Solving the puzzle
IMAGINE a grade 6 classroom, silent but for the frenzied tapping of keyboards and the beeps and pings of screen games. It’s an intense silence, more familiar to parents when children are immersed in Halo — or texting at the dinner table.
But in this case they are studying a core subject at Quest to Learn, an innovative new school in New York City. Here, digital games are embraced as highly effective learning tools and the curriculum has been turned on its head: every subject is a puzzle or game to be solved.
While pupils read books and use pencils on occasion, playing and making games is paramount. The free public school’s approach is believed to be a world first — and the students love it.Advertisement: Story continues below
Quest to Learn “builds on the best of what we know about how kids learn but does it with a 21st-century twist,” says founder Professor Katie Salen. The best includes active learning by problem-solving, and the twist is using games to engage students. The curriculum is created by teachers and game designers working together.
“The teachers are masters of understanding developmentally where kids are at,” Dr Salen says. “They are masters of content, and game designers are experts at understanding engagement and flow and incentive and challenge — that collaboration is a key part of what we do.”
The school now has sixth and seventh-grade students (aged from about 11) and plans to expand up to 12th grade. It is for children living nearby and there is no test admission. Established in late 2009, the school has so far recorded average marks for maths and literacy. But Q2L rated highly in terms of pupil engagement — in the top few per cent of all New York City schools, Professor Salen says.
“In a city where huge numbers of kids are dropping out of school,” she says, “it is quite a good thing that the students want to be there.” A sister school is to open in Chicago, where expectations are high.
“The only way we’re going to catch up with the rest of the world is to re-invent how teaching and learning occurs,” explained the acting head of Chicago Public Schools, Terry Mazany. “That’s why this is so vital. It’s going to be an innovation engine for the district.”
On a recent trip to the cramped Manhattan headquarters, Elizabeth Purvis, executive director of Chicago International Charter School, seemed dazzled by what the New York students were able to do.
“You can’t watch how these kids work, how invested they are in what they’re learning, and not come away amazed,” she says.
Dr Salen — who is also professor of design and technology and director of the Centre for Transformative Media at New York’s Parsons the New School for Design, and a game designer — co-wrote the game bible, Rules of Play. She says Quest to Learn addresses the widening gap between traditional schools and their tech-savvy pupils.
“We need to think about digital literacy as a proper literacy of the 21st century. If you don’t really understand how to search the web, how a computer works, or how smart phones work and how signals get transmitted through satellites, you are really missing some core understandings that will be important for being able to participate in the workforce.
“It is the responsibility of schools to help kids understand the best and most purposeful ways of working with technology.”
And she’s convinced of the power of games for learning. “What [digital] games do really well is provide structured challenges for people: they drop you into a complex problem-space and they provide something that is just out of your reach. Trying to figure out how to reach that challenge is incredibly fun. Games give constant feedback, so the player knows where they are and they are constantly being given support and rewards for how they are doing — which is a really great way to keep people engaged in an activity.”
But there are those who see video games as the opposite of educational. Professor Salen’s Rules of Play notes that, despite the medium’s huge possibilities, there are plenty of banal, witless games out there.
Games, the book says, can be both “timeless masterpieces and masterful time-wasters”. But she points out that any medium — books, film, TV — has its dross and shouldn’t be dismissed on that basis.
“The military have always used games as a way to strategise around choices in how one might proceed. Games allow the chance to try out many different options without there being any real-world consequences.”
In education, she says, it’s valuable for a student to test ideas and have 100 tries at something rather than just one.
Each school term begins with a conundrum, a mystery that the class must work together to solve. Instead of learning the facts of American history, for example, students embark on a quest to discover why six ghosts haunting the Metropolitan Museum — including an indigenous Indian, a white settler and an African-American slave — have been fighting for 150 years. This quest involves everything from reading primary source materials to playing and making relevant digital games.
Classes are interdisciplinary, such as an English and maths hybrid called CodeWorlds. Here, for instance, students might be presented with a set of library books, written in a code they are asked to decipher, using maths techniques.
Q2L adopts the jargon of the gaming world: pupils work on “missions” rather than units of study and lessons are “quests”. They achieve levels from novice to master rather than A to D grades.
The teachers come from traditional teaching backgrounds but have an affinity with collaborative project-based work and new technology, Dr Salen says. “They feel they can really be designers of experiences for young people rather than content disseminators or gatekeepers around kids getting grades and testing. It gives them an empowerment around being creative individuals.”
Operating on a public-school budget but with grants from the Gates Foundation, among others, the school is a litmus test for digital learning. While Professor Salen admits she and her colleagues feel the pressure to prove themselves, she has no doubt about the effectiveness of games. She first took board games into her university classroom when teaching interactive design in the 1990s.
“I started to look at games as more than just a space for play and began to realise that, as designed systems, they were incredibly interesting. I wanted to try and understand what it was about games that made them so engaging for people.”
Designing a game, Professor Salen says, involves analysing the system that underpins its subject. And that skill’s got to be useful — in or out of school. In the school’s core subject, sports for the mind, students design computer games. For homework, they test and rate those of their classmates.
“All of these skills are things that we think are really important in the 21st century — the ability to critique media, to build models and simulations about ideas, the ability to give feedback and work in teams.”
While the school is cautious about expanding too fast, there is plenty of international interest. Q2L is looking at how to provide teaching tools that can be tailored to other schools, Professor Salen says. She sees this as vital for educators of the future. “We need to teach kids how to navigate the [digital] system and how to make choices and really, how to be a citizen in a world that is totally wired and totally global.”
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