Minecraft is fun – but it’s also a useful tool for teachers. Swiss teacher Stefan Huber’s students explore complex issues while also reflecting on their online behavior.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: What led you to start using Minecraft in your lessons?
Stefan Huber: During the first Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020, I felt that we were simply muddling through, and not really creating learning experiences for our students. Our school has a strong tech platform, so we were able to communicate and work together, but it was monotonous and uninspiring. I wanted to connect with my students and offer them something positive, and since I enjoy gaming and programming, I suggested integrating Minecraft into our lessons. It turned out to be fun for my students, and I noticed that in the game world, they were motivated to do even the most boring and repetitive tasks. I thought to myself: This has huge potential.
CSG: Minecraft has an ‘educational’ version, and there are a lot of teachers who blog about using the game in their lessons. Did this inspire you?
SH: I had a look, and I didn’t think they were taking advantage of Minecraft’s potential. Most were just transferring classroom lessons to the virtual world. The first project I came up with was to have my students build the structure of the coronavirus, with its spikes and proteins. It worked really well. Next, for a German lesson I designed a world and had one group search for a treasure, based on certain coordinates, then write instructions so that others could find it as well. They weren’t asked to draw a map, but to provide a very detailed written description of how to get from the starting point to the goal. The other groups read the instructions and then tried to find the treasure. After they found it, they gave the first group advice on how to improve the instructions so that others could find the treasure more quickly.
Minecraft is a good way to simulate situations that they can’t observe in real life. Take the topic of biodiversity, for example: If students kill off a species in the online world, they can see what that means for the environment and how it affects other living creatures. Of course, you can give students a text to read that conveys the same facts, but the impact is not the same. When you program something in the Minecraft world, you can’t always anticipate the chain reactions that will be triggered. One student of mine killed off all the spiders in her world, and suddenly the whole environment dried up. All the other animals disappeared and there was nothing left but desert. She was worried that she might have just destroyed the world. With Minecraft, it’s a more emotional experience.
My colleagues were curious, and some asked my students, “Are you just playing games with Mr. Huber? What do you do in his class?” They discovered that it’s not playtime, but that there’s substance behind the gaming. Now I have other teachers coming into my class to observe what’s going on.
For ‘Minelearning’ to catch on, it has to be easy for teachers to use. I’ve told my colleagues that it initially takes a lot of time and effort to program a lesson, and there are some technical hurdles to overcome, but then it’s great. Unfortunately, most teachers tend to give up as soon as they encounter technical issues, and go back to conventional instruction.
I’m working on a fairly complex ethics lesson, in which half the class are ‘gods’ and have the power to do anything in the world, and the other half are ‘mortals’ in the world with three islands full of various resources. The ‘gods’ have to develop fair rules for the world, and the ‘mortals’ have to work together to build bridges and gather as many resources as possible.
The Minecraft lessons create an interesting opportunity to observe and discuss students’ behavior online. At first, some students found it amusing to drop dynamite all over and blow up other students’ work. I thought about modifying the program to make that impossible, but then I realized it was better to challenge them, asking: “Why did you destroy his work? Would you go to his desk and tear up his paper? Of course not.” It never happens a second time.
We’ve had some really important conversations in the classroom about behavior on the internet, which is often completely different from behavior in the real world. Students need to be aware that people’s feelings can be hurt, even if it’s just a game or only online. I think it’s essential to reach students and help them learn how to behave in the virtual world.