Our work using Minecraft has developed over the past few years at Egerton High School, Trafford, where UCan Play Director Jason Butcher works as the Head of Expressive Arts. In this post Jason talks about his journey using Minecraft in school and shares some videos from the school YouTube channel.

When I was first introduced to the PC version of Minecraft in 2011 I was already using computer games in my Expressive Arts classroom.  It was not about making learning fun it was about giving students the structure, learning tools and space to experience the power and depth of tacit knowledge through play. Like engaging with music making and song writing Minecraft makes learning constant and that’s what my students thrive on.  Where they particularly struggled was working in groups.

Experiencing the collaborative nature of Minecraft that first time I was immediately excited about a world of shared learning potential.  It was the learning platform I had imagined and been waiting for where knowledge is the currency to drive teaching each other and where engaging with online communities is imperative. Now my students listen to what each other has to say, organise themselves into groups to create works together, share skills and understanding and solve problems.

They now have the confidence to make videos they share on YouTube to publically celebrate their learning. They are consistently motivated to demonstrate classroom protocol in order for learning to take place. Students actively modify and improve their behaviour they tell me, because they appreciate the elements of freedom over their learning that Minecraft gives them.  Like mixing their own colours, making their own aesthetic choices, practising a musical instrument. They recognise the power of learning and their learning in this way is transferrable.

Initially my priority was to get Minecraft working on the PC’s in my classroom, making sure that worlds could be opened on the LAN settings so students could collaborate.   Testing the graphics capability of the PC’s so that the Minecraft settings we used didn’t produce lag.   I had to engage with the online Minecraft community to stay informed and follow the Mojang, (producers of Minecraft), story as it unfolded. I purchased accounts for students using the behaviour reward system in school and then took the students through the process of registering. I decorated my classroom with images from Minecraft, put up a large image of Notch, (Minecraft creator), and our journey began.

In the beginning we learned together and it was fascinating. The energy in my classroom was electric with excitement and there was never enough time. The learning was unpredictable and anything new was immediately shared. Minecraft is unique in that it doesn’t have a user manual; you find things out by doing, chatting to friends or from the online community.  Minecraft screen casting started to appear on YouTube along with welcome tutorials.  Now students were personalising their learning, tailoring it to what specific things they wanted to learn in Minecraft.  There were some big moments like surviving your first night, finding an Ender Portal, building a Nether Portal or an Iron Golem and tagging environments by building letter forms and writing your name in the landscape or the sky.  Pixel Art templates were being downloaded from the web and students were carefully building objects and characters, engaging with proportion, scale, counting and patterns, they were extending and developing their understanding of symmetry and spatial awareness.

The following video is of an assessment task where students had to work together using Minecraft to recreate a symmetrical sand sculpture based on an Aztec symbol. The students are making one exact replica together in the same world. The students had been studying Minimalism in art, particularly the sculptures of Carl Andre.

When other adults came into my classroom to observe there was one common perception, that it was ‘blocky’.  Indeed other computer games were striving for better and better, more realistic graphics but young people have imagination and, in my opinion, allowing them to use it has to be a major element of Minecraft’s attraction. It doesn’t patronise them, the avatar is a simple democratic device that allows unlimited expression as each pixel is customisable rather than flicking through a few predetermined stereotypes to represent you.

I couldn’t wait to feed all this new understanding into the Expressive Arts Curriculum. I was naturally inclined through my passion for Music and practise of Music making to start with Note blocks and Redstone to build music making machines. There are sounds attached to blocks in Minecraft and the actions of placing or gathering blocks. The soothing ambient sound design composed by electronic music producer C418 is inspiring and appears in the gameplay at seemingly random times.  I initially attempted some percussive composition with students by building tunnels of various blocks with different sounds, such as glass, that could be destroyed in time as the avatar moves through them. We also attempted some ensemble work that included opening and shutting doors to create beats and embellishing that with other sounds attached to the gameplay.  My students however were more motivated by building stuff so I started by introducing them to the artist Mondrian. We explored his aesthetic and ideas relating to architecture and music. Students created stuff demonstrating their understanding of his refined principals.

This led onto a study of mindfulness and the building of Pagodas in beautiful settings near mountains, waterfalls, woods, ponds and gardens. Students building techniques were challenged as they had to understand how to create curved effects using blocks and they had the challenge of persevering to complete a build over a period of weeks.  During the process of evidence gathering and self/peer evaluation of work I was able to explore the principles of visual composition very effectively.  Minecraft allows for the taking of screen shots from within the platform.  The F1 key removes the cursor, the avatar arm and contents of the inventory from the screen. Press F2 and screenshots are taken and stored within a dedicated folder.  When taking these screenshots the avatar head is the camera and the avatar can fly or dig and view objects from above or below.  Students demonstrated, through the composition of their screen shots, awareness of the elements that make for a successful composition. They understood the concept of taking the viewer’s eye on a journey around the image through the positioning of elements.  They understood the balancing of form, light and shade, the importance of the edges and corners of a frame, and the effect of altering angles with the Minecraft field of vision tool.

The following video is of an assessment task where students were given an image of a tessellation and asked to demonstrate that they understood the pattern in the tessellation by recreating it accurately in Minecraft. They were also asked to use their creative skills to embellish the original design by using materials and a setting of their choice. Students also had to submit a screen shot of their finished work showing their understanding of composition. They had 45 minutes to make their idea and save an image of it in the correct folder and drive.

We then moved on to use Minecraft to explore sculpture.  In my experience, sculpture is often neglected within school Art departments or reduced to cardboard maquettes, wire and modrock plaster bandage or ceramics.  I appreciate that sculpture is difficult to generate due to the health and safety issues, the potential large scale, expensive resources, lack of storage space and class sizes but it is an art form that students are entitled to engage with.  Minecraft enables the building of potentially vast structures from a large choice of materials.Many based on factual geology.  Materials can be personalised by creating textures for blocks or objects.  Being able to modify elements of Minecraft make it fluid and allows users to reinvent it.

My year 9 and 10 students visited Yorkshire Sculpture Park to experience Sculptures relating to and set amongst the landscape.  The Sol Lewitt piece titled 123454321 is there. It is the only sculpture by LeWitt in a British landscape open to the public, and on a site he chose personally.  Minecraft allows users to shape the landscape and therefore create the environment where their sculpture would be experienced. It enables students to light their sculpture with controlled light emitting blocks and/or see it lit throughout day times, by the light of the moon when it is full for example and in various weather conditions such as a blizzard. Students can also control the way their sculpture is viewed by using their Minecraft Avatar as a camera angle and flying around and through the piece in a particular way as a filmic experience.  By recreating the Sol Lewitt sculpture 123454321 in groups with a time limit so that students had to manage themselves and plan, students had to engage with understanding the perimeter of shapes and the volume of cubes of different but related sizes.  They didn’t realise they were learning or reinforcing maths skills.

‘We built a Sol Lewitt sculpture using Minecraft in our lesson. We have been studying Minimalist Art and stuff and working together as a group which is hard in this school. It was me Ethan year 9, Nathan year 8 and Brandon year 8. Mr Butcher videoed it and helped me edit it. My favourite bit is where the camera moves across the room and turns. It goes very well with the music. I like Chase and Status. To improve the video so it goes with the song better I would have set the weather in Minecraft to rain.’

Please note the soundtrack in the following video is restricted in some countries.

Minecraft has proved brilliant for boosting self-esteem for all students. Where they might be ‘behind’ in other subjects and struggle to progress as they cover up their lack of understanding with distracting behaviours, all students are equal in Minecraft. I have seen improvements in Literacy and speaking and listening as students need to know how to spell to chat and use the command tools in Minecraft.

I use Minecraft to teach many elements of Film Making. Pre-production and planning skills are maximised through Minecraft as it is used to storyboard ideas through sequences of composed screenshots.  It is a brilliant animation tool that allows players to be the characters in a story, act it out in costumes they have made and sets they have built.  Use screen recording software and video editing software to make this work into a film.

I regularly come across other adults who say Minecraft is a Game and therefore has no place in the classroom. They often say it is ‘addictive’, ‘obsessive’ and ‘bewitching’ as negatives. In my opinion these are adult perceptions often based on a fear of not understanding what young people are doing through this platform.  Young people are speaking a language adults don’t recognise and the coding potential to create using the Minecraft platform is also out of reach for some adults. I often get asked ‘what is a bukkit server?’, ‘what are plugins?’, ‘what are mods?’, ‘what is teleporting?’, ‘what is a schematic?’ etc etc.

Historically artists have been obsessive about their art and this is not seen as a negative but as a passion, a will, a fixation with an idea, and sometimes this is of an esoteric nature as the audience do not fully understand what drives the artist. Here I suggest there is a parallel with young people’s pursuance of Minecraft.  It allows them to be excited about creativity and empowers them with it. It resonates so much with their artistic needs, why condemn it and criticise it as some dark methodology of game creators to get users hooked.