Jim Pike, a third-grade teacher at Ascension Catholic School in Los Angeles, was not a big video game fan. But he found out about Minecraft at a job interview and later decided to introduce it in his classroom mid-year to teach math.
After four months of use, the results were impressive. Math test scores doubled, from 42 percent average correct in January to 84 percent average correct in May, in the Common Core categories of Measurement & Data, Number & Operation-Fractions, and Operations & Algebraic Thinking.
This article describes one of Jim’s Minecraft lessons which teaches target area and perimeter, the relationship between multiplication and division, and multi-step problems.
The lesson involves building a rudimentary replica of the Parthenon. Jim gave the students six equations and three variable values to find building dimensions
and number of blocks needed. (See graphic.) In this case, L (length) = 7, W (width)
= 5, and H (height) = 7.
In the equations shown, ‘A’ is the area of the base; ‘P’ is the number of blocks in the
perimeter; ‘C’ is the number of blocks for all the columns; ‘TB’ is all the blocks in the structure (without stairs); ‘S’ is the number of blocks for the stairs; and ‘M’ is the total number of Minecraft blocks needed to build the Parthenon.
Jim gave the lesson as whole-class instruction, opening a single-player superflat world on his computer and showing it on the overhead projector, then building the Parthenon described in the equations. (Jim noted that starting with whole class instruction, rather than letting students build the Parthenon themselves, was important to keep the class on track.) He gave the students the algebraic formulas, and as a class had them reason out the associated number of Minecraft blocks. Jim provided many such exercises in the days following, and many kids came to call this type of problem an “algebra puzzle” as if it was a game in itself.
Once the class agreed on the answers to the equations, each student was given a limited set of blocks in Minecraft and each built their own Parthenon, accompanied by a Minecraft sign in which they listed the equations worked out. For fun, after the Parthenons were built, they were marked with “boy” and “girl” flags and the kids were allowed to knock them down. Jim said that allowing this play was important for kids’ enjoyment of the class. He also noted that the Parthenon could be linked to study of Greek myths or ancient Greece.
Jim likes manipulatives and found that the virtual aspect of Minecraft is an advantage, since kids can’t steal each other’s blocks or throw the materials around the classroom.
Jim noticed a marked change in the attitude of the students once he started using Minecraft. They became more excited about learning. They got excited about math and became good at it, which translated in expecting to be able to do well in other areas such as literacy.
Jim bought a personal license for himself, and the school bought site licenses for the school computer lab from Minecraftedu.com, which cost a total of $350 for 25 computers. This included a dedicated Minecraft server for the classroom. With a site license there is no need to remember passwords.
A free trial of Minecraft is available. See “Getting Started in Minecraft” for details.
- Watch every student’s screen using a classroom management tool such as LanSchool or Vision, to make sure students keep on track and don’t go invisible in the game.
- The students will probably want to download mods (modifications) to
Minecraft. To prevent this, find out which kid is most likely to download mods
and make him or her responsible for deleting them.
- Let students play in PVP (player vs. player,) mode, but watch to make
sure students don’t knock each other’s structures down. The settings on the Minecraftedu.com server are helpful.
- Advise students to protect themselves from “griefing” (stealng other
people’s goods) by suggesting that they hide their goodies well. But students won’t be able to steal each other’s blocks.
- Minecraft works best on PCs and not as well on iPads. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This may soon change since Microsoft just bought Minecraft and wants to expand its use.)
Jim Pike teaches at St. Martin of Tours School in Los Angeles (Brentwood), and designs curriculum for Code Revolution (coderevkids.com). He is creating new curriculum for Minecraft’s use in class and will soon offer online professional development. He enjoys collaborating with other teachers and can be reached at email@example.com.