On a fall morning at a public school in New York City, sixth-graders are called to sit down at their desks. At first glance, it looks like any other middle-school science classroom. There’s an aquarium full of tiny turtles and a harried teacher fumbling with a projector.
But then the instructor boots up the day’s lesson: a video game. The students watch as the tiny dolls in PlayStation 3’s LittleBigPlanet (pictured) hop through a maze of contraptions onscreen. The game is being used to introduce them to Newtonian physics, and as part of their coursework, the kids will be required to build devices similar to the ones they’ve just seen.
This is the inaugural class of Quest to Learn (Q2L), the first-ever school in the U.S. built on the innovative approach of games-based learning. While many American schools use computers and games, Q2L is the first to follow a curriculum entirely focused on video games. Its 72 sixth-grade students—guided by six teachers—study and explore subjects through role-playing activities and computer-driven interactive quests instead of textbooks and lectures. They work together on gamelike “missions,” solving puzzles and completing challenges as teams. Their courses have been combined into multidisciplinary “domains” like Codesworlds, a blend of math and English, and Sports for the Mind, a mix of art and physical education. At semester’s end, the pupils won’t take finals; they’ll reach the next level, like at the end of a game.
Katie Salen, Q2L’s executive director of design and a self-described “game geek,” thinks this approach is necessary to engage a generation of wired young people and reduce dropout rates. In New York City, a dismal 39% of students leave high school without earning a diploma.
“These are digital kids,” she says. “They’ve already transformed society. Why not education?” Experts view Q2L as a model for other schools. “We’re starting to see agreement that video games are the new liberal arts,” says Kurt Squire, a professor in education communications and technology at the University of Wisconsin. “This school is the first implementation.”
In September, Edward O. Wilson, a respected professor emeritus of biology at Harvard University, caused a stir when he said, “Games are the future in education. I envision visits to different ecosystems that the student could actually enter...with an instructor. They could be a rain forest, a tundra, or a Jurassic forest.” His vision resembles the kind of teaching that goes on at Q2L. For example, in one class, students are studying design through Gamestar Mechanic, an online game. In another class, they are learning geography by role-playing as location scouts for a mock reality-TV show. They will research different climate zones around the world, create digital maps, and eventually submit their multimedia pitches to an actual TV producer.
Instructors were recruited not for their gaming skills but for their willingness to rethink education. “Students now live to play games and are immersed in technology,” teacher Ginger Stevens says. “It makes sense to tap into that enthusiasm. Instead of forcing an old model of education on them, we’re looking at where students are coming from and building a program around that.”
Q2L is the result of a collaboration among the Parsons School for Design, New Visions for Public Schools (an education-reform group), and the Institute of Play (a nonprofit devoted to game-based education). Q2L is a non-charter public school funded by the Department of Education. It will add another grade every year until it reaches the 12th grade.
Its students have ended up there after applying and being chosen by lottery. “I have quite a few friends who are jealous,” 11-year-old Beauchamp Baker says. His mother, Lesli, reports that the school has benefited him in more significant ways. Beauchamp, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, had some difficulty at previous schools. Now he is more engaged in his schoolwork than ever before. “It’s a great match for him. He’s really enthused about learning,” his mother says. But she admits that, as a parent, “you have to take a leap of faith.”
Some educators think the leap is too big and unnecessary. “I’m not hostile to the idea of kids learning with technology, but there’s not much deep thinking behind the hype about gaming,” says Gary Stager, an educational technology expert at Pepperdine University. “Great teachers have reached kids for generations through interesting subject matter and meaningful work.”
But what seizes the interest of today’s sixth-graders may be entirely different from what engaged earlier generations. These young people have only ever known a world with the hands-on, immediate interactivity of the Internet and video games. When asked what his favorite part of school is, Q2L student Liam Smith says, “I like doing stuff instead of just learning about it.”
His classmates seem to agree. In math class, when the teacher unfolds a checkered mat on the floor, the children’s excitement is apparent. One kid shouts, “It looks like Tetris!” Yells another, “It looks like Connect Four!”
“Those are good observations,” he says, “but this is actually a game I’ve made.” Then, when he asks for volunteers, an amazing thing happens—everyone raises a hand.
How Games Are Used in Schools
Here’s a look at how teachers are firing up their students.
• Mother of Mercy High School, Westwood, Ohio
Students are learning about subjects like business ethics, hiring, and the environment by playing SPILL!, a game in which teams work to clean up an oil spill in a simulated city. The game was also used in 500 other U.S. schools this fall.
• Oak Grove Elementary School, Paragould, Ark.
In addition to using standard gym-class equipment, kids break a sweat with the video games Dance Dance Revolution and ATV Off Road Fury 2.
• Southwest High School, Jacksonville, N.C.
Through a program calledProject K-Nect, students are given smartphones equipped with math games and problem sets to help improve test scores.
- David Kushner
(David Kushner is the author of three nonfiction books. His most recent is “Levittown.”)