Quest to Learn
Kids learn in innovative ways
Open-ended projects may not suit every child
Quest to Learn offers a novel 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.
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, learning real science along the way, or plan a food truck business using math skills.
There are lots of weird names and some techie jargon in the middle 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. (The high school uses traditional course names so as not to confuse colleges.)
In many ways Quest looks like other schools that incorporate group work and projects. 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.
Children enjoy an unusual amount of choice in their activities: a “menu” of options in history includes making a 30-card quiz on important people and events of the Boston Tea Party. Kids and teachers said class time is about half teacher-led discussion and half project work. Some kids sat idly during open-ended tasks; in the game design, technology and arts class called “Sports of the Mind,” we watched a 6th grader hesitate before the 2-D simulation software Algadoo, while the child next to her assembled a car that zoomed across the screen in minutes.
Students take the same standardized tests as other schools, and all 8th graders take Earth Science and algebra Regents exams. This is a significant challenge because one-third of the students at Q2L have special needs. “We have students who can analyze college texts working together with students who are learning to decode [three-letter] words,” said assistant principal Devin Fitzgibbons.
Fortunately, there are two teachers in most classes, and New York University provides a dozen student volunteers. The guidance counselor runs small support groups such as a social interaction group, a girls leadership group and a foster care group. One of the most winning characteristics of Q2L is how friendly and helpful kids are to each other in class.
Q2L opened in 2009, and the first class graduated in 2016, the year Nicholas Jurman took the helm. He and assistant principal Tim Jones immediately worked to “tighten up systems” to combat a downward slide, shown on school surveys, in the areas of discipline, order and leadership under the previous administration.
Jurman addressed complaints of bullying, boredom, and too much test prep in the high school. He added Regents classes for all 8th graders and more Advanced Placement classes. The school’s founding partner, Institute of Play, now works with high school teachers twice a month to plan lessons based on game design. Peer mediation and peer mentoring programs help curb bullying. We saw no rude behavior on our visit except when a child banged loudly on the principal’s office door to retrieve his skateboard. NYC School Surveys have improved under Jurman’s leadership.
Q2L attracts some highly educated teachers from colleges such as Brown, Harvard and Columbia. Twice a year students tackle teacher-designed “boss-level” challenges for a week instead of attending regular classes. These challenges allow self-starters to shine: a 10th grade transfer student wowed everyone with her TED talk on the importance of making feminine hygiene products available to girls and women; a 7th grader designed a foster dog adoption agency. One challenge involves visiting important World War II sites and viewing docudramas to create a World War II museum to teach other students about the war.
About 20 students earn placements at Bronx Science, LaGuardia, Stuyvesant, Beacon and other specialized and sought-after schools. “They show off their work and investigations and those schools want them,” Fitzgibbons said.
In addition to getting support from Parsons The New School, the Institute of Play has some heavy-hitting funders, including the Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation.
Q2L is housed in a wing of the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, a building with a number of small high schools that share a cafeteria and renovated library.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) fit right in with the rest of the student body. Many of the special education teachers have more than 10 years experience, Fitzgibbons said.
ADMISSIONS: Priority to District 2 students who attend a tour, fair or open house. Roughly half the continuing 8th graders attend the high school. Seventy-five percent of the 9th grade class came from outside District 2 in 2016—half are from Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn. (Lydie Raschka, September 2017)
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Programs and Admissions
Advanced Placement (AP) courses
AP English Language and Composition, AP English Literature and Composition, AP Environmental Science, AP U.S. History
Boys PSAL teams
Baseball, Basketball, Bowling, Soccer, Volleyball, Wrestling
Girls PSAL teams
Basketball, Bowling, Softball, Tennis, Volleyball
Manhattan NY 10011