Monday, December 2, 2013

Minecraft and the Oregon Trail

It was last year while eating lunch with a student, that Minecraft first blipped across my radar. The student was talking about creating a rail track underground and the challenge of getting the cars to work properly. I asked him how he learned to create the underground tunnel and track and he responded that he just tried to build it until it worked. He went on to say that it was hard at first, but the more he stuck with it, the better it became. I was intrigued. 

By now I am sure you have heard about Minecraft. If you have not come across it in a blog post or a tweet you have heard about it from your students. Minecraft is a “sandbox” game where players are free to create anything using blocks of material. The game’s two modes are survival and creative. In survival, players must find their own building supplies and food. In creative, players have easy access to supplies and do not have to worry about food. They can also break all kinds of blocks immediately.

After some research, peer collaboration, and asking the experts (my students) a lot of questions, we have worked Minecraft into part of our curriculum. The challenge was to respect the creativity of the open environment and the students while balancing the expectations of our learner outcomes.  I think we found that balance. After 59 students entered our sandbox world, I am excited by what I have seen.

·       I've seen authentic and meaningful collaboration. Students who are experts with the platform are sharing their knowledge about crafting. Students who are unfamiliar with Minecraft are leading the research and informing the design. There is ownership of all levels of the project.
·       I've seen students complete research in a more focused, directed way. Before they can build a stop along the trail, students need to complete research that informs their design. Teams are efficient with their research and eager to translate what they've learned into the game. I have also seen students revisit their research and check their facts numerous times to make sure they represent the sites correctly. 
·       I've seen information and knowledge being shared in creative ways. Students are sharing their research through text on sign posts, information blocks, and through the structures they create. They also get out of their seats and walk to another group to have a conversation about the content! These are purposeful interactions that would not take place if working on a poster or a diorama. 
·       I've seen energy spill out of my classroom and follow the students home. I am receiving e-mails with ideas for future crafting or with images of real life locations that can be created within the world. 

I am excited that my students are excited about their learning. I have taught this lesson before and have struggled with helping my students gain a deep understand of the trail, its geography, and the vastness of the land. By incorporating Minecraft my students are researching the sites along the trail and are creating their own meaning based on the research. They are also building their trail which is adding depth to their understanding. 

I can clearly see my students' learning when I read their info blocks in the Minecraft world, see the historical structures they have built, and review their research notes. I can also see their excitement in their blog entries.

After just this first experiment, it's clear that Minecraft in the classroom offers a wealth of possibilities. My students and I are anxious for our next opportunity to explore, learn, create, and play in our new Minecraft world.

A supply depot in Independence, MO
Teacher comments for crafting pioneers.
Chimney Rock on the horizon

Missouri River