Teaching with intention: Computational thinking and SEL through Minecraft

23 Nov 2021 Teaching with intention banner

Choosing the right educational tools for your students requires intention and attention. With years of experience as a computer science educator and department head, Anni Kumar uses Minecraft: Education Edition as her keystone tool for teaching computer science. She's also discovered how powerful it can be for supporting students with diverse abilities in an array of subjects, from SEL to sustainability. Read her story in this guest blog.

Learning doesn't happen by chance, but once a student has obtained a piece of knowledge, no one can take it away from them. When we embrace an organic, long-term learning process that considers the whole child, it leads to excellence in education.

With the motto "Knowledge is power" and an ideology that synthesizes tradition with modernity, Vikas Bharati Public School in Delhi, India, strives to provide an education conducive to preserving traditional values and ethics blended with the latest technology. Our goal is to shape every pupil into a true Indian and global citizen.

With over 18 years of teaching experience and in my current role as head of IT, I have always tried to hone students' analytical capabilities so they can solve computer science problems with logic and reasoning. These abilities are very useful when it comes to other subjects as well, such as mathematics, spelling, and any discipline that requires problem-solving.

In this day and age, we simply cannot deny the importance of computational skills and technological knowledge. Learning the language of coding allows children to become familiar with computer programs, which is extremely important in today's digitized world and will continue to be in the future.

A student learns coding with help from the Minecraft agent character

There's no one right way to code. You get to choose just how to implement your algorithm and get the task done. This concept helps young people unleash their creativity, and they're willing to experiment because they know that there's no one correct answer. As a result, they feel encouraged to think outside the box and come up with solutions on their own.

This kind of encouragement is especially important for children, whose minds are full of creative ideas and thoughts. If young people learn how to think outside the box at an early age, they can gain the confidence to make better career decisions later in life and choose a path they enjoy. Critical thinking is self-monitored, self-corrective thinking that facilitates the rational, unbiased evaluation of factual evidence, which in turn guides a student to take a particular course of action. Building and honing these critical thinking skills is one of the most important takeaways of learning code.

Seeing how these skills would be required in the future, I started teaching coding to students on various platforms like Microsoft MakeCode, Hour of Code, unplugged activities, and finally, Minecraft. At my school, we begin using Minecraft to teach coding from grade 4 onwards, reaching around 2000 students. The game is very popular among children. The complete freedom of Minecraft allows them to build whatever they can imagine.

From the Taj Mahal to a black hole, children construct intricate creations using the platform's open building environment. They can even collaborate with other players to create structures and cities together, allowing for the rapid development of massive environments. Learners can package up and share the worlds they create with others online, allowing millions of people to download and explore the amazing things they've built.

I have an ICT Club in my school, and the students have created many Minecraft worlds. They've reimagined the submerged city of Dwarka, replicated their school building, and one group of learners managed to create a rocket launch in Minecraft. Other teachers have even used students' worlds to teach their own classes.

The Dwarka re-creation stands out as a particularly impressive build. I had assigned the students a blog on this historic city that was submerged underwater 1000 years ago. After doing their research, they reimagined Dwarka's structure and created the entirety of the city. It was fascinating to see the world they built!

I've found that Minecraft is a fantastic tool for teaching new concepts and have begun creating world-sharing environments in all subjects, whether that's history or languages. As a game-based learning platform, it enhances creativity, problem-solving, self-direction, collaboration, and other life skills. It complements reading, writing, mathematics, and analytical skills. Minecraft also instils business principles, STEM knowledge, and a global perspective.

Thanks to this combination of features, Minecraft provides the ability for students to choose a particular perspective or action after careful consideration of the available data. By its very nature, critical thinking developed through using Minecraft encourages a creative problem-solving approach.

As a result of the pandemic, our children need social-emotional learning curriculum that focuses not only on ways to cope with these challenging times, but also on how to understand their own responses to them. SEL is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.

People with strong social-emotional skills can better cope with everyday challenges and benefit academically, professionally, and socially. With those outcomes in mind, I use Minecraft to develop these kinds of skills among my students.

The Minecraft Hour of Code lesson helped me incorporate SEL into my teaching. We celebrate Computer Science Education Week every year in our school. Last year, we took on the theme of SEL since it is crucial to inculcate these skills in students. We had conducted activities using different tools like Flipgrid, Minecraft, Miro, and other platforms. During their Hour of Code, students completed A Minecraft Tale of Two Villages.

In this lesson, learners complete coding challenges as they attempt to reconcile neighboring villages through the power of empathy. This helped them to become emotionally sensitive. I witnessed their thought processes changing.

Because of COVID-19, children were stuck at home while their parents were going off to work. Elder brothers and sisters were taking care of their younger siblings and even helping them in their classes. We conducted one activity where students were asked to survey senior citizens about their feelings and depict the results using Minecraft. It was a further opportunity to build up their SEL skills.

Students created Minecraft trivia games out of questions around moral values and asked others to answer them in order to move to the next level. The game-based approach provided a way for me to teach these difficult concepts very easily.

Minecraft is also a powerful tool for teaching students with special needs because it contains helpful accessibility features. My younger son Divit Kumar was diagnosed with a hearing impairment at the very early age of one and a half years old and has received a cochlear implant. He is currently in grade 6 and a huge fan of Minecraft. Divit creates structures independently. I've never taught him how to build—instead, he helps me with my work!

As a mother of a child with hearing impairment, I know first-hand how Minecraft: Education Edition can help students with diverse needs develop their critical faculties, computational thinking, and analytical skills. I've seen him placing blocks like an architect and watched him create beautiful structures with proper dimensions.

Even without my assistance, he was able to design a hidden house underground. After seeing the house, no one would imagine it's the work of a child who is just ten years old! Recently, he created a sustainable home after attending a Minecraft Earth Week session. He's also created beautiful worlds for celebrating festivals like Diwali.

It's not all about building. Divit has also learned how to spell the names of many different objects after working in Minecraft. Each item in the game's inventory has a name, and by consistently interacting with them, he has learned their spellings by heart—even the difficult ones! Immersive Reader—which is integrated into Minecraft: Education Edition—has also improved his speech as he practices repeating sentences along with the speaker.

In response to these experiences, all teachers at my school are now using Minecraft to create lesson plans with the help of available templates. They frequently use the game for assessment in the form of quiz worlds where the students answer questions in order to move forward through the levels.

Nowadays, it's essential to enhance computational thinking and develop 21st-century skills. Minecraft is an innovative tool that can help anyone—educators, parents, or students. Teachers are always searching for tools that can help teach learners with diverse abilities, and I believe that Minecraft is the answer.


Anni Kumar is the head of IT at Vikas Bharati Public School in Delhi and a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert.

Explore ways to foster students' computational thinking and coding skills with computer science lessons and resources for Minecraft: Education Edition. If you're new to game-based learning with Minecraft, get started here.