Tag Archives: School Design

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.



Individual and Collective Professional Development in Finland

We had a fascinating visit recently to the Koulumestari School in Espoo (a small city just outside of Helsinki), a school of almost 350 students from first through 6th grade (ages 5-12). The school is designed specifically to support students with special needs (20% of the students have that designation) and also focuses on the integration of new technology into learning. The visit gave us a better understanding of several aspects of the Finnish education system, particularly around professional development and the sharing of knowledge among teachers.

While there is considerable emphasis on teacher education in many of the reports on the Finnish education system, professional development for teachers often gets less attention. In part, that lack of attention may stem from the fact that, reflecting the autonomy that Finnish teachers have, decisions about what kind of professional development to pursue are generally left up to teachers to decide. Many choose to participate in courses or workshops offered by Universities, the National Board of Education, or perhaps their municipality.   Furthermore, for the most part teachers in Finland develop their own class and work schedules, and when they finish teaching their classes they can go home for the day (more on teacher autonomy and scheduling in a later post). While there may be a mandatory meeting of a whole-school faculty once a month, in many schools, teachers can also decide when and to what extent to meet with their colleagues in grade level teams or for other purposes. In other words, from a US point of view (and the perspective of many other countries), collective and collaborative professional development seems to be relatively limited.

The Koulumestari School, however, offers an example of the effort that some in Finland are pursuing to develop more collective professional development. In another indicator of the respect for the autonomy of teachers and schools, these efforts often focus on a networking strategy: creating opportunities for teachers and schools to come together to share information, resources and expertise. For example, the staff of the school has decided to have what they call a “pedagogical café” four times a year, during their regular monthly staff meetings. At these times, the teachers share with one another what they are doing with their students, particularly pilot experiments using different technologies. Participation in a variety of other meetings, including meetings among grade-level teams as well as theme-based teams (such as one focused on assessment and evaluation) also facilitate networking and collaboration. “Benchmark” days—in which the teachers can choose to visit the classroom of another teacher or grade level—and “headmaster’s hours”—in which school administrators and teaching assistants take over the regular classes of a group of teachers so they can meet together—create more time for common work. One outcome of these opportunities has been the development of “combined classes” in several grades in which two teachers with classes of about 20 students and one teacher with a class of about 10 special education students all work together to share the teaching for all of the roughly 45-50 students. These combined classes grew out of an initial experiment when several teachers at one grade level decided to try combining their classes; as other teachers learned how it was working, it spread to other levels and groups of teachers. (Interestingly, for the purposes of coordination, the school leader needs to know when teachers are planning to be out of the classroom for professional development, but the teachers themselves are responsible for getting substitutes.)

Illustrating a network approach at a municipal level, Koulumestari opened in 2007 after the City of Espoo put out a call for applications for new schools that could serve as “learning centers” with particular themes (something akin to “demonstration” schools). These learning centers were designed to focus on issues like special education and the integration of technology (in the case of Koulumestari) and to share what they were doing and learning with other schools in the area. As is often the case for new US schools in places like New York City, the application process included a formal proposal with a design for their school that was submitted by the current leaders and selected from a number of applicants. In addition to participating in meetings and visits with members of other schools in the network, teachers at Koulumestari have now started to offer professional development classes for other teachers in the municipality as part of the regular roster of professional development courses that Espoo offers every year. The school is also pursuing the same networking approach at the national level, as the school applied for and was awarded funding to serve as national learning center for technology and innovation. Through that network, the Koulumestari school is working with 65 partner schools throughout Finland, sharing practices, participating in joint professional development, and working together to develop a model for innovative schools. They also started piloting a global innovation network this past spring

While these networking efforts illustrate one approach to professional development in Finland, it is also important to point out that these efforts share many features with networking initiatives in other countries but they run against the grain in some ways of the same professional autonomy that is often cited as a key strength of the Finnish system. While teachers can choose to work together and share ideas, they also can choose to work on their own. There is a fundamental tension between autonomy and the kind of interdependence and collaboration that many would argue is needed to enable workers and organizations of any kind, including teachers and schools, to be more effective.

Tom Hatch and Karen Hammerness


“Nurturing Minds: Educational Design Policies, Finland/New York”

New York City, The Center for Architecture (October 16, 2012) 

The Center for Architecture, New York City

The New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, welcomed a group of architects and educators to “Nurturing Minds: Educational Design Policies,” a panel discussion juxtaposing learning environments in Finland and the United States. Moderated by Samuel E. Abrams, presenters included Pasi Sahlberg, Kaisa Nuikkinen, Bruce Barrett.

Display at the Center for Architecture: School desks floating mid-air

Nuikkinen (Head Architect for School Design, Helsinki City Education Department) began by noting that the framework for building a school in Finland takes into account the expectations of the community, the needs of the workplace, guidelines, rules, and regulations, benchmarking, pedagogical concerns, national policies, laws, and norms, as well as best practices. Finland’s aim is to develop school buildings that function effectively, answer the demands of the future, and combine high quality architecture with economic viability. Therefore, design must be multifunctional, flexible, interactive, and inclusive of those with special needs. Outstanding examples of designs that meet these goals include The Soininen School (Ilmari Lahdelma, architect), and The Latokartano Comprehensive School (Tuomas Silvennoinen, architect).

In contrast, Bruce Barrett (New York City School Construction Authority) began by noting that the New York City School System serves 1.1 million students and employs 77,000 teachers. The city is currently planning for a student population that is expected to increase by 31,500 new seats between the fiscal years 2010-2014, which is a real challenge in an area as dense as the city. Stakeholders need to work together to produce school spaces that meet individual needs of schools. Barrett highlighted the city’s most recent projects, which have included renovations of larger schools that have been converted to house several smaller schools under the same roof (such as Mott Haven Campus in the Bronx, and Metropolitan Avenue Campus in Queens), rehabilitations of older buildings (such as P.S 3 in Queens), and renovations that require additions (such as Midwood High School, in Queens, which had to take over the playground space of a middle school across the street in order to create new building space).

For more information:

The Edgeless School: Design for Learning

The Best School in the World: Seven Finnish examples from the 21st century