From graphing paper to algebra puzzles, one teacher shares tons of practical lesson ideas for turning math class into “Mathcraft”
Last year I taught third-grade math in a whole new way. Combining elements from the wildly popular sandbox game Minecraft, I had students thinking visually and creatively about mathematical models and theories that went way beyond a typical third-grade curriculum, transforming math class into what I like to call Mathcraft.
Why Minecraft? I could say I am using Minecraft for a number of reasons, like how I find Minecraft enhances metacognition by increasing students’ memory storage capacity. The game itself creates a relatable enjoyable experience that can be internalized and shared in a community of learners. The limitations on the working memory are minimized because the gameplay itself is an extension of our visual sketchpad. Working with students they always say, “I can see it,” and when they see it they share it.
However, the real reason I use Minecraft is that the students chose it. The popularity of the game is so overwhelming and when the lesson became the engagement their attention, confidence, and motivation soared. Here are six great ways to use it in your math classroom.
1. Let students create their world.
If you have an aggressive Minecraft class, you can put them in a single world and either let them all build it by themselves, or allow all the students to build a world together. Personally, I just open up a world in MinecraftEDU (which makes it easier for the teacher since you can do things like freeze the students and transport). I don’t use worlds that have already been created, opting instead to let the kids build their own. I use MinecraftEDU as my server runner and open up the superflat world. We start building and we end up with a crazy math city.
(Next page: 5 more ways to use Minecraft, including adding in maker elements and changing classroom culture)
2. Create your own visual, conceptual math world.
I’ve tried to use base ten blocks before because they’ve got a lot of great conceptional knowledge, but they’re just a nightmare to use—to get them to fit in and take out, and with the kids always messing up each other’s blocks. But with Minecraft, the blocks are digital so the kids can’t mess each other up, if you know how to manage them, and the bonus is that the students are incredibly engaged. Then you can throw in the fun part. You can let them PvP (fight) and chase each other in their world. The structures they’ve just made make a lot of fun things to hide behind, like funky-looking trees based on prime factorization or stacks of blocks in patterns that represent long division. It’s kind of a conceptual math world.
3. You can use Minecraft, even without access to computers.
We were only able to play Minecraft in the computer lab twice a week but that was perfect because I just ran math class using Minecraft as the lesson on those days. On other days, we’d be doing similar things. The kids would have graphing paper and would make their models with colored pencils and crayons and we would play math. I was really trying to teach them how to read and write algebra and to look at math as a different language.
4. Minecraft is just one creative tool in the toolbox.
In my third-grade class, we did a lot of tracking and graphing slopes, and I turned it into a maker activity as well. We learned how to read rise over run, and how to build a slope in Minecraft. Then we chopped up a bunch of different cardboard boxes and made racecar ramps at different slopes around the classroom, and ran averages on how far the racecar would travel with each slope—and this was a third-grade classroom.
5. Let the dog drive—at least sometimes.
One way to get started is just to try a whole class lesson and to see how the kids respond to it. And be prepared to let the dog drive at times—meaning when the class is playing the game, let them take control and just play. Give them their time but take yours as well. If you need a jumping-off point to get started, look for Minecraft lessons online, or see mine on the website Educade. The Parthenon lesson I created is one example. It turns algebra into a puzzle and it gives students simple instructions on how to build something cool. (There’s also a video that explains why the formulas actually work).
6. Use Minecraft to help change your classroom culture into something students love.
By far the greatest effect Minecraft has had on my students was a change in the classroom culture and attitudes about education. When we were preparing for our benchmark test I gave them ten Common Core word problems for homework. When I put them on our Edmodo page, they got mad at me. Mathcraft—at least the way I use it in the classroom—is not all in a video game. There is a lot of reading and writing of algebra and word problems. Before, they used to complain and give up when they had to do similar problems out of textbook. But now my kids turned even that part of the curriculum into a game and can not put down the pencil.
[Editor’s note: For more on Jim Pike’s use of Minecraft in the classroom, see the video, produced by Educade]
Jim Pike formerly taught third grade at Ascension Catholic School in Los Angeles. He currently teaches a Mathcraft course at CodeRev Kids Learning Center in Santa Monica, CA, and is working on bringing Mathcraft professional development to teachers using online Minecraft servers.
- TC- What student choice and agency actually looks like - November 15, 2016
- What student choice and agency actually looks like - November 14, 2016
- App of the Week: Science sensor meets your smartphone - November 14, 2016