Learning through gaming: using Minecraft in the classroom | Joel Levin


I’m a teacher from right here
in New York City and if there’s one secret that I have
learned in my fifteen years in the classroom, it’s how to make kids really excited to be
at school. It’s simple: video games! And I’m not alone. All over the world, teachers are using
more and more games as a tool to connect with their students and to
teach their lessons. My own students have used games to master
all kinds of skills, from math to history to language to art,
you name it. Some critics do raise concerns that games
can sometimes cause antisocial behavior or they can be addictive and
this can definitely be true, but I believe that in the right
environment games can actually help children learn to
be more generous and kind and emotionally intelligent. So one game in particular has really
made a huge impact at schools everywhere and also had a really big effect
on my own life. You may have heard of it.
It’s called Minecraft. Its retro graphics and geometric
simplicity allowed the game to have an incredible
amount of depth. And since its first public appearance over
almost ten years ago, the game has become one of the best-
selling games of all time. When I first played it, I was fascinated. This landscape of blocks really captivated
me and my imagination. Every time you play, the game presents
you with a unique world that’s generated just for you. And then you get to reshape that world
anyway you want. You can cut down trees and mine stone, you could build a house, you could build
a castle, you could build a superhero lair –why not? Anything you want. If you don’t like to build, you can fight
monsters, tame animals, hunt for treasure, and if you don’t want to do any of that, you can download countless other worlds
and minigames and adventures made by other players online. You could literally play for the rest of
your life and never see it all. And while some videos games
celebrate destruction, Minecraft is the opposite, it celebrates
construction. You make your mark on the Minecraft world
with creativity and ingenuity, not just by carrying the biggest gun. As a parent, I had incredible fun playing
with my own two children. I was really impressed with how the game
presented these situations that needed real brain power in
order to be able to tackle. My kids would spend hours researching
different strategies online, they would use math to plan how to use
their supplies, but even more impressive to me was how the
game valued communication skills. One of my daughters even learned to spell
her first word because she wanted to communicate within
the game. She spelled “home,” h-o-m-e. This is a farm that we built together. So it was these experiences with my own
children that inspired me to use the game
in my classroom. That first day that I used Minecraft with
a group of twenty second graders was a revelation to me. There was this explosion in my classroom
of excitement, curiosity, creativity, ingenuity, all these things. I had never seen anything like it as a
teacher before. I didn’t really know what was
possible at first, so I let the students explore on their own and really self-direct the
whole experience. Different groups would often start
by building a town and then they’d have these fascinating
debates about how to govern the towns and how to manage finite resources, how to
grow food, replant trees, collecting rare building materials. They created currencies out of valuable
objects in the game, like diamonds. They debated right and wrong, while trying to come up with the
rules and law for these towns. So I had initially worried when I started
that some kids would have a difficult time breaking some of the antisocial
gamer habits they might have picked up playing
other games online. And to be sure, there were a handful
of kids that would try to get away with various types of inappropriate behavior. But to my surprise, there was really
another force at work. There was the collective will
of the group. Most of my students wanted to create a
positive game environment, where they could share resources and
where everyone felt safe and included. Students who did give in to the temptation
to steal or to vandalize were dealt with in game. Antisocial behavior in the game, I found,
could cause a student to become ostracized in the game world, but then sometimes
also in the school lunchroom. Whereas being good at the game and
sharing your talents was something you could do to increase
your standing within the group. Social capital could be earned by sharing
your personal gains rather than hoarding them. I always remember one small boy in
particular who showed up in my class
with a lot to prove. He wasn’t the most popular kid, he wasn’t
the best student, but video games were his thing. And he was determined to show everyone
how awesome he was. It did not go so well. He was loud and disruptive and he demanded
that everyone play the game his way. He tried to convince people,
unsuccessfully, that he should have all the best stuff in
the game because he was the best at the game. And then one day, another girl in my class accidentally broke a window in this
boy’s Minecraft house. He jumped out of his seat and the chair went crashing to the
ground in my classroom and he pointed at her and he said, “You
broke my window! Get out of my house!” And if they were playing online that might
have been the end of it, or it could have escalated, or more bad
things could have followed that, but in my classroom, I was able to guide
the students to look each other in the eye and de-escalate the situation, and move on
from there. The girl ended up helping the boy repair
the damage she had done to his house, and in turn, he showed her how to make
glass to use in her own house. This incident even inspired a group
discussion about the need for both public and
private play spaces, and the need for fences. So, Minecraft’s popularity skyrocketed
over the next few years, and it started to become clear that you
could really teach almost any kind of academic subject
with this game. Literacy teachers had students
writing about their Minecraft experience. History teachers used the game
to recreate ancient worlds where the kids could meet
historical characters. Science teachers had the students
designing experiments to probe Minecraft’s version of gravity,
chemistry, or even genetics. The list really goes on and on. So as time went on, I was so intrigued by
the potential for Minecraft in education, that I ended up taking a 5-year detour
outside of the classroom to help develop an education-specific
version of the game with some amazing colleagues, and we
called it Minecraft Edu. I visited dozens of schools across the US
and Europe, and I talked to hundreds of teachers and learned all about the amazing lessons
that they were creating with this game. It really became my passion to help
teachers get the most out of this game no matter where they were teaching
or what subjects they were teaching. But the thing that really fascinated me
the most personally is that in all of these different varied
lessons that I observed and all these different subjects, there were other skills being learned too: skills like empathy, and social emotional
intelligence. Students had to work together in
these shared game spaces. They had to collaborate, they had to understand each other’s
strengths and weaknesses and support each other. They were learning that video game
experiences didn’t need to be just about
winning or losing. It was about who you were playing with and
what you were able to accomplish together. Some topics are notoriously hard to teach. How do you teach a child to
be more empathetic? How do you teach them to care about
civic engagement or conservation? And I think games like Minecraft offer
an approach to this problem. I’ll give one example that I’m really
proud of of how it can all come together. It involves a workshop that I helped to
run using Minecraft to explore the social dynamics present in
The Hunger Games. I should mention we did this at a library,
and they wanted it to be about a book. So here’s how it worked: we divided the kids into two teams that
were based on the oppressive class system in the book, and the politics
in the novel. One team had access to food, weapons, and
various forms of wealth and power. They lived in comfort and safety. The other group was forced to work harder
doing more dangerous tasks, and yet they lived in poverty, and there
was never quite enough food to go around. But the catch was that there was a hidden
interdependence in this relationship. Neither group could survive completely
on their own. They needed to trade with each other. And it was fascinating to watch the kids
play out these various power struggles in this little microcosm world
that we created for them. So what happened? Well, the end results were different with
almost every group we did this with. Sometimes the more powerful team
would be successful at maintaining order, but they’d have to subjugate
the less powerful team. Sometimes the oppressed team would
withhold resources, or make demands to be treated more fairly. Sometimes they would stage a revolt. Sometimes everything would just break down
and everyone would die. Every now and then an uneasy peace could
be achieved, but that really wasn’t our goal, and the end results didn’t really
matter all that much. What really mattered was the experience. We wanted the kids to explore the injustice in this system
we had created for them. We wanted them to know what it was like to
try to function in a society where there was not enough to go around,
and where people abused power. And no matter what happened
while we played, we would always end the workshop with
a discussion. We would have the most illuminating
conversations. And the kids really were able to connect
their experiences in the game with all kinds of real world topics. They would bring up issues in their own
lives about violence, poverty, equity. For instance, one time during
these discussions, after the game session, one of our players who was playing on the
oppressed team was accused of stealing from his fellow
teammates, and even attacking them. There was a lot of tension in the room. And I’ll never forget how he responded. He said that “when I realized I was
powerless to change my own situation, I lashed out at the people who were
closest to me.” Game scenarios like this can help kids
understand the complex interactions between different groups
of people in our society, or reflect on their own experiences. When a game is flexible enough to present
these different real world situations, when it’s a game that kids are excited to
play in school, when it’s brought into an educational
setting with the context, curation and reflection
that a teacher can help provide, amazing things can happen. Games help keep learning fun. And they provide teachers like me novel
ways to connect with our students and provide experiences that would not be
possible any other way. Thank you.

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