The Importance of Quest to Learn

Judy Robertson

There was a thought-provoking article in the New York Times last week on games in education. Author of the indigestible yet indispensable academic game design bible Rules of Play, Katie Salen has project in a New York city school called Quest to Learn in which children’s learning is based around game playing and design. It sounds like a big budget, integrated version of what teachers in the U.K. have been doing in their own practice (look for details on this in an upcoming Futurelab report): the teachers playing games on a big screen in front of the class while soliciting advice from a super-engaged, drooling set of kids; learners using game-authoring software to explore concepts with game design. What’s different is that this project has been systematically devised and rolled out across a school, rather than relying on the individual innovative practices of some teachers. Particularly telling is the fact that there are three game designers working with 11  teachers to devise games around interdisciplinary curricular content. That’s a fantastic resource, and unfortunately unlikely to happen in the U.K. any time soon given the current monumental cuts in public spending.

Furthermore, there are many hearts and minds to be won over here about the efficacy of games in education. The article acknowledges that 6th graders who took part in Quest to Learn did no better on standardized tests than learners who had not had the privilege. This makes me uneasy. Sure, you can argue that the Quest to Learn project values different educational goals that are more relevant to 21st century society than ordinary curricula (such as team work or problem solving) and that therefore different assessment tools are required. But is this just special pleading? It may be that we need to win the wider battle of making school assessment more appropriate to the skills required in current society before we worry about installing Wiis in the class.

One of the most interesting aspects of the article was related to the metaphor used to organize school life. The author writes:

"What if we blurred the line between academic subjects and remained the typical American classroom so that, at least in theory, it came to resemble a typical American living room, or child’s bedroom or even a child’s pocket circa 2010 … what if, instead of seeing school the way we have alway seen it, we saw school for what our children dreamed it might be: a big, delicious video game?" School as a video game is certainly likely to be a more appealing metaphor to children than the current ones.

Guy Claxton argues that schools are currently organized around a factory metaphor, full of grim tasks which must be completed and overseen by a supervisor figure, and time strictly marshalled by bells. He proposes a metaphor which he considers to be more fruitful: learning as gymnasium, where learners strive to improve their own performance by exercising their brains in an enjoyable fashion. This is consistent with the learning as game metaphor, but perhaps more general purpose. In any case, it is about time we reconsidered how schools work as learning spaces. The industrial revolution has had its day, and we are beginning to realise it is counter productive to coop children up in learning factories. That’s why we need experiments like Quest to Learn.

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