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My Tricks for Using Minecraft to Motivate Your Class

Increase student engagement and achievement with these MineCraft tips.

Joel Solomon | July 21, 2014

What motivates students? I’m continually asking myself this question. I can now say I’ve found my answer: Minecraft. "Why play Minecraft in school?" is a question others often ask me. For me, the answer is simple. KIDS LOVE IT! And if kids already have a passion, I try to fuel it.

MinecraftEdu (no longer available) is a modification, or “mod,” of the “regular” consumer version of Minecraft. The Edu version is available only for schools and includes a Tutorial World to help students learn game basics like movement, jumping, running, and digging. One of the best things about MinecraftEdu is that many of the advanced features of the “regular” game (admin tools, freezing students, world edit tools, server setup) are built right into the teacher interface.

The first time I tried it out with classes, the energy and excitement in the room was palpable. Every student from kindergarten through fifth grade was engaged and excited to see their classmates in a virtual environment. That’s when I knew I was onto something. Something big. Thanks to a dedicated Google Group called Minecraft Teachers, I was able to ask questions, try out new ideas, and get valuable feedback on how to best implement Minecraft in school.

Now, my task was to find ways to integrate MinecraftEdu into the curriculum. Some examples of how I’ve used MinecraftEdu at different grade levels include:

  • Fifth grade: Research and re-create the Jamestown colony
  • Fourth grade: Create a mining town based on research done about Colorado miners
  • Third grade: Create a Native American village based on research of Anasazi and Pueblo tribes
  • Second grade: Create a neighborhood that includes community buildings and services (library, police station, city hall)
  • First grade: Create a block that shows different types of houses (apartment, townhome, mobile home, etc.)
  • All grades: A water challenge where students learn the term irrigation and create an irrigation system from a single water source. They also learn how to use farming tools (a hoe) and plant seeds to craft food.

For more examples of projects we’ve done at school, visit my YouTube channel.   

Helping students understand the difference between how they play Minecraft at home versus at school is one of the most important aspects of using MinecraftEdu as an educational tool. Some students struggle, since they are used to playing as individuals and not thinking about others. Our school rules for MinecraftEdu include:

  • Do not destroy or attack others; no “griefing”
    Turning off the player vs. player feature is easy to control with the teacher admin settings.
  • Crafting weapons (swords) and armor is not allowed
    We are trying to build a community, so there’s no need to worry about battling each other.
  • Zombies, creepers, and Mobs are turned OFF
    This feature is easily turned off so students can focus on working with each other rather than against each other.
  • No TNT or potions allowed
    Eliminating these prevents players from “showing off” what they can do and fosters a greater sense of team building among students.
  • Time-out areas included in each world                                                                                                                                                  
    Within each world, I often create a time-out area made of border blocks and no-build zones (usually 3x3 squares) where I can teleport students who are not following directions or are breaking class rules.

Some of my objectives for introducing Minecraft are to teach aspects of digital citizenship, such as working as a group and sharing with others. I also require students to reflect on their learning after each Minecraft session. The last 10 minutes of class are spent writing and reflecting on our learning with these three questions:

1. What did you LEARN in Minecraft today?
2. How can you APPLY what you learned to future Minecraft sessions?
3. How did you use DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP in Minecraft today?

Extension questions include:
1. What 21st-century skills (creativity, communication, critical thinking, collaboration) did you use today? 
2. Pick one of these 21st-century skills and describe how you used it during Minecraft today.

I hope that including a written reflection with every MinecraftEdu session gets students reflecting on what they are doing in the game and why, and also helps them with their writing. Inevitably, during each session of MinecraftEdu, I hear students say, “This is fun!” That, to me, is the reason I teach.

Below are some articles that provide further evidence of how using MinecraftEdu in schools can help increase student achievement:
Passion-Based Learning: What Is Minecraft’s Appeal?
Gaming in Education: Minecraft in Schools?
Minecraft Is Blowing Up Classrooms
Connected Learning: Leveraging a Game-Based Learning Environment

Photo by 1wheeljoe. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.