Jim Pike
Manage your Minecraft class

Minecraft is an extremely popular game for kids and adults. Whenever I mention the game to a new group of students, their eyes light up and they ask me, “You play Minecraft too?!” The buy-in is instantaneous.

The advantages of using Minecraft in the classroom far outweigh the disadvantages, but the roadblocks can be very real. Issues with styles of facilitation, classroom management and the technology can be difficult to figure out.

But with planning and practice, you can work through these concerns. That’s why we want to share some tips we learned from teaching with Minecraft in schools, learning centers and summer camps. These tips cover different types of lessons, classroom management and tech set-up. We hope they help you navigate your way to a successful game-based classroom and promote collaboration among teachers using Minecraft all around the world!

Before you begin

A successful Minecraft class should have three main components. When you’ve checked off all three, you’re headed in the right direction.

  1. Academic purpose. Establish learning objectives that are observable and measurable. If students are building a replica of the Great Pyramids, consider what you want them to learn and how will you be able to find evidence of that learning.
  2. Student engagement. Minecraft is naturally fun, engaging and collaborative! So if one of your lesson seems a little bland, find a way to turn it into a game. Activities should allow students to be active, work together and develop social-emotional learning skills.
  3. Working technology. Be prepared! Knowing how to manage the various tech issues that arise will make your class run smoothly, giving you more time to focus on the learning.

There’s more than one type of Minecraft lesson

It’s important to find the proper balance between being academically successful and fun. By rotating the class through these different types of lessons, you’ll provide students with a scaffold that will direct their building and exploration.

Demonstration lessons: This is when the teacher plays Minecraft while projecting the game on a large screen for students. Keep students involved by encouraging them to offer suggestions and ask questions.

Strengths

  1. Any teacher who can build, can start teaching with Minecraft immediately.
  2. These lessons require minimal tech because you need only a computer, a projector and a whiteboard.
  3. There’s no need for internet because once you download the game, you don’t need a connection to play.
  4. They offer an engaging way to introduce and demonstrate new concepts.
  5. They develop Level 1 and 2 depth of knowledge (DOK) skills.
  6. They make it easy to engage and manage your class.

Drawbacks

  1. Students are not actually interacting with the game.
  2. They can feel like “traditional” classes sometimes.
  3. They do not assess Level 3 and 4 DOK skills.

Gaming lessons: Students build and design in Minecraft while the teacher acts as a floater, providing guidance when necessary. Students use servers, LAN (local access network) worlds or the single player mode of the game.

When your class begins gaming lessons for the first time, don’t worry too much about academics. Your focus should be on getting all students fluent with the game’s mechanics (WASD, inventory access, crafting). When I first do a gaming lesson with my students, I might build a simple puzzle like a series of blocks that get taller and taller and then challenge them to move to the highest point. Or I might summon an Ender Dragon and order them to defeat it!

Strengths

  1. Students love them!
  2. The lessons reach Level 3 and 4 DOK skills.
  3. They promote positive social-emotional learning.
  4. The open-endedness empowers students in self-guided learning.

Drawbacks

  1. They come with a high learning curve for students not familiar with Minecraft.
  2. The teacher has less control of the classroom.
  3. Students may lose focus more easily.
  4. The teachers must know how to be a “server DJ” (know server commands, deal with lag and understand how to set up and change the maps and worlds).
  5. They require a lot of set-up and prep time.

Project lessons: These are longer-term design projects, such as filming a movie or creating a redstone machine like one they saw on YouTube. Here, the teacher’s goal is to help students figure out what they want to build, and offer resources and suggestions.

Strengths

  1. Students love them!
  2. The lessons reach Level 3 and 4 DOK skills.
  3. They promote collaborative, design-based learning.
  4. Students can work in local area networks, or LAN worlds, which can connect up to six computers using the same internet connection. This takes stress off the main server.  
  5. Different groups can work on different projects at the same time.
  6. Students direct their own learning; they can create their own learning objectives.
  7. They easily lend themselves to cross-curricular learning.

Drawbacks

  1. Students can easily get off-task as you work with other groups.
  2. The teacher must stay on top of 3-5 projects at the same time.
  3. They require longer periods of class time and flexible project deadlines.
  4. It may take time for students to think about how to be creative in Minecraft.

Flipped classroom lessons: A flipped class is when the instruction happens at home and the actual assignment is done during school time. For example, I might tell my students to watch a video on YouTube at home about how to create a digital clock in Minecraft. Then during class time, we’ll discuss the video and devote the rest of the period to building the clock. If you’ve set up a class server and your students have internet access, they can begin working on the project at home. When running a flipped Minecraft lesson, make sure your students know what is expected of them by giving them clear design goals and instructional resources.

Strengths

  1. If students have their own accounts, they can work on the class server from home. This frees up instructional time that would have been lost to rote building.
  2. The real learning happens during class.
  3. These lessons promote student collaboration since they’re doing their “homework” during school.

Drawbacks

  1. You need to set up a class server.
  2. Not all students will have their own Minecraft accounts or home internet access.
  3. You may need to get parents onboard with students playing Minecraft at home.

Not all Minecraft interactions are the same

It’s important to recognize different ways students play Minecraft.

Low-level interaction (aka mindcracking): A low-level of interaction, or mindcracking as I like to call it, is probably a teacher’s worst nightmare. This is when students are seemingly off task; they’re running around in the game, fighting each other and spawning/slaughtering animals with no goal in mind.

While this can lead to a chaotic class environment, I’d argue that having designated times for mindcracking segues to the higher levels of interaction with the game, and it is also a great way for students who are new to the game to learn the controls.

Often, students look forward to simply “fooling around,” especially if they’ve already put hard work into their projects. It is in these moments of mindcracking that I see students make new discoveries they might not have made otherwise.

Mid-level interaction: This type requires more teacher guidance, following the mantra of “I do. We do. You do.” Here, the teacher models a concept in the game and challenges students to create structures that clearly showcase their understanding and mastery of that concept.

This is more of a traditional approach and can feel like a worksheet. It might involve having students build algorithms or create structures that you’ve already designed for them. However, once students can see how building structures in Minecraft requires math, they’ll go to the higher level of interaction, such as creating original structures using math and other real-world concepts.

High-level interaction: At this level, students are engaged self-directors of their learning, working on their personal projects or putting their own spin on what you are teaching in class. They are figuring out solutions to design problems and using their creativity.

For example, in my class, we’ve created a Minecraft town that has student houses and other structures, and we are continually expanding it. With so many structures and students, it is easy to get lost. When that happens, I ask them, “OK, what do you think we should do?”
They are challenged to figure out a solution, such as building a road that leads back to the main part of town.

At a high level of interaction in Minecraft, students have a self-directed goal and are keen to achieve it. They’re asking themselves, “What do I want to build? Why do I want to build it? How do I want to build it?” They’ll then conduct research through tutorial videos and wikis, rely on their past experience and work with their peers to figure it out.

When students are this emotionally invested and goal-driven, I consider this to be the pinnacle of a learning experience. During this time, the teacher’s role is simple: Walk around the class, ask students to articulate what they’re doing and highlight a student’s work or discovery.

Lag is the enemy

If you have 20 to 30 students on different computers on the same Minecraft server, chances are you’re going to run into lag. Lag is what happens when the computer is not processing the frames per second for all the users on the server or because of a poor internet connection. Most schools don’t have the best connection, and lag can quickly frustrate your students and derail your lesson. But don’t worry, a good “server DJ” can easily defeat lag.

How you know lag is happening

  1. The screen is choppy; you’ll freeze and then move fast.
  2. Nonplayable characters (animals, monsters) will be frozen.
  3. Students say they aren’t able to play.

Here are some cures to lag

  1. The simplest solution is to have students play in single player mode. This is better than not playing at all and better than playing with lag.
  2. Set up multiple online servers and have groups of students on each server. This reduces the amount of users on one server.
  3. Create multiple LAN worlds. Any computer can act as a small server. A LAN world allows access to six users who are all on the same internet connection. Working in a LAN world takes the stress off the main server.
  4. If lag is caused by your internet connection, you can use your phone or your students’ phones to create mobile hotspots to connect to the mobile Wi-Fi. This is definitely a Band-Aid solution and we don’t recommend doing it often, but it also empowers students to be problem solvers.

Helpful commands will help you control the world

This is a partial list of commands that I’ve found to be helpful when working with a class.

/time set 0                              Sets time to morning
/time set night                       Sets time to night
/weather clear                       Stops the rain
/tp @a @p                             Teleports all players to you
/gamemode 1                         Puts you in creative mode
/gamemode 0                         Puts you in survivor mode
/gamemode 1 @a                  Puts all players in creative mode
/gamemode 0 @a                  Puts all players in survivor mode
/summon EnderDragon       Summons the Ender Dragon and a great way for students to learn the controls 
summon                                 Bring a Minecraft entity into the world
tp                                            Teleport
@a                                          At all players
@p                                          At your player
@“playername”                    At a specific player
/tp @a @p                              Teleport everyone to your player

Finally, get out the way!

The most important tip I can give you is stay out of the way and let students drive the class, rather than strictly following your set plans. Kids need time to play, explore, inquire and create their long-term design projects.

This doesn’t mean coming into every class without a plan; you should have a clear idea of what you want students to achieve. But be ready to adjust when necessary! Allowing students to play will help swing low-level interaction (mindcracking) to high-level interaction, empowering them to take charge of their own learning.

Jim Pike is a fifth grade teacher at Albert Einstein Academy of Beverly Hills and the director of game based learning at CodeREV Kids Learning Centers. He has written the Common Core Math curriculum “MathCraft” and is one of the founders of the MathCraftPLC, where he conducts live Minecraft teacher camps. When Jim is not in the classroom, he is playing with his kids or playing ice hockey.

Mylo Lam has an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a concentration in technology, innovation and education. He received his bachelor’s from UCLA in communication studies and theater. Mylo is interested in people (of all ages!) who use different technologies to create, express, play and learn. When he’s not developing curricula, Mylo loves playing video games and acting.

Minecraft is a hot topic at ISTE 2016. Register today!