Education in a sandbox
2016-10-17 | Text: Tatiana Petukhova | Photo ©: Flickr: nottinghamgamecity; Mike Prosser; Ithildin Chuang; Delyth Angharad; Global Kids/Online Leadership Program (OLP); Philip Roeland; Wesley Fryer | 1559

Minecraft is the best-selling game of all times with over 70 million downloads. The free-form game structure made Minecraft really popular among children and adults around the globe. Despite the fact that the game was designed for entertainment, teachers found its educational potential and decided to integrate Minecraft into the teaching process.

We've had a conversation with Finnish teacher and businessman Santeri Koivisto. He is the CEO of TeacherGaming – the company which developed MinecraftEdu – the educational version of Minecraft. This version is now used in about 15 thousand schools in 40 countries around the world. 

 

– Santeri, how did you get the idea of using this game at school? Did you look for an unusual way to work with kids? Did you find it in Minecraft?

To begin with I was a gamer since I was 7 or so, but my friends and relatives were always saying: "You will never become anything, because you only play games".  


When I was a university student and studying to be a teacher, I thought that I can play Minecraft at school with kids while teaching. Basically, any game is a learning process for something. It's not necessary for the game to be strictly educational.  Because you have to at least look into it in order to understand how to play it.

Minecraft allows you to do so much stuff. At the beginning, I was really surprised what you could do with the help of Minecraft. The internal mechanics of Minecraft give you an opportunity to include it in the teaching process. The kids and I divided into groups, and within each group we would build something and then make presentations about what we did. We made really basic and simple buildings. We recreated some places, like our classroom or a school. But first, we had to measure these places to recreate them in Minecraft. 

My students loved it. I had no doubts that kids would enjoy the game, but I didn't expect that it would attract teachers' attentions. When other teachers started to come into our class and asked: "What kind of game is it? Can we play it, too?”, I started thinking that Minecraft is not just about fun gameplay, it has to be something else. 

For teachers, it's not always that easy to teach with the games. How does it fit in a lesson plan? What will kids learn from it? The answers were quite blurry, especially for non-gamers. So, we decided to help teachers with that. 

In spring 2011, I contacted the creator of Minecraft, Markus Persson, and I told him that I wanted to make an educational product for Finnish teachers. And that my company could develop the additional tools for Minecraft to do that. I asked him: "Can my business be like a school representative for Minecraft in Finland?" They said: "We have no idea what that means, but let's try".

At the same time, an American teacher, Joe Levine, started a blog, where he shared with other teachers his experience about using Minecraft in the classroom. I contacted him and we started to collaborate. Now, we are talking about two continents – we had people in the United States and in Finland. Three-four months after the initial development of MinecraftEdu the first concerned applied to us: "Do you creating something related to learning by Minecraft? Can we buy your product?". The funniest thing is that people often ask what research we carried out before the creation of the learning resources and if we have reliable data saying that it really has something to teach and to teach efficiently. But nobody asks about the game itself. 

What we do, it's not just games. It is about the development of creative thinking, about teamwork, about the ability to think critically – in other words, XXI century skills. It isn't calculable.

 

– And how does the game allow kids to learn those skills you're talking about?

Any situation in the learning process of Minecraft requires teamwork and cooperation. When you, as a teacher, begin to use Minecraft with students, there will necessarily be conflicts and you need to set the rules and mark the boundaries of what is permitted. There is no concept of a right or wrong answer – all decisions are made in the process and depend on the circumstances. To find the best solution to the problem, you must be able to think critically, constantly improve and update something to ensure that your problem-solving approach is nearly perfect. Very often you have to turn to the real world for additional information. For example, to look into books and textbooks and then to transfer the acquired knowledge into Minecraft.  As well as the other way around – use what you have learned from the game in the real world. 

Also, Minecraft could help in the development of digital citizenship skills. For example, one student spent two weeks working on the creation of a building in Minecraft and another student just burned it down. The building was the digital property of the first student and its destruction can be used to explain a quite complex phenomenon of the modern world.  This is not included in the curriculum.

Minecraft is a study in the making. The beauty of the game is that you can do anything you want, and for all that you do, you have to find suitable solutions. The XXI century skills are really easy to integrate into the process.




– So you can see that many of these skills will be needed in the future and it's necessary to try to find the tools to teach them?

Sure. If we have in mind basic knowledge, which we can always turn to, for example, to know that the capital of Sweden is Stockholm, we will be more productive. But now, I think the balance is shifting from simple knowledge to the "acquired wisdom" in different areas, to the development of skills for work in an increasingly complex environment. Let me illustrate this with an example from our company. If you are a game developer, you need to fully understand the game, understand the purpose of the game, its mission, and the values of all the people involved in the process of creating the game. Everything that you do should reflect your understanding. That's why you need skills such as cooperation, listening, and the ability to convincingly express your thoughts and ideas. You need to think critically and have a systematic approach to problem solving.

– How has MinecraftEdu been modified compared to the original game? What is the difference between them? 

First of all, our version is multiplayer. That gives teachers the opportunity to easily connect their students to the game and monitor the learning process, to give students some instructions and to guide them within the game, etc. Second of all, teachers can add new content and share their content, as well as download content from other teachers in the community. Thirdly, MinecraftEdu is easier to buy. It may sound weird, but it is really important because the procurement system in schools is very complicated and outdated, and to purchase anything is not so simple. 

But, for the students, virtually nothing has changed. We deliberately wanted to make sure that the children feel like they are playing at home.

– In what school subjects Minecraft is used, and in which of those, in your opinion, the game is most effective?

I've seen examples of using Minecraft in all school subjects, even in gymnastics. You might ask: "How is that?". So, before you navigate in the woods or on the school grounds, students learn to read maps in Minecraft. It works as follows. The teacher makes a screenshot of the Minecraft map and puts lines on it like on contour maps. After that, students try to find the actual location where the teacher hid the treasure. They have only a contour map drawn by the teacher to do that. 

But, I would definitely apply MinecraftEdu in history and mathematics. In math, there are concepts that are quite difficult for children to understand and many of those are completely abstract. But they can recreate it in Minecraft, giving a quite tangible and clear view. As for history, if you are studying, for example, Ancient Rome, it just involves bringing together all the necessary locations. You can build a Roman building and visit the different historical sites to scoop up the information. You can even make reports and presentations using this game.  

But I know the worst examples of using Minecraft in math. Some teachers just do not really understand the game and cannot distinguish its strengths to use them in teaching.



– What knowledge and skills should a teacher have to start using MinecraftEdu in the classroom?

It would be great if they're at least a bit fond of games. It's worth watching some videos on YouTube and to play himself. This is a good start. I do not think you need to have any special skills like being a heavy gamer or a tech-savvy person. But you definitely need a certain courage. 

– How can teachers integrate the game into their usual teaching model? Where would you suggest starting? 

Each teacher has their own teaching methods. Another advantage of Minecraft is precisely that it is not only suitable for different methods of mastering the material, but also for a variety of teaching styles. In the beginning, the teachers are frightened in some ways, but over time they realize how convenient it is and how much joy it can add to the learning process. Teachers often begin with a free-form, such as elective lessons, gradually including these lessons in a normal school schedule. 

I would outline the two best ways to start using Minecraft. The first is preparation. You allow students just to play for 30-60 minutes, maybe using training videos. If they have problems, you can stop the game and discuss. After they learn the principles of the game, ask the opinion of your students – what they think about this game and what, in their opinion, it can teach? Then, you can choose any of the ideas that your students would like to do in the game. Since they will draw knowledge from it, their advice should not be ignored. Many teachers try to avoid asking student's opinion, but I can say with confidence that it helps and it should be done.

The second way is to contact other teachers. You can go to the Minecraft teachers' community at Google, where approximately 4000 teachers are currently registered and ask them. They will recommend what you should do as a beginner. For example, you can download their content, maps, and begin working with these materials. There is not any right or wrong way to start. The main thing is to interest students. Then, everything should go on smoothly.

– How should the role of teachers change in relation to students when working with MinecraftEdu? 

Let's assume that the students are experts not only in this game, but games generally. And you, as a teacher are an expert in the organization of lessons and selecting appropriate educational topics. You can help them to organize and find information. But, you're probably not an expert in the understanding of modern media. This also applies to books, television, and the Internet. And even more so for games. Kids understand them better, it is a fact, and the balance has shifted in their direction. Most often students just take what is being offered. But now you have to give them the opportunity to interact, you need to listen to their ideas and allow them to fully participate in the learning process – deciding what and how they will learn.

 

– Can you give examples of how using Minecraft has changed relationships in the class?

As I said, I recommend all teachers ask their students what they think about the game. A teacher from Britain has done this.  After a lesson with Minecraft, he asked his students: "What do you think you can learn from this?". He gave them homework to write down their thoughts and bring it to the next class. To his amazement, the children did not want to go home. They wanted to share their ideas immediately.

I have another example from Finland. Many students from the class of one Finnish teacher (most of them are boys) just hated school and classes. But she wanted to have at least one lesson per week that they would really like. She decided that the Minecraft game might be this lesson, and she was right. I think this is the right point of view. The atmosphere itself is important – the attitude towards the process of learning and the joy that students may experience. Without this atmosphere, everything else loses its meaning.

Educational products and technologies are usually presented as sources of what else can be learned or what can make you better. But in the case of Minecraft, we are talking about interaction between the teacher and the child – how they spend their time in class and what they are talking about. Minecraft can completely change the rules. The first priority should not be to evaluate the correctness of doing something, but to help teacher and students understand each other better. We often hear stories of a teacher who says, "That's all! I'm too tired to teach, I quit". One teacher said this and then he was given the option to try Minecraft. A while later, he said: "Yes, now I know that I will not give up teaching because I have a radically different way of working with students". We have very good reviews as these examples reveal.

In addition, I believe that the learning process should not be boring. And using Minecraft as a tool does not get boring. It creates a positive attitude towards studying, which is important. When I was in school, I will not say that I hated it or did not want to learn, but inside I actively resisted learning. I think that the concept of study itself has some kind of stigma because it means boredom. I think that striving to change attitudes in the learning process and finding ways of translating this into practice are my original ideas. 

– Tell us about your team, about Teacher Gaming, and about what are you working on now?

Now, MinecraftEdu has changed to Microsoft Minecraft Education Edition. Our project was transferred to Microsoft at the beginning of 2016.

Our company has about 15 people. We create our own games, as well as develop analytic tools to support teachers who use games in their work. We know that sometimes it is difficult to keep track of what is happening in the game and it's not always easy to convey to the children some contemporary themes; for example, combinatorial thinking or programming. And in order to know if there is any progress, if the children learned anything, we've created a special technology.

Another one of our products is KerbalEdu – an adapted version of Kerbal Space Program for schools. In this game, students build rockets and operate orbital flights so that they can learn real-world physics and engineering skills that develop constructive thinking. 

– At the end of the conversation I have to ask: how do you see the future of gaming in education?
 
I do not expect that games will be used everywhere.  After all, there are other methods of teaching. But, considering the fact that children spend most of their free time on social networks and games, we definitely need to use these technologies to expand the ways of working with children. Since children are so passionate about technology, we need to try to turn it for a good cause. We tried to make using games as simple as possible for teachers. So they were not worried about whether or not they understand games well enough. And if learning was properly represented through games so they could easily concentrate on other prior things. We hope that gaming will have a positive effect in education. Discussions on the use of games in the educational process have been going on for 30 years. But I think that MinecraftEdu can be considered a breakthrough in this area. Well, let's see what will happen next.


Minecraft is a sandbox computer game developed by Swedish programmer Markus Persson, founder of Mojang AB. 

The d
evelopment of Minecraft started in 2009.  The same year, the first alpha-version of the game was released to the public. The first full version was released in 2011.  

Minecraft represents a three-dimensional game world composed of cubical blocks. You can freely build and reconstruct anything you want, creating buildings out of blocks. It makes Minecraft similar to the LEGO assembly kit. The game has no particular goals, so players could choose what to do. They produce natural resources, construct buildings and explore new worlds. 

In 2014, the Mojang company and the Minecraft intellectual property were purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion.



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