Minecraft In Education: Pros And Cons

There’s a popular fast-talking video making its way around the web that showcases how Mincraft may very well be “the ultimate education tool.” Whether you agree or not, the video raises some interesting ideas. Basically, the Idea Channel folks (who made the video) posit that Minecraft is such a valuable tool because it’s so customizable. They talk about how video games have long been used in education but how Minecraft offers a new approach by letting the player construct the game. In other words, a teacher could build his or her own video game tailored to the lessons being taught in the classroom. The students could then enter that custom game and explore, learn, and even build upon it themselves.

Exciting, right? I thought so too. Minecraft is loads of fun and, aside from the learning curve, is certainly a useful educational tool. I don’t know if I’d say “ultimate” but that’s not the point. The point is weighing the pros and cons of using Minecraft in education. In order to do that, I turned to people far more boisterous and knowledgeable than myself: the Reddit crowd. Turns out they had been weighing in on the usefulness of Minecraft in education for quite awhile now. Below are some excerpts from comments left on a Reddit thread about the video.

I think Minecraft has about as much inherent educational value as an overhead projector, in that it depends entirely on the skill and vision of the instructor using it. Its a great blank canvas system, and the tools for leveraging that canvas are only getting better with time. That said, its not gonna work for everyone, but I wouldn’t expect that of any educational intervention. MinecraftEDU is more an excellent example of an instructor noticing how they might leverage an existing artifact to engage their students. His enthusiasm was probably just as important as the game itself in making a difference for those kids. -naxareth

Well said. This is similar to all of the excitement around interactive whiteboards and now iPads (and other tablets). Many people think that purchasing these devices will revolutionize learning in their schools – and they make these purchases without any planning or vision. MindecraftEDU is a great resource, but education is not a One Size Fits All system nor should it be. Like you said, “it depends entirely on the skill and vision of the instructor.” -futboler

Useful in a school context? Would just kill it. The thing that made Minecraft good for [my son] was the unguided aspect of it.  -sreyemhtes

First 20 seconds of the video: “Minecraft is like first person Lego”. Lego is not considered the ultimate educational tool, but this which is a virtual version of it is? Of all the examples the person gave, only one actually seemed educationally viable: using Minecraft for area, volume and abstract 3D objects. That is one use in a very specific part of mathematics. Not exactly the worlds “ultimate educational tool”. -ShadyBiz

Tools are simply artifacts, but they also exist to amplify our capacities. There certainly exists an instructor who cannot get a point across with a book that they could using Minecraft, there also certainly exists a teacher who can engage students better with a lecture than a game. As you said it is not a one size fits all environment. -naxareth

What do you think about Minecraft? Would you use it in your classroom? Has your teacher used it at all? Just how much work would it take to build a high-quality learning environment within the game?

minecraft logo

9 Comments

  1. NinjaChip

    March 27, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    I couldn’t understand Logic Gates for my Design & Tech homework, but I seriously just used Minecraft just then to help me understand it, and now I feel like a RedStone Pro! MC could/should definately be used more often within edducation.

  2. Colin Gallagher

    March 27, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    You can only make your own mind up when you see what teachers and students have done. This is the purpose behind my YouTube channel Minechat where we interview teachers in their Minecraft world and discuss how they use it in teaching and learning. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLD3F726E583E57A00

  3. David Henson

    March 27, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    I have used Minecraft in class. Primarily as a virtual way to explore 3d concepts such as Surface area, volume, and perspective views. Is it the ultimate educational tool? No. Nothing is. Is it a valuable resource that can improve engagement into lessons and concepts? There is little argument. My entire 8th grade math team uses minecraft as an engagement exercise. My Pre AP Algebra 1 class used Minecraft to model the various parent functions. It is a tool. Use it wisely.

  4. Stephen

    March 27, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    Personally, I’m a huge fan of Minecraft as a learning tool. I use Minecraft in many areas of education from primary to secondary, I have developed two after school club courses of eight weeks each. I have used it with not-for-profit organisations such as libraries and museums and I am about to start work on a sizeable historical project reconstructing a famous Scottish town as part of the 2014 year of culture. I have taught literacy, numeracy, science, art, design and technology, RME, computer science, primary topic work and much more using Minecraft, all with great results. There are however, some subjects you just can’t reach and to be honest, some tools that reach those subjects much better than Minecraft does. We recently completed a complex science resource on fossil fuel formation using ‘Little Big Planet’ on the PS3. Work we couldn’t have carried out with Minecraft.

    Technology in education is just one of many tools educators have at their disposal. I am particularly passionate about games-based learning. However, like all good tools for learning, Minecraft must only be used in the right situation and under the right circumstances. With forethought, planning and a clear, valid purpose. It’s very easy (and tempting) to use technology for the sake of using technology. I visit schools who are just about to purchase tablet technology…when I ask them what they plan to do with it they reply “We’re not sure yet, any advice?” to which my reply is “Don’t buy it, not until you at least have some idea of where and how you might use it”. Often they choose not to buy after all and the money is used for something else. Those who do, find valid reasons for doing so.

    I advise the educators I work with to:
    “Find something that works, learn how to use it…then apply it to your teaching”
    and
    “If it doesn’t work…don’t use it”.

    I note from the comments above that some people just don’t see the educational merit of Minecraft. I have carried out CPD on games-based learning in which a geography teacher has left desperate to install Minecraft while his/her history colleague see no use for it. Education can never be a uniform system…on account of many elements, not least of all the pupils. So the more tools educators have, the better. Let Minecraft be just one of those. I do agree with your comment in the post that the word ‘Ultimate’ is a little over doing it (isn’t that the teacher?).

    I recently built a ‘high-quality’ learning environment using Minecraft specifically for teachers to learn how to use Mincraft. From the basic functions of mining, crafting and building to applying the game’s mechanics to their own subject. Educators are offered free, in-game CPD with me using Skype. It’s been an interesting project with teachers from all over the world visiting; from the UK to Chile and New Zealand. Many have commented that Minecraft became infinitely more applicable after such a session (usually just one hour). Perhaps there is some weight here in the importance of training in the use of these kinds of tools? Time, space and funding for pioneering new ideas, technologies and pedagogies in the yearly allocation of training for staff? Larger risk but I’m willing to bet there will be much larger rewards too.

    I do disagree with the Reddit comment from ‘sreyemhtes’. I have found quite the opposite in terms of the sustainability of the use of Minecraft through using it as a learning tool. Heshe commebts that pupils will be put off by the regimentation of it in a learning environment, far from the freedoms they have outside of school. If planned and managed correctly it can, in fact (has in my own experience) prolong a pupils interest in the game and learning purpose if structured for learning and thus, to some degree, limited. The beauty of Minecraft is the freedom we have to actually set rules, borders, challenges and problems. Examples such as flooding and minefields (a recent project we undertook for a geography department exploring the displacement of population after a natural disaster or war) can be used to keep the pupils from growing bored of the freedom to go anywhere, do anything. Focussing their minds on the task in hand, the fear of that mine or the construction of flood defences. Of course, giving them that freedom as rewards for completing challenges and maintaining the rules is a matter of ‘gamification’ (pupils were able to build a hugely elaborate settlement once they safely reached their chosen resettlement area).

    One final point; if we strip away the subject specifics of curriculum learning. Assume we don’t need to meet outcomes or objectives or experiences in any given subject. The sheer wealth and quality of soft skills developed through the collaborative work with a tool such as Minecraft is astonishing. Communication skills, in multiple languages where necessary, leadership, sharing, teamwork, organisation, time management, task management and more. All willingly…or rather more unwittingly given as part of the experience.Music to any educators ears!

    I am sure the Minecraft phenomenon will fade eventually as new games with ever more attractive mechanics are released. The games industry is changing rapidly towards a more interactive, hack, mod and build-your-own model. Lets just try to keep an open mind about all of the tools available to our educators. For now…I’m a fan of Minecraft as a tool for learning. Provided it’s the right tool for the job in hand.

  5. Katy

    March 28, 2013 at 9:39 am

    In order to understand Minecraft as an educational tool you first have to understand the psychology of learning. My Master’s thesis actually focuses on how unconventionally educational video games can actually be educational in an indirect sense through critical and active learning theory. American education has this idea that in order for something to be educational it has to teach the student something to memorize. Compare video games to what reading and writing teach you — the ability to assess and deal with rhetorical situations.

    To generalize a bit, when a student reads, they pick apart what they learn and then are asked to apply it in their writing. When a gamer plays an introductory level, they pick apart when they learn and then are asked, by the game, to apply it in their game play. This is active learning, where a student learns from experience and learns to apply it in different contexts. The benefit of this kind of learning is that it can be critically applied to other situations – it is transferable. Minecraft isn’t Legos, it is learning how to build certain things,applying formulas, etc. In fact I know many engineering majors who utilize the game in some of their own projects.

    • Chris Brannigan

      April 8, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Hi Katy – can you post a link to your thesis? It would be great to read

      Is the overall comparison between reading/writing skills and video game skills valid? Video games come in all manner of varieties, shapes and sizes. Whereas, (good) reading /writing practices have a number of core skills that can be applied to the task that are independent of content. These may be independent of language used – I have not checked the research. Whereas, learning Halo versus Minecraft versus Tetris may require very different approaches.

      It may be that critical thinking skills are generic and transferable across content. Are there studies that show that video games enhance critical thinking capabilities to the extent that players are able to utilise these in other contexts, such as history, geography, science, etc?

  6. John T. Spencer

    March 28, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    The issue I have with this video is that Minecraft can quickly turn into a pseudo-context when it is forced into physics, math or social studies. Is it a valuable tool? Yep. Can it be used collaboratively? You bet. However, there will always be standards missing, that are best applied in a world that is not made of 8-bit blocks. What about filming a documentary? How about blogging and relating to the larger world? What about a philosophical discussion in-person, away from a screen?

    Remember when WebQuests were going to save education? Remember when Google Docs were going to save it, too? Remember when the Khan Artists told us that bad blackboard videos were the ultimate solution?

    Teaching and learning will always be deeply human endeavors. No fictionalized world can transcend the deeply earthy reality of our world.

  7. Louiza Bruce

    March 28, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    I used Minecraft all last term to build on team work and literacy skills. The whole term was based on a role play of an island that the students needed to create a shelter, animal farm & food farm. These items were then traded. Best trade off and amount of profit made won.
    There were pros and cons like all new concepts but I have to say the pros won! Check out the link on website and watch the students engagement and collaborative work.

    Oh also the students were buzzing which meant engagement which also meant when OFSTED came knocking the lessons got Outstanding.

  8. Jackie

    April 2, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    Just yesterday, my 10 year old daughter talked to me about Minecraft. She said she likes it because “it is hard but it makes me think about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”