Massively Misunderstood Minecraft

Overheard in the lab: “My Mum says she can’t believe UWC is offering a Minecraft activity. She says it’s a waste of time.”

Me: <breathe>

DM from @jplaman:


Me: <breathe>

I guess it’s time!

This blog post is proving hard to write. I have rewritten this paragraph about 14 times, mostly because I am trying not to sound embittered! I am saddened that the educational potential in games has once again been overlooked.

As Katie Salen, professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design so eloquently put is:

There is a long history of understanding games as sort of leisure activities, as a kind of waste of time. And that when we see kids playing games that maybe our first reaction is to say, “Oh well they’re just playing, they’re just kind of wasting time.” There isn’t a sense of even sitting down with the child and asking them… “What’s going on in your head right now?” Because if you sit down and talk to a game player about what they’re doing, an incredible narrative will come out of their mouth about the complex problem they’re working on. 
[see the full video here]

I was lucky enough to spend time with Rob Newberry and members of his Minecraft activity who visited our school to show our Techxperts activity the basics of Minecraft. It was very clear to me that Rob was onto something pretty spectacular, and we had to get involved! [Rob is a fantastic resource on setting up an ECA for Minecraft, and Minecraft in general. Without his help I wouldn’t have been able to try!]

Without further ado, I started a Minecraft activity at school which met for the first time on Monday. It was absolute chaos. We were setting up accounts and running around madly trying to get everyone into the school’s Minecraft Server (thank you Redstone Host!). Thankfully I had some of our UWCSEA Techxperts there to help me out.

Anyway, at the end of the first session, I wasn’t sure how things were going to work out. I’m convinced Minecraft has spectacular educational value, but this activity is my own qualitative research experiment.

I decided to log in to the server at home and see what – if anything – had happened since school finished.

Screen Shot 2012-02-13 at 8.58.08 PMAs soon as I had logged in, I realised I had completely forgotten ALL commands, including, crucially, how to move and how to talk! By guessing that if I pressed ‘t’ it might let me talk, I managed to chat to the few kids that were logged in and were already excitedly talking away (hopefully unaware of how utterly useless their teacher was at that moment). I asked them how to move – they told me to double-click the space bar, and up I flew.

Flying high above our world, I saw that it was a hive of industry. Houses had been built. A mountain top swimming pool was constructed. People were creating.

One of the students, Kenneth (G3) wanted to show me his house, so I began to follow him. Unfortunately, night was falling in our little world, so I could no longer see where he was going. I could still chat, so typed, “I can’t see where I’m going! Where are you?”

[Advance notice: I think this is AWESOME!] Kenneth solved the problem by putting down a series of glow blocks, which emitted enough light so I could see where he was going – a modern day Hansel & Gretel breadcrumb trail. Genius!

Victoria, Mohit, Liam & Aguistin's Pirate Ship

Victoria, Mohit, Liam & Aguistin’s Pirate Ship

My next obstacle came when I wanted to take some screenshots of a pool built at the top of a mountain. Every time I pressed shift+command+4, I started to sink (as the command for going down is shift). I complained in the chat that I kept sinking when trying to take a screenshot, and once again, Kenneth came to my rescue. He suggested building a block beneath me, so I wouldn’t fall. Makes a lot of sense eh?! The solution was there, but I certainly didn’t see it. I love the creative thinking that Kenneth and other players have demonstrated in the short time I’ve been involved.

Rogan's Soup Kitchen

Rogan’s Soup Kitchen

Day 2 of our server being open showed remarkable progress. Evidence of collaboration was everywhere. One student suggested a walkway (which several of the students pitched in to help with, complete with glow blocks for night time use), signs with directions appeared, pirate ships emerged along with 5* hotels. A soup kitchen was built. Organisation was appearing amidst the chaos.

So what learning have I seen to date? How long have you got?

Collaboration & Team work – A culture of collaboration appears to have existed from the beginning. According so some of the players, some people log in and say, “Who needs some help?” and away they go. I have been particularly pleased to see that Grade 7 students have been working alongside Grade 2/3 students on particular projects. This isn’t something I directed them to do (though I am certainly fostering it now), it’s just something that happened.

Now we’re starting to get players come up with creative ideas which require a slew of people to assist them. Generally speaking it seems to be a very open culture where suggestions are more often than not accepted and enhanced by the involvement of each new member. A sense of pride in their accomplishments show they understand the value of hard work, and how it feels to have completed something they have put effort into achieving.


Hot Air Balloon

Hot Air Balloon

Creativity & InnovationJames Paul Gee states in his video for Edutopia, “Kids want to produce, they don’t just want to consume.”  It’s pretty clear that the students in our Minecraft activity are incredibly creative. Day 3 (today) brought the addition of a theme park, more boats, more hot air balloons and a castle. They have organised their world to make it more efficient and more aesthetically pleasing. It’s quite literally a privilege to watch.

Mathematical Understanding – spacial awareness, area, construction, volume… Interaction with Minecraft can only serve to enhance a student’s comprehension of mathematical skills and concepts. Imagine if we teachers took Minecraft into the classroom to help students learn these concepts. Engagement would be through the roof, I’m sure. [Students, I’m working on it! Give me time!]

Collaboratively Constructed Walkway by Mohit, Rogan & Victoria

Collaboratively Constructed Walkway by Mohit, Rogan & Victoria

I could go on, to talk more about problem solving, communication & social skills (no doubt I will, in a later post!), however as usual, it’s better for me to stop talking for the kids and let them explain their learning in their own words. Victoria says,

Minecraft is a combination of frustration, excitement, and pure adrenaline. It widens your mind and you can get inspired very easily from other people’s creations. You can also learn various tips from more experienced players and most of all you just have fun.

What Victoria so eloquently described was a culture of remix and amplification. Taking someone’s ideas and adding your own personal spin on it.. It’s a new way of learning (think YouTube videos that go viral and spawn thousands of remixes) in which everyone has something to contribute, something to add, something with which to inspire others.

Marius says,

Playing Minecraft makes us think about what we can do to build up a “city”. Through this, we enhance our creativity and art skills. We also have to use our logic and physics skills, in a sense where we know where the water (or lava) will flow and where we need to build things to make our constructions work.

Leadership and peer-learning opportunities – Games level the playing field. Tom Chatfield notes that, “A virtual world is a tremendous leveller in terms of wealth, age, appearance, ethnicity and such like…” It means a child can be an expert, a student can be the most knowledgeable source of information. What a powerful concept for a young person  – I have something of value to offer my peers and teachers.

This, to me, is vertical interaction on a horizontal playing field. We are combining people of all ages to work together using the same resources to create something special.

As Joseph Joubert, the French essayist famously said, “To teach is to learn twice.” In the context of Minecraft, the students are a very supportive community, keen to help newcomers (such as myself) develop their understanding of the game. This fits in beautifully with  Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice theory of learning, where,

“It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

Face-to-face friendships develop through similar online  interests, and this is becoming evident as we continue to play. I have enjoyed the opportunity to reconnect with students I taught previously, as well as learn more about the ones I teach now.

James Paul Gee speaks of these communities of practice as “passion communities” constructed via social networking, where members are usually held to quite rigorous standards in their area of passion. To the novice, feedback is given, support is provided, but standards are not be lowered.

George's Lava

George’s Lava

I hope every parent of a student playing Minecraft takes the time to sit next to their child and really ask them what they’re doing, why it’s important to them, how/why they create things, and what they’re learning. I’m sure they’d be gobsmacked at the responses. How many actually take that time I wonder?

I’d like to thank the members of the inaugural UWCSEA Minecraft Activity for their supreme awesomeness, their willingness to help me learn and share their burgeoning world, which is the product of hard work and fun, all rolled into one.

I’m tired. I’ve been dipping in and out of this post for far too many days. There’s so much more to say, but it’s 9:24pm. The server closes in 6 minutes and I want to see how my kids are going. Goodnight!

22 thoughts on “Massively Misunderstood Minecraft

  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for taking the time to create and publish this awesome post. Many people like me who are on the tip of the Minecraft iceberg need help in the form of posts like this. I am a Grade 5 teacher at CDNIS in Hong Kong and I have just been approved to pilot a Minecraft club for the remainder of this school year. I’m excited, and nervous and I need all the help I can get. If all goes well with my pilot, it will become a full-fledged ECA next year. I know that I am up against some resistance, but I’m eager and enthusiastic nonetheless.

    The reflections and resources you’ve shared here will help so much with getting started and understanding the little things. Your research also helps strengthen my conviction, as well as explain my perspective regarding why I want to create this club. So again, thank you!

    On a side note – I will be joining your middle school staff next year and look forward to meeting you/working with you!


    • Thank you so much for your kind feedback! I am glad you found it useful. I’d encourage you to contact Rob or myself if you’re looking for more advice.
      What’s your twitter handle? I can DM my email address for you if you have specific questions. We’re very happy to help.

      So pleased to hear you will be joining us next year at UWCSEA East! My husband Miles teaches in the Middle School – it’s a great place to work.

      Thanks again, and I look forward to continuing the conversation!


  2. I am no teacher, but I realize that teach as a hobby. I started a private minecraft-server back in the alpha-days for my kids (and myself). The amazing fun times we had soon spread out to the kids on the street. After a while we published the server, and more (danish) kids joined.

    Now kids from 3 years to about 18 are joining the server….and I find myself, my brother in law and parrents of some of the kids joining too.

    In addition to all the true learning-points of this article (design, math and creativity) I find myself “teaching” advanced social skills on my server now.

    Kids keep coming back for the good vibes on my server, because I enjoy motivate my players to be nice and include griefers and trouble-makers instead of exclude and ban them.

    I don´t know if griefing is common in school-minecraft but it´s a mayor issue on most public servers. Destruction of other players creations. Sad.

    On my server, griefers are cornered and asked why they do it, and sooner or later, they realize that helping others is much more fun.

    Most griefers have very simple needs, that other players help them with and soon they find themselves build or mine along the players they griefed before.

    Sometimes banning is the only option, but most banned players knock on the servers website later, regretting what they did, asking for forgiveness and to be unbanned.

    I use badges like “builder of the week”, “player of the week” (meaning best comrade) and give the winners special abilities they can show off to the other players.

    The players that understand the social aspect the best are promoted to coadmin and a few to admins.

    I use a bunch of bukkit-plugins to add other aspects to the game, such as money, jobs, private areas, a few spells (used as temporary rewards for good players).

    That way I keep spreading good vibes and find myself logging on, just to find the social problems on my server, and try to make the players find the best solution “for the server” as we call it, find the best solution for the best of the community.

    As a last point i must admit:
    At the end of the day, when griefers have settled in a new house by the river, we still all enjoy the basics of minecraft the most. Building, mining, team up for adventure and………well no!

    The social part of Minecraft is the most interesting in the long run.

    We forgot a few aspects: writing, reading, research, the basics of chatting.

    Minecraft is the most amazing game ever created.


  3. It sounds great! I was thinking last year of using Minecraft for our unit on how communities function. From what you have described it would have been perfect. What better way to learn than actually building a community from the ground up.


  4. It is in deed perfect for training in the basics of community. Most kids (and people) starts out being eager to get up in hierarchy and status.

    When they achieve their goal and rank up, many realize that the game changes. They now have to take care of others and have less time for building and mining.

    Some find this cool, but most players long back to their simple house by the river.

    An important lesson learned.
    And still it is a personal success for them!

    In the core of Minecraft is also a very basic lesson to be learned:
    Resources of the world are not endless, and a beautiful spot for a house or small village is easily molested when to many people build at the same spot.

    Urban planning becomes important.

    Server plugins for community-style gaming such as politics, Real estate, law and order brings even more advanced gameplay to the game.


  5. As a parent of a minecraft player, I eally enjoyed reading your comments. Now can I ask for some help for my 10 year old son?
    He is trying to use the Pokemobs MOD but whenever he logs in the screen goes black. Does anyone have any advice? Is there a way to do this?


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  7. Hi there, Zak here, i am currently doing a Minecraft Competition, (yes tell that to the minecraft kids) in EBTC, and i need a minecraft account to work on it, though i dont want to pay 40$ for the account. I was wondering if UWC supplied accounts or we had to pay for them, if you supplied the accounts, i was wondering if i could have access to an account, i wouldn’t use it on tuesdays, as the minecraft eca is on during that time. I was justing hoping, since i kind of need it to judge.


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  10. I’m a teacher at Da Vinci Innovation Academy in Hawthorne, CA and I began using Minecraft in my project-based classroom this year. I started using it to teach Electrical Engineering, but soon it spread to other classes and classrooms. Check out my blog about what we’re doing!


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  18. Thanks so much for this! I’m a student teacher and wanted to design a Minecraft lesson and so happy to know there are teachers out there using it as a teaching tool 🙂


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