Note: The information in this profile represents SY2010-11 unless otherwise indicated.
In 2006 the MacArthur Foundation began thinking about the design for 21st-century learning environments that would match the needs of children growing up in a digital, information-rich era. The Foundation partnered with Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play, a nonprofit that applies the principles of game development outside the world of commercial gaming, and with New Visions for Public Schools, an education reform organization in New York City. Together, this partnership created the design for Quest to Learn (Q2L), a school that opened its doors to its first class in the fall of 2009 with 76 sixth graders. The school began adding a subsequent grade each year after 2009.
The idea behind Q2L is to engage students from a diversity of backgrounds through game-like learning, which draws on the intrinsic qualities of games and their design to engage students in a deep exploration of academic subject matter. The founding team hopes that this design will create a framework that motivates and engages urban students, who are all too often disconnected and alienated from traditional brick-and-mortar comprehensive high schools.
Q2L grew from a design methodology focused on creating engaging, content-rich and standards-based, youth-centered learning environments. The learning model developed by the Institute of Play applies to all aspects of the school, including an innovative professional development program called Studio Q, a closed social network platform called Being Me, the curriculum, and overall approach to school culture. The model is highly collaborative, pairing game designers with teachers and curriculum specialists and integrating digital media, including games, alongside more traditional tools like textbooks, worksheets, and pencils.
Q2L is not a school whose curriculum is made up of the play of commercial videogames, but rather a school that uses the underlying design principles of games to create highly immersive, game-like learning experiences. Games refers to several game forms and media types: digital games (online, video games, mobile games, and the like), board games, card games, social games, and game hybrids that span digital and physical space. Salen pointed out what she believes are the many virtues of game-like learning: Games are carefully designed, learner-driven systems. They can produce meaning, they are dynamic and immersive, and they provide formative feedback on an ongoing basis. Games can help players develop ways of thinking and seeing the world as being made up of a series of complex systems.
Learning at Q2L takes place within a curriculum that has a foundation in math and science and aligns with New York State standards. The main courses, which Q2L calls Integrated Domains, include the following: Being, Space, and Place, a class connecting social studies with reading and writing; Codeworlds, a mix of math and English/language arts; Sports for the Mind, a class focused on digital media and game design; The Way Things Work, a science and math class where students learn how to take systems apart and put them back together again; and Wellness, a class focused on nutrition, physical education, and social and emotional health.
The school day runs from 8 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, and until 1:20 p.m. on Wednesdays. The first 10 weeks of each semester focus on students completing Discovery Missions, which teachers deliver within the contexts of each of the main courses (Integrated Domains). Each Discovery Mission gives students a complex problem they must solve by completing a series of challenge-based quests.
During weeks 11 and 12 students embark on an “intensive” known as a Boss Level, where students and teachers work collaboratively on a semester-ending capstone project to demonstrate the skills and competencies acquired during the previous 10 weeks. In addition, many students participate in internships, community service, and service-learning opportunities, especially once the students will reach the upper grades.
Teachers work in teams and collaborate with game designers from the Institute of Play on the design of an integrated curriculum. Longer instructional periods (75 to 90 minutes) make in-depth projects and experiences possible.
Blended Learning Program
Program model: Flex
When Quest to Learn makes use of online learning, it is either in the form of teachers assigning online materials to model or extend the thinking around the main learning points in the unit of study, or to provide supplemental self-paced study around foreign language and math.
Q2L’s game-like learning model emphasizes learning by doing. For many of these games, teachers rely on Web-based programs and activities. They integrate technology into the classroom to add breadth and depth to their students’ educational experiences. The Q2L designers believe that digital technology can afford students greater opportunities to create and construct knowledge, demonstrate their understanding, and express themselves, when integrated in purposeful ways. For example, Q2L has a mixed-reality learning lab where students engage in custom-designed learning scenarios around core content. Its Being Me social network site integrates a digital citizenship curriculum with tools like debates, forums, and groups that are used across all domains.
Q2L’s use of digital resources in the classroom aligns best with the face-to-face-driver model of blended learning. When Q2L makes use of online learning, it is either in the form of teachers assigning online materials to model or extend the thinking around the main learning points in the unit of study, or to provide self-paced study around foreign language or math. Integration of these platforms with other learning spaces in the school, including the mixed-reality lab, physical classroom, and online social network site provides overlapping learning opportunities for students.
As a district public school, Q2L operates under the same funding formulae that the rest of New York City’s public schools do. Grants from the Institute of Play, Q2L’s core partner, support additional research and development to create the school’s custom curriculum. After the school grows to full grade capacity in 2015, it will no longer need this research and development funding.
Standardized test scores for the first year, 2009–10, showed that about half of the 6th graders met state standards for math and two-thirds met standards for English. These results were roughly on par with the average for the city. A separate research study found that Q2L students showed statistically significant gains in systems thinking, teamwork, and time management. Students from a school considered to be on Q2L’s peer horizon did not show similar gains.
On the horizon
In terms of lessons learned during the rollout, Salen said that an emphasis on collaboration between teachers and game designers at the Institute of Play, not just in the planning phases but also during implementation, is critical. She says Q2L must keep working to integrate more traditional assessment tools, like quizzes and exams, with the kinds of embedded, authentic assessment the Q2L model allows. Game designers and teachers need ongoing professional development to understand not only how best to work together, but how to work quickly. “The amount of new curriculum that has to be developed for the school ongoing is staggering to consider at times, and it is a core challenge to figure out how to handle the sheer enormity of the task among a small group of people,” she said. She also reported a challenge in communicating to parents about the curriculum, which uses tools that can feel unfamiliar.
The Institute of Play is planning to implement the learning model in three sister charter schools in Chicago. The schools will be run by Chicago International Charter School and will share resources, curriculum, and tools developed by the Institute of Play for Q2L (see the “Chicago International Charter School” profile). The creation of these new schools poses the challenge of how to grow the model with integrity; how to implement it across grades, networks, and cities to support teachers in familiarizing themselves with the model and eventually excelling within it; and how to share what has been learned about the deployment of tools. “Growing a school model like the one developed for Q2L requires a complex orchestration of personnel, resources, methodologies, and ideas,” Salen said. “It requires meta-reflection on the systems making up the learning ecology it presupposes and a synthesis of ideas in forms that are clear, actionable, and adaptable.”