Minecrafting the Classroom

Minecraft Ancient World Eric Walker
Minecraft “Ancient City”. Image by Eric Walker.

I fell off my horse. I should have chosen more carefully — the magnificent dark brown and black horses were too wild, and kicked me off right away. The brown and white one seemed tame enough; I climbed into its back and we rode to the beach. I carried one block of cobblestone, a pane of glass, and a yellow flower. Upon arrival, I chose a spot. I was ready to start building my house.

It was a peaceful day, chosen out of a “peaceful” setting, in a randomly-generated world of the Minecraft game. Over 11 million gamers play Minecraft. Together they create worlds and overcome challenges.


Education gamification

Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal vouches for an exciting concept: the powerful motivations that drive us to play games should motivate us in off-game, real-world scenarios. For example, encouraging a community to recycle, or persuading more students to learn science. According to McGonigal, games have such a strong influence because they:

  • provoke curiosity, awe and wonder with fantastic scenarios and worlds
  • empower individuals to develop and contribute
  • strengthen the social fabric — players collaborate and join forces (for example, they build together or form teams to fight the enemy)
  • create meaning — players work towards an heroic challenge of epic proportions (e.g., slaying a dragon a saving a kingdom)

If only we experienced all those feelings every time we stepped into a classroom.

Some people believe using a game could help us get there. The use of games in science education is not new. Among a slew of examples is the initiative by game company Valve called “Teach with Portals” – leveraged on their game Portal 2. In a laboratory classroom, kids solve science challenges to activate portals and travel between worlds. Worlds may even have different physical properties. In one challenge, students have to fill a room with gas particles to equalize its pressure — a lesson in ideal gas law. A community of teachers is already creating their own “Teach with Portals” lessons and sharing them online. It was reported that 1.3 million users downloaded the education-based Portal game, and that was only three days after the launch.

Kids are not only playing science games, but they are using science to build their own games. The National STEM video game challenge was kick started by the White House and President Obama in 2010. It promotes STEM learning among middle and high school students by encouraging them to create their own video game. In this yearly competition, students hone their computer programming skills with the help of teachers and mentors. In 2013, 4000 kids submitted their homemade games.

Minecraft Tragedy of the Commons Dan Short
A Minecraft student player is ready to chop down a tree inside a “Tragedy of the Commons scenario. Image by Dan Short via source.

“If a lake is generated in a snow biome, it will freeze.” Using Minecraft for teaching science

Recently, Minecraft has joined the ranks of pro-education and pro-creativity tools. Its Lego-style, pixelated interface may look crude, but this block-building game gives players unlimited freedom to create. As evidence, Minecraft players show videos of their creations, which can be as fantastic as a replica of Star Trek Enterprise or a Beetlejuice rollercoaster. Besides creating, users can also collaborate and build worlds together.

In the article “teaching scientific concepts using a virtual world”, Dr. Dan Short lists ways to use Minecraft in the classroom. In a biology lesson, for example, Dr. Short asks that players build a human body: block-shaped cells connected by arteries, Fantastic Voyage-style. He focuses on ecology and environmental science, so many of his Minecraft lessons involve building a community with limited available resources. The following is a game version of classic example Hardin’s tragedy of the commons (where a population exhausts an area’s natural resources):

“I built a self-contained world map inside a dome containing only trees… In round 1 the students are told to collect as much wood from the forested area as possible. Being a ‘commons’ type area, the space is very quickly laid to waste, which illustrates Harding’s principle. In round 2, students are allowed to plant new trees and bound their harvest areas with fences, in which only they are allowed to farm. This leads to a more sustainable production of lumber.”

Perhaps this is the closest way kids can live science: by experiencing environmental destruction, safely, inside a game scenario like Minecraft.

Minecraft has its own wiki packed with ideas for the classroom. Some suggest few extra school uses for Minecraft, such as visiting famous buildings (e.g. the Coliseum), or boosting SAT scores. Minecraft Teacher Joel Levin created an entire world atop Minecraft packed with educational challenges: MinecraftEdu is embedded with puzzles and other activities for students. It is available for download, so schools can use it in their classrooms (other Minecraft worlds for teaching can be downloaded as well).

My Minecraft house has a view to the ocean and is decorated with flowers, but there’s no rooftop yet. I’ll keep in mind my local resources as I build one. Perhaps I’ll enlist other gamers and we come up with a sustainable version of the Enterprise.

Have you used a game to teach or learn science? 

Facing the research-practice divide in science education

Science education researchers and science teachers have much to offer each other. In an ideal world, knowledge would flow freely between researchers and educators. Unfortunately, research and practice tend to exist in parallel universes. As long as this divide persists, classrooms will rarely benefit from research findings, and research studies will rarely be rooted in the realities of the classroom. If we care about science education, we have to face the research-practice divide.

How did it get this way?

When we talk about research and practice, we’re talking about academics and teachers. In the most typical case, we’re talking about professors of education working at universities, and teachers working at K-12 schools. The divide has its roots in historical and current differences between researchers and teachers in their training, methods, work environment, and career goals that have led to misunderstanding and mistrust. In a 2004 paper titled “Re-Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community” Jennifer Gore and Andrew Gitlin describe the state of the research-practice divide through the lens of the two groups of people involved, and the imbalance of power between them. Historically, they argue, the framework of science education research has been that researchers generate knowledge and materials that teachers need, but rarely recognize the need for teacher contributions. This assumed one-way flow of knowledge has certainly sparked animosity between the groups, deepened by cultural differences associated with differing career paths.

Of course, some people have been both K-12 teachers and academics in their careers. To get this perspective on the issue I reached out to a colleague, Assistant Professor of Science Education Ron Gray (Northern Arizona University). Ron has been a middle school science teacher, a teacher of science teachers, and is now a science education academic. When I asked him about the experience of transitioning from teacher to academic, he recalled:

“I don’t believe I had seen a single primary research document in education before earning my doctorate.”

Most K-12 science teachers are fairly disconnected from the research world once they leave universities and enter schools. They lack university library access, yet currently many of the best journals in the field, such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education, and the International Journal of Science Education are not open access, and require a per-article fee to read. So how does research reach most teachers? I talked to a few science teachers about where they encounter science education research studies — many used science and education pages on Facebook, one got papers sent from an administrator, and some read practitioner journals. Many science teachers are members of the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA), which publishes practitioner journals and holds national and area conferences where teachers can hear about research findings. NSTA plays an invaluable role in working to connect research and practice. However, for perspective, NSTA has about 55,000 members, most but not all of which are practicing science teachers, but there are currently about two million practicing science teachers in the U.S.

The disconnect also stems from unfortunate misperceptions of professors by teachers and teachers by professors. Both groups often discount each other’s knowledge bases and workloads. Professors can harbor elitist attitudes about teachers, discounting the value of practical classroom experience in determining what works in education. Teachers frequently claim that professors suffer from “Ivory Tower Syndrome” — the assumption here is that professors live cushy lives, sheltered from the realities of schools, and therefore can’t produce knowledge that is useful in today’s classrooms. A high school teacher quoted by Gore and Gitlin explained:

“A lot of what [researchers] think is based on the past and they are out of touch. And so we call it the Ivory Tower. Welcome to our world.”

When I asked high school science teacher Laurie Almeida how she perceived the credibility of science education research, she responded:

“Somewhat credible. I work at a difficult school, so I feel that some of the research is way too out of touch with the reality of my school.”

An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.
An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.

There is sometimes truth to the ivory tower criticisms; Gore and Gitlin noted that in some academic circles, the more closely research is associated with practice, the more devalued it is. Furthermore, science education research is far from perfect. Small-scale studies with limited applicability are published more frequently in science education than they are the natural sciences. This trend hasn’t escaped notice from teachers either. When I asked about the perceived credibility of science education research among teachers, science teacher Toni Taylor told me:

“Too often I see ‘research’ that includes only a small sample population which makes me question the validity of the research,” and “Sometimes I feel like science education simply tries to reinvent the wheel.”

However, a lot of the mistrust between the two groups is based on their misunderstanding of each other’s professions. Teachers do not always appreciate that many researchers are often in the classroom regularly, conducting classroom-based studies and collecting data. This “back of the class” view can be highly illuminating, and is a valid way to know classrooms. Some researchers got their start as K-12 teachers. And higher education is certainly not immune from classroom management issues or over-filled schedules. Professors have stress — just ask the #realForbesProfessors (this hashtag exploded on Twitter following the publication of a Forbes article claiming that professors have one of the least stressful jobs). Similarly, researchers can forget that experienced teachers have a wealth of knowledge about the specific interactions of classroom context, pedagogy, and subject matter.


What can be done?

My conversation with Professor Ron Gray about what academics can do to better connect with teachers aligned well with calls in the literature for more researcher-teacher partnerships. He said:

“The best way would be to get back in the classroom but the tenure process just doesn’t let that happen.”

His response highlights the rigidity of teacher and researcher career paths. Even a former teacher who switched to the researcher path can’t switch back again without ultimately losing “traction” in both careers. Perhaps we should question the wisdom of entrenching people interested in science education in one narrowly-defined career trajectory or another. Instead, career advancement could reward the accumulation of diverse but synergistic experiences. Science education is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving science, social science, and communication skills — why shouldn’t our career options reflect this?

Similarly, certain aspects of teacher training might be due for a change. Teacher education could be a crucial time to break the mold  that has placed researchers as producers and teachers as consumers of research. Gore and Gitlin suggest that student-teachers at the undergraduate or master’s levels could be attached to ongoing education research projects as research assistants. They would become intimately familiar with the purpose and methods of educational research and could become significant contributors to it. This would take some restructuring, as many programs focus on more “immediate” concerns such as classroom management, but the benefit could be the production of teachers who recognize the value of research and feel capable of making contributions to it.

The open access movement in scholarly publishing could also have a crucial role in breaking down barriers. Toll-access journals can function as practically impenetrable “ivory fortresses” where valuable knowledge is locked away from practitioners. However, open access will likely prove necessary, but not sufficient in closing the research-practice gap. Teachers I’ve spoken to are very positive about open access but guarded about how much more time they’ll spend reading research articles. Time is a huge issue for teachers. But the alternative — locking up research findings in places where both time and money can be barrier for teachers — is certainly not helping to connect research with practice.

For the short-term, most education research articles are still in toll-access journals. For those without easy access to the primary literature in science, research blogs have become an incredible resource. However, the science education research blogging community pales in comparison to the science research blogging community. While teachers can find the latest science news and engaging resources to share with their students by following the science blogging community, they are not as likely to find quick-and-easy write-ups of science education research findings that are relevant to their pedagogy, curriculum development, assessment practices. As the Sci-Ed blog establishes itself, I hope that my fellow writers and I can attempt to partially fill this role. And I hope that many others in science education continue to follow the research blogging model.


Jennifer M. Gore & Andrew D. Gitlin (2004): [RE]Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 10:1, 35-58.