Teaching History With Minecraft

I’ve blogged a few times already about my love of history, as well as what a Digital History Classroom can look like and today I’m going to share two examples of teaching history using Minecraft.

The Battle of Gate Pa

This is from a New Zealand context and you can read more detail about the event here from the NZ History website. It was shared with me by Mike Shorter, the Director of eLearning at Bethlehem College located in Tauranga near the original battle of Gate Pa.
In Mike’s words:

It was an awesome unit and went way longer than planned! We split the class into Characters, Landscapers, Builders, Clothing and Weaponry. The students then did a mini inquiry on what was required of their group, researched their area and then we made a class timeline of when things needed to be created … The plan all along was to make it interactive and let people try to recreate the battle rather than just make a static representation. To do this we had 20 English Soldiers and 4 Maori warriors (one being Heni Pore) both start at a spawn point and the English then used the cannon to blow a hole in the defences and attack.

This was build using the Minecraft Java Edition as at the time, the Minecraft:Education Edition did not exist. Mike has kindly agreed to share his unit planning for this below:

Download Unit Plan Here

As you can see from the video above, the students accurately re-created the battle scene,  building out the fortified Pa site and then staged a recreation of the attack.

A History Of Singapore Riots

Most people know Singapore to be a very peaceful country and yet there were a number of riots that shaped the identity of the country we know today.

As part of the December 2018 “Asia’s Next Top Coder” competition, Lee Jun Hui created a history lesson in Minecraft: Education Edition that came runner up. You can see the full details here and a walk through of his world in the above video.

Centred upon the Maria Hertogh riots in the 1950s and the Little India riot that took place in 2013, the museum not only takes players through Singapore’s defining moments of days past, it also brings them along an immersive journey by combining key elements of Singapore’s heritage with technology to help them to understand the importance of harmony in a multi-racial, multi-religious society like Singapore.

Singapore Riots.png

Jun Hui shares the code he included in his Minecraft:EE world to animate the various riot events. Credit.

My Point Of View

Minecraft: Education Edition is the perfect tool for digitally recreating historical events and places, so much so that there are pre-built lessons to help teachers do exactly this which you can access here. I particularly like the above examples as it’s localized, “place based learning” for the students from Singapore and New Zealand allowing them to think differently about the events that have shaped the identity of their country.

I’ve blogged previously about some of the research and theory behind Game Based Learning from James Paul Gee and I want to call out a couple of his key principals that lead to effective learning using digital platforms like Minecraft:

  • Identity: Players build a sense of identity throughout the video game, either through direct input or as an on-screen character they inherit

In both of the examples above, but particularly the Battle of Gate Pa, students get to recreate elements of history and are assuming a new identity to do this – this places them right in the middle of the action and the adventure, driving deep learning.

  • Production: Players are producers, not just consumers: they are “writers” not just “readers”. This drives a level of engagement that more passive medias do not allow.

Again, using Minecraft allows students to recreate and “produce” both the world and the events that took place in that world – a very different learning experience compared to simply reading about an event or watching a documentary about it. Students gain a deeper understanding of how the geographical setting contributed to the historical outcome and just how hard it was to build a defensive Pa site!

  • Just in Time or On Demand: Players receive information as they need it, not before, which teaches them patience and perseverance and improves critical-thinking abilities. People are generally inadequately prepared to deal with lots of words out of context e.g. reading entire text books to find a single piece of information. Games provide knowledge “just in time” – school work should do the same.

In the Singapore example above, coding was required to complete the competition and so skills can be developed at that point but it’s applied contextually: in this example, how to code inside Minecraft:EE to show historical forces and events at work. When learnt in the context of an event, students are likely to retain knowledge more effectively which ties into the next point of…..

  • Situated Meanings: Students learn new vocabulary words by experiencing them within game situations. Research suggests learners do not acquire new vocabulary when the word is learnt purely in the context of other words. By contrast, retention is highest when words are learnt in association with an action, event, or image. Gaming provides the perfect vehicle for this.

There are many ideas and unique vocabulary from history that are not used in day to day interactions. Students in both the examples above would have needed to learn new ideas and content contextually in the world they were creating.

  • Cross-Functional Teams: In multiplayer environments, players have different skills, forcing them to rely on each other—a needed soft skill for students. I have seen many teachers talk about student’s developing more inter-personal skills through the use of Game Based Learning such as Minecraft: Education Edition.

In Mike’s example particularly, students were separated into groups to build different components of the world and this in itself became a mini project based learning activity. For the final battle to take place, the teams all had to work together to show case their work. This is similar to the students who worked to build a Parliament of the Future in the lead up to the 2017 New Zealand election.

Through applying the principles of effective Game Based Learning, teachers can drive deep and authentic learning outcomes but through the engaging medium of digital platforms that many students love to work in.

I am always keen to discuss what I've written and hear your ideas so leave a reply here...