Teachers’ Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching with Minecraft
Thorkild Hanghøj and Heidi Hautopp
Research Lab: IT, Learning & Design, Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark
Abstract: The aim of this paper is to explore teachers’ different pedagogical approaches to teaching the
“sandbox” digital game Minecraft as a part of L1 primary education. The empirical data for the paper is based
on a series of design interventions with a Minecraft curriculum in three different classes (two 1st grades and
one 2nd grade) at three different Danish schools, which involved video observations of the teaching and
interviews with the participating teachers. The project is financed by The Danish Ministry of Education (2013-
2015) and is part of a larger project on “ICT in the Innovative School”, which aims to develop students’ 21st
century skills. Drawing on theoretical work on professional practice (Schön, 1983), frame theory (Goffman,
1974), and Dialogic Self Theory (Ligorio, 2010), the paper aims to describe and understand how the teachers’
positioned themselves through redesign and enactment of the Minecraft curriculum. In order to achieve this
aim, the paper introduces a general model for understanding teachers’ educational use of games, which
describe the dynamic interplay between curricular concepts, game texts, game practices, and learning
activities. Based on empirical analysis of teachers’ I-positions to the Minecraft curriculum, the paper identifies
three different pedagogical approaches, which are described as execution, improvisation, and transformation.
Keywords: game-based teaching, Minecraft, design-based research, teacher positions
During the last decade, a body of research has emerged on the assumed learning potential of digital games in terms of
developing new literacies (Gee, 2003; Leander & Lovvorn, 2006; Steinkuehler, 2011). Much of the research on games
and learning have been driven by “big ideas” (Williamson, 2009) - i.e. on how games may provide contextualized
problem-solving spaces, support engaging and individualized learning with high emotional impact, bridge in-school
and out-of-school learning, create new communities of practice, and allow for new types of embedded assessment.
These assumptions are often fuelled by global trends such as children’s widespread use of digital games, increased
import of digital technologies into classrooms, and a consistent interest among teachers in using digital games
(Takeuchi & Vaala, 2014). At the same time, there is a lack of knowledge on how commercial games can be taught and
played within particular classroom contexts. In order to exemplify the model, we will focus on a particular empirical
study of how primary teachers at three different schools taught with Minecraft. More specifically, we wish to focus on
the following research question: How do L1 teachers position themselves through different pedagogical approaches
when teaching a Minecraft curriculum?
2. Case: Minecraft
During the last few years, the sandbox construction game Minecraft has enjoyed considerable worldwide success,
which is often ascribed to the openness of the game. Players are essentially free to define their own goals when
playing the game, e.g. by killing monsters, building houses and exploring other players’ game maps. The open-
endedness of the game provides a multitude of options for re-designing the game as a learning resource in formal
education, which may explain why the game has also become the focus of attention for a growing number of
educators and educational researchers. Building on earlier work (Hanghøj et al., 2014) from a research project funded
by the Danish Ministry of Education (2013-2015), the current study further explores how teachers use a particular
game map, entitled “The Mysterious Island”, which was developed to teach using Minecraft in a L1 context at four
different Danish schools from grades 0 to 2. Inspired by the Storyline method (Bell et al., 2007), which invite
participants to play an active role in the co-construction of a common narrative, the Mysterious Island game map has
been designed in order to facilitate a Robinsonade narrative that encourage students to explore the deserted island
and find ways of “surviving”. Working in small groups, the students are asked to find hidden objects and then discuss,
prioritize and build what they consider as the most important for their survival. They must also keep a diary of what
they experience on the island to be presented at the end of the course through the use of presentation software such
as Power Point or Animoto. Thus, the aims of the Minecraft curriculum focus on learning:
about the Robinsonade as a narrative genre
to engage in dialogue and collaboration
to plan and argue for particular design choices
to write diaries and take screendumps
to present using digital presentation tools
In summary, the Minecraft curriculum consisted of a lesson plan, an introductory YouTube film to The Mysterious
Island, and selected templates – e.g. for describing the students’ avatars. The curriculum had to be adapted to more
specific aims as the participating classes span across ages 6 to 8.
3. Related work
Within recent years, there has been a growing interest in exploring the use of Minecraft in schools, which indicates a
broad range of educational possibilities for collaboration, knowledge sharing and co-construction (Dezuanni et al.,
2014; Niemeyer & Gerber, 2014). However, there still exist relatively few empirical studies, which describe how
Minecraft – or other digital games – can be taught in relation to specific curricular aims and learning activities within
the literacy classroom (Burn, 2007; Apperley & Beavis, 2009; Caroll, 2013; Marklund & Taylor, 2015). As these studies
show, it is crucial that teachers using digital games in the classroom are able to understand the game dynamics and
rules of the particular games they are teaching with. Without basic “game literacy” and understanding of students’
game play, it is difficult for teachers to select relevant curricular aims and assignments that relate meaningfully to
particular game goals, game practices and assessment criteria. Moreover, there is the question of resources – e.g.
time for preparation and time for playing the game in class, money for buying game licenses and the availability of
specific technologies such as computers, servers and internet that allow the game to be played in a school setting. In
summary, the overall findings show that it is not so much a question whether digital games represent a relevant type
of text or tool for learning. Rather, the main question concerns how particular games taught through specific teacher
practices can be used to meet selected curricular aims. In this way, there is a need for more empirical studies on how
teachers can “translate” digital games into curricular contexts.
4. Theoretical perspectives
The theoretical perspectives of the paper aim to describe the teachers’ role in continually re-designing and enacting
game scenarios within broader educational scenarios. The model is based on the assumption that the practice of
teaching with games can be understood as a dynamic interplay between meaning-making processes along two
different dimensions. The first dimension concerns the teachers’ framing (Goffman, 1974) of game -based curricula
that always involves a dynamic tension between curricular aims (e.g. learning about narrative genres) and game goals,
which relate to the specific game mechanics and game practices of particular games (e.g. building and communicating
in Minecraft). The underlying assumption being that teachers using games in L1 needs to actively identify, plan,
communicate and modify curricular aims and how these relate to the goals of particular games, which may be highly
contingent and somewhat unpredictable. The second dimension concerns the relationship between how, on the one
hand, teachers redesign the design, texts and assignments of the educational game curriculum and, on the other
hand, how teachers enact the game scenario in practice in relation to specific learning activities and game practices.
This dimension is inspired by the work of Schön (1983), who describes how teachers as professional practitioners
changes between situations, which require reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. In this way, teachers
continually shift between redesigning and enacting particular aspects of game scenarios, which foreground some
aspects of particular game scenarios and background other aspects as being less relevant. The relationship between
the two dimensions is shown in model 1 below:
The model highlights four different aspects, which are important when teaching with games: 1) specific ideas or
concepts for game-based curricula, 2) the design of particular games, 3) the game practices involved in playing
particular games, and 4) the learning activities to be organized and enacted in order to meet curricular aims. In this
way, the model can be used to generate and answer a number of analytical questions, which are important when
teaching with games within L1 such as:
Topics & concepts: What topics and concepts become foregrounded when teaching with games within the
curricular context of L1?
Game design: What constitutes a specific game as a design (e.g. narratives, aesthetics, game mechanics etc.)?
And what texts should students work with and produce in relation to the game in question?
Game practices: How is the game played? And how should the game be played within a formal school context?
Learning activities: What tasks and assignments should be given to the students and how should they be
organized and assessed?
In order to analyze and understand how the teachers in our study redesigned and enacted the Minecraft curriculum in
practice, we will adopt the perspective of Dialogical Self Theory (Hermans, 2001; Ligorio, 2010), which is inspired by
the work of Bakhtin (1981). According to this perspective, teachers’ use of games can be understood as process of
positioning, which implies the adoption of a dynamic series of positions that both reflect teacher identities and
pedagogical approaches (Silseth, 2012). According to Ligorio, each position adopted by a teacher “is endowed by one
or more ‘voices’ thus the dialogism becomes polyphonic and this polyphony may generate new positions” (2010: 95).
In this way, teachers using games always involve some form of voice, which may be expressed through many different
I-positions that both relate to curricular aspects and to wider questions of teacher identity (Akkerman & Meijer, 2011).
Following the perspective of Dialogical Self Theory, there is no clear definition on what it means to be a teacher using
games in the classroom. Thus, teachers may choose to position themselves through par ticular pedagogical
approaches. By taking a dialogical perspective, it is possible to describe how the participating teachers in the research
project adopted different I-positions in relation to the Minecraft curriculum, which related to the four aspects
(curricular concepts, game texts, game practices, and learning activities), described in model 1.
The methodological approach of the project is inspired by Design-Based Research (Barab & Squire, 2004), which
involves an iterative series of interventions in educational contexts with a particular design for learning in order to
generate design principles and refine local theories on a given phenomenon. More specifically, the design
interventions of the project has aimed to generate knowledge and pedagogical principles on how L1 teachers in
primary education may use the Minecraft curriculum described above.
The empirical data collection of the study focused on L1 teachers at three different primary schools. This involved
Model 1: Translating digital games into curricular contexts
group interviews with the teachers at each school both before and after the Minecraft curriculum had been tried out.
Moreover, we also conducted extensive observations at each of the three schools. The observations involved a three-
week observation period of selected lessons in two second grade classes (age 8) at School 1, two weeks of full-day
observations in three first grade classes (age 7) at School 2, and a final three-week observation period of selected
lessons in two first grade classes (age 7) at School 3. In addition to taking field notes, we also documented the
observations using photos, video and sound recordings.
Our analytic approach was driven by an explorative understanding of the data, which followed an ethnographically
inspired approach to discourse analysis (Gee & Green, 1998). The goal was to map how significant patterns of
communication were related to the teachers’ local practices. For the purpose of this paper, the data has been
categorised in two analytical themes, which indicated how the teachers redesigned and enacted the educational
scenario of the Minecraft curriculum. Next, we selected significant events from the observations for further analysis,
which indicated important patterns in the teachers’ I-positions toward the game-based curriculum.
In the analysis presented below, we will focus on the I-positions of different teachers from the three schools and how
they represent three different pedagogical approaches to the use of Minecraft within the context of L1. The
pedagogical approaches to the Minecraft curriculum chosen at the three different schools were made collectively in
each teacher team. In this way, our focus is not so much an attempt to describe the practices of the individual
teachers but more on understanding the different approaches of the different teams and how they informed the
process of redesigning and enacting the Minecraft curriculum.
The aim of the analysis is to describe three different pedagogical approaches - i.e. executing, improvising, and
transforming the Minecraft curriculum. The three approaches are described in relation to the four aspects (curricular
concepts, game texts, game practices, and learning activities) as shown in model 1.
6.1. Executing the game curriculum
The first pedagogical approach concerns teachers, who positioned themselves by primarily executing the Minecraft
curriculum. It may be argued that an executive approach is quite common among teachers - e.g. when using
curriculum material designed by subject experts with text books being the most familiar example. In order to illustrate
the executive approach, we will use the two teachers at School 1 as an example. When preparing for the Minecraft
course, the teachers ran into technical problems, which were solved just a few days before the course started. In the
pre-interview, the teachers explained that the technical problems had kept them from exploring Minecraft and the
Mysterious Island: “At this point, we do not have so much insight in the technical aspects, you might say, as we
should”. Having only a limited knowledge of the game, the teachers decided mainly to r ely on the presentation
material for the Minecraft curriculum and then combine it with the students’ use of the online presentation tools,
Animoto, which the teachers had good experience with from previous teaching. As described in the lesson plan, the
teachers started the first lesson by showing the introduction film to The Mysterious Island twice for the students in
order to create a setting for the Robinsonade. The students, who were generally very excited about being able to play
Minecraft at school, were quite focused when watching the film and afterwards eager to describe what they had paid
attention to in the film. Here is an excerpt of the teacher-lead dialogue:
Teacher 1: Could you see that it [the film] was a bit Minecraft-ish. Sara?
Sara: I saw that there was lava on that island
Teacher 1: There was lava on the island?
Teacher 2: You might say that this is sort of the beginning of this Robinsonade, which we are
going to be on together
Student: But are we not going to build something on the island?
Teacher 2: Schhy, I am trying to talk. So this means that you are actually on this ship, you can
imagine that a bit, right, so now you are on your way to become a part of this
adventure, which we are going to get into… Can you imagine that a bit? Just try and
close your eyes. Can you imagine yourselves being on the ship?
Students: No… not really…
Teacher 2: Look, you have just seen what the ship looks like, try and close your eyes and imagine
that you are on the ship
Student: [to another student] I am not on the ship
Teacher 2: And now we have reached the point, where the ship runs ashore on the island… and
now you may open your eyes because you are looking at the island now, and we
might be able to get a picture of the island, no, not really [looks at the projector
screen]. Anyway, we are looking at the island now and we are just about to enter, but
we do not enter the island just yet, not until tomorrow. Because tomorrow, we are…
ehm… then we are going, you might say, to enter the island
Teacher 1: And explore
Teacher 2: Explore, we can use that word, yes, we are going to explore the island tomorrow. So
today we are going to prepare ourselves really good for entering the island, right? And
the next thing we are going to do is that you need to become a person… and in this
game, that is called an avatar.
This example shows how the teachers position themselves in relation to the game scenario as something unfamiliar by
describing it through abstract and imprecise terms - e.g. “a bit Minecraft-ish”. Given their lack of game experience, the
teachers avoid specific questions about the game as when one of the students ask whether or not they are going to
build something on the island and is cut off. The teachers try to make up for thei r lacking knowledge of the game by
helping each other - e.g. when Teacher 1 mentions the aim of “exploring” the island instead of the more abstract idea
of “entering”. However, as the students’ negative responses indicate, it is difficult for them to make meaningful
translations between the film they have just seen, their existing knowledge of Minecraft, and the teachers’ attempt to
guide their imagination by asking the students to “close their eyes and imagine”.
The example points to a paradox as the students are asked to imagine being on the island and immersed in the
Robinsonade narrative instead of co-creating the narrative through actual in-game actions. In the lesson that
followed, the students are asked to create descriptions of their Minecraft avatars. The students found this assignment
abstract and difficult to engage in as they had only seen the film, which gave them a limited sense of what it meant to
be on the island. After a number of lessons, where the students had been allowed to actually exp lore the island in-
game, it became gradually easier for them to create a diary and describe how they experienced and participated in the
The point here is that the two teachers clearly followed the instructions in the lesson plan in order to execute a
meaningful introduction to The Mysterious Island. However, having limited knowledge of the game space they
primarily described Minecraft as a text or representation with pre-defined meaning and less as an open game space to
be explored In this way, it was difficult for them to create a meaningful translation between the literary genre of the
Robinsonade and the game dynamics of Minecraft. This was quite clear when one of the students asked: “Why are we
actually working with Minecraft?”, and the teacher replied: “Because we’re working with the Robinsonade in Danish
class”. This closed response narrows the aims of the course to only understanding the Robinsonade as a well-
established literary genre in L1. Thus, the teacher does not mention the other important verbs and activities (e.g.
exploring, discussing, planning, arguing, building, and reflecting), which are key aims of the Minecraft curriculum. In
this way, the teachers assumed I-positions as subject-specific authorities, who relied on their familiar teaching
practices and provided closed answers to the students’ in-game questions.
6.2. Improvising the game curriculum
The second pedagogical approach concerns how some teachers positioned themselves through improvisation, which
involve their ability to react to unexpected situations when teaching with Minecraft. In order to illustrate this
approach we will use the teachers at School 3 as an example, which redesigned the curriculum to focus on the fairy
tale genre instead of the Robinsonade. Their pedagogical approach focused on creating a dialogical space that
supported the multivoicedness of the students, knowledge sharing and co-construction of the narrative. Having only
limited knowledge of Minecraft, these teachers positioned the students as experts on Minecraft and they explicitly
emphasized the students’ game-related knowledge. In this way, one of the teachers felt that teaching with Minecraft
would give her an opportunity to withdraw from the positioning of being the “omniscient” teacher and say to the
students: “'Well, hey, I am simply so bad at Minecraft, it is certainly not for me... when I was little, I played with…’ So
in that way I can withdraw myself and leave it to them [the students] so that they find solutions there on their own."
The teachers brought the students’ knowledge about Minecraft into play during classroom dialogues with the purpose
of discussing experiences, further actions in the game and co-construct the narrative of the fairy tale, which was
created together in the class. The students talk about how to get the cows in the game to mate in order to increase
the number of cows, which would help provide food for their home town. The teachers offered the students positions
as knowledge sharers and experts on the game:
Student: Then how do we get the animals to mate?
Student: You use a potato, so you do it on a female or a male, and then when the male meets a
female, they get married
Teacher 3A: Could you just explain the thing with the potato, Lucas?
Teacher 3B: I would like that, too
Teacher 3A: I was lost there
Teacher 3B: I was as well. What is it with the potato? Is it inside the game?
Continuing the dialogue the student explained how to get the cows to mate and other students support his
explanation which could be described as negotiation of meaning. The dialogue ends with the teachers’ recognition of
the students’ knowledge:
Teacher 3A: At least, I am very glad for the explanation, I did not know any of it
Teacher 3B: Me neither
The teachers here position themselves as not-knowers of the game, which creates space for the students to position
themselves as experts. By explicitly positioning themselves as ‘learners’ of the Minecraft game mechanics, the
teachers provide authority to the students and open up for a multivoiced dialogue. One could argue that the teachers
were not well-prepared due to the fact that they had not explored the possibilities in the game as well as their lack of
technical skills to perform the activities. On the other hand, it may also be argued that the teachers intentionally
choose this approach in order to promote students’ cooperation and negotiation of meaning.
6.3. Transforming the game curriculum
The third pedagogical approach that emerged in the data concerns teachers’ transformation of the Minecraft
curriculum. By transformation we mean that the teachers actively redesigned and adapted the Minecraft curriculum
to local needs and aims. The transformative approach was particularly clear at School 2, where the teachers had
decided to “go all in” on the project and turn the Minecraft curriculum into an extensive cross-disciplinary course with
high emphasis on collaboration and democratic dialogue. In this way, the teachers positioned themselves as
knowledgeable redesigners, who were familiar with the materialities and game dynamics of the Minecraft game
world. In the post-interview, the teachers were very satisfied with the outcomes of the Minecraft curriculum and
emphasized how the success relied on their own redesign of the curriculum: "The Minecraft curriculum has been
really good, but it has also just been really good…I think…because we have put a lot into it".
As an example of the teachers’ transformation of the Minecraft curriculum, the teachers redesigned the gameplay on
The Mysterious Island in order to make it fit with the narrative structure of the Robinsonade genre. The teachers were
critical of Minecraft as a narrative text as the game world has no middle or ending. Consequently, they decided to
redesign the educational game scenario by staging a “crisis” on The Mysterious Island, which involved an online visit
by older students. Presenting themselves as “cannibals”, the older students showed unexpectedly and exploded some
of the buildings with TNT to the despair of the students. Later, the avatars returned as “helpers” and assisted the
students with repairing their buildings through online communication in the Minecraft chat. In this way, order was
restored after the students had survived the “crisis”.
In a post-interview, one of the teachers expressed that she was quite impressed about the students’ collaboration
skills when dealing with the “crisis”: “I am very positive about the collaboration ... also when we had our crisis, where
some [students] really took responsibility for the community, and really helped and made sure that the others
[students] also got theirs [buildings] rebuilt." In this way, the teacher felt she succeeded in creating a bridge between
the learning activity and her aim of promoting collaboration, which was one of the aims of the Minecraft curriculum.
The analysis of the three pedagogical approaches indicates significant differences in how the teachers positioned
themselves when teaching with the Minecraft curriculum. Going back to the model presented earlier, the teachers’
positionings can be understood in relation to the two dimensions - i.e. between framing curricular aims versus game
goals, and between redesigning and enacting the game curriculum.
The teachers at School 1, who primarily positioned their adaption of the curriculum through an executive approach,
only followed those curricular aims they were familiar with – e.g. genre knowledge of the Robinsonade and student
presentations. They backgrounded curricular aims related to specific in-game actions such as construction, exploration
and collaboration. The teachers were not familiar with the game and mainly viewed it as an audiovisual
representation. In this way, it may be argued that their students might as well have been working with a film or with
images instead of an interactive game to support the storyline. This was quite clear in the students’ final
presentations, which mainly referred to the introduction film to The Mysterious Island and less to the students’ own
in-game experiences and narratives. The teachers’ lacking game knowledge made it difficult for them to facilitate
classroom dialogue, which could translate the students’ in-game knowledge into curricular terms. In this way, they
positioned themselves as curricular authorities which only marginally addressed the students’ in-game experiences.
The teachers at School 3 positioned their adaptation through an improvisational approach as they aimed for an open-
ended exploration of the educational game scenario with explicit emphasis on the students’ game-related knowledge
and oral storytelling. These teachers engaged in open dialogue on the pedagogical use of the game and the teachers
also managed to facilitate meaningful dialogues with the students about their in-game experiences, which were used
in the co-construction of the fairy tale storyline. In this way, the teachers clearly positioned themselves as learners in
relation to understanding the unfolding game scenario and the students’ knowledge of specific game mechanics.
However, their lack of in-game knowledge also meant that these teachers found it difficult to identify and
communicate curricular aims that could match the students’ game practices in order to further their understanding of
storytelling and narrative structures.
Finally, the teachers at school 2 positioned their redesign of the curriculum through a transformational approach as
they decided to “go all in” by adopting and adapting the digital game practices as well as designing a range of new
learning activities that met local curricular aims. In this way, they redesigned the original Minecraft curriculum to
include a “crisis” within the game world and they also facilitated dialogue, which challenged the students’ game
experiences in order to meet specific curricular aims in terms of collaboration and citizenship. In this way, these
teachers positioned themselves as challengers of the curricular aims, of the game scenario and of the students’ in-
game knowledge. Out of the three teacher teams, these teachers were clearly the ones who were the most satisfied
with their adaptation of the Minecraft curriculum. However, it is important to bear in mind that these teachers also
spend far more time on preparation than the other teachers. As one of the teachers remarked, the Minecraft
curriculum “demanded from us that we should put a lot of work into it. However, it was also great when things started
running and there was not so much work to it. The hard work had already been done”.
The point of the analysis has not been to criticize the teachers who primarily executed and improvised the Minecraft
curriculum and glorify those who transformed it. Instead, our analysis has aimed to show how difficult it is for
teachers as first time users of Minecraft to redesign and enact the game curriculum, and thereby create meaningful
links between the game practices and the curricular aims, without having explored Minecraft as a part of their
preparation and acquired basic knowledge of the game dynamics.
The aim of this paper has been to explore how L1 teachers position themselves through different pedagogical
approaches when teaching with Minecraft in primary education. As we have shown in our analysis, there may be
significant differences between the ways in which teachers choose to execute, improvise, and transform a game-
based curriculum in relation to local needs and curricular aims. These differences do not only reflect teachers’
different pedagogical I-positions and existing teaching repertoires, they also reflect teachers’ game literacy. The
teachers who benefitted the most from the Minecraft curriculum were those, who were willing to engage themselves
in understanding the game and identify, communicate and assess relevant curricular aims.
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