Quest to Learn
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Quest to Learn
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Quest to Learn offers a new approach to education based on the principles that make video games enjoyable. It's a radical experiment that may sound flaky, but Q2L is not an oasis for students looking to play video games all day. It's a place where kids learn traditional subjects like history, algebra and chemistry—albeit in an untraditional way.
"It's a common misconception about this school that you're going to come here and you're going to play video games to learn," explained one of the school's founders and co-directors, Arana Shapiro. "When we talk about games, we're talking about game-like learning--not about playing games but about looking at what makes games engaging for learning."
For example, students pretend they are spies in ancient Greece and re-enact the Peloponnesian War, learning about Athens and Sparta and the difference between oligarchy and democracy in the process. They make up a game to save an imaginary town from environmental disaster, or design real hot air balloons to help imaginary characters escape--learning real science along the way. They use Google Earth to study earthquake fault lines in an Earth Science class, or complete an independent study on photography (like the 9th grader in this video).
The idea is that if teachers design lessons the same way game designers make games, kids will be motivated to keep trying when they have trouble and will be rewarded with the pleasure of completing a task rather than traditional grades.
What makes Q2L lessons different from traditional classes is the way in which children move from one level to another, gaining points along the way–as they would in a video game.
There are lots of weird names and some techie jargon at the school: "Codeworlds" is math, "Mission Lab" is a place where teachers meet to plan lessons, and "systems thinking" is--well, we still aren't really sure what that is.
We saw kids clustered around laptops chatting about their latest "quest"—as their assignments are called—or engrossed in science experiments. We also saw some kids seated at desks in rows, plenty of old-fashioned textbooks, and students' essays posted on the bulletin boards as you might see in a traditional school. Students take the same standardized tests as other schools, and 8th graders may take Earth Science and algebra Regents exams. Two-thirds of the students are male.
Q2L is a place where teachers are constantly learning. "I have never seen so much professional development for teachers in my life," said Jeremy Engle, who was a founding teacher at Deborah Meier's legendary Central Park East Secondary School in the 1980s and who now help design the Q2L curriculum. "Collaboration is not just lip service here."
Teachers have a smaller class loads than the average public school teacher to allow time to meet regularly with other faculty members and with professional game designers—three of whom are on staff. Together, they write the curriculum and constantly fine-tune their lessons, repeatedly assessing what works, what needs to be improved, and what strategies they might use for kids who have difficulties. Teachers visit one another's classes to get ideas for their own classes.
The Institute of Play at Parsons The New School for Design pays the salaries of the game designers and curriculum specialists who work with teachers. Shapiro, from the Institute of Play, and Principal Elisa Aragon are co-directors who share responsibilities for running the school. In addition to the support of Parsons, the Institute of Play has some heavy-hitting funders, including the Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation.
Q2L opened with a 6th grade in 2009 and will add a grade each year until it serves grades 6-12. It is housed in a wing of the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, a building with a number of small schools that share a cafeteria and renovated library.
The school is a work in progress: The curriculum is still being developed, and not every course is polished. A few teachers say the lessons should be more challenging and that discipline should be tighter, according to the Learning Environment Survey. Standardized test scores are above average for the city but not stellar. Still, Quest to Learn is one of the most interesting schools to open in the city in recent years. The science classes we saw were particularly strong.
About half of Q2L 8th graders continue on to the high school, leaving space for new 9th graders, says Aragon. Others go to LaGuardia, Bronx Science, Millennium and Beacon.
Special education: One quarter of the students have special needs. Aragon says students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) fit right in with the rest of the student body. Quirky kids can "find friends who are really similar to them and be happy," says Aragon. On our visit, we saw an 8th grader in a wheelchair being pushed around by her purple-haired classmate as the pair joked with friends.
Admissions: Contact the school to attend a tour. Priority to District 2 students. (Anna Schneider and Clara Hemphill, October 2013)