My friend Hoobs and I are part of our school’s Teaching and Learning group, kind of a symposium for finding interesting stuff to add to the classroom. Hoobs is fantastically interested in new strategies and in implementing new media and such in the classroom, as am I, but he’s much better at it than me and actually gets things done while I go home and draw my Greek Myth Comix (my last contribution to the T&L group, which turned into a kind of private project aside from its use in school as a revision tool), and is also why we’ll be trying out Class Dojo next year.
This term, we’ve been trying out Minecraft. I first heard about it when I was teaching 1st year History a last year, not my normal subject, but lots of fun with the Black Death, Magna Carta, Kings and Queens, and castles. Castles is a brilliant topic, charting the development of defence and strategy, mottes and baileys, stone keeps, concentric castles and siege engines and such. Being a Classicist, obviously I threw in some Mycenaean wall defences, bastions and that kind of thing. The last part of the course got students to make their own castle out of whatever materials they wanted, as accurately as possible, and bring them in. One of my pupils built an entire working motte-and-bailey castle, complete with working drawbridge, murder holes, and even pig pens, in Minecraft. He filmed himself giving a tour around it, and then brought it in to watch on CD as his homework submission. I’d never seen anything like it (well, I had: the graphics reminded me of the games of my youth, being an 80s baby, but not the level of creativity) and his classmates hadn’t either. They gave him a spontaneous round of applause.
For those of you that don’t know what Minecraft is, the best way to describe it is probably as a digital sandbox. You can build anything you can think of inside it – as long as you don’t mind it being built from large, square blocks. You can also play it as an RPG (role-playing game), in which your avatar can build weapons, tool up with armour, and take on enemies, or even build farms and grow crops: all manner of creatures populate the world, and you can farm them for the resources they can provide. There are hundreds of Minecraft videos on Youtube with suggestions of what to build, how to kill opponents (or your friends), and even, how to make Minecraft homages to your favourite music videos.
At first glance, the Minecraft world can appear unremarkable; the massive blocks look like oversized pixels, and it’s initially hard to see what you can possibly do with them. However, click on any of the video links above and,if you’re new to the game, you’ll be amazed. Although most users play the game in ‘Survival Mode’, in which you have to dig up or kill to get resources, if you play in ‘Creative Mode’, you can have access to any materials you like, and you can *fly*, which makes building anything you like fantastically easy. Immediately, the educational potential is obvious.
Hoobs had been getting interested in Minecraft while I, to be honest, had forgotten all about it. When he mentioned it to me as a possible Educational program, I got my student from the year before to bring in his project again, which seemed to cinch it . Talking to some of our pupils about it, it turns out that the game had become incredibly popular in the meantime and lots of them knew how to use it – some were even experts. However, they were nearly all boys, and though there was a fair bit of talking about creating within the world, there was mostly excited talking about vanquishing enemies and zombies and such. Still, they were very passionate about it, and happily told us all about the things they had built. I found that several of my Classics students, as well as having played games like Civilisation and Age of Empires to fuel their interest in the subject, they had also been building Minecraft worlds based on what they had learned, which was seriously impressive as additional study.
We got MinecraftEdu installed, the education-specific version, a month or two ago, and have been slowly learning how to use it – how to start up a server, load games, and build in the worlds available. In this educational version, the teacher has an overview panel: the pupils can be given materials altogether or individually, be frozen to the spot whilst given instructions, be given tasks to complete, and be teleported to new destinations. The teacher has control, as in a classroom, although in a more godlike capacity as they can become invisible to watch students work, or teleport naughty students away to have a time-out if they can’t work as intended.
Hoobs then found the pre-built world The Wonderful World of Humanities, ‘A vast, virtual environment that simulates exploration of ancient history’, by Eric Walker, aka MinecraftTeachr, who teaches Middle School humanities at the American International School of Kuwait. It’s full of simulations of different ancient lands you can teleport to, like Rome, and a near-perfect Greek temple. Each world is full of Information blocks that pupils have to find, click on, and read to learn. There are also empty worlds that pupils can build in to emulate what they’ve seen. Its a seriously impressive piece of kit for the Humanities faculty, especially to start off our little experiment. So far, we’ve done the following:
– Hoobs’ Religion and Philosophy class used passages from ancient texts to work out what the Temple of Solomon would have looked like, and build it together.
– my 2nd year Classics class, having studied Greek architecture and temples, had to then recreate one as accurately as possible.
– Hoobs held a participation session on our Open Day, inviting students to try out the system by asking them to find five facts about the Ancient world in the World of Humanities (and win sweeties, which I scoffed several of without thinking).
My overall experience of Minecraft is that it’s been very easy to pick up, and really, really fun to play. This is my first building, the entrance to my 2nd years’ building area:
My second year class had a ball, so excited they rushed in without reading the instructions and had to be frozen straight away while I explained the point of the exercise. I had been worried about the girls’ participation – only one of them had every played before, whereas the boys all seemed to have at least a basic knowledge of what was involved. However, everyone in the class got involved and started competing for who could build the best temple, with some pretty impressive results across the board. (Sorry, terrible screenshots:)
Some problems I encountered were mainly to do with the experienced players getting precious over their building-work when the less-experienced players came over to look at it, and inadvertently started knocking blocks down – with some encouragement, they began to be more helpful to the noobs, who in turn left their temple alone and went off and built their own. One or two students found great delight in ‘accidentally’ knocking holes in others’ temples, however, and were duly frozen until they responded with more correct behaviour. A final couple of students started a competition to see who could build the highest tower of blocks. Lastly, I let them have Creative Mode for the last five minutes so they could experience flying. The results were floods and lava. Everywhere.
Next year we’re going to have a lunchtime club that tackles projects, and in the meantime I’m going to have to brush up my skills. This has been a fun start.