Minecraft-A new virtual tool for learning

I just read a great post from this blog on Minecraft and thought I would add my thoughts on the subject.

Whenever you mention the word “video game” to a parent, it often brings quite a few negative connotations. Usually the negative words associated with this are: blood, shooting, waste of time, and mindless.  As an adolescent, I remember trying to justify to my mother that hours of playing Nintendo’s Zelda were actually beneficial to me. I would say, “but it improves my hand eye coordination Mom!”  She would often let out a sigh, roll her eyes and give me another 15 minutes to try and complete another level.  At the time, improving hand eye coordination was really the only apparent benefit of playing video games at the apparent cost of so many.

As part of my graduate research,  I have recently been doing quite a bit of academic research on game-based learning. Typically, with any new type of technology, there is a bit of resistance and usually group of critics who often propagate myths without having done the research themselves. I have encountered similar resistance when we first started doing blogging in the classroom (how can blogging possibly improve academic skills?), ipads and mobile devices (they are a distraction and waste of time) and now games.

Fast forward 20 years and gaming is still a huge market.  Video games have evolved into highly sophisticated multiplayer games and strategy-based games that require much more than trying to rapidly tap A, A, B, B, select, start, up, down as fast as you can. Sure, those games certainly exist but new genres have hit the market that require higher-order thinking skills, complex communication, collaboration and problem-solving.  One of those genres, simulation games, is beginning to overlap with other fields such as medicine, military and education.

Watch this fantastic video that paints a nice picture of the role of simulation games in education:







So what are simulation-based games?

Simulation games are virtual games that simulate a real-world experience that are often difficult or dangerous to take part in real life. Some of them are life-based simulation games such as the Sims and others are more construction and strategy based games such as Civilization, SimCity World of Warcraft, and Minecraft.

Games (not just video games) have actually taken quite awhile to be taken seriously by educators.  Games, by themselves, are obviously highly engaging, fun and motivating. However, these reasons alone are not enough to use them educationally. For example, Uno is a fun and engaging game but this alone doesn’t mean that it should be used in the classroom. There needs to be careful planning, goals, integration into the curriculum and reflection built into any type of technology or innovative practice.

I have recently been using Minecraft in the classroom to help develop some important mathematical concepts as well as those higher-order thinkings skills. As a teacher and a bit of a gamer myself, I can clearly see the advantages of leveraging games for learning.

So what is Minecraft?


Minecraft is a virtual 3D simulation game in which players need to look for resources to use to craft and build just about anything. There is a one player survival mode where it is just you alone in the world and there are monsters out there so you need to survive. There is also a creative mode feature where you have access to all resources in the game.  There is also a multiplayer mode (my favorite) where you interact and collaborate with people in real-time. Creativity is absolutely endless and I have seen people build ancient pyramids, castles, and even whole cities!

So how can you use Minecraft for learning?

Math-Since Minecraft is in a 3D virtual world, it is very easy to link in geometry and measurement concepts. I had 5th grade students complete a series of challenges involving fractions and percents. I built some structure and students had to figure out what percentage of each material I used. Then, I had them build a house involving some specific percentages of blocks. It is very easy to explore concepts such as volume, area, perimeter, coordinates and measurement. I had 3rd grade students build a real construction of a garden project they did in which they had to use specific perimeter and areas of their garden (planned ahead of time). Then students actually got to grow their own crops in the garden! Video of my idea will be posted below:


Geography-Geography is an easy way to explore using Minecraft. Difficult concepts such as topography, mapping skills, types of maps are a natural part of Minecraft. I found a great video by a fellow teacher in which he explored contour maps show below. I am planning out a series of lessons shortly

Economics/Math-Minecraft has plenty of multiplayer servers. Recently, I joined one and I am absolutely amazed at the kind of learning that happens on this. One server has an economy built into it so players receive money from selling their items. People also begin opening up shops selling and trading items. This opens up a real life (sort of) context where students could learn the idea of supply, demand, market prices and how economies are built.

Science-I have been following a high school teacher in Australia who uses Minecraft to teach concepts in biology. For example, he has students construct 3D models of eukaryotic cells. He uses a multiplayer mod to explore how neurotransmitters work.






Game-Based Learning and Simulations

Games are nothing new for technology.  We’ve always had a variety of types of games from action-adventure that started in Atari and Nintendo to more strategy-based games such as Warcraft and Command and Conquer.  For the most part, educational games have been developed but often lack the depth or complexity of games intended for entertainment.  There are plenty of flash type games online that educators usually use for low-level thinking skills such as math computation and spelling and vocabulary type games.  Although these certainly have some educational value but as a teacher, I’ve usually don’t allocate too much time to these in the same way that I don’t spend too much time on drill and kill skill worksheets. However, games are coming increasingly complex and realistic and a more recent genre of games has emerged including simulation and 3D virtual games such as Second Life, Sim City and most recently, Minecraft.

These games have captured my attention. I must confess that I am a bit of a gamer myself and really enjoy strategy type games or simulation type games such as Civilization or Myst. I love the challenge and the thinking skills involved with these games.  I also see the educational value of these games as well.  The Horizon Report (a publication that discusses emerging technology in education) predicts that it will play a significant role in education over the next 2-3 years. For an excellent read on this topic, read Marc Prensky’s article “What Kids Learn that’s POSITIVE from video games” .  To sum up he points out that kids learn the following real-life lessons from video games:

  • Cause and Effect
  • Long term Winning vs Short-term Gain
  • Order from Seeming Chaos
  • Second-order Consequences
  • Complex systems behaviors
  • Counter Intuitive results
  • Using obstacles as motivation
  • The Value of Persistence
In other words, kids (and adults) are learning things like: creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, persistence and lateral thinking. All essential skills for working in today’s 21st century.
I have recently been exploring a game called Minecraft. At first glance, it looks like a game in which you run around mining rocks and hiding from monsters. However, if you actually play it, you’ll see that there are so many other possibilities. It allows for users to create, design, explore and craft different buildings and structures. It introduces users to a simulation where you need to find resources and use your imagination to design just about anything you want. Another value of this game is that you can work in “creative/peaceful mode” and use multiplayer functions to allow multiple users to create things together.
I continued to explore this game and education and found out that there were already a group of educators using it in the classroom. Check out some of these great links to sites:


My current plan is to start using it with 3rd Graders to create a Math project in which they designed a garden with limited resources and calculated the area and perimeter. I am also starting an After School Activity with some students 3-5 in which we are going to design the new campus for our school in collaboration with some High School students.