Play school

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Imagine a secondary where computer games form the basis of everything that's taught

I am in New York, with an appointment to visit a school of the future. But when you jump out of the yellow cab in the city's Chelsea district - where panhandlers strike up fights in local coffee shops and you are surrounded by Manhattan tenements - it's difficult to see where it might reside.

When you discover the actual location - a large, bolted door on a crumbly old building, where security guards check you into care-worn hallways right out of the 1950s movie Blackboard Jungle - you might wonder how the reality will match up to the school's impressive website.

The photocopied A4 signs eventually lead to a bright, busy - though decidedly ad hoc - inner-city school on the third floor. There I am greeted by Robert Torres, co-founder and research head of Quest To Learn (Q2L), the world's first secondary school dedicated to educating 11 to 18- year-olds in "gaming literacies".

He is immediately at pains to say that "this isn't a place where kids just play games with consoles all day; we are educating here in ways that people will be able to recognise".

As instant proof, Mr Torres stops to have a quiet word with a pupil who has just been put outside the classroom by his sure-footed teacher for "talkin' over everybody".

Julio has just been sent out of a class called Codeworlds, which teaches a combination of language and maths under an approach that sees both as "systems that convey meaning". He is also missing out on an explorers' visit to the land of Blubonia, where they are using gaming technology and role-play to pick up the local lingo (which happens to be first year Spanish). Clearly, something new is going on here, even if the built environment is echoing hallways and squeaky linoleum floors.

In effect, Q2L is a non-selective state secondary, open since September this year. If you live in the local district and you have shown an interest in the school, your child's name goes into a lottery administered by the New York Department of Education, just as it would for any other "public" school in the district. But what stands behind it is about 20 years of debate about how educators should respond to the gaming revolution. Sixty-eight per cent of US households play computer games, and 97 per cent of US teenagers have done so at some point - 50 per cent play every day.

The pupils move through the curriculum by means of 10-week "missions" - scenarios in which pupils have a problem to solve, and take on dramatic roles (explorer, scientist, investigator, for example) to do so. As Q2L's literature explains, it is all measurable - pupils here are "finding relevant resources, doing mathematical calculations, reading and analysing texts, designing tools, repairing broken systems, creating models, doing scientific experiments, building games, or a host of other activities".

Far from spending all day on commercial computer games, the school uses the underlying principles of the games to create "highly immersive" learning experiences.

These missions are richly narrated and imagined. In The Way Things Work - a science-maths curriculum "domain" (a themed area of the curriculum), a video will be disrupted by the appearance of the Troggles, small creatures which like to invent things (but are terrible at it), and who leave mysterious packages of materials and messages around the school that the pupils have to piece together.

On a real-world trip to New York's Museum of Natural History, the children meet a reality TV producer who asks them if they could become location scouts for his next show, which enables them to practise their map-making skills. And as the pupils in Codeworlds progress through their work - maths and language exercises in the form of espionage-style code-breaking - they eventually become members of the mysterious Sistemia Academy, with all the appropriate ceremony and pomp.

As Mr Torres takes me around the school rooms, it gradually becomes obvious how radical Q2L's curriculum is. Instead of a visual arts class, there are "sports for the mind". Yes, it is a room half-filled with computer screens at which pupils are stationed. But what they are doing is not just some desultory clicking through the levels of some edu-game. They are using a 3-D visualisation program to make their own labyrinths and mazes, which they have already richly manifested in paint, paper and collage. This is not merely literacy in playing games, but in making games also - and more deeply, seeing the world in a game-like way.

The class teacher even sees no problem in future dissertations being presented in the form of a game, "as long as it uses the same content as might go into a dissertation". Expressing it as a game, immersing and performing that knowledge, makes it more memorable, he argues. "How many times have you written a paper and three days later forgotten everything you learnt?"

Being, Space and Place - covering social studies, history and geography - is one of the quieter classrooms. This is mainly because they are doing some individual work, something of which their teacher Ross Flatt approves. "I feel that I have been using games and role-play ever since I started teaching. In my first professional year as a teacher I was assigned the judicial system. So for several weeks I took them through a mock trial, doing all the stages. I see the technology and the game-play as an extension of learning-by-doing, not something radically different."

Ms Flatt also has a grown-up relationship with the team of game designers that are employed and are always available in the school. They perform a similar function to the "atelieristas" in Reggio Emilia schools, who impart their specialist knowledge (for example, as an artist in residence) to pupils to support their development.

"I would say I'm in the process of learning their language, but they are also learning mine," says Ms Flatt. "Last week I was given a game that was very complex and subtle, but there were too many components. So we simplified it right down, keeping the purpose, principle and content of the game - and the kids still loved it."

Kofi, a luminous 11-year-old, expresses wonderment that he goes to a school "where it's fun all day, but you learn stuff about the world, too. My friends from other schools don't really understand me when I tell them that." But Kofi admits that after a day in which playing games is compulsory, he does not always fall on his game console when he gets home.

"Sometimes I just like to read, or watch TV, or go out with my friends, jump around. We jump around here too though." They did line dancing today, in the wellness strand of the curriculum.

So is this the notoriously liberal Summerhill School with laptops? Steiner meets cyberspace? No, this is New York after all - a town where business (and busy-ness) is everything. One of the most startling things about Q2L is its after-school programme, Mobo Studio. Here pupils can take on the roles of comic artist, fashion designer, advertiser or gaming researcher, using cutting-edge technology and working with industry professionals.

The school's blog currently shows pupils cavorting around with interactive cyber-clothing which they have just designed. Another after-school club - the alarmingly titled Sweat Equity Design Challenge - asks: "Remember the last time you got excited about a video game before it was released? Is it because you saw a cool poster or heard about it from a friend? Now it's your turn to generate the buzz!" Collages, rounders and cake-making this isn't: New York parents clearly expect more focus from their children when they pick them up at 5.30pm.

The headteachers and founders are anxious to convey that what the school is doing is anything but trivial. Elisa Aragon, Q2L's executive director (their term for principal or headteacher) began her teaching career in the city helping homeless young mothers to gain basic skills so they could get back into mainstream schooling. Now she works with parents who are professors, designers and creatives, but she still seems driven by that early ethos.

"The parents of these children realise they are pioneers - but they are also making an explicit commitment by sending their kids to this kind of school. They want them to experience being with children of many diverse backgrounds, in a school that understands complexity. That is a reflection of the world in which we all have to work".

Katie Salen, the other co-founder of Q2L and a respected computer games designer, is militantly against the "19th-century industrial age model" of education, represented by the grade-obsessed No Child Left Behind policy in the US. But only because she feels "it isn't adequate for the society we live in".

"We are not just using games in our pedagogy because it's fun or engaging, but because games teach kids that they live among systems - ecological, financial, technological - and that it's important to keep those systems sustained and in balance. That's the world that exists right now. We should be educating children to step into that world."

They have even done an assessment of the career pathways that Q2L graduates might be suited for in the late 2010s: game design, bio- informatics and data visualisation - "all systems-related," says Mr Torres "and growth industries too. We are thinking about where we want children to be effective when they leave here."

In the meantime, Q2L has to have relevance within a New York school system that tests its pupils' abilities every year in the standard, exam-based way. But the school's even trying to change the rules on that. Mr Torres tells us they (teachers) are working with the exam authorities to try to devise a new kind of assessment process, which reflects what he calls the "revolution in the learning sciences about immersive education".

"We know now how children really learn - it's not about the lone learner moving forward, but about collaboration and context, learning as an essentially social endeavour," he says. "So we are developing context- based assessments to begin this conversation nationally about changing the way we assess children. We want to provoke big changes through the little things we are focusing on."

So all Q2L's missions to Blubonia and subversive Troggles are actually part of a familiar debate on how pupils think and respond to what they learn - one that reverberates across the UK education system too.

But Katie Salen has a faith in the power of gaming to resolve it. "We find that when kids are making games, they have to think empathetically as well as conceptually, about what will engage the potential player. There is so much sophistication in that."

Q2L's work has gained such recognition that Ms Salen was recently involved in a high-level phone conference to support an initiative by President Obama, launched at the White House at the end of last month. The hope is to create dedicated computer games to help US teenagers perform better in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. "If you want to move a country forward towards innovation, you have to look at the learning models," she says.

On the third floor of a Chelsea-district school in New York, as noisy and hopeful as any school should be, that is exactly what they are doing. Game by game.

For more on Quest to Learn, go to Pat Kane is the author of The Play Ethic ( and one half of music duo Hue and Cry

Uk plays catch-up

While there is nothing in the UK that matches the approach to learning employed by Quest to Learn, some schools are beginning to experiment with games-based learning in certain subject areas.

Featherstone High School in Ealing, west London, has been trialling a gaming resource called Mangahigh to teach maths.

Mangahigh uses online games, and game-like systems to help pupils learn, explore and build the mathematics skills they need for successful exam performance at key stages 3 and 4. It is the brainchild of mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and Toby Rowland, a dot-com entrepreneur and founder of the world's largest gaming site,

In Featherstone High it was used across four classes in Year 9, all of differing abilities. Teachers begin by getting pupils to play the games casually for 10 to 15 minutes on their own laptops, then they break for a five-minute question-and-answer session, then play again for 20 to 25 minutes. Then there is a joint session to share what they have learnt.

It has been a resounding success. "[Mangahigh] has proved hugely popular with pupils, many of whom have been lured into answering more mathematical questions than we could ever have hoped with the standard textbook approach," says Neil Bradford, deputy head and maths teacher at Featherstone.


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