How Minecraft is helping kids learn code one block at a time

MinecraftIn turtles, the inability to stop walking in circles can indicate a serious health problem — from partial blindness to irreversible brain damage.
It was habitual behaviour for one particular creature in 1969, but its American owners were far from concerned. That's because the turtle was a robot.
Created by MIT, the Logo Turtle was a three-wheeled machine used to help teach the Logo Programming Language. Children could direct the Turtle, which resembled a moving dome, by inputting computer commands. By drawing shapes of varying complexity, it would help them visualise what was being programmed, with activities ranging from mathematics to language, music and robotics.
The Turtle eventually migrated to the computer screen to help teach Logo using moving graphics.
More than 45 years on, the underlying principle of using a visual aid to help teach children programming lives on. But instead of opting for robotic reptiles, Ray Chambers, Head of IT at Uppingham Community College in Rutland, England, has taken the unconventional route of using the popular open-world sandbox game Minecraft to teach programming to 11-to-16-year-olds.

Mine is yours

Downloaded more than 19 million times since its launch in 2009 — Minecraft, which was bought from its creator by Microsoft for a multi-billion pound sum in 2014 — has no end goal.
The poster child of the sandbox genre, its colourful virtual environments are made up of cube-shaped blocks that let users create anything from houses to castles, statues, towers, fortresses and beyond. But despite its "anything goes" appeal, it wasn't immediately obvious to Chambers that the game would lend itself to teaching programming.
"It all began when I was teaching an IT lesson using a Powerpoint slide to talk about the inputs and outputs of logic gates," he told TechRadar at BETT 2015. "I was showing students a NOT gate, explaining that if you have a switch turned on, the output on the other side is off, which confused some of them.
"One of my other students said, 'Sir, you mean like in Minecraft?', and I half-shrugged in agreement. That's when I started looking into it. If it wasn't for my student piping up, I probably wouldn't know anything about it."
Project Spark

Set in stone

Chambers discovered that one of the blocks, called Redstone, can be used to simulate electrical circuits in the real world.
Because Redstone blocks represent live power sources, laying Redstone wiring between them and activating switches can trigger devices — from lighting bulbs to opening doors, setting traps or blowing up TNT (a firm favourite among students, unsurprisingly).
After learning basic commands using worksheets, students are able to progress at their own pace to tackle different parts of the curriculum — such as understanding boolean logic, logic gates and their uses in circuits and programming, and operations on binary numbers. Whatever level they are at, students need time to experiment on the game if they are to progress, explains Chambers.
"Whenever you're teaching a lesson on computing, students need to have tinkering time," he says. "If you restrict it, they say you're taking the fun out of it."

Tinkering time

The amount of tinkering time students get ultimately depends on their enthusiasm for the subject. Such is the level of engagement that many continue their projects after school on their own PCs, tablets and consoles, something that Chambers says is down to personal empowerment.
"If you have to teach ICT using spreadsheets, Word and Powerpoint, the lessons can be disengaging and students sometimes can't be bothered," he says. "By giving them more creativity to program, and saying it doesn't matter how they do something so long as they do it, it gives them more ownership of the task."
In September 2013 it was announced that it would be mandatory for UK schools to teach computing, so it is inevitable that not every student will want to enter a programming-related career in later life. But even though Chambers's ultimate aim with Minecraft is to teach programming, he says that the skills acquired in the process go beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge.
"Programming doesn't just teach students that they have to code because every one says so — it teaches them problem-solving skills that they can use in general life," he says. "If something in Minecraft doesn't work, they have to carry out debugging and check syntax to see why.
"I can give them a hint — such as checking their braces, but they have to use their analysis skills. It's a 21st-century skill that applies to all of their subjects — not just IT."

Using the thousands of mods available, Minecraft can also be used to teach subjects other than programming. Rather than problem solving, it can be tailored to foster creativity, and tasks can be designed to be collaborative rather than carried out alone.
"The great thing about Minecraft is that it's a tool you can use in any subject so long as you have the imagination," says Chambers, adding that multiple subjects can even be taught simultaneously. "Some mods are educational, while others are specifically for programming and allow you to introduce students to things such as javascript, braces and syntax."
To dig deeper into Minecraft's educational potential beyond programming, Chambers outlined a series of ways that the game can be used to teach a range of different subjects.


"In a history lesson you can get students to design and dig war trenches, and then start talking about what life must have been like down there for those people. Teach them the terminology about the Somme, what might have been there, and where the sandbags might have gone."


"In maths lessons, some students might need to build a house. You could give them a challenge such as how many blocks they will need to do that. Give them the measurements of each block and tell them how many planks of wood they will need. Suggest some mathematical equations to get them thinking about how many blocks they will need to build a house that was 5 x 5 — and you don't have to stop there.


"I've seen some students who have used Minecraft mods with javascript to make a map of the world, so you could challenge your students to make maps for your lessons. Throw in biology by asking them to tunnel into the land and find different objects in the the digestive system that you've placed there."


"Students have to craft things and actually go and find the physical materials to make things they want in their world. That gives them the confidence to say they've created things such as a box to store extra items in, which can be really engaging for them. There's a really scientific element to it in knowing which materials to collect, so if they want to make glass for their house or any type of building, they need to know if they've got enough sand to put in a furnace to make glass windows."

Creative writing

"You can encourage creative writing by getting students to develop a world and then describe to them what's happening. It could be used for the basis of a story, or you could develop a world and get them to describe what they see – use it as a stimulus for your lessons."


"Music can be taught through the use of music blocks. There are people out there making songs by Katy Perry or Avichii. It all links into technological science with logic gates, because they can connect music blocks together and repeat them to play different sounds."

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