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Using Minecraft to Teach Math Literacy

By Leslie Ahern, itslearning

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 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.

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.

Edit: Mitch Brotherton is now an Instructional Technology Specialist at Forsyth County Schools (Georgia). 

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