Power up their imaginations

18th November 2011 at 00:00
Schools stand a better chance of engaging pupils if they emulate their beloved video games, argues Jane McGonigal, who visited one that has

Today's "born-digital" kids crave gameplay in a way that older generations don't. Most of them have had easy access to sophisticated games and virtual worlds their entire lives, so they take high-intensity engagement and active participation for granted.

School today, for the most part, is just one long series of necessary obstacles that produce negative stress. The work is mandatory and standardised, and failure goes on your permanent record. As a result, there's a growing disconnect between virtual environments and the classroom.

Marc Prensky, author of Teaching Digital Natives, describes the current educational crisis as "Engage me or enrage me": "All the students we teach have something in their lives that's really engaging - something that they do and are good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it . Video games are the epitome of this kind of total creative engagement. By comparison, school is so boring that kids, used to this other life, can't stand it."

To try to close this gap, educators have spent the past decade bringing more and more games into our schools. Educational games are a huge and growing industry and they are being developed to help teach pretty much any topic or skill.

Increasingly, education innovators, including Mr Prensky, are calling for a more dramatic kind of game-based reform. Their ideal school is a game, from start to finish: every course; every activity; every assignment; every moment of instruction and assessment would be designed by borrowing key mechanics and participation strategies from the most engaging multi- player games.

Quest to Learn, a public charter school in New York City for students in grades 6-12 (P7-S6), is the first game-based school in the world, but its founders hope it will serve as a model for schools worldwide.

Quest opened its doors in 2009 after two years of curriculum design and strategic planning, directed by a joint team of educators and professional game developers, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is run by principal Aaron B Schwartz, a 10-year veteran teacher and administrator in the New York City Department of Education. Curriculum development has been led by Katie Salen, a 10- year veteran of the game industry and leading researcher of how kids learn by playing games.

In many ways, the curriculum is like any other, with maths, science, geography, English, history, foreign languages, computers and arts in different blocks throughout the day. But it's how students learn that's different: they are engaged in gameful activities from the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment they finish their final homework assignment at night.

A day in the life of a Quest student, sixth-grader Rai, helps us to understand:

7.15am Rai is "questing" before she even gets to school. She's working on a secret mission, a maths assignment she discovered hidden in one of the books in the school library yesterday. She exchanges text messages with her friends, Joe and Celia, as soon as she gets up. Their goal: break the mathematical code before any other students discover it.

This is a secret assignment, an opt-in learning quest. They have to earn the right to complete it by discovering its secret location. Having a secret mission means you're not learning and practising fractions because you have to; you're working toward a self-chosen goal, and an exciting one: decoding a secret message before anyone else.

9am In English class, Rai is trying to level up. She's working her way through a storytelling unit and already has five points. That makes her just seven points shy of a "master" storyteller status. She's hoping to add another point by completing a creative writing mission. She might not be first in her class to become a storytelling master, but as long as she's willing to tackle more quests, she can work her way up to the top level and earn her equivalent of an A grade.

Levelling up is a much more egalitarian model of success than a traditional letter-grading system. Everyone can level up, as long as they keep working hard. If you fail a quest, you just have to try more quests to earn enough points to get the score you want. This system of "grading" helps students focus more on learning and less on performing.

11.45am Rai logs on to a school computer to update her profile in the "expertise exchange", where all students advertise their learning superpowers. She's going to declare herself a master at mapmaking. Outside school, she makes maps of her favourite 3D virtual worlds to help other players navigate them better.

Her geography teacher, Mr Smiley, saw one of her maps and told her that eighth-graders were about to start a group quest to locate "hidden histories" of Africa: they would look for clues about the past in everyday objects like trade beads, tapestries and pots. They would need a good digital mapmaker to help them plot the stories about the objects according to where they were found, and to design a map that would be fun for other students to explore.

The expertise exchange works like video-game social-network profiles that advertise what games you're good at and like to play, as well as the online matchmaking systems that help players find new teammates. These systems encourage and facilitate collaboration. By identifying your strengths and interests publicly, you increase the chances that you will be called on to do work you're good at. This means students are more likely to find ways to contribute successfully to team projects.

2.15pm On Fridays, the school has a guest speaker, or "secret ally". Today it's a musician, Jason, who uses computer programs make music. After giving a demonstration on his laptop, he announces he'll be back in a few weeks to coach the students on their upcoming "boss level".

For the "boss level", students will form teams and compose their own music. Every team will have a different part to play - and several mathematical specialists will be needed to work on the computer code. Rai really wants to qualify for one of these spots, so she plans to spend extra time over the next two weeks working harder on her maths assignments.

Boss levels are two-week intensive (units) where students apply knowledge and skills to propose solutions to complex problems. The term is taken from video games. It's the equivalent of a mid-term or final exam. Quest schedules boss levels at various points in the school year to fire students up about putting their lessons into action. They get to tackle an epic challenge - and there's no shame in failing. It whets your appetite to try harder and practise more.

Just as in a big World of Warcraft raid, each participant is expected to play to his or her strengths. This is one of Quest's key strategies for giving students better hopes of success.

6pm Rai is home, interacting with a virtual character named Betty. Rai's goal is to teach Betty how to divide mixed numbers. Betty is what Quest calls a "teachable agent" - "an assessment tool where kids teach a digital character how to solve a particular problem". It's a software program designed to know less than Rai, and it's Rai's job to demonstrate solutions and work with Betty until she gets it.

The more a student learns, the more he or she can pass it on. This is a core dynamic of how learning works in good video games and, at Quest, it's translated into a scalable assessment system.

Secret missions, boss levels, expertise exchanges, special agents, points, and levels instead of grades - there's no doubt Quest to Learn is a different kind of learning environment. And the result is an environment where students get to share secret knowledge, turn their intellectual strengths into superpowers, tackle epic challenges and fail without fear.

Quest to Learn started with a sixth-grade class in 2009 and plans to add a new sixth-grade class each year as the previous year graduates upward. The first senior class will graduate from Quest to Learn in 2016, and potentially from college by 2020. I'm willing to bet that graduating class will be full of creative problem-solvers, strong collaborators, and innovative thinkers ready to wholeheartedly tackle formidable challenges in the real world.

Extracted from `Reality is Broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world' by Jane McGonigal, published by Jonathan Cape at pound;12.99. Copyright @ Jane McGonigal 2011-11-13


Jane McGonigal is a world-renowned game developer for organisations such as the World Bank and the International Olympics Committee. As a future forecaster, she advises companies like Microsoft, Disney, Activision and Wells Fargo. She is founder and creative director of Social Chocolate, a game company dedicated to harnessing the science of positive emotion and social connection to improve players' real lives.

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