Legos for the Digital Age: Students Build Imaginary Worlds

| March 31, 2011 | 6 Comments
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A confession: I am a long-time fan of video games, and as such, I’d say I have pretty high expectations when it comes to gameplay, mechanics, and animation. The latter is particularly made me pretty skeptical that I’d enjoy Minecraft, a game that lets you build worlds out of blocks. A world built out of 3D blocks is, well, blocky, and I couldn’t imagine that I’d find much pleasure — aesthetically or otherwise.

“Teachers who grew up playing games are only now hitting a stride in their careers. Many will naturally look to games as a way to engage their students.”

But I was wrong. Minecraft’s visual simplicity belies what is a completely open-ended and therefore terrifically complex world. And the best of that world: it’s up to the player to design. Minecraft is what’s known as a “sandbox” game, giving players almost complete freedom to build within it.

And that’s what makes it great for the classroom.

Joel Levin, a computer teacher at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School uses Minecraft with second-grade students.

Minecraft can be played in single-person or in multiplayer mode, and players can join public servers, or in the case of Levin’s class, the game can be run on a private server. By doing the latter, Levin is able to install certain add-ons and mods suited for his students (giving him the power, for example, to place and delete blocks from a distance). But the students do play the multiplayer version, entering Minecraft’s brick-building world together and, together, working through various projects that Levin assigns.

This combination of control through a private Minecraft server and the open-endedness of the game is, in Levin’s words, “exactly what is so appealing to me about Minecraft as a teaching tool. It’s so open ended and extensible. I really think of it more as a canvas than a game. I’m able to construct these elaborate experiences, settings, and stories for the kids to move through. Rather than having to shoehorn a lesson around a game, I’m able to think about what I’m trying to teach and then design an entire world around that.”

While many video games are focused on certain goals — level up, save the princess, destroy the aliens, for example — Minecraft has no clear-cut missions, at least not in that way. Players in Minecraft must scavenge for resources in order to build things — mining for stone to build buildings, mining for coal to build fire. One of the only limitations in-game is time — the sun sets each evening and when it’s dark, spiders and skeletons come out and can attack the characters. (Levin admits the students don’t like the dark and ask him to reset the clock so that it stays light.)

In some ways, much like Minecraft, Levin’s experiment using the game in the classroom was initially just as open-ended. He says he had no clearly defined goals, although he knew that there would be lessons — both technical and social — that he could impart. After running the game with his students for a while, “I’m now trying to define real goals. I want the kids to learn to be responsible, self-reliant, innovative thinkers who are comfortable using technology to interact and create. I want them to realize that how they treat others in a game, online, or in the physical world is all really the same thing.”

As a computer teacher at a school with a lot of technical resources, Levin admits that it’s “pretty easy” for him to integrate games into his curriculum. Not every classroom or every teacher is in the same position. But Levin believes that “as time goes by, games will creep into the classroom in more and more ways. Teachers who grew up playing games are only now hitting a stride in their careers. Many will naturally look to games as a way to engage their students.”

You can read Levin’s blog The Minecraft Teacher and follow him on Twitter.

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  • Jbernish

    Both of my children – a 15 yo (boy) 13 yo (girl) love this game. My daughter because it is so open ended and limitless. The graphics are so retro in a way – but that seems to be an easy trade-off when you have an enormous world to move through.

  • http://twitter.com/PCSTech Lucas Gillispie

    Awesome to see that I’m not the only educator out there who sees the power this game could have in the classroom! Joel’s work is awesome and his blog has lots of great insights!

    I’m launching a similar project in my district that begins next week, working with 20 5th graders at two different schools. Our aim is to encourage teambuilding, communication and creative writing using the game as a tool. If anyone else is interested in collaborating with ideas, lessons, etc., I’ve created a wiki: http://minecraftinschool.pbworks.com.

    I too believe that we’ll begin seeing more games in school as gamer/teachers see examples like this and as research continues to build that supports it.

    The future belongs to our kids! Learning through games is an obvious avenue for not only “meeting them where they are” but also for giving them a medium that supports both critical thinking and creativity.

    -Lucas

  • http://readwriteweb.com Marshall Kirkpatrick

    This is a beautiful story! I’d love to read about specific lessons. I’ll check out Levin’s blog.

  • http://profiles.google.com/seejayjames seejay james

    Looks great! Glad to see “sandbox” apps gaining popularity. A nice break from shoot-em-up games, which I also like, but they don’t do much for education, usually…maybe some strategy and teamwork, but it’s pretty game-specific and often doesn’t generalize very well.

    Little Big Planet is another one with huge potential.

  • Anonymous

    I watched this Minecraft tutorial on Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School’s website. It was a good introduction to the game. However, I was wondering about the teamwork part that Levin mentioned. In the Minecraft training video, I didn’t see how the students communicate with each other. Is there a way to chat? Can the players trade tools and supplies?
    http://students.cgps.org/studentssite/grammar/subpages/Minecraft-Training.mp4

  • Anjeanette Garrett

    I like this article because open-ended games typically place one in a role of sorts. In these games, learning resembles a process of coming to understand a system, experimenting with multiple ways of being within that system, and then using that system for creative expression, usually enacted within communities of other players. The game structure is less about reproducing a particular way of thinking and more about creating spaces for knowledge creation and discovery.