Seeing Students Grow Through Minecraft

by Kieran Bailey @kieranbailey   What I love about Minecraft is its ability to bring children together. I’ve seen very socially disparate groups of children connect with each other in wonderful ways through Minecraft. I’m at Great Southern Grammar, an independent Kindergarten to Year 12 school, in Albany, Western Australia. Possibly one of the most beautiful parts of Australia. Our campus sits on the shoreline of Oyster Harbour and the Southern Ocean. My personal Minecraft journey started about three years ago. I was introduced to the world of Minecraft through the iPad. My kids at home were asking about Minecraft – this blocky game that I thought seemed like a little bit of a ‘fad’. Yes, I was about to be proven wrong. I was immediately hooked. What stuck out to me was my children’s ability to pick the game up and just figure it out. They didn’t need any instructions. Their knowledge of the game came from YouTube, and from the community of players sharing their accomplishments. The next thing that stood out was the interactivity of the game. We had two iPads and my iPhone all connected to the same world, helping to build collaboratively. I could already see the benefits in the classroom, and helping to enhance those crucial skills of critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration. I left the game alone for a while (my kids did not, and became experts, while I languished as a Minecraft ‘noob’). Sometime later my colleagues at school were playing the game on a private server they’d spun up. The time felt right to give the game another go. I joined up with them and watched for a bit. What they were doing was amazing. They opened my eyes to just how extensible the game was, and the mechanics built into the game. Not just simply crafting, but the logic required to mine for diamonds, farming, herding animals, resource collection. Big potential. Yuge! After honing my skills on our private server, graduating from the title of ‘noob’, I felt ready for the next challenge. How can we use this in the classroom? How can we engage students in the platform? What are the benefits I’ve already noticed, and how can they be enhanced? And so, with support from some equally keen colleagues across the campus, our first ‘Minecraft Club’ was formed. When starting the club, I really wanted to focus on the social benefits of the game - that positive impact it can have on communication and helping students to work together. I really felt Minecraft could have a positive impact in strengthening student relationships with one another. We saw a large number of students coming to the group, initially, who weren’t part of a strong social group in the playground. Through Minecraft, they now had a common interest. While working on challenge-based activities in the Minecraft Club, we’d assign students into groups to work together. Our first project was a castle-building exercise. Instantly, I could see those students who perhaps would not be confident in group work or out in the playground working as part of a team, sharing their thoughts, and demonstrating confidence. What was especially heart-warming was speaking to the mother of a child with social delay, and has struggled with social interaction and communication with other children. He is now interacting with his peers not only in Minecraft Club, but also in the playground and is now part of a wider social circle away from Minecraft. I've posted the email, with his mother's permission here. It's well worth a read to really understand how Minecraft can change a child's life. The social benefits of Minecraft should definitely not be underestimated. It is a great tool for supporting those students who sit on the social fringes. Our Minecraft club meets once a week for an hour during lunch. Here are some ideas if you want to start your own Minecraft club at your school: Think about the version of Minecraft you want to run. For our younger students in Junior School, we are introducing them to Minecraft: Education Edition. Our Junior School teacher can host the world on his laptop, and students can connect in from their laptops. Make sure you have some mice available as it’s very hard to operate the game without a mouse. I did run an Environmental Science workshop using Minecraft: Education Edition on Microsoft Surface tablets with touch screens. These sessions were run with students from Year 3 to Year 6. Some younger students were more confident in interacting with the game using the touch controls rather than a keyboard and mouse. This flexibility in Minecraft:EE provides great opportunity for differentiating access to the game. If you have access to touchscreen laptops, give this some consideration. Having said that, students will pick up gameplay very quickly using a keyboard and mouse. For continuity and access at home, we give our Middle School students access through the full version of Minecraft, and we have had our IT Department run up a Minecraft World Server that students can access from home. Depending on the scenario, we will give students access to creative tools, or survival in this world. We have two worlds running concurrently – one for challenge-based activities, that we can quickly modify or reset, and a second world which is survival only, and accessible off-campus. We use an approvals process to bring students into the game, and prevent anyone from joining the server externally without us verifying who it is first. This second world can be accessed without teacher supervision, so we’ve installed a number of ‘mods’ to manage student safety and help with maintaining the rules of the server. Check out the videos and screenshots below. One of these is actual in-game video from one of our sessions. The other is a fly through of our public server. The in-game footage is raw. The academic year has just commenced in Australia, so this was our second chance for the club to meet, and the kids are still getting all of those beans out! I'll keep posting to my YouTube channel with more in-game footage as we work on some new challenges. If you want to get in touch with me, the students would love to Skype during one of our sessions to chat about the game and their experiences, and I am happy to share any ideas if you want to introduce Minecraft to your school.