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Gold Rush – Using Minecraft EDU to reimagine Stage 3 teaching of the gold rush years.


Playing digital games introduces layers for conceptual learning and new taxonomies for pedagogical design and educators are coming to understand the complex learning that can occur in game play, (Steinkuehler, Squire, & Barab, 2012, p. 271) “It’s the new age of learning”. (Mutton, 2016 personal communication) Digital games based learning (DGBL) is a type of learning where problems are solved in real time, information is accessed, and collaboration, creativity and communication take place; where learning goes beyond the walls of the classroom. (Hagevik, 2011, p. 16) This work is a provocation to action for the introduction of DGBL elements within existing curricula frameworks, acknowledging that a core transformation in pedagogical practices requires justification, because as Norris & Soloway (2016) describe, “there is no quick-fix to creating 21st Century schools.”(2016, p. 30)

Reimagining how different parts of the existing curriculum could be adapted to include digital games based learning produces exciting results because digital games foster learning, making students involved, attentive and motivated. (Ott & Tavella, 2010, p. 2)

Used in education, digital games trigger factors that feed student motivation including challenge, curiosity, control, fantasy, competition, cooperation and recognition,(Admiraal, Huizenga, Akkerman, & Dam, 2011, p. 1186) and teachers immersed in their craft understand, “it’s a new way for students to be enthusiastic about learning.” (Mutton, 2016 personal communication)

Introducing Minecraftedu as an additional strata to the current teaching of Australian history for upper primary students has the potential to be an innovative guided inquiry involving reading, discussion, making connections, co-constructing interpretations and evaluating and supporting the thinking of others. (Sekeres, Coiro, Castek, & Guzniczak, 2014)

Combined, these factors make learning a highly motivating experience capable of moving students, “into a state where they are mentally ready for learning and where they are in the right environment for learning.” (Admiraal et al., 2011, p. 1187)

Stage 3 students across New South Wales, Australia learn about the formative gold rush years (1851 – 1896) as part of a wider curriculum drawing on early settlement, Indigenous viewpoints and the formation of nationhood.   The Board of Studies (BOSTES) sets out a guided and detailed framework for teachers to follow. Read it here.  The curriculum requires information-seeking behaviour which will help students to contextualise Minecraftedu with contemporary understandings, “and vice versa, enabling the transfer of knowledge.” (Brom, Šisler & Slavík, 2010)

This work is a provocation for Stage 3 teachers to join the subtle transformation from a mostly text-based ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogical framework, to a new paradigm including constructivist learning, experiential learning, discovery learning, problem based learning and situated cognition. (Arnab et al., 2012, p. 161) The key Stage 3 statements for HSIE  suggest introducing DGBL into this area of study is aligned with current outcomes,

They examine sources to identify and describe points of view. Students develop texts, particularly narratives and descriptions. In developing these texts, and organising and presenting their information, they use historical terms and concepts and incorporate relevant sources.

Gameplay in Minecraft requires narrative creation and description. It requires organised presentation of information and the synthesis of observation and inquiry for the construction of worlds.  Allen (Allen, 2001) says using different ways to tell a story gives students practice in other literacies, including both traditional and game literacies, and that they learn best when immersed in intermedial narrative or storytelling experiences. This in turn suggests we need to start seeing different literacies when we immerse students in multimedia surrounds, and this is a valuable part of gameplay. (Tikka, Kankaanranta, Nousiainen, & Hankala, 2009, p. 176)

This model values the additional multimodal learning outcomes available with the introduction of digital games based learning through the Minecraftedu platform,  where playing such a game, “promises a higher motivation of learners by presenting contents in an interactive, rule-based and competitive way”.(Boeker, Andel, Vach, & Frankenschmidt, 2013, p. 1) Creating worlds in Minecraftedu allows learners to create a text through selective information gathering, synthesis and translation or as Wolf (1988) suggests, to be deeply literate, “is to interact with the text – to ferret out its different lines of information, to expand it with inferences, to unscramble it”. (1988 p. 210) Being literate in a Minecraft world means students can appreciate both the implicit structure and implied meaning of the text. (p.210)

Steinkuehler (2012) lists the reasons why educators should care about video games. These include, the complexity of game play, the depth of collaboration and inquiry, their discursive richness, the opportunities they present for consequentiality, rich cycles of perception-action, the ability to explore situated identities, and the complex forms of learning and participation games present. (p. 271)


Situational Analysis:

This work presents a situational analysis of current teaching methodologies at St Philomena’s Primary School, drawing on Board of Studies course requirements and expected outcomes, as well as additional interpretive materials and activities created by staff.  St Philomena’s is a single stream Catholic systemic school in the Bathurst Diocese with 200 students. Approximately 25 students from Stage 3 access the BOSTES Gold Rush unit each school year.  The school has 1:1 computer access with a selection of IMac, Macbook Air and Ipad devices.

This model values the additional multimodal learning outcomes available with the introduction of digital games based learning through the Minecraft.du platform, where playing such a game, “promises a higher motivation of learners by presenting contents in an interactive, rule-based and competitive way”.(Boeker et al., 2013, p. 1) Introducing digital games into a primary school history class allows for authentic inquiry, that “connects students to relevant, real-world concepts and events.” (Sekeres et al., 2014, p. 45)


Useful Case Studies that Inform the Introduction of Minecraft for Learning History

Digital games are already embedded in education around the world.   Case studies of some of these uses of digital games in curriculum are useful in the context of introducing DGBL.   Several important factors are identified.

Case Study – Flow, and Limiting Disruption

In The Netherlands, a group of high school students played a history game called Frequency 1550 (Waag Society, 2005) designed to help learn the medieval history of Amsterdam.  Observers were keen to understand how important it was for students to remain in the flow of the game and play in an uninterrupted way. They found students learned more when they were left to engage with the game in group competition, (Admiraal et al., 2011, p. 1185) suggesting flow and limiting interruptions is an important aspect of digital games for learning.

Case Study – Cognitive Load and Learning

Tertiary students played a game called Operating a Small Factory in Computer-Aided Manufacturing. Observers found traditional multimedia learning is primarily based on the cognitive load concept of information processing theory.  According to Jeng-Chung, (2014, p. 291) cognitive load and learning motivation simultaneously influenced performance.   This means students need both motivation to play, and an information rich environment to succeed in digital games for learning.

Case Study – Cooperative Gameplay Affects Positive Attitudes

“Cooperative learning occurs in small groups of students who work together to maximise their own and each other’s learning”(Ke & Grabowski, 2007, p. 250)

A study in the USA of 125 Year 5 students playing in a cooperative teams-games-tournament showed by using digital games, there were better outcomes for each student and that cooperative gameplaying had a major impact on positive attitudes to maths. (p. 249) This example suggests co-operative play is an important consideration in digital games for learning.

Case Study – Agency and Ownership

In an American middle school context, students utilise geospatial technologies in digital games for learning geography and social studies. The students have agency in the game by creating their own real data from their own surroundings which they can then share with others. (Hagevik, 2011, p. 18) This study suggests individual input and ownership of the results is an important aspect of digital games for learning.

Presenting Learning Materials in Multiple Ways

One of the strengths of using digital games for learning, is the idea it is possible to present learning materials in multiple ways. (Ke & Grabowski, 2007, p. 249) According to Hagevik, “curriculum meets the needs of its students and provides varied teaching and learning approaches that are challenging, integrative, and exploratory”. (Hagevik, 2011, p. 16) Jeng-Chung (2014, p. 293)states, ideal teaching materials integrate information from varied sources as this reduces extraneous cognitive overload in students.


What are the existing strategies for meeting curriculum outcomes in this unit of study?

The existing curriculum blends information behaviours, utilizing information from varied sources, and requiring students to move between different digital and analogue environments. This requires a variety of techniques including searching, browsing, synthesizing, and altogether, meets a variety of needs.(Willett & Webber, 2013, p. 97)  The NSW Board of Studies (BOSTES) has numerous resources available for educators.

Multimedia resources, a hotline to Hill End, background sheetsprofiles of significant people and images from the State Library of NSW.


What kind of activities are utilised in the existing teaching plan at St Philomena’s?

Teacher Letitia Mutton’s (2015) Lesson Sequence for Stage 3 HSIE Gold, incorporates the BOSTES learning outcomes:

  • Explains the significance of particular people, groups, places and events in the past in developing Australian identities and heritage
  • Explains the development of the principles of Australian democracy,
  • Explains how various beliefs and practices influence the ways in which people interact with, change and value their environment

Her lesson plans include the following activities.

Use of a KWL chart (know, want to know, learned), class discussions, display of interesting facts, produce a timeline that contextualizes goldrush information in Australian history, reading and comprehension, multimedia resources including Behind the News (2010), information about modern gold production methods (Nevadamining, 2010),  mining in the news (Behind the News, 2012), make a crossword puzzle using puzzlemaker , Mapping,  watch videos made by other children, participate in a debate, watch a slideshow created by a Year 5 student, consider life on the goldfields, create a model tent city diorama & play the gold rush game.

The current teaching of this unit of HSIE at St Philomena’s supports current methodologies, where “reading together with discussion, making connections, co-constructing interpretations, and evaluating and supporting each other’s thinking” are used for the structured inquiry tasks. (Sekeres et al., 2014, p. 46)


Introducing Minecraftedu for learning about gold rush history

Children would use their developing understanding of life on the goldfields through information exposure and synthesis, and step into Minecraft in a peer learning group to create their idea of life in a gold mining town.   Each student group would collaboratively imagine, create and construct one aspect of the goldfields community.  eg: Chinese temple and small Chinese communal living space.; a miners tent, shaft and belongings; a government mine inspectors office and living quarters.  This task is scaffolded by the existing resources and replaces the analogue task of building a tent city diorama.

Teachers could utilize a number of existing multi-portal worlds, where students can work on constructing their contribution without interference from other students.

This Minecraftedu world (Blank World 24 Stations) has 24 far-flung stations so students can work on their own creations.

This world (Group Building Areas) has 10 separate work areas and would be ideal for groups of 2-3 working on creating a goldfields site.

This video (MinecraftTeachr 2012) shows how it is done.

The case studies listed in this paper suggest a number of important factors for creating this gaming task, including the importance of maintaining flow and limiting interruption, provision of an information rich environment integrating materials from multiple sources and individual input and ownership of the creations.

One way to review and debrief the task as part of the reflection process, would be to allow students to create a video tour of their Minecraftedu world to share with their peers, like this one from Bedgerabong Primary School. “Offering options to share their inquiry products by creating web pages or short videos explaining what they learned may encourage engagement in the inquiry process and also spread new knowledge among other students who engage with the student-made media.” (Sekeres et al., 2014, p. 47)



Other Resources

Minecraft (Education Edition) provides starter lessons  , a mentoring system, a comprehensive frequently asked questionsite, a Minecraftedu Wiki space that includes guides.  There is  a page dedicated to teaching with Minecraftedu and a dedicated getting started site.

This is an article about minecraft in the classroom expanding on the benefits of utilising the platform.  This Project 1845 site shows a created Minecraft world set in 1845 for students of Chinese history which provides some insight into how worlds can be fashioned into exciting multimedia elements.   You can watch a fly-through video of the world here (Slashflex, 2013)


What might be lost by introducing GBL?

Educators considering introducing Minecraftedu into Stage 3 HSIE curriculum would need to address the potential for negative impacts on students learning outcomes and themselves.

Even though the empirical evidence and research illustrates a clear reasoning for utilising DGBL, it must be acknowledged that adding layers of complexity to an already full curriculum requires sensitivity to the potential training needs of teachers, “additional training and professional development for administrators and educators will be central to that success”,(Sheras & Bradshaw, 2016, p. 134)  adding new ideas should only be implemented if outcomes are monitored.

Stage 3 teacher Letitia Mutton suggests she would evaluate outcomes across the unit and not just playing the game itself, “I would assess the overall unit and not the success of the game on its own.”(Mutton, 2016, personal communication)

One of the key considerations must be available time, or curriculum stress.   At this time, HSIE units require just 1.5-2.5 hours in a teaching week.


Time Allocation for KLAs

NSW Board of Studies BOSTES Hours per teaching week available here.


The syllabus guide provides insight into the requirements of this area of study; the outcomes are listed here, and the objectives here.


What might be gained by introducing DGBL?

According to Sekeres (2014) the learning and inquiry process isn’t linear or stuck in place. “It is highly individual, non-linear, flexible and more recursive”(p. 44) Using Minecraftedu, a sandbox construction game allows learners to construct something meaningful. This is how Wu (2015) describes constructionist theory, where experiential learning requires students to learn to think systematically to design a functional space while solving construction problems at the same time. (2015)

Productivity and success are fundamental parts of the overall gain of utilizing DGBL in this unit. Sekeres (2014, p. 46) found that specific, instructional and logistical designs help students.

Creativity is another important consideration in utilising DGBL in history lessons.  Ferholt et al (2015) reference Vygotsky’s ideas on creativity; that everyone is creative and this continues throughout life. (Vygotsky, 2006 as cited inFerholt, Jansson, Nilsson, & Alnervik, 2015)

This Minecon discussion (Videogameologists, 2011) talks about students being able to control their experience in Minecraft and what this agency brings to the experience (time approximately 1 minute – ends: ….allows them to be in control of the computer experience.”)



Issues and concerns of teachers

“When we are called upon to develop new proficiencies…we are likely to feel the anxiety that accompanies moving outside our comfort zones.”(DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Thomas, 2010)

There is a good deal of research and literature examining teacher concern about implementing DGBL in their classroom, including perceptions of competence, self-confidence with games and gaming and a loss of authority in the classroom. Wu (2015) describes teacher concerns as ‘five barriers’:

  1. A mismatch between the game and the curriculum
  2. Negative perceptions by other staff and parents
  3. Lack of tech support and teacher training
  4. A lack of time
  5. Low quality of games (2015, p. 1)

Teachers might worry about being less skilled than students in gaming and therefore being unable to help when required.  Teacher Letitia Mutton says, “If you show how the game fits into the curriculum, parents are fine with using games for learning. This day and age it’s all about collaboration; about learning together.  The kids taught me how to use Imovie!” (Mutton, 2016. Personal communication)

For students, seeing their teacher out of a comfort zone, or position of authority can be very powerful because it shows how lifelong learning and inquiry can be unpredictable, “often yielding unexpected problems and results.”(Sekeres et al., 2014, p. 47)

When introducing a geospatial game element into curriculum, Hagevik (Hagevik, 2011, p. 16) found teachers were hesitant and fearful but were willing to give it a try when they saw how excited and involved the students were.


Issues students might face when participating

DGBL is not a universally appealing educational resource of infinite possibility. Some students will not enjoy playing Minecraftedu to create a goldfields community. Some students will have preconceptions about the task and the process that negatively affect the outcome. Some students may come from a socio-economic or cultural background where digital games are excluded.   Collaborative, peer-led group learning becomes important in this situation.

Many educators argue DGBL is more attuned to boys learning structure, because traditionally, digital games have been the province of boys, arguing, “it is still critical to consider gender in order to understand and improve on the design, production and play of games”. (Kafai, 2008, p. xii) Walkerdine talks about this as being a “complex relational dynamic”(2007, p. 172) to be wary of when children game together and Winn and Heeter (2009, p. 1) mention  the magnitude of the gap between genders and gaming increasing as children become young adults.   However, the genders appear to agree, “playing computer games can help to develop useful skills.”(Hainey, Boyle, Connolly, & Stansfield, 2011, p. 217) and that gender differences should be acknowledged and considered when creating a DGBL environment.(Hagevik, 2011, p. 265)


What other examples could be used to model this activity on?

There are many existing servers or created worlds where subscribers can enter and create their own space.   Sekeres (2014) describes some of the features to design into an online inquiry project. (2014, p. 45)


Table 1: Features to consider when designing structured online inquiry projects for children in grades 3-5 and the reasoning behind each design feature.


Some of the existing examples to explore, include a recreation of Scottish history in several Minecraftedu worlds.  Stephen Reid (2016)  from @ImmersiveMind has recreated the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Minecraftedu,


Stephen Reid (2016)  from @ImmersiveMind has recreated the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Minecraftedu

via @ImmersiveMind (Reid 2016)


as well as explorations of the European refugee crisis.    These are just some examples of existing activities to guide and inspire educators looking to introduce DGBL utilising Minecraftedu.


Explorations of the European refugee crisis

via @ImmersiveMind


How would DGBL Minecraftedu tie in with existing excursions and activities?

Students could prepare for a major excursion to Hill End historic site by synthesizing learning materials into a minecraftedu world before attending, or they could do the same thing after the excursion.

Students could take photos of tableaus to recreate them in their Minecraftedu world. This would add to their learning portfolio and provide agency for the work, “I took this photo and created this world”.  In this way, various aspects of a functioning 19th Century mining community could be addressed, including housing, food preparation, official buildings, religious observance, hotels and other accommodation


What proficiencies are required to successfully begin the activity for students and for teachers?

As described earlier, Minecraftedu has a wealth of tutorials and other learning and collaboration spaces to help teacher and student proficiency.  An informal survey of students would be useful prior to Minecraft acitivities to guage the level of proficiency.  Students could view learning videos and investigate some of the resources available before beginning to create their own world.



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Part 2: Provocation

Part 2: Provocation

Case studies, environmental scans, situational analysis, or other activities that illustrate games-based learning in action.

In this section:

Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation) developed by the
School of Information StudiesCharles Sturt University, 2016.
Charles Sturt University