“What are they learning” in Minecraft: Education Edition?

What are they learning

There are two very broad but different camps within the Minecraft community as a whole: those that use Minecraft as a creation platform and those that use it to consume content.  Most players will at some point straddle both camps and many will find themselves flitting between the two often. The creation or consumption question is even more important for us to consider as teachers as it can have significant impact on what curriculum outcomes students learn from our lessons.

Learners as Consumers

Sometimes we need to prepare a Minecraft world for our students to consume in order to help the curriculum learning progress.  We might need to set up some fractions to demonstrate the concept or create NPCs to give instructions and direct students towards relevant research.  Sometimes we might even create an entire world where students never place a single block. Their experience within the game (solving puzzles, completing quests or documenting their adventure in the world) is what leads to curriculum learning.  This has the benefit of being structured and controlled by the teacher but is limited in terms of the in game creativity that it allows students to demonstrate.

Learners as Creators

Other times we want our students to do the building.  We might want them to rebuild our school or community using accurate real world measurements or historical research.  They sometimes have the task of creating a solution to a real world problem using Minecraft as the design platform or as the medium for visualising the code output.  This has the benefit of being open and creative allowing students freedom and removing barriers for some but can be incredibly time consuming.

With both of these lesson set ups there are massive curriculum learning gains to be made.  There are however some major pitfalls to be avoided which can derail your lesson and even hinder the curriculum learning.  Minecraft is engaging. Once you set a task you will find that the vast majority of your group engage with activity and will look busy for most of the time.  Engagement should not, however, be mistaken for curriculum learning. It is the biggest mistake I see in lessons at the minute.

So here’s a question to help you keep the focus of your Minecraft lessons where they need to be.

“What are they learning?”

I don’t mean “What is the focus of the lesson or project?” and I don’t mean “What are they doing?”.  I mean “What are they learning?” right now, in this activity, that is demonstrably attached to curriculum outcomes.

Here is an example of the process worked through using a very well used lesson that I’m sure almost every teacher uses when they first start with Minecraft in their classroom:  Rebuilding our school.

  • When students are measuring the school in real life: “What are they learning?”
  • When students scale those measurements and plot them out in Minecraft: “What are they learning?”
  • When students fly backwards and forwards for 10 minutes placing blocks for a wall: “What are they learning?”
  • When students research the history and place NPCs to tell the story of the school:  “What are they learning?”

Three of the four activities above resulted in solid, curriculum based answers while one of them doesn’t.  So why include the wall building activity in the lesson at all? Can we automate the process by coding the agent to do the building?  Do we actually achieve the desired learning outcomes without needing to build the walls at all? Do we finish the school just to show off our school in Minecraft?  Honestly?

Filling in the tarmac of a road with black wool is the Minecraft educational equivalent of asking students to colour in a sheet of paper green instead of giving them green paper.  It results in a period of wasted time in which the student learned absolutely nothing. Yet I see examples time and time again where a teacher has asked their students to build whole communities of this stuff and spend hours of valuable curriculum learning time building rows upon rows of blocks that have no learning value at all.  Step back and ask yourself “What are they learning?” and you will see what I mean.

Gaming Elements

The other activity I question the impact of on curriculum learning is the mini game.  Minecraft is an amazing platform for devising and building games. The Minecraft community have used it to develop some incredibly successful games, within this game, which sounds crazy I know.  These range from parkour challenges (think Super Mario platforming) to Dropper Maps (think Alice jumping down the rabbit hole without hitting anything on the way down) and have been captivating both the consumer and creator players within the wider community for years.  The problem when it comes to using these in education is that they are very rarely used in a way that adds anything educational.

Again asking “What are they learning?” can help us filter out attempts to “gamify” where actually the game elements add nothing to the learning.

  • “What are they learning?” by fighting the mobs in an arena while reading a text?
  • “What are they learning?” by flying through rings between houses?
  • “What are they learning?” by answering questions to choose a safe route through this parkour challenge?

Here only one of the game elements actually integrates into any curriculum learning (the mob arena actually makes it harder to complete the curriculum learning task).

If the game mechanics don’t actually further the curriculum learning then get rid of them and do the learning more efficiently.  It is incredibly difficult to actually design and create a game that furthers the curriculum learning outcomes of a lesson. Care and caution should be applied when designing them to avoid them actually being detrimental to the learning.

VR, Mixed Reality and 3D Printing

All of these innovations offer potential for education and both have a role to play within the Minecraft classroom.  As yet however I haven’t seen a single use that makes me think the curriculum learning was better for their use. Let’s apply the “What were they learning?” filter to some examples and see what happens:

  • We exported our rebuilt school and printed it in 3D:  “What are they learning?” by 3D printing it?
  • We exported our houses and viewed them in Mixed Reality: “What are they learning?” by viewing it this way rather than in Minecraft?
  • We explored a world in VR: “What are they learning?” in VR that they weren’t able to do on a desktop version?

Technology for the sake of technology, and that has no impact on student curriculum outcomes, has no place in the classroom.  I haven’t seen a single use of any of these that has had any impact on student curriculum outcomes and therefore I urge they are used with extreme caution.

A Final Caveat

When asking yourself the question “What are they learning?” you will find it difficult to answer at times.  That is the point. It is intended to be a filter to cut out the superfluous and irrelevant and focus in on the curriculum learning.  Now there will be a temptation to answer with “But they are learning to collaborate”. Collaboration is NOT a curriculum outcome. It is not WHAT we learn, it is an option for HOW we learn.  Minecraft is an incredible platform to facilitate collaborative learning but if your class are supposed to be learning about fractions and all you can point out is them collaborating then the design of the lesson needs some serious reflection.  

Now that you have scratched the surface, taken your first steps and placed your first blocks it is time to pause and take stock.  Reflect on what worked, what didn’t work and why. Most importantly ask yourself “What were they learning?” before, during and after your next lesson in Minecraft and see what impact it has on the quality of student curriculum outcomes.  Share your reflections and developments with your own PLN, discuss the iterative lesson design process with colleagues and even reach out for help if need be. But keep questioning, keep learning and keep growing your practice and your Minecraft curriculum learning experiences will soon surpass your expectations.

One comment

  1. Simon! Thank you for sharing this post and linking it to the discussion that popped up recently on the Global Mentors chat.

    I will confess that I have always tended towards the Learners as Creators camp, and I’m pleased to the tension between the two camps referenced here as it supports what I’ve perceived over the years. I especially appreciate the call to action and the need for us to reflect/collaborate more openly on how Minecraft can grow as a learning environment as more educators get involved.


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