This article is part of the guide Game-Based Learning: Preparing Students for The Future.
When Roanoke County Public Schools gathered educators for their first training in how to teach with Minecraft: Education Edition (M:EE), “you could hear the rumble in the room,” says Jeff Terry, the district’s director of technology. That was early 2018. Today, his district is among the top ten for M:EE usage worldwide.
While Terry was surprised to hear that stat, he was also excited. He says adding M:EE to the district’s robust technology arsenal is helping students master the oft-cited Four Cs of education—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
It’s also helping students become opportunity ready in a state where business is finding it tough to fill technology-focused roles. Just last year, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said the demand for highly skilled workers in the state far outweighed the number of qualified candidates, with “36,000 cyber jobs” needing to be filled.
Roanoke added Minecraft: Education Edition to the district’s Microsoft campus agreement as a pilot project in 2017; now the software has been rolled out to 14,000 students district-wide. Thanks to a strategic approach to PD and support, teacher collaboration has skyrocketed, kindergartners are coding and students are excited about learning.
EdSurge spoke to Jeff Terry about Roanoke’s game-based learning journey, his team’s tech implementation advice and the buzzing engagement they’ve seen in students and teachers since adopting M:EE.
Kids open up with Minecraft.
EdSurge: Why did you decide to adopt Minecraft: Education Edition?
Jeff Terry: Our goal, at the heart of our strategic framework, is for our students to be introduced to deeper learning—learning that is engaging and purposeful. We also want students to be opportunity ready when it’s time for either college or career. And to do that they need to be able to understand the Four Cs.
We have a tight relationship with the business community here and those are the skills businesses want students to have. And while Roanoke County isn’t a gigantic place by any means, it’s a suburban hub within 500 miles and a lot of areas that need technology employees.
Minecraft is one of those unique products that fits in with developing each one of those Four Cs. It even hits the fifth C we have in Virginia for citizenship.
How does M:EE specifically support the Four Cs?
And the most gratifying piece is that at the end of all these lessons, kids are excited about what they’re learning.
It’s changing our students. Kids open up with Minecraft. On my school tours, I see second- and third-grade students who are not interested in giving a report or reading a book out loud. But when they build a scene from their novel using Minecraft, they are the first ones to get up in front of a projection board and present.
And they’re learning history without even knowing it. Students collaborate to construct pyramids in Minecraft as they study ancient Egypt, for example, and build historically important buildings as they research Cuba and Greece. In a Jamestown Settlement module in Minecraft, they’re building a settlement based on what the colony in Jamestown, Va. would have looked like and what things were available when the first settlers arrived.
Even our kindergarteners are coding. At every level, our students have technological abilities. But they also have people skills—they can collaborate, communicate. They’re gaining important 21st-century skills.
And the most gratifying piece is that at the end of all these lessons, kids are excited about what they’re learning. Not just excited about playing a game—excited about learning.
Adoption and usage are extremely high in your district. How did you achieve that?
. . . Minecraft has greatly increased collaboration amongst our staff.
With all technology programs, the key is not to overlook the need for professional development. We made that mistake when we rolled out our 1:1 laptop program 16 years ago. Getting a laptop for every kid was one thing, but having the teachers know what that meant was another.
So for Minecraft, we started with a pilot program. We brought in our 15 Instructional Technology Resource Teachers (ITRTs)—as well as another group of high flying teachers—to have official Minecraft PD from Microsoft.
We also included our instructional supervisors in that training so they could see how Minecraft works in the classroom, how it can help them meet their standards measurements and how engaging it is. We want technology to be built into our instructional program.
When we started the official training you could hear the rumble in the room. Teachers were excited to see how many different ways they could use it and share ideas. Since that day, Minecraft has greatly increased collaboration amongst our staff.
How do you support teachers and ensure continued use?
For continued support, we use a co-teaching model with teachers. An ITRT plans a lesson that meets a teacher’s curriculum, and then the two of them implement the lesson. As the teacher becomes more confident with Minecraft, the ITRT will no longer need to always be in the classroom.
Lessons Created or Adapted by Roanoke Educators
- Area and Volume with Minecraft Edu
- Making Music in Minecraft Education Edition
- Animal and Plant Cell Tours in Minecraft Edu
- Building Jamestown
Minecraft: Education Edition also has a community of educators who submit vetted lessons. Teachers can search by subject and find lesson ideas, and new ideas are being rolled out all the time. There are also tutorials—for subjects such as chemistry and coding—so our teachers can try new things out with ease. The key really is supporting and training teachers.
And now that it’s on every one of our laptops, it’s being used by many of our students daily. About 8000 students in our middle and high school 1:1 take-home laptop program use Minecraft. And in our elementary schools, every classroom has five laptops and Minecraft is being used there as well.
It’s built into our program so deeply that it would be greatly missed if it was not here.