Previously, my thoughts about Minecraft were: that it was this annoying weird game that the boys in my class always banged on about, that it was addictive, tore kids away from fresh air and was generally to be discouraged, for as long as possible as a mother, and almost certainly as an educator.
I am now a Minecraft Certified Teacher with a shiny new badge!
If you are interested in how I got here, read on....
It all started with some of the boys in my class (Y6) wanting to do some Minecraft building as part of their homework projects. Against my better judgement and due to their incessant pleading and reassurance it was educational, I agreed. I got an account and began to learn more about it, so I could check up on them.
I then discovered Minecraft Education Edition, which is a branch of the game especially for teaching and leverages 'in-game learning'. I looked around lots of the resources and found that there were plenty of pre-made lessons (worlds) that I could use linked to our topic on sustainability/town planning, so I decided to give it a go. Our IT dept set it all up from a tech point of view and away we went.
The first thing I asked the children (Y6) to do was to navigate around the Sustainability City in the 'featured worlds' section.
This was a nice and easy starter where pupils could find out about all kinds of different elements within the sustainable cities of the future. It required using plenty of keyboard skills to navigate (the navigation tools are displayed to show you how) and a good deal of reading comprehension as they 'met' the expert NPC (non player characters) in the world.
Once the children had finished exploring the city, I let them have free rein building in a world of their own. Here I could assess their levels of competence, and I got to see first hand just how good some of them were at building. It was pretty impressive, given how some of the novices and myself were banging into stuff and destroying things at random; at one point I was trying to build with a chicken in my hand and a child hit me with a roast beef! What was fantastic was that the experts in our class were not always the usual extroverts or high achievers academically, so seeing them shine in this way was hugely positive. The creativity, collaboration and communication going on with all of them was plain to see and I thought I might be onto something, especially when thinking about hosting and sharing worlds. It was then that we came up with the idea to build our own class eco towns linked to our class project.
I did not know enough about the game. Had I done the hours of training beforehand, I'd have been much more confident, but it was mid-term, I didn't have time. I questioned whether this was not just me letting them mess about on Minecraft and reminded myself that I was supposed to be teaching them as the expert, but then the opportunity for cross-curricular contextual learning, the 4Cs and the excitement in the room was hard to ignore. To put this further into context, this was Year 6 in their final term and, as any year 6 teacher knows, they needed something exciting to keep up momentum. Plus, I could tie it in with our current project. I also read something on Twitter around this time that really resonated with me: 'We have a duty as teachers to find out what the pupils are passionate about and to bring that into our classrooms.' I took a leap of faith and I'm so glad I did.
I am lucky that teachers in my school are trusted with innovating and adapting the curriculum as we go along. I think this is hugely important in any school. We all realise the importance of allowing the children to be creative and to encourage risk-taking, but surely if we are going to be better educators, we teachers also need the freedom to be creative and to not fear taking risks too. I involved the deputy throughout the process, who was very positive and proud of how well the children were working and learning together.
What followed over the course of the next few weeks was amazing - everything we want our children to have, all those 21st century skills were everywhere.
Each class built their own eco town deciding together what that would look like, what would be in it, who would build what, where locations should be, what eco-features would be included..... there was such a lot of discussion and collaboration, not to mention amazing levels of creativity as they sought to make the towns look realistic. If you get into Minecraft, I should say that this was a creative, peaceful world and you can set this from 'new world' or simply open a world called 'blocks of grass' within 'biomes'. This meant that it was the easiest world and we weren't in 'survivor' mode that is more complex.
What I challenged them all to do first was to re-create the house build that they'd done scale drawings of in class and to build their houses next to each other broadly within the same area. (Minecraft worlds are huge so we could have had houses miles and miles apart otherwise)
I wanted them to use the same scale we'd used in DT, so they would have a 3D digital model of their house. This was a bit tricky as in Minecraft the scale is usually 1block:1m. Many of them were used to building this way, but if I wanted it to mirror our scale drawings, I needed it to be 2 blocks:1m. They'd also need enough space to build the interior, and this scale allowed enough room for that.
First hurdle: children building houses in the same area in the world and still allowing for space between them and a town square/paths etc. This was tricky and we had lots of communication around 'You can't put your garden there, that's where my car port is' etc but it was all good stuff. Lots of problem solving went on and they resolved to pitch out their build areas first before house building began so that they knew everyone's house would fit.
* Learn from my mistake here - this should have been what I made them do first of all. I did do it this way with the second class but arguably the first class figured it out and that was a good learning experience.
Pupils were reminded that they couldn't build their houses out of a fantasy brick or diamonds or whatever, it had to be a material we had in real life and as sustainable as possible. Neither were they allowed to put in nether portals to strange worlds or to make our town start spawning chickens randomly or whatever other crazy stuff they knew how to do. I had some issues with some pupils spawning things in other people's houses or TNTing things, but once I reminded them they'd lose this lesson if they carried on, it wasn't an issue. I have since found out about classroom controls - something I'd use next time. It's also great that the teacher is Host, so if you quit the game, you boot them all out - fantastic at the end of a sessions - believe me they don't ever want to come off!
So...each child built a house, either individually or in pairs around a town square.
We had some amazing interiors with such attention to detail...
The class collectively built a square, paths, trees, fountains. We constructed a pathway to an amenities area where they built cafes, clothes shops, libraries, art galleries, a church. They. built a school, a community centre, an old people's home, an aquarium, a lake with cafe, a bookshop, an electric car charge point, solar panels, living roofs, a hydro-electric power generator and of course a roller-coaster! (more on that later... spawned another idea - pardon the pun!)
To listen to a guided tour teacher overview and a compilation of our year 6 eco towns by year 6 themselves, please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmhaWrVr_fs&t=8s
Each time somebody wanted to build something, they had to get it approved by the other members of the class via a democratic vote. This required skills of persuasion, reasoning and good speaking and listening skills. In addition, I asked for volunteers to voice over their builds so we could put a little film together to showcase what they'd done.
If I did this again (and we had enough time and more practice), I'd get them to do this in the same estate agent speak they'd been using in their literacy lessons. You can hear that some of the children automatically use the vocabulary like 'wall/base units', 'benefits from', 'light and airy' etc but I didn't enforce this. Lots of them were too busy concentrating on speaking and navigating simultaneously, especially if they were new to it, so I didn't want to add another pressure.
They also wanted to hold elections for town mayor. Now, again due to time constraints, we did this pretty quickly, but you could get lots out of this in terms of persuasive speeches/pitches in literacy lessons. In our case, the ones who wanted to be mayor literally had 5 mins to persuade (we'd done persuasive speech in the spring term) and say what their plans would be for the town, but it was fun and a really skilled Minecraft builder in our class built a voting booth and ballot box where each classmate voted virtually for their chosen person. He taught the others how to do this and it was fantastic to see him in leader role.
Ideas and Take-Aways for Next Time
1) When some of the children built a roller-coaster, they built it right next to someone's back garden without checking first that this location was appropriate! They took it down after that had been pointed out to them. I then had the idea that if I did this again, I'd go into the world and deliberately build some monstrosity or other without them knowing one day and then the next lesson when they went back to their world, they'd see it and hopefully be outraged enough to write letters of complaint to the council.
2) Scaling - I'd be stricter on the scale element. Most of the houses were to our scale 1 block: 50cm but as they got more build-happy some of them didn't stick to it. I went with it as what they built was too creative and wonderful to destroy and start all over again, but I would really focus on this more from a spacial awareness, maths point of view next time and perhaps give them build challenges with certain areas and perimeters.
3) If you wanted to support younger pupils with this activity or did not have many children who were Minecraft fans, there is a Starter Town option in the 'featured worlds' section that includes a ready -made town with building pitches laid out.
4) I would get the children to present their worlds to younger year groups and then ask those year groups to write about or FlipGrid video which town they'd most like to live in and why or perhaps which parts of both towns they liked the most if that was too competitive. I think this would give lots of valuable feedback to Year 6, validation and praise. I showed our worlds to Year 3 and they loved them, but I didn't have time to explore this cross year group link further.
5) I might also think about doing advertisements for the new town. We could have decided on a name and branding and also collectively decided on its location in the UK.
Using Minecraft Education Edition in the Future
I've found more and more content on Minecraft that I could leverage and I would definitely explore more of the 'Lessons' features, which are great and subject-categorised. There are ones linked to WW2, AI and of course Coding. I loved the coding part of Minecraft, which is a lot like Scratch, but easier as there is a 'helper bot' in case you/they get stuck. You can also apply Minecraft to Chemistry and Physics, creating elements and compounds virtually and using electricity to power items.
Learning as a Teacher
I think what I've learnt from this is to trust my instincts as an educator and to continue to just go with things when the opportunity presents itself. It would be great if everything could be expertly planned, but it doesn't always work out that way, and I think we have to be prepared to change course mid-way through a series of lessons, even if that means getting out of our comfort zones. I was meant to be teaching Excel and Google Sheets and I did do this too, just not in as much detail, so pupils in Y6 didn't get as much on this objective, but what they did get out of this experience I believe was so much more valuable. They were engaged, happy, collaborative, critically-thinking, communicative, creative and they were really proud of what they'd achieved collectively. I had complete novices who managed to build amazing things beside experts who led with confidence and kindness and whose self-esteem rocketed. They'd also been able to teach me something too, and that's good for them. We can't know everything and this is especially true I feel where digital skills are concerned. Let's face it, in today's age, many of our children are more savvy than the teachers. However, I think we can leverage their passion, skill and ease with the digital world and gaming specifically and use this to extend and enhance their learning experience overall.
I never thought I'd say this, but I would highly recommend using Minecraft to teach with. Minecraft Education Edition and its training academy is fantastic and it's all free for teachers, so go on, give it a go!
PS The homework projects were great by the way with many building their own cities and one boy building the city and the wild from our class reader 'Where The World Turns Wild' by Nicola Penfold. They filmed their worlds with Screencastify or made PowerPoints of their projects with screenshots in order to present to the classmates.