Learning by playing video games

Can students learn by playing video games? Designing video games? A New York City public school called Quest to Learn, the brainchild of game designer Katie Salen, is exploring the possibilities. From New York Times Magazine:

Quest to Learn is organized specifically around the idea that digital games are central to the lives of today’s children and also increasingly, as their speed and capability grow, powerful tools for intellectual exploration. Salen, a professor of design and technology at Parsons the New School for Design, also directs a research-based organization called Institute of Play, which examines the connections between games and learning. Working with Robert Torres, a learning scientist who is a former school principal, and a small team of curriculum and game designers, Salen spent two years planning Quest to Learn in conjunction with the education-reform group New Visions for Public Schools.

Quest to Learn enrolls 145 sixth and seventh graders — all admitted by lottery — and eventually will grow to include a high school. Currently, the school employs 11 teachers and three game designers. Foundation money pays for the technology and staff.

Students work to qualify as “pre-novice,” “novice,” “apprentice,” “senior” and “master.”

The principles are similar to those used in problem-based learning, a more established educational method in which students collaborate to tackle broad, open-ended problems, with a teacher providing guidance though not necessarily a lot of instruction. But at Quest to Learn, the problems have been expertly aerated with fantasy.

Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest. And while students at the school are put through the usual rigors of studying pre-algebra, basic physics, ancient civilizations and writing, they do it inside interdisciplinary classes with names like Codeworlds — a hybrid of math and English class — where the quests blend skills from different subject areas. Students have been called upon to balance the budget and brainstorm business ideas for an imaginary community called Creepytown, for example, and to design architectural blueprints for a village of bumbling little creatures called the Troggles.

There are elements of the school’s curriculum that look familiar — nightly independent reading assignments, weekly reading-comprehension packets and plenty of work with pencils and paper — and others that don’t. Quest to Learn students record podcasts, film and edit videos, play video games, blog avidly and occasionally receive video messages from aliens.

Students also design their own games, developing, in theory, “math, writing, art, computer programming, deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills.”

After one year, Quest to Learn students earned average scores on state reading and math exams.  Work is underway on “new assessment measures . . . to look at progress in areas like systems thinking, teamwork and time management.”

Also in the Times, Deborah Solomon asks Education Secretary Arne Duncan about computers in the schools in what Ed Sector’s Chad Aldeman calls the worst questions ever.

About Joanne