This guide is a co-creation of Jim Pike and Mylo Lam.
Minecraft is an extremely popular game for kids and adults. Whenever I even allude to the game to a new group of students, their eyes light up and they ask me, “You play Minecraft, too?!” The buy-in is instantaneous. There are already many articles detailing the educational benefits of Minecraft, and though I believe the advantages of using it the classroom far outweigh the disadvantages, the roadblocks can be very real. Issues with styles of facilitation and classroom management, as well as technical problems, can be difficult to figure out.
However, with some practice, many of these concerns can be alleviated. That's why I would like to share with you tips I learned along the way on my Minecraft journey. These tips come from my experience teaching with Minecraft in schools, learning centers, and summer camps. They will cover different types of lessons, classroom-management suggestions, and tech setup. I hope this will help you navigate your way to a successful game-based classroom and promote collaboration among teachers using Minecraft all around the world!
To access free, easy-to-follow, project-based math lesson plans that are broken down by Common Core standard and check out some free webinars on Minecraft, please visit our professional learning community, MathcraftPLC.
Tip 1: Put in Place Three Elements for Success
I have found that a successful Minecraft class should have these three main components. When you've checked off all three of these, you know you're headed in the right direction.
- Academic purpose: When using Minecraft in the classroom, you need to have learning objectives that are observable and measurable. For example, if students are building a replica of the Great Pyramids, consider what you want them to learn and how will you be able to find evidence of that learning.
- Student engagement: Minecraft is naturally fun, engaging, and collaborative. Leverage these facets to your advantage. If one of your lessons seems a little bland, find a way to turn it into a game. Activities should encourage students to be active, work with each other, and develop social-emotional learning skills.
- The technology works as expected: Knowing how to manage the various tech issues in your class will make things run smoothly, giving you more time to focus on the learning (MinecraftEDU does a fantastic job making the tech work in schools).
Tip 2: Try Different Types of Lessons
One of the most fun challenges for a Minecraft teacher is finding the proper balance between being academic and fun. I found that rotating the class through different types of lessons is helpful, because it provides students with a scaffold that will direct their building and exploration.
1. Demonstration lessons
In demonstration lessons, the teacher projects Minecraft on a large screen for all students to see, and the teacher is the only one who's playing. Students should still be as active as possible, offering suggestions and asking questions.
- Any teacher who can build can start teaching with Minecraft tomorrow.
- Minimal tech needed: only one computer, a projector, and a whiteboard.
- No need for the Internet.
- Great way to introduce and demonstrate new concepts.
- Great way to develop Level 1 and 2 Depth of Knowledge (DoK) skills.
- Easy to manage class.
- Students are not actually interacting with the game.
- Can feel like a "traditional" class sometimes.
- Does not assess Level 3 and 4 DoK skills.
2. Gaming lessons
In gaming lessons, students are building and designing in Minecraft while the teacher acts as a floater, providing guidance when necessary. Students are using servers, LAN worlds, or the single-player mode of the game. Honestly, when your class begins gaming lessons for the first time, don't stress too much on the academics. Your focus should be on getting all students fluent with the game's mechanics (WASD, inventory access, crafting). When I first do a gaming lesson with my students, I might build a simple puzzle, such as a series of blocks that get taller and taller, and then challenge them to get to the highest point. Or I might summon an Ender Dragon and tell them they must defeat it!
- Lessons can reach Level 3 and 4 DoK skills.
- High level of student enjoyment.
- Promotes positive social-emotional learning.
- Open-endedness empowers students in self-guided learning.
- High learning curve for students not familiar with Minecraft.
- Teacher has less control of classroom.
- Students may lose focus more easily.
- Teacher must know how to "Server DJ" (know server commands, how to deal with issues of lag, and how to set up and change the maps and worlds).
- Can require a lot of setup and prep.
3. Project-based lessons
This is when students are working on longer-term design projects, such as filming a movie or creating redstone machines found on YouTube. Here, the teacher's goal is to help students figure out what they want to build and provide them with resources and suggestions. This is also a great opportunity for students to collaborate, working together to create a design plan and executing it.
- Lessons reach Level 3 and 4 DoK skills.
- High level of student enjoyment and investment.
- Allows for collaborative, design-based learning.
- Simple tech needed; students can work in LAN worlds.
- Different groups can work on different projects at the same time.
- Students are directing their own learning; they can create their own learning objectives.
- Easily lends itself to cross-curricular learning.
- Trusting your students to stay on task as you facilitate other groups.
- Teacher might need to manage 35 projects at the same time.
- Requires longer periods of class time and flexible project deadlines.
- It may take time for students to think about how to be creative in Minecraft.
4. Flipped classroom lessons
A flipped class is when the instruction happens at home and the actual assignment is done during school time. For example, I might tell my students to watch a video on YouTube about how to create a digital clock in Minecraft and go on the class server to start building it. Then, during class time, I'll facilitate a discussion about the video and give them the rest of the period to build the clock. When running a flipped Minecraft lesson, make sure your students know what is expected of them by giving them clear design goals and instructional resources.
An added wrinkle to doing the flipped classroom is it can decrease the amount of rote building time in Minecraft (for example, laying down block after block). If students have access to the class server from their homes, they can begin building, which frees up time for the teacher to focus on the concepts.
Get in touch with us through MathcraftPLC.com if you would like to use a class server and access predesigned math worlds that have been created in and for the classroom.
- Students don't need their own version of Minecraft at home.
- If students do have their own accounts and there is a class server, it frees up instructional time that would have been lost to building.
- The real learning is happening during class time.
- Promotes student collaboration since they're doing their "homework" during school.
- If you do have a class server, then students need their own versions of Minecraft and Internet access at home.
Tip 3: Recognize How Students Interact with the Game
These levels blend together at many points, but it's important to recognize these different ways of playing.
Low-level interaction (aka "mindcracking")
A low level of interaction -- or "mindcracking," as I like to call it -- with the game is probably a teacher's worst nightmare. This is when students are seemingly off task; they’re running around in the game, fighting each other, and spawning/slaughtering animals with seemingly no goal in mind. Though this can lead to a chaotic class environment, I'd argue that having designated times for mindcracking is a segue to the higher levels of interaction with the game, and it is also a great way for students who are new to the game to learn the controls. Often, students look forward to simply "fooling around," especially if they've put in the hard work on their projects. It is in these moments of mindcracking that I see students incidentally make new discoveries they wouldn't have otherwise.
In Minecraft, the mid level of interaction requires more teacher guidance, following the mantra of "I do. We do. You do." Here, the teacher models a concept in the game and challenges students to create structures that clearly showcase their understanding and mastery of that concept.
This is more of a traditional idea of a lesson plan, and sometimes it can feel like a "worksheet." Some examples include having students build algorithms and creating structures that the teacher has already designed for them. After students can see how structures in Minecraft can be math, they'll go to the high level of interaction: creating original structures and being able to relate them to math and other real-world concepts.
At this level, students are engaged self-directors of their learning, working on their personal projects or putting their own spin on what you're teaching in class. They are figuring out solutions to design problems and using their creativity.
For example, in my class, we've created a Minecraft town that has student houses and other structures, and we are constantly expanding it. With so many structures and students, it's easy to get lost. When that happens, I ask them, "What do you think we should do?" They then must figure out a solution to the problem, such as building a road that leads back to the main part of town.
At a high level of interaction in Minecraft, students have a self-directed goal and are keen to achieve it. They're asking themselves, "What do I want to build? Why do I want to build it? How do I want to build it?" They'll then conduct research through tutorial videos and wikis, rely on their past experience, and work with their peers to figure it out.
When students are this emotionally invested and goal-driven, I consider this to be the pinnacle of a learning experience. During this time, the teacher's role is simple: walk around the class, ask students to articulate what they're doing, and highlight a student's work or discovery.
Tip 4: Try to Avoid Lag
If you have 20 to 30 students on different computers and on the same Minecraft server, chances are you're going to run into lag. Lag happens because the computer is not processing the frames per second for all the users on the server or because of a poor Internet connection. Most schools don't have the best connection, and the issue of lag can be very real -- it can quickly derail your lesson and cause lack of engagement in your students. But don't worry, because a good "Server DJ" can easily defeat lag.
Here are some signs that you’re coming across lag:
- Computer screen is choppy. You freeze and then move fast.
- Nonplayable characters (animals, monsters) are frozen.
- Students complain of not being able to play.
Here are some cures for lag:
- The most simple solution is to have students play in single-player mode. This is better than not playing at all and better than playing with lag.
- Set up multiple online servers and have groups of students on each server. This reduces the number of users on one server.
- Create multiple LAN (local access network) worlds. Any computer can act as a small server. By opening a LAN world when students are on the same Internet connection, up to six users can be on the same server.
- Lower the render distance and frame rate in the video settings.
If your lag is caused by your Internet connection, you can use your phone and your students' phones to create mobile hot spots connecting to the Wi-Fi. This is definitely a Band-Aid solution, and we don't recommend doing it often, but it empowers students to be problem solvers.
Tip 5: Learn a Set of Helpful Commands
This is a nonexhaustive list of commands that I've found to be helpful when working with a class.
The most important insight I can give you is stay out of your own way and let the students drive the class, rather than strictly following your set plans. Kids need time to play, to explore, to inquire, and to create their long-term design projects. This doesn't mean coming into every class without a plan; you should have a clear idea of what you want students to achieve, but be ready to adjust when necessary. Allowing students to play will help swing low-level interaction (mindcracking) into high-level interaction, empowering them to take charge of their own learning.
Jim Pike is a fifth-grade teacher at Albert Einstein Academy of Beverly Hills and the director of game-based learning at CodeREV Kids Learning Centers. He has written the Common Core math curriculum "MathCraft" and is one of the founders of the MathCraftPLC. Jim's two dreams in life are to build a school so amazing it has an ice rink and to own a Japanese baseball team. Jim can be reached on Twitter @joakleyiii.
Mylo Lam has an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a concentration in technology, innovation, and education. He received his bachelor's from UCLA in communication studies and theater. Mylo is interested in people (of all ages!) who use different technologies to create, express, play, and learn. When he's not developing curricula, Mylo loves playing video games and acting.