Learning, a New Game

Videos and role playing replace textbooks and midterms at one New York school.

When Quest to Learn opens it doors on New York’s East 23rd Street next month, students will not sit down to study math and biology from the usual textbooks. Instead, lessons at the public school will include knowledge-based video games, such as Little Big Planet and Civilization, and conceptual learning exercises: in one game, for example, students play the role of detectives, collecting information in order to solve a problem. “This is design-based pedagogy,” says Katie Salen, who conceived the program and is helping to create its immersive environments. “From day one, kids should imagine themselves as designers of their own learning.”

The first American school with a curriculum built around gaming principles, Quest to Learn, or Q2L, may be at the forefront of a learning revolution—and the timing is right. “There has been a cultural shift in the past few years,” says Salen, a professor of design and technology at Parsons the New School for Design and the executive director of the Institute of Play. “Parents and teachers recognize a kind of engagement children have with games and digital media that could lead to a new way of learning.” In February, a European Parliament report concluded that “Video games can stimulate learning of facts and skills such as strategic thinking, creativity, cooperation, and innovative thinking.” Games offer rule-based systems that allow students to understand how the interaction of elements in one scenario might be applied to another, or to real-life situations. While exploring how Spartans dealt with rival city-states, for instance, students will learn how to make policy decisions and weigh the costs of war.

Q2L’s creators hope the model proves transferable. “We want to make sure it’s not one flower blooming on its own but is part of a network of new and innovative schools that have space to try new things,” says Gregg Betheil, an official at the New York City Department of Education who is helping launch the program. Dozens of New York public schools already offer iTeach iLearn, in which junior high students use Google Documents and blogs as learning tools. The city took the more ambitious step of approving Q2L in 2008 because it fit two of the recommendations of a mayoral task force: to create innovative schools and to reach kids before they enter high school. “This is a break-the-mold model that has the potential to be truly transformative,” Betheil says.

Q2L will accept only sixth graders this year, adding a grade every year until topping out with high school seniors. Each of the 20 to 25 children per class will have access to a laptop and, rather than studying individual subjects, will attend four 90-minute periods a day devoted to curriculum “domains” like Codeworlds (a combination of math and English) and the Way Things Work (math and science). Each domain concludes with a two-week test that is called—borrowing from video parlance—a “Boss Level.” Although the school is receiving around one million dollars in support from donors, includ­ing the Gates Foundation, Intel, and the Mac-Arthur Foundation, Salen expects the city to wholly fund it by 2015. With that money comes responsibility: Q2L kids will take the same annual math- and reading-achievement tests as other New York students. But because their lessons are constantly refined and personalized by evaluations that assess and gauge progress, Salen believes Q2L students will be more engaged and have better retention.

In other words, Q2L is not just about what students know but how they discover it. For Salen, the difference is crucial. “We are,” she says, “deeply interested in creating a school where kids actually love learning.”

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