Quest to Learn
MANHATTAN NY 10011 Map
Quest to Learn
Quest to Learn, which opened September 2009 with a sixth grade and will grow to include a 12th grade, is the first school in the country to implement an entire curriculum that uses game design principles. The school hopes to encourage students to persevere when they stumble, and to motivate them with the pleasure of completing a task rather than traditional grades.
Students design simple video games in a class dubbed Sports for the Mind. On our visit, each student huddled over a laptop, playing and editing a classmate's game as part of a ritual employed by game designers to test the effectiveness of their products before they are made public. As they added and subtracted visual elements to the design, kids thought about how to fix levels that were impossible to win, or that were too easy to be challenging, and how to make the game fun. It is a problem solving process similar to that of writers who anticipate readers' reactions and work through many revisions.
This process of creating, reflecting, and refining aligns well with the philosophy behind Quest to Learn, a place where Principal Elisa Aragon tells students that “the first try is never going to be the best.” The intended message is that student must learn from failed attempts if they expect to achieve their goals.
Housed in a wing of Bayard Rustin High School with its own entrance, the school doesn’t look that different from an ordinary middle school—at least at first glance. Classrooms have books and word walls and Smartboards. Children write and revise essays and carry out science experiments. Sixth graders’ homework includes reading for at least 30 minutes every night and keeping reading journals. Teachers are licensed by the Department of Education and have experience in traditional schools. (And kids take the standardized tests required by the state.) But the teachers have agreed to incorporate elements of game design in their classes in a curriculum designed by Katie Salen, the executive director of the Institute of Play, and a professor at Parsons the New School for Design.
In one class, children pretended they were citizens of Athens and Sparta and acted out their diplomatic relations. In another, they used Lego pieces, scales and a tape measure to calculate weight and volume. During a game in gym, elated kids ran around. What made these different from traditional classes was the way in which children move from one level to another, gaining points along the way–as they would in a video game.
“When matter gets introduced in a game-like way, [students] become more engaged,” says Aragon. Every semester culminates in a final project, and students are asked to pull from what they have learned in all their classes which go by the names Code Worlds (math and English); The Way Things Work (math and science); Being Space and Place (social studies and English); and Wellness (social emotional learning, health and physical education); and Sports for the Mind (game design and media). The final project is called a "boss level," implying that the semester's work has been leading up to this challenge. Last year students designed Rube Goldberg machines and presented their work to a panel that included designers and architects.
The school's fanciest toy may be the SMALLab play space. The room is equipped with cameras that detect players' actions when they interact with a virtual environment projected on a floor mat. Many of the games designed for the space aim to teach collaboration by emphasizing how different parts of a system work together, another prominent theme of the school. In a game designed to teach about color blending, three players each represent a primary color and they must move in sync with each other to produce a target non-primary color.
The school has encountered some rough spots. Its founding principal, Aaron Schwartz, left shortly after the school opened in September 2009; a teacher featured in a profile of the school in The New York Times left after the first year. The first year’s standardized tests scores showed about half of the students met state standards for math and only two-thirds met standards for English—about average for the city. It’s too soon to say whether the approach will be successful.
That said, the kids we talked to were excited to work on projects that are different from anything they encountered in elementary schools. The racially diverse group of students seemed unusually happy, confident and articulate. Aragon says they are hooked: the school had to lock down online access to their game making program at night because they found some students using it at home into the wee hours of the morning.
Special education: About one quarter of the students have special needs. The school offers a CTT class on each grade where a teacher trained in special education works alongside a content teacher, however, other classes with special needs children only have one teacher.
Admissions: District 2 lottery. Families contact the school to attend an information session. (Catherine Man, October 2010)