Minecraft is an absolute phenomenon in schools - especially now that the multi-player version is being used for early-stage collaboration skills. But for an ICT teacher like myself, Minecraft is transformative and has completely changed the way I teach. What was once a highly challenging subject for most students is now a favourite part of our school curriculum.
Minecraft: a new foundation for ICT skills and coding
Like in many schools, Minecraft made its first appearance at Glenwood as a tool for teaching young students online collaboration skills. But what caught my imagination was the sense of raised gratification you could induce by using Minecraft as a vehicle for learning how to code. What impressed me most was that Minecraft gives you a very broad toolkit, making it a very flexible platform to teach ICT.
At Glenwood, a typical Minecraft project will involve students building a house. We set up a multi-player game so that students have to scale the rooms, place the windows, order the right quantity of materials, and construct logically in a plot of land. At every step students are set mathematical puzzles in both the design and construction. Meanwhile the actual process of building the house involves learning the basic building blocks of programing.
Calibrating the coding skill level
So what does Minecraft bring that’s new in ICT pedagogy? The key feature for me is the ability to set the level of technical expertise that students need to create a Minecraft game. This means I can hone each Minecraft project to my students’ skill levels, so straight away I have control. And by the time students have reached Years 5-7, I want them to learn coding.
As students become more proficient at coding games in Minecraft we increase the level of difficulty. This means the tools they have to use are less automated. We have to calibrate this trajectory quite carefully so that we don’t lose some students, but this means that a Minecraft project is always a technical challenge.
The Minecraft motivator
As everyone knows, the general effect of Minecraft on motivation is profound. Students are a lot more engaged. They are excited to be in the classroom and jump on to the computers – and that instantly puts me in a powerful position as an ICT teacher! Absenteeism is exceptionally low now, and students are genuinely interested in what they are doing.
But Minecraft also builds confidence for three categories of students:
- The traditional ICT low-achiever. There are always some students – often high performers in other subjects – who are fearful and resistant when faced with coding. What Minecraft does is to gradually build confidence. Because a Minecraft game scenario is a multiplayer endeavour, it is automatically collaborative. Students want to help each other, for example by ‘spawning’ when new players are placed into the game world. Collaboration combats fear.
- The non-native English speaker. Many schools have students whose standard of English is poor, and for some that leads to demoralisation. I’ve noticed that language-challenged students often start to shine in Minecraft. They demonstrate a phenomenal skill set in something that doesn’t require English. They also earn kudos from other students, who suddenly want that person’s help and attention. Confidence can be transformed.
- The student who has low social-confidence. At Glenwood, we’ve started a Minecraft club, and it’s proving very good at bringing together the students who perhaps don’t easily form social connections. The advantage is that while many of them like the online, technical world, with the Minecraft club they are all in the same physical space. This is working wonders for real-world social skills and confidence.
Learning without realising
One of the curious aspects to Minecraft in the classroom is that students learn new skills without even realizing - collaboration and team building is a good example. If you set a Minecraft game up as a collaborative project – let’s say some students are the architects, some the builders, some the surveyors and some the decorators – then they have to keep collaborating.
All the ingredients of collaboration, like ownership, deadlines, clear communication, are all in play. Students team-building skills mature dramatically.
Another surprise is how you can encourage students to become mentors. Any ICT teacher will tell you that once you let students loose in the deeper coding world of Minecraft, you become conscious that some students have exceptional talent and ability. When I see that I use it. I instantly get that student to support and coach other students.
With the ability to calibrate the coding difficulty of projects, incredible enthusiasm, and the latent desire of game players to help each other, my ICT classes have been transformed. Today, my ICT students are making faster progress than ever before.
Glenwood High School in New South Wales has approximately 1,500 students Year 7–12 students
Noelene Callaghan teaches Information Technology to all Year 7–12 students, and Business Studies and Economics to Y11 and Y12 students. As well as a NSW Secondary ICT Teacher, she is also a Microsoft Innovative Expert Educator and Microsoft Australia's Social Media Community Manager