Questing in Digiton

Last week, I visited the brand-new ChicagoQuest school, created by the Institute of Play, as part of a Digital Media, Technology, Children and Schools conference organized by the Hechinger Institute.  The learn-by-gaming charter school started this fall with sixth and seventh graders and will add a high school.

We walked into Code Worlds, which teaches both fractions and grammar as codes, and were greeted by a petite, very self-possessed seventh-grade girl, who explained the class was trying to restore rationality to the town of “Digiton” and compete to help farmer Al Gorithm calculate his harvest. A very articulate boy joined us, displayed his map of Digiton and joined the discussion.

The school tries to create narratives and games to motivate students to solve problems and think in terms of systems. Students — nearly all are black or Hispanic — range from way behind academically to advanced.

We tap into kids’ natural curiosity by giving them a “mission” — a hugely complex task that they can not solve with their current knowledge and understandings. These missions create reasons to learn. Students actually do something with their learning, right on the spot. Our approach sparks the drive to think critically, to keep trying, to persist for solutions.

We also visited a lab where students can play physical games: I tried moving mirrors with a partner to direct a laser to the target. Allegedly, we were learning geometry and maybe physics. Maybe, maybe not.

I liked the school’s very thoughtful curriculum design, which includes teaching the Common Core Standards and “21st century skills.” Game designers work with teachers to come up with ideas, look at what works and redesign curriculum.

In every room, students were working — or faking it convincingly.  One class was looking up an article on Aristotle on their iPads and taking notes. Not very gamey, but ambitious for middle schoolers. I told a girl that Aristotle had been Alexander the Great’s tutor — and then explained Alexander the Great. She looked interested.

When we talked to four students — including the very articulate boy from Digiton — we asked what was different about ChicagoQuest. They didn’t talk about the games or the technology. They said they liked the fact that there’s no fighting or cursing.  One girl said teachers at her old school had walked by a fight, pretending they didn’t know it was happening. One of ChicagoQuest’s “core values” is “Nobody walks by.”

Other core values are: “Respect all things,” “Be tenacious,” “Win and lose with grace” and “Get in the game: Play fair, play fully.”

Digital learning will prove itself — or adapt — argues Katie Salen, a game designer and DePaul professor who co-founded Quest to Learn two years ago in New York City.

. . . video-game companies develop products with users. They might issue an early version with kinks or bad ideas. And then it’s a dynamic process where user feedback helps the designer improve a game. There’s constant fixing. The video game is ever evolving.She’d like to see schools experiment with education software in the same way, rather than waiting for definitive proof that certain products work. The more students play with educational games, the more game designers can make them effective.

The MacArthur Foundation folks, who are providing most of the money, sounded offended by questions about effectiveness. I agree it’s too soon to tell, but it’s a valid question. (Reading and math scores for the New York Quest school are average for sixth graders and above average for seventh graders.)

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.