It’s a strange world of 3D cubes that comprise environments both hauntingly beautiful and brutally harsh. Rivers flow through peaceful meadows, deserts and jungles teem with hidden dangers and mountains loom in awe-inspiring splendor. For the high school students in Peter Albert’s class at The Hun School, a private academy in Princeton, NJ, Minecraft is a fantasy computer game with considerably high stakes and a provocative underlying premise. In this 3D virtual habitat, students confront a primal question: Do you have what it takes to survive?
The developer of Minecraft is Swedish programmer Markus “Notch” Persson. The game was officially released in 2011 and by 2013 it had reached 10 million in sales. It has become one of the most popular computer games in gaming history. For Albert, it also is an effective tool for bringing the distant past to life, and for immersing students in environments where they have to learn how to survive and thrive—just as the ancients did.
Here’s how Albert’s class stepped back in time. As Minecraft began, students found themselves in a barren landscape. As part of the curricula, students did extensive research to recreate from the ground up virtual renderings of ancient Egypt and of Mesopotamia. Students learned how these cultures grew in response to their environments, outside threats, needs of the populace and the metaphysics of their day.
For ancient Egypt students built walled cities, pyramids and catacombs that snaked through the landscape. For Mesopotamia, students constructed a ziggurat, an ancient religious structure common during those times. You can see these virtual walks through time in this video and hear Albert’s commentary on designing his curricula.
AntiquityNOW spoke with Albert to get his take on how his students responded to Minecraft and his approach in using it as a teaching tool.
AN: Why did you decide to use Minecraft?
PA: I decided to use Minecraft because of some of the reasons I state in the video: it is open-format and allows for experimentation, problem-solving and creativity. Basically it is fun and educational in an experiential way.
AN: How would you describe your approach to teaching?
PA: I am very project-based in terms of how my classroom runs. Students need an overall structure and end goal that allow for a lot of differentiation in terms of approach and thought processes. I am a huge fan of doing as much “flipping” between approaches as possible. I have lots of video lectures for homework and when we are in class we quickly review/clarify and move on to really personalized instruction and work time.
AN: What do you think is the value of technology in the classroom?
PA: Technology allows us, as teachers, to do things like “flipping” and playing games in a more creative way. I also think that by its nature technology engages the students; it is attractive to them and they are, to use a buzzword, “digital natives.” For both students and teachers it allows for better organization as well. Perhaps most revolutionary is how technology has enabled unprecedented access to information. Now any fact, date, bio or definition is accessible within seconds on devices we carry in our pockets. Our role as teachers requires a change from the dispensers of information to a larger focus on teaching the skills students need to appropriately acquire and process this information. Perhaps the most important thing is to get kids fired up about seeking out that information as well, not just to know it but to analyze it and draw conclusions about the world around them.
AN: What surprises arose during the project regarding student reactions and performance?
PA: I think that I was a bit surprised about how it was embraced by even the students who did not play Minecraft. Their performance after the fact was pretty positive as well. As freshmen in high school my students have become very self-sufficient in their approach to learning in my class. Their questions regard clarification or help on skill sets rather than just saying “I don’t get it” or being passive about their approach to work. From this project, which was very early in the year, they have become more and more attentive and active in their approach to tasks in the classroom. It has been very satisfying and I hope they both enjoy and value the class as much as it seems.
AN: Is this a one-time experience or will you actively use Minecraft and other technology in your teaching?
PA: I am using Minecraft a few times over the year in different fashions just to test its merit working on different skill sets. Right now I have the students “copy” famous structures and write a companion paper while they work on their research, writing and analysis. I’m not sure if this will end up being as valuable as the more open-format lessons with Mesopotamia and Egypt but I think if we ask the kids to experiment and not be afraid to fail, then as educators we should do the same. In addition, it needs to be an imperative that teachers teach students to use the internet appropriately so we constantly are reading and researching and asking ourselves about the validity of sources. I find that access to online, interactive maps (like Google Earth), virtual tours, films and video lectures are very helpful. Also vital are the endless possibilities of things that other educators have used and created, as well as the things yet to be used and created.
*In case you missed the video link above, click below to view a video of Albert demonstrating and explaining his curriculum.