Have you ever wondered what makes Minecraft such an engaging and innovative game? Unless you have been living under a rock for the past several years, you have probably heard your students, kids, and quite a few adults, talking about this video game.

Minecraft-2017-FebruaryThe game was originally released in 2011 and quickly became a bestselling game around the world. Since then, it has sold around 110 million licenses, and is still selling roughly 10,000 copies a day. Even if your students are not currently playing the game, they have probably played it at one time or another, watched YouTube videos about it, and engaged in conversations based around the game. In other words, Minecraft has embedded itself into the culture of the current generation of students.

Shortly after its official release, a small group of educators saw the value in the game and developed a modification or “mod” of the game. Known as MinecraftEDU, the game was published by TeacherGaming.

Teachers used the game across a variety of subjects, contents, and grade levels. They observed an increase in student engagement, improved test scores on summative assessments and standards-based tests, and higher attendance rates in classes. Because of the success and popularity of the game, Microsoft acquired both Minecraft and MinecraftEDU in 2014, and as recently as Nov. 1, 2016 released Minecraft: Education Edition.

Playing in the sandbox

What drives Minecraft and its Education Edition component is not the developers themselves, but the community that uses it. Minecraft does not have a user manual or instructions and the vast materials and resources used to supplement the game have been created by the community. Minecraft has even helped drive the success of what has become known as the YouTuber profession.

The term “sandbox” means that the game is open-ended. There is no official ending to the game, although in recent editions a biome known as The End with a hostile mob (bad guy) called the Ender Dragon to serve as the game’s ending, was added. Players can play in a survival world, gathering resources, mining, and crafting items in order to survive. In fact, that is where the game derives its name, from the mining and crafting aspects of game play. However, there is no right way to gather these materials and resources. That is driven by the player. As players delve deeper and deeper, more rare and valuable items, such as redstone and diamonds, can be found to further enhance game play.

A second game play mode, known as Creative Mode, allows players to freely build and create whatever their minds can conceive. Players have unlimited resources, do not have to worry about surviving, and can even fly! Whichever modes your students are playing in, they are driven by their interests, motivations and curiosity. The game is built upon the belief that gamers are naturally curious and are motivated to learn. Because the game intentionally comes without instructions, players must create their own understanding of the game and knowledge of the world through experience and then reflect on those experiences. In other words, the game is modeled upon constructivist learning.

Using the game in class

I first started using the game with my fifth-grade students two years ago. I had played the game the previous summer, working for a digital arts summer enrichment program known as Black Rocket. Minecraft classes were completely booked up, and the children’s excitement and engagement was palpable. They took genuine ownership of learning, and I knew that I needed to use this software with my own students.

I began slowly, starting with a lunch and recess club of six students. These students already knew how to play the game, which was helpful because my own gameplay skills were extremely limited at the time. This group of children became my core group of builders and helped teach me the game. I was by no means an expert, nor do I claim to be now, but knew that I needed to explore this risk with my students.

Together we learned. I taught them how to use the game to represent mathematical thinking, express content in social studies, recreate and build settings from text, explore point-of-view in writing, and demonstrate scientific concepts. They taught me how to play.

Often, I would utter a sentence such as, “I wonder what this would look like in Minecraft,” or “How could we demonstrate this in Minecraft?” The next day a student would come to me asking if I could take a look at something he or she had spent four or five hours working on the night before. I felt both guilty and awestruck. Imagine a student wanting to work on content for four or five hours in a single night! Could you ever assign four hours of homework and get such a positive response and a sense of ownership?

As the months passed, Minecraft became more and more embedded into our classroom culture. Students who did not play the game began producing projects and classwork in Minecraft. My core group of six students were recognized as leaders in the classroom. I should mention that many of these students were not your typical “good” student. They often did not complete traditional classwork, homework or projects. Minecraft empowered them and allowed their creativity, voice, and passion to shine. The versatility of the game brought my students’ unique and individual strengths to the fore. The game has something for everyone.

If you are nervous about getting started, whether with the regular edition or the Education Edition, there is a vast community of educators who are more than willing to support you. Microsoft has produced a brilliant website, education.minecraft.net, that houses engaging conversations, vast worlds, detailed lesson plans, and a variety of training videos. Furthermore, if you are on Twitter, you can follow the hashtag #MinecraftEDU and pose your questions to the community.

I hope to see you in the game!

Mark Grundel has been teaching for 12 years. For the past 10 years, he has been a fifth-grade teacher at Evergreen Avenue School in Woodbury, where he was the 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Grundel is a Minecraft Certified Trainer, a Minecraft Global Mentor, a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, a Skype Master Teacher and a Google Certified Educator. He is the founder of the weekly Twitter chat #MinecraftEDU, which meets on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Grundel can be reached at markgrundel@gmail.com or on Twitter at @MGrundel.

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