves. It became a synthesizing tool that was a culmination of all conceptual learning students engaged in throughout the academic year, with more than 20 related concepts evidenced. The collaborative and student-centered nature of MinecraftEdu empowers learning, engages students to unimaginable heights and offers limitless potential as a 21st century instructional tool.

If you would like to see more, please take a look at the following videos. The first gives a pedagogical overview of the entire learning process described above. The second takes you on a tour of 4RW’s Minecraft society through students’ eyes.

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Resources for Guidance and Inspiration:
Learning Through MinecraftEdu (a video that outlines the entire learning journey mentioned above)
4RW Minecraft Society (a tour of our society through the eyes of the students who built it)
MinecraftEdu for Beginners Part 1 (a screencast tutorial made for those with no experience in Minecraft)
MinecraftEdu for Beginners Part 2 (a screencast tutorial made for those with no experience in Minecraft)
MinecraftEdu Starter Kit (a document full of articles and links to help guide your thinking)

2 Comments

on “A Beginner’s Guide to Minecraft in an Elementary Classroom
2 Comments on “A Beginner’s Guide to Minecraft in an Elementary Classroom
  1. Holy Smokes, Reid! I’m completely bowled over. This is an amazing resource for teachers. I think you’d better consider writing a book and making a million bucks off all your research. You could do it, you know! ;)

    I’m super impressed. I wanted to “learn Minecraft” last summer from my two boys. I got as far as giving myself a name and they helped me get my “skin”. The word “skin” put me off, honestly. Then, I felt nauseous walking around the landscape as the screen kept on jumping around and made me dizzy. That was the end of my fore-ray into Minecraft :(

    Thank you for making the connections between Minecraft and the Inquirying framework as I think this is what will encourage teachers to be open-minded about it. It’s very helpful to me and maybe I will give it a second “go” this summer. I wish you knew my boys as I bet they could be a good resource for you, too. I’ll share with them this blogpost and I know they’ll be wishing they were in your classroom.

    Thanks for this blogpost. I’m clipping it in my Evernote account for “one day”. :)

  2. This is a great article! I can relate to much of the same.. until about the part when you started talking about building your own custom worlds. I’ve only been using MC.EDU for about 1 month. I have lots of ideas and lots of questions! I will definetly use and read all the links in this article! email me! keep in touch!

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