The image of the teacher as sole purveyor of knowledge has outlived its usefulness. The same goes for the idea of the school as the only conduit for learning that matters. Another possibility—the one being pursued at the New York City public school Quest to Learn—is that teachers are one collaborator in the design of an experience that engages a student's own appetite to learn.
Each Quest teacher comes together in a team with a game designer and a curriculum designer every trimester. Together they create curricula that are grounded in the New York State standards and relevant to the lives of young people today. They also make games to address specific learning or assessment goals, focusing on areas where students typically struggle.
So what does that look like in practice? A unit on the American Revolution, for example, begins when students are contacted by a bunch of ghosts bickering in the basement of the Natural History Museum, threatening to destroy the museum’s entire collection. Though all the ghosts—the loyalist, the patriot, the land owner, the merchant, the slave—lived through the same events, they cannot agree on what really happened. Can the students help iron out their disagreements? Over the next few months, the students acquire all the facts and figures every other seventh grader in New York is required to know. But they also pick up higher order skills, like conflict resolution, and a sophisticated understanding of point of view. This is what is known as game-like or game-based learning, because it takes what games do best and applies the principles that underlie them to the design of learning. The result: Young people are inspired to learn what they need to know now, and to sustain the spirit of inquiry that will serve them in the future.
This collaboration is also changing the way teachers and game designers approach their work. "If it takes a whole period to learn to play, then the game’s not doing what it should," says game designer Shula Ponet. "The more I design here, the more elegant my games become." The teachers start taking risks and keep on refining their craft. "There’s always something I’m working on, something I’m trying to improve," says sixth grade teacher Ameer Mourad. And the curriculum designers come away with shows greater playfulness in their approach to learning. Says school co-director Arana Shapiro: "They’re able to trust that you can learn through play, because they’ve seen it happen again and again."
And the students? They are performing at or above New York City-wide averages on standardized tests. In the first 20 months of the school’s operation, students showed statistically significant gains in systems thinking skills, according to a study from Florida State University. And for two years now, the school’s Math Team has placed first in the New York City Mathematics Project Math Olympiad, as a result of superior collaborative problem solving. For the students at Quest to Learn though, there is nothing cooler about their school than being able to brush shoulders with real live game designers... except perhaps witnessing in real time the design of their own education.
Brian Waniewski is the Managing Director at Institute of Play, a not-for-profit design studio that pioneers new models of learning and engagement. He is also a partner at the future forecasting firm Popular Operations.