So as much as I’m a intrigued by and enthusiastic for the exciting opportunities, engaging challenges, and powerful differentiation game-based learning is offering, I’m not a gamer myself (at all, to the disappointment of my sons), and I don’t write often about gaming in learning.

But tonight my ten year old son and I took a few minutes to watch the video above about Minecraft– a huge passion of both him and his 14 year old brother– and then we jumped quickly over to the video at bottom.  The videos come from PBS Ideas, and were featured on KQED Mindshift blog today.

The videos are great fun and well produced– and the presenter Mike Rugnetta does a great job communicating the value of minecraft for learning.  As he points out, learning is enhanced by environments which are immersive, fluid, and flexible, which allow for and cater to self-initiative, relative autonomy, socializing, collaboration, and creativity: all of which Minecraft does. 

Note the distinction he draws between this kind of game-based learning and the “canned” kind we are all so familiar with such as Mavis Beacon typing and a host of others which operate at a level which was perhaps mildly entertaining and engaging for students under 8 five or ten years ago, but which very quickly get old and do very little to extend or enrich learning beyond fairly simple low level skills.

I’ve seen all this in my boys.   We were on vacation in France last year, not touring/traveling but just hanging out at a family home there,  and my 14 year old spent many, many hours teaming with other kids in Australia and the US designing and building a Hunger Games world, with different subsets of the group assigned to build each of the 12 regions of that world in detail.    There was constant checking of the books, discussion of the interpretations of the book’s descriptions and relationships, incredible design challenges, cross-cultural dynamics among the kids, and huge creativity.

Tina Barseghian’s MindShift blog has had a good little series of posts about Minecraft for learning, and I’ll share some more information there from one of those posts, written by Katrina Schwarz.

Teachers like to use Minecraft because it’s a “sandbox” game — it provides players nearly limitless freedom to build within it. As a player’s skill develops, the game’s complexity increases ad infinitum. In multi-player levels, players collaborate on building complex structures, use programming features to build contraptions, games, or compose music. Meanwhile, beginning players use their problem solving skills to scavenge for materials. They learn to mine stone for building, and coal for making fire.

Another post shares uses of Minecraft by kids as young as 2nd grade, and features the video below the quote:

Take a look at how teacher Joel Levin uses the online game Minecraft to teach second-grade students how to work together and build little civilizations. The video was released as one of three case studies along with the report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center on Teachers’ Attitudes About Digital Games in the Classroom.

“I want the kids to learn to be responsible, self-reliant, innovative thinkers who are comfortable using technology to interact and create,” Levin said in an article last year. “I want them to realize that how they treat others in a game, online, or in the physical world is all really the same thing.”

My ten year old son and I just watched the video above, and his very strong reaction as it concluded was “Ahhhh, I want to be in that classroom!”

He and I then chatted about what he thought Minecraft could be used for in learning, and all the following are straight from his mouth.  (there was a lot more too, but I couldn’t write it all down!).

You can learn math by estimating the number of blocks needed for or included in a building, and multiplying the cubes in a structure to calculate those numbers.

If you are on a multi-player server and are working together on a project, you have to do a lot of cooperation and a lot of communication.   You have to plan and organize and make sure you don’t mess it all up.   It is great for learning teamwork.

If you see something it is easier to understand it, so if you read something in a history book and then make that civilization in creative mode in minecraft, you could learn it much better.

For Science, you learn a lot about materials, about strength of materials, and how to use them for construction.

For art class, you can design anything: it is an amazing architecture/art/designing program: you can design anything.

It educates you on your future, because in real life there are all kinds of setbacks, difficulties, challenges, and you have learn to defend yourself like you have to do with the creepers on Minecraft.    You also learn to not give up when you have those bad things happen.

There are plenty of how-to resources for getting started on Minecraft available on the web (this article, getting started on Minecraft, has been recommended)— but if you are an elementary or middle school educator, I am almost certain you have no need to start searching the internet for such assistance: just ask around your classroom.   Deputize a student or two (or a whole group) to advise you and strategize with you about where and how to begin integrating it into your classroom and out-of-class curriculum.

Fred Jaravata writes this advice on a list-serve about implementing the program:

The license is for per computer. We have a license for 25 for around $335 + the MinecraftEdu software extension for $41 (teacher control of environment and limit student building powers)

We do not use the iPad version as we wanted to use our own local server where I our students interact only with each other during designated times.

The teacher can create a world map by directly building everything in creative mode (teacher) but is time consuming. A free world map creator helps creat big or small worlds so much faster. We use WORLD PAINTER.

Students once logged in, are given a character.  They are limited to what we give them. There are mods where they can use costumes/skins.

In MinecraftEDU you can create a server and give that IP address to your students to join.

I’d argue that if you are an educator in say grades 2-9, and aware of the fast-rising movement toward game-based learning, and curious about where to start or where to go next, Minecraft is a terrific place to begin and to focus your attention.