Minecraft and Maths

With National Literacy and Numeracy week in Australia in our current thoughts, now is a good time to share some ideas on how Minecraft can support teaching students numeracy. If you play the game yourself and reflect on what things are happening in your head while you are exploring and crafting you will notice that a lot of mathematical thinking happens without active thought. The same thing happens with students while they are playing, all we have to do is call attention to it. Failing that we can leverage their knowledge of the game to support our teaching and their learning in fun and interactive ways. What can you teach in terms of numeracy with Minecraft? In my experience addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, area, perimeter, volume, algebra, graphing, linear equations, the coordinate plane, probability and many more things. This post provides two examples of activities that you can take into your classroom, with little to no time creating pre-made maps for your students. I would like to point out at this juncture, that Minecraft is not doing the teaching, but the discussion you can have with students about the math behind the activity will be an in-depth learning experience. Activity 1: Probability This activity will help students explore the difference between theoretical and experimental probability, as well as working with fractions or percentages if you want them to. There has been a myth around the Minecraft community for ages that dispensers are not truly random in their choosing of which slot to dispense from. Start students in a creative world and ask them to collect a dispenser and a button from their creative inventory. Set this up with the button on the dispenser. Once this is done, get students to collect 9 different stacks of items and place them in the 9 slots in the dispenser. It can be any item they would like, but all 9 need to be different and stackable. Make sure students record what item is in which slot. Once this is all set up, it is time to test out the probability of getting each item. Get students to clear out their inventory and then press the button 10 times, recording what item is shot out each time. This can easily be done afterwards, but it is good practice to get them to record it after each button press. Now it is time to get students to start exploring the numbers, for this first discussion we will focus on slot number 1. Request each student to share how many items from slot number one came out in their first test of 10 presses. Ask students to reflect on whether this was the expected number of items, this is the experimental probability, how did it compare to the theoretical probability. It would be a good idea to have a spreadsheet displayed on the board/projector so that all students can see the results, and you can easily collate them to increase the data pool and explore how more data affects how close the experimental probability is to the theoretical probability. Now this is only half the story, we need to look at the difference between each slot to determine whether Minecraft is truly random when it chooses the slot to shoot out. Get students to compare each slot, and again, collating the results for all students is a great way of making the data set larger without doing heaps of tests. Don’t forget to get students to write down their conclusion as to their thoughts on the myth of the dispenser randomness. Another good discussion point is: is 10 tests per student a ‘good’ number of tests, or should we do more? You can choose to get students to do another set of 10 tests, or even more depending on how much time you have in your class, and whether you feel that the students understand the difference between theoretical and experimental probability. Throughout the lesson you can also introduce students to many of the terms used to explain or describe probability. Activity 2: The Algebra of Crafting This is perhaps my favourite simple activity. The aim of this activity is to get students unknowingly exploring algebra. As a class discuss how many raw resources are required to craft a full set of stone tools. The list of ingredients to craft the full set of tools including stone sword, stone axe, stone shovel, stone pick and stone hoe is actually a tricky question, because you need to include the wooden pickaxe and the crafting bench. (You might want to start using letters instead of full words below depending on the age of your students). Wooden Pick: 2 sticks, 3 planks Crafting Bench: 4 planks Stone Sword: 1 stick, 2 cobblestone Stone Axe: 2 sticks, 3 cobblestone Stone Shovel: 2 sticks, 1 cobblestone Stone Pick: 2 sticks, 3 cobblestone Stone Hoe: 2 sticks, 2 cobblestone For a total of 11 sticks, 7 planks and 11 cobblestone. Now we get to the algebra side of things. Discuss with the students: If 1 log is equal to 4 planks, and 2 planks are equal to 4 sticks, how many logs do we need to get the 11 sticks we need in total? How many logs for the planks required? So how many total logs? (Note: You can break this down into easier steps if need be, you can start with how many planks for the 11 sticks, and move to logs from there if your students are struggling.) Here would be a great opportunity to get them to check this in game. Get them to load up a world, collect only the resources calculated and see if they can produce the complete set of tools. Now to challenge the students a bit more. Instead of stopping at stone tools, upgrade to iron tools, and include iron armour if you think the students will be up for it. Provide the students with the following list of items, and see if they can figure out the basic resources required. An important thing to note here, is that coal is banned, they are not allowed to use coal to smelt their iron. They are only allowed to collect logs, stone and iron ore. Iron Sword, Iron Shovel, Iron Pick, Iron Axe, Iron Hoe. (They will need to include a wooden pick, crafting table, furnace and stone pickaxe as well, but it is up to you whether you include this on your list to students). If you are including armour, Iron Helmet, Iron Chestplate, Iron Leggings, Iron Boots should be included. Give students time to think about it, as they might want to research how many pieces of iron ore each wood type (ie, logs, planks, sticks and charcoal) will smelt. This research could be online, or within the game. Once they have their list of raw resources required to create their full set of iron tools (and armour) let them test it out in-game and report back on their findings. Did they forget anything, what was it, and how does it alter their raw resources? You can take this activity further if you want, perhaps get students to come up with their own list of items that they would like to craft, and work out the raw resources required for this. I hope that these two activities have shown you some simple ways to incorporate Minecraft into your math classroom without taking all of your preparation time. Want some more simple activities? I am happy to share more of my ideas, hit me up on the community site or on twitter (@EduElfie) and I will help you out, but it would be even better if you shared your ideas with the community. Sit down one night, spend a couple of hours playing the game, while playing think about how many options there are for exploring numeracy concepts within Minecraft while just playing. For example, what is the surface area of the floor in your first shelter? If you wanted to paint the interior of your house in Minecraft, and a tin of paint covers 15 block faces, how many tins of paint will you require? These are just a couple of quick ones to think about. Reflect on how many there might be with a bit of preparation time thrown in to create a learning experience for your students like no other. The limit truly is your imagination, or the imagination of your students. If you don’t have time to play yourself, get your students to do it in their spare time- they have more than us teachers, right? Get students to come to you with ideas about how they could demonstrate their numeracy understandings in Minecraft. If they are solid, get them to show your class, make them a leader, and watch them shine. ____

Stephen Elford, aka EduElfie has been a teacher for over a dozen years and an active member of the Minecraft in Education community for nearly half of those years. Since 2011 Stephen has been supporting teachers from around the globe to bring Minecraft into their classes by sharing and showcasing his live lessons on YouTube as well as semi-regular posts on his blog page sharing a ‘warts and all’ view of bringing mainstream games into a traditional classroom setting.


He presented in 2013 at ICTEV and again in 2014 at SXSWEdu on how powerful Minecraft is as a teaching tool. He is one of the co-authors of Minecraft In the Classroom, Ideas, inspiration and student projects for teachers. In 2015 he presented at TEDx RosalindParkEd on how Minecraft has changed his classroom. More recently has has been seconded out of the classroom, and is now a Virtual Learning Coach, bringing video conferencing and other virtual learning practices to schools across the state of Victoria.