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The Quest to Learn How Kids Learn Best

Katie Salen on the first day of school
at Quest to Learn in New York City.

Katie Salen is a game designer, executive director of the Institute of Play and recently appointed professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. Several years ago, while teaching at Parsons The New School for Design, Salen and her collaborators began more closely observing how kids learned and played videogames. Kids spent hours unpacking the rules and learning the idiosyncrasies of each gaming environment; they developed creative “work-arounds” when they discovered better ways of playing or advancing in a particular game; they shared their knowledge with each other; and, perhaps most basically and most importantly, they went back again and again and again in order to master the game. What would it be like, they wondered, if kids gobbled up school like they gobbled up these games? What would school be like if—instead of demonizing the very activities that got kids concentrating, thinking critically, and collaborating—educators embraced gaming as an innovative platform for education?  And they weren’t just thinking about video games, but games in general. What is it about games that hook kids, be it Monopoly or Skip-Bo or chess? After years of research and experimentation to harness the best games have to offer and rethink education in the process, Salen helped open Quest to Learn, a public middle school in New York City, in 2009 . Now, this new model of education is going national and the first stop is Chicago, where ChicagoQuest opened to sixth and seventh graders last week.

My son is one of those 6th graders. As the mother of a kid who is smart and curious and imaginative and has never even remotely liked school, much less felt engaged by it, I can say that ChicagoQuest and the methodology that Salen developed at Quest to Learn is, as the Quest team likes to say, a revolutionary movement in education.

It’s been difficult describing to friends and family what the Quest model would “look” like in a school setting. And it’s been difficult to know how to answer well-meaning questions of concern, like this one from my father: “I read recently that 40% of today’s high school students don’t know which century the Civil War occurred in. Please tell me that at this new school he’ll learn when the Civil War took place.” Friends and the parents of my son’s friends were curious. But quite often, the moment I mentioned that game designers were among the developers of the model for the school, the parent I was talking to would get distracted, trying very hard not to roll their eyes or to mask their concern for my sanity. I found that it was never a good thing to start a conversation by trying to convince someone that the kids weren’t going to be playing video games all day.

After week 1, I can say that my son did not for one moment have a videogame controller in his hand at school. He spent much of the week working in small groups; the uniformly enthusiastic team of teachers worked closely with the kids to develop the foundation for collaboration and cross-functional teamwork that are among the core values of the school. Interdisciplinary classes that integrate math and language, math and science, English and social studies (ah, an integrated humanities class!), and basic design and critical thinking are the building blocks of the curriculum.

I recently read a New York Times op-ed piece on Cathy Davidson, another digital learning expert that CHF is pleased to be presenting this fall. Davidson asserts that 65% of the jobs that will be available to our kids 20 years from now have not even been invented yet. Schools like ChicagoQuest are taking the realities of 21st century educational theory, globalism, and the economy and revolutionizing how kids are learning. I know I’ll be in the audience on Saturday, Nov. 12 to hear Katie Salen discuss the origins, successes, and aspirations of the Quest schools. Whether you are parent or not, if you are someone interested in how education must adapt and innovate for our wired world, I encourage you to be there, too.


Quest to Learn

Harold Washington Library: Nov. 12, 12:30 - 1:30 PM

Tags: Katie Salen, Cathy Davidson, digital learning, education, gaming, video, quest, collaboration, model

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