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Using Minecraft to teach Math Literacy

You’ve probably heard of the game Minecraft – millions of children around the world play it – but did you know that it can help teach math skills? I didn’t. When my 7-year-old asked me to download Minecraft for him, I checked it out online first, and what I read astounded me. Minecraft is a game in which players can use 3D blocks to build simple things like houses, as well as complex things like programmable computers! (see video) It can be used in the classroom to teach math concepts; from beginning multiplication tables to advanced physics. I was so intrigued by this fact that I contacted a teacher who uses it to find out more…

Mitch Brotherton teaches 6th and 7th grade Literacy Math at Otwell Middle school in Cumming, Georgia. His class is like no other. It’s a course of his own creation which teaches math, writing and other 21st century skills like HTML programming and video editing. When asked why he uses Minecraft in class, Mitch explained, “Everyone in school is familiar with Minecraft. In an age where teachers strive to make lessons relevant and interesting to their students, why not use Minecraft?”

If you can imagine it, you can build it

“Minecraft is what gamers refer to as a "sandbox" game, in which the player does whatever he or she chooses to do. The only limit is one's imagination. All objects and terrain in Minecraft are able to be altered through player interaction. Minecraft can be as simple or as complicated as the player is skilled,” Mitch explained.

His course incorporates many of the common core standards required in math and literacy classes. It is centered on projects which are divided into four sections: researching, writing, working and presenting. During the working phase, his students build structures in Minecraft to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical principals such as ratios, integers, quadrants, area and volume. Students create graphs, buildings and other structures, take screenshots of them and submit them to Mitch through the itslearning assignment feature.

Mitch uses a custom version of Minecraft called MinecraftEdu, designed specifically for teachers and students. It contains many features that support classroom use, including multiplayer settings. It lets teachers guide students within the game and allows the incorporation of one’s own curriculum. “Everything teachers look for in their lessons can be found in the game: creativity, collaboration, fun factor, and relevance,” Mitch reported.

Encouraging creativity

Minecraft promotes creativity in both students and teachers. Mitch explains, “I have more freedom designing lessons on Minecraft than I ever had designing a traditional lesson. My process is something like this: look at a standard, think about what the standard is asking for, and imagine what my students could create that would demonstrate mastery of the standard. No worksheets, no lectures, just creativity. It is refreshing as a teacher to be given so much freedom to be creative when making a unit; I can only imagine how refreshing it is for a student to be given that same freedom!”

Collaboration is key

“My classroom setup is pretty neat. I have a ‘captain's chair’ that allows me to see all of the computers around me. In front of me is my projector. When we play Minecraft, I can sit in my captain's chair with Minecraft on the projector and see everything that is going on. I can play and communicate with my students, help them with problem-solving, and watch them collaborate. Collaboration is a key component of Minecraft. ‘Teacher collaboration’ is also important, and it is something that is lacking in a lot of traditional classrooms.”

Mitch uses itslearning as the “hub” of his classroom. “My class is organized by folders. Each folder corresponds to a build we complete in Minecraft. The folders contain student research topics, instructions, and an assignment portion for them to upload screenshots. For quick projects, I simply put a content block on the course dashboard with student instructions. For more complex tasks, I link a document from itslearning that the students are able to access and download.”

Below is an itslearning content block containing instructions for Mitch’s incredible Minecraft roller coaster build. You can watch a video of an exceptional student submission here.



Roller coaster build

Fun Factor

Mitch designs his classes with fun in mind. “Students having fun are engaged students, engaged students are learning students. I wanted my students to have so much fun that when they left my classroom, they would not even realize how much math they had learned. With Minecraft, I have succeeded.”

After talking to Mitch, I had no reservations about my 7-year-old playing Minecraft. He is now a member of Intercraften’s family-friendly Minecraft server and is creating to his heart’s content! I can’t wait to use the game to teach him his multiplication tables!

If you’d like to learn more about how Mitch uses Minecraft in his classes, take a look at his website and Twitter account.

3 comments (Add your own)

1. Virginia Ramunda-Marty wrote:
This is great news! Education is so behind the new information and censorial system we are all exposed to nowadays that its no wonder the increment of children with the abused term of "ADD". Nobody explains it better than Sir Ken Robinson with this fabulous animated TED talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U
Now, when we as parents have to endure the worst that our Education System has to offer, like me, for example, where in a Canadian (BC) Elementary School my child was not allowed to go to the washroom because he could not finish his work (who can concentrate if it has to go to the washroom?) or when he is constantly appalled by a policy where discouragement is the rule, we then have to suffer the consequences of these antiquated and abusive "Education Systems" that produce children totally deprived of self-esteem and common-sense, where any sign of imagination or liberty is frowned-upon to the point of even making a child wanting to drop out of school in 3rd grade...
Minecraft is an example of "The Missing Link" in Education, where interest, the basic ingredient for true learning to happen, is used to lure the minds of all ages to learn while enjoying the process.
My respect to all the people out there whom before Minecraft have been struggling to get these ideas out, to bring positive change in their communities, classrooms... homes.

This is a great article, what I would love as a parent is to have access to a "How To" according to age or level.

Thank you,
Virginia Ramunda-Marty

13/05/2014 @ 7:04

2. Christiana Moore wrote:
We seem to stamp out imagination and fun in the classroom and corroboration is frowned upon, yet when we then reach the workforce, we are expected to have imaginative ideas and be able to work well with others. I love that these sorts of games are being used in the classroom and I am now doing an assignment at university where I hope to explain the fantastic uses that games such as minecraft can offer.

This article was great and insightful, and I hope that one day when I'm teaching, I can follow in the footsteps that has been demonstrated here and create a fun and creative learning environment with engaged students.

Thanks you, Christiana Moore

23/05/2014 @ 1:33

3. Leslie Ahern wrote:
Thanks for your comments Virginia and Christiana! I enjoyed writing the article.

I asked Mitch, the Math teacher in my blog post, for more details on how to get children and students engaged in Minecraft. Here’s his response:

There are a couple of ways I get my students to have fun and learn while playing Minecraft.

First and foremost, I actually play the game with them. I see some pretty amazing results when I am actually in-game with the students. It’s similar to the difference between a teacher that sits at his or her desk all day and a teacher that walks around interacting and monitoring the students. As your son is 7, I can almost guarantee you that he will think it is pretty neat that you get in the game with him.

The second way I get students to see Minecraft as both fun and as a learning tool is to make everything a competition. We vote on the best builds and my classes compete often with one another. I encourage students to build the “best” of something, and suddenly they don’t even care that they are doing math.

For instance, I had a contest to see who could find the volume of the largest shape in Minecraft. I had a student build an entire town with a wall and tell me what the volume would be if the city flooded with water. Don’t just give your son something to build, give him something and have him build something better. For instance, since he is learning basic math, ask him to build the best shape he can with a limit of 30 blocks. The math part will subtly come into play as he tries to figure out how many more blocks he can add before he reaches 30.

There is a fine line between interrupting the play and inserting the learning. Once you get the hang of it, however, it becomes a natural process. Ask your son how he thinks the game involves math, or how he thinks he could do math on the game. Use some of his suggestions and have fun!

-Mitch Brotherton

23/05/2014 @ 9:10

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