Using Minecraft as a Teaching Tool

This post is part of my work in the 2022 Minecraft EVO MOOC, some reflections on using Minecraft as a teaching tool. My own journey with Minecraft has always been tied to my students, if not teaching. I started playing with it in 2012 because I kept hearing my students talk about it. That’s usually how I find out about all the fun games. So I figured I’d give this Minecraft thing a shot. I really liked it and so I’d chat with my students about it, too! Sharing common hobbies is a simple way to build some rapport with your students, right?

Beyond that, talking about anything the slightest bit complicated in an authentic exchange is always going to produce language. And if it produces language, it can produce language learning! My students wanted to talk about crafting, describe their adventures (mostly killing stuff), or learn how to do cool things. To do that, we needed to speak in English, the lingua franca. So in the course of a natural conversation, attempting to make meaning, as human beings will do, I was teaching my students:

  • Words like block, cube, build, rotate, creep, climb
  • Names and descriptions of materials, colors, textures
  • Idioms like “wasted a zombie” “scared the heck out of me” “nailed it”
  • Skills like hedging (I think it was like this), speaking over vocab gaps with vague language or circumlocution (it was some kind of green thing), correcting (No, that’s not what happened)

 Mining Walkthroughs and Construction Guides for Language

This is a pagoda I recently built following a video by AdieCraft

From there I got interested in using Minecraft directly as a teaching tool. Instead of talking about Minecraft, how could we use language with Minecraft directly. I’ve always loved building in Minecraft. One way to learn how to build in Minecraft is to find instructions for cool buildings or creations. These used to be written and illustrated blog posts, but more and more you’ll find instructional YouTube videos. There are also a handful of books out there, such as these fabulous guides by Meghan Miller! Reading or listening to these guides and following them is pretty good language learning. Putting students in groups to work together adds a group work component, and has them talking to each other. Have students create their OWN building guide and you’ve added a writing component!

Another aspect of using Minecraft as a teaching tool is the adventure guide or walkthrough. The Minecraft EVO MOOC server for example has a number of interesting locations students can explore. But any world will have villages, cool natural formations, and other features. It wouldn’t take much to add your own touches whether they be statues or buildings or just tweaks of natural formations. You could even add signs or books to make a story for students to follow. Then write a walkthrough telling students where to go and what to do. Or have them chart their own adventure and write a walkthrough for others!

Tools to Teach Language in Minecraft

A square and right triangles built out of Minecraft blocks. Students can easily see how the sides of the squares and the triangles match up.
Redstone later shifted the blocks showing how the sides of the squares equaled the hypotenuses of the 2 triangles.

Then I got greedy. I saw some of the tools my colleagues in math and science were using to teach directly in Minecraft. A friend of mine did mathematical proofs building with Minecraft. I thought, is there any way that Minecraft can be used in the same way to teach English? Now this may be the nature of the difference between math and language, but I figured it was worth a try.

So I talked to a lot of educators, and I read a lot. I played with redstone machines and build weird contraptions like combo locks that required you to move levers or push buttons to answer questions. I played with command blocks and NPCs. My students created beautiful writing vistas where they could imagine themselves on top of a mountain or in a hut in the woods and write. These have been particularly fun in recent years, where they’ve added more scenery and interactions to Minecraft. My favorite writing vistas are in villages, underwater near a coral reef, and in the new Nether forests.

I also created some quest guides to help younger learners master the game, wrote ebook guides to Minecraft and made YouTube videos of my own.

Bringing the Classroom into Minecraft

A Minecraft combination lock with five levers and signs above the levers. Students pull the levers for the right answers. If they get all of them right, a door opens
A basic combination lock where a door opens only if students choose the right answers.

I also read some articles and books about Minecraft for teaching, particularly Teachercraft and Minecraft in the Classroom, particularly James York’s chapter on his project teaching language with Minecraft. I loved how he created lessons in Minecraft and buildings that contained all the tasks and projects. There are a lot great ways to adapt classroom activities to Minecraft including info gaps where one student guides the other through a maze of pressure plates.

I was inspired to take one of my favorite vocab learning methods where students note how well they know a word on a worksheet. For each new vocab word, they might check off answers to questions such as

  • Have you seen this word before?
  • Do you kind of know what it means?
  • Could you use it in a sentence?
  • Can you manipulate it grammatically (if it’s a verb can you make it past tense or form the participle, e.g.)
A Minecraft construction that tracks learner progress. A book with 15 pages on a lectern. behind that a comparator. Then a line of 15 redstone powder. Under the redstone powder , redstone lanterns. As students turn pages in the book, more redstone lanterns light up
A simple redstone teaching device to track progress

Without too much trouble or redstone skill, I devised a vocab meter for each student. As they flip pages in the Minecraft book to say how well they know a word, the redstone lanterns light up. As a teacher, you can now see which words students know well and which they don’t. Students can also pair up to teach each other words the other doesn’t know.

Colleagues suggested I use these meters to measure progress in other areas-another great idea. Students could track number of tasks completed, units finished, or simply leave an indication of how confident they feel about their understanding of the lesson. Another great self-reflection technique involves students putting different materials in chests to indicate what they understand or don’t. Coal means they have no clue. Emeralds if they feel good. Gold if they still have questions, for example.

Furthermore students can leave actual notes for you or each other by writing books.  They can literally write in Minecraft on books. And you can leave them questions or directions in books.

Looking ahead

It often seems as if there’s a great debate in how to use Minecraft as a teaching tool, particularly using Minecraft to teach language! On one side are the explorers or the Krashenites. They prefer to see Minecraft as input. As students learn and play, language will naturally emerge. On the other side, the managers, who see Minecraft as a powerful tool to build tasks and projects and replicate classroom activities in an engaging way. More and more, I see myself as a follower of the middle way. Both approaches can work very well. But more importantly, when you give students tasks in Minecraft, you can also open them up to exploring the task itself and how it was built! Or the task may be to replicate a Minecraft structure. Instead of a scavenger hunt in the classroom, what about a Minecraft scavenger hunt?

We may never be able to build language blocks in Minecraft (ok, outside of education edition), the way math teachers can build geometry literally. But we can do a lot of work in Minecraft and guide as language emerges!

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