Last year I spoke to Joel Levin, creator and co-founder of MinecraftEdu, a school-friendly remix of Minecraft [official site] which is designed to be used in schools. Levin spoke with eloquence and hope about how the blockbuilding game can be used to teach children internet etiquette, patience, general learning skills, and every subject from science to history to foreign languages. Below is an excerpt of the interview which charts the initial inspiration for the software and which is full of good, inspirational examples for how to make “screen time” healthy and useful for kids.
RPS: What was the first spark of inspiration, where you decided to start pursuing Minecraft as an educational tool?
Levin: I discovered Minecraft as a gamer, like many other people did. It was kind of in the pre-alpha days; I was early on the Minecraft train, so to speak. My friends were playing it and I checked it out, and I thought it was really cool. My first thought wasn’t about my students, it was that this is a game that I wanted to play with my daughter, who was almost five at the time. So I set up a little home server and we had some great adventures exploring the woods, running away from monsters, building houses.
But very, very quickly I noticed that the thought processes that were being activated in my daughter, the kind of thinking she was required to do in the game, the kind of creativity that the game elicited, was really coming through at a surprising level even at this very young age. She was problem solving, she was analysing and deconstructing problems, she was incredibly self-reliant. I’d come over, ‘Looks like you’re having trouble building that, let me help you’, and she’d push me away. ‘No Dad, let me do it by myself’.
And so one of the things if you read the academic papers about using games in the classroom, game-based learning, one of the things that the games are really proving unequivocally– a skill that they’re undoubtedly being able to build is resiliency and diligence at solving problems and being able to come up with novel solutions to problems. As well as things like, you know, building strong number sensibilities, being able to estimate, things like that.
This is what I was seeing in my daughter. She was figuring out rudimentary math problems, she was estimating how many trees she needed to cut down in order to get so many planks in order to build her house. She was doing a pretty good job at it, and this is not something that a five-year-old is supposed to be able to do, but the practical experience and being motivated to do better in the game had these great results.
Other things, too; she learnt to spell her first word because of Minecraft. At the time I had the server set up so that if you got lost, you could type ‘/home’ and teleport yourself back to your home. So she came up to me one day, ‘Daddy! How do I spell home?’. Well, h-o-m-e and that was the first word she learned how to spell.
This was during the summer of 2010. The whole time, I was thinking, I have to find something to do. I was teaching second grade at the time. I have to do something with my second graders. I started thinking of different activities and challenges I could create for them in the game and it just clicked right away. I could dream up little scenarios and since Minecraft is a building game, I could build these, then set my kids loose in it. I knew going into it that I would be able to do a focus on teamwork, help the kids build their motor skills using the keyboard and mouse, because, by the way, kids today stink at using keyboards and mice. They’re all used to touchscreens, so a game like Minecraft where you have to click a bunch of little boxes and type to your friends, that’s good practice. So I knew those things would be there.
I also had the idea that as part of our second grade unit, we do a unit on internet research. I showed them how to use Wikipedia, and I thought, well, this is perfect. I’ll show them the Minecraft wiki and if they want to do more with the game they have to do their own research or find videos online. So I knew all of that would work. But I was surprised, I was caught off guard by just how much kids loved this game. It was– at this point, it was January 2011. Minecraft was not the phenomenon it is today. I was teaching about 110 different kids and not a single one of them had played Minecraft before. You can’t say that anymore, that’s not the case, now they’ve all either played it or know about it. So I was just blown away by how much kids loved the game, how engaged they were in the lesson.
But then beyond that, I was very quickly surprised by how much more was going on than just the lessons I cooked up. The kids were forming a little society; they were quite naturally building these little communities. One group of boys built a castle with a throne room, another group of girls built a pet store, another group of kids built a store. They started roleplaying in these little societies and I very quickly realised that there was a real opportunity to talk about digital citizenship. Which was something that my school was actually struggling to teach at a young age.
I don’t know if it’s a term you’re familiar with – it’s kind of a blanket term we use to talk about online safety, online etiquette, how we treat each other online, what’s public, what’s private, what sources are trustworthy. It’s everything rolled into one. This is something that schools all over the world are struggling with as kids – middle school or high school – are getting on Facebook and other social networks and Snapchat and whatever. And they don’t always behave appropriately, so we were looking for ways to sort of teach about these concepts at a young age. Quite honestly, we stumbled onto Minecraft as a really great solution for this.
Kids were coming into conflict in the game. They were having arguments about how to share resources. Or a kid would break into another kids house and mess up their stuff. And quite naturally they’re using– these are all gamers, and in most games it’s expected. You win at all costs. There’s really no moral consequence for causing harm to other people. And suddenly in my classroom in Minecraft, it was a very different experience. What these kids– their actions had consequences. They were learning very well that if they did something disrespectful to another player, well, you know what, there’s a real person whose feelings were hurt. I gave time-outs on the rug because of actions in the game, or someone would type something or say something hurtful in the game because, you know, ‘haha, that’s what I do on XBox Live at home.’ But it’s like, you know what – we are in school. You are talking to another human being and that is not acceptable.
What was amazing to me is that the kids themselves made the intellectual leap that how we treat each other in Minecraft is not that different from how we treat each other in Facebook. All of these kids had horror stories; they had an older sibling or they knew someone that was being harrassed online or bullied, or someone’s private pictures got out, things like that. And they knew very well that it was the same issue. Causing them to reflect on their behaviour was part of the same conversation for these other social networks as they were getting older. So to me as an educator, as a parent, as a gamer looking at the next generation of gamers being thoughtful and respectful, all of these things were just really inspiring to me. At this time, it was just me and my classroom. I was pulling in other teachers and my principal and saying, there’s something going on in my classroom that I’ve never seen before and you should pay attention to it.
But I didn’t know what to do with this experience. I started blogging about it, I started my Minecraft teacher blog, and I was really caught off guard by the amount of attention it received. I had been writing to it for a couple of weeks before I shared it with anybody, and then the day I shared it, it ended up on the frontpage of Reddit. That caught me off guard, certainly!
Some of the Mojang guys started following me on Twitter. It really opened my eyes. I didn’t think that what I was doing in my classroom was all that special; I knew it was different and new but I didn’t quite know how many other educators were looking for a similar type of experience. And also, for me it wasn’t that hard. I’m a gamer, I’m a server guy, I can do a little bit of code, so it wasn’t that hard for me to hack together my own server and get this up and running in my own classroom. But I was having history teachers, English teachers, parents at home saying, ‘How can I do this?’ Unfortunately the answer was, ‘Gee, it’s really complicated. You’ve got to download all these mods and write your own config scripts.’ And in the back of my head I was thinking, ‘someone is going to figure this out.’ In the next year or two, someone is going to make a tool that just makes it easy to get a server going for a classroom. Little did I know that that would end up being me and my colleagues. [laughs] Sorry, I rambled on a bit.
RPS: It sounds like everyone seems to grasp the power and appeal of Minecraft as a classroom tool.
Levin: Well, usually. If you get Minecraft and you’re a gamer, you can sort of see the connection. I think it’s harder for outsiders, parents that maybe just watch their kids play Minecraft and aren’t gamers themselves. More traditional teachers, at first glance, they might not get it. It looks like kids are just playing games. “Just” playing games. I happen to think there’s a whole lot of valuable stuff happening in a kid’s brain while they’re playing games, but that’s still not the wildly accepted viewpoint. I often find that in order to open people’s eyes to the possibilities, I have to give a few examples. With something as open-ended as Minecraft, I’m a firm believer that you could teach any subject with this game. It may not be the best fit, but you could do it.
I’ll often give examples of – and all I’m about to say are real things that teachers are doing somewhere in the world, either with MinecraftEdu or another version of Minecraft: there are history teachers having their kids re-build ancient worlds with Minecraft or go on quests in pre-built history worlds; there are science teachers building experiments to test things like the gravity in Minecraft or the physics of water and then comparing and contrasting that to the real world; there are language teachers teaching a foreign language by playing in Minecraft and the only rule is you have to speak in the language you’re learning; there’s literature teachers having kids do reading and writing inside the Minecraft world, or not, you just play the world for twenty minutes and then you journal about it for twenty minutes. I’ve had teachers tell me, ‘Gee, I’ve had this one student I could never get him to pick up a pencil and write about anything personal, but as soon as I told him he could write about Minecraft, there’s no stopping him.’
That sort of taps into the power of using games in classrooms and especially a game like Minecraft that just the kids are so engaged in, they’re so invested in, and when you tell a kid that something they’re passionate about is not only OK but valued inside a school setting, they’re just going to be happier to be in school, and they’re going to be more receptive to what you want them to learn.
RPS: Are there common concerns from teachers and parents that you hear?
Levin: Yes, certainly. There are kids– look, all parents in the 21st century are struggling with the issues of screen time. How much is too much? Finding the balance between online and offline socialisation. There are kids that can– I don’t like to use the word addiction because that has a medical connotation but there are certainly kids that can pick up obsessive habits with computer games and Minecraft is one of those games. So I’ve had parents tell me, ‘Gee, I have a enough problems getting my kids to balance games and real life at home and now you’re saying he can play at school.’ That’s challenging.
My response to that is, I think so many kids have problems finding that balance because they don’t have too many role models in their life showing them how to play a game with a level of reflect about what they’re doing and why and how. And that’s the sort of thing that school can do.
My daughter who was five and is now eight, she’s an avid reader. Left to her own devices, she’ll just read comic books and not push herself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I read a lot of comic books – but she’s not going to on her own make it to read literature and become a great writer herself.
It’s very similar with computer games. This thing that may be viewed as a waste of time at home, done in the context of a school setting, with a responsible adult in the room who can shepherd the experience, it’s a very different thing.
That’s the most common criticism, but I’ve heard others like, ‘Just because you can teach something with Minecraft, doesn’t mean it’s the best tool.’ And I happen to totally agree with that. One of our guiding philosophies as we’ve developed MinecraftEdu is, we’re not packaging curriculum. We make maps available – if you want to try this map, you can – but we’re not saying, ‘Here’s what you need to teach and how with Minecraft.’ It’s quite the opposite. We’re providing the tool. It’s widely accepted that Minecraft is a platform which people create their own game experiences on top of, so what we’re doing with that concept is we’re giving teachers the ability to create their own experiences just like I did in the beginning, in their own classroom. We’re just lowering the barriers to entry: making it really easy to get a server up and running, to control where kids can and can’t go in the game, have assignments pop up on their screens, things like that.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
This feature was originally published as part of, and thanks to, the RPS Supporter Program.