Learning through play: A conversation about Quest to Learn

As part of a series focused on the evolution of schools and organizations working to improve education, this post explores the work of the Institute of Play and of Quest to Learn, a public 6-12 school opened by the Institute in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education in 2009. To learn more about how their work has evolved we talked with Arana Shapiro, Director of Programs, Schools, and Partnership at the Institute of Play and an original member of the Quest to Learn design team.

Can schools be reimagined to incorporate the highly engaging and effective aspects of gaming in order to help students learn? The Institute of Play was created in 2007 in order develop a school model that incorporated the gaming approach to the classroom setting. In 2009, the Institute opened Quest to Learn in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education. As the school puts it on its website, “Quest to Learn re-imagines school as one node in an ecology of learning that extends beyond the four walls of an institution and engages kids in ways that are exciting, empowering and culturally relevant.” Central to that “re-imagining” is the idea that with curricula organized more like games, student engagement would improve. As the school describes it, “games are designed to create a compelling complex problem space or world, which players come to understand through self-directed exploration. They are scaffolded to deliver just-in-time learning and to use data to help players understand how they are doing, what they need to work on and where to go next.”

The focus on games grew out of a concern with research showing a link between increases in high school drop out rates and declines in engagement as students transition between elementary and middle school. “Our question was,” Shapiro explained, “can we take the principles that make games engaging spaces and turn them into a school space, therefore engaging kids in school in a way they haven’t in the past?” The Institute of Play’s design team then began exploring the elements of games that make them so appealing. The team noted that games present a complex challenge or problem to solve and were focused on a single goal. Then, they saw that feedback to the participant was ongoing and immediate. Also, participants step into an immersive space and take on a role. Learning happens because participants are required to apply what they know to whatever problem they are trying to solve or whatever role they have taken on. According to Shapiro, “Our learning model is presenting students with complex and challenging problems that they don’t know how they’re going to solve, and then developing curriculum that leads students through a series of experiences that help them develop the skills and expertise that help them solve the problems.” Students are expected to move through the curriculum as they would move through a game.

The team also believed that in addition to preparing students to meet required standards, their gaming approach could foster skills that students need in order to succeed in life but that aren’t usually addressed in school. “At Quest, we outlined a set of competencies that we want kids to know in order to compete, but more importantly we believe there are skills that kids can learn, like complex problem solving, communication, systems thinking, and digital media tool use, that are equally important.”

The school’s experiences in the 7 years since it opened makes clear both the intense interest in gaming as a form of learning as well as the challenges of focusing an entire school on such a new approach. On the one hand, the school has been the subject of a number of stories and articles and gets frequent requests for visitors. On the other hand, the school has faced a number of challenges that new schools often face.  For example, the school is trying to re-imagine learning while occupying the same kinds of classrooms that have been around for years. In Quest to Learn’s case, flexibility is further limited by the fact that the school occupies one floor of a public school with six other schools operating in it as well.

Furthermore, despite the interest in games, students, parents, and educators all have different ideas about what the games should be and how they should be used for learning. For example, one misconception has been that the school would be high-tech and focus on video games. In fact, the school doesn’t use technology any more than a normal school would. In short, in order to be successful, all stakeholders need to be engaged and that requires an emphasis on helping all members come to a common understanding of what the school is trying to do.

Teacher education has presented another challenge, as most schools of education are not focused on the Institute’s vision of progressive education. In many ways, the Institute’s philosophy is more consistent with play-based models for early education, but it is less familiar for many teachers at the middle and high school levels. As a consequence, the team at the Institute of Play found that teachers often needed to be introduced to an entirely different model for education and considerable focus on professional development was required.

At the same time, the experiences of the Institute and the school have contributed to a robust professional development program. The school’s unique approach to learning has attracted the interest of teachers and leaders who want to know more about how to bring this approach to learning to their own schools. As a result, the Institute has developed a professional development program that stands alone from the school. That program includes 3-day workshops for teachers and an online community to help keep participants connected. These workshops are now in schools on Long Island, Westchester, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Chicago, North Carolina, and Michigan. In short, rather than trying to scale a gaming approach to learning by developing a network of Quest to Learn Schools, the team has found that working directly with teachers may provide a better avenue for expanding their approach.

 

 

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