Question: What do you get when you cross a video game designer with the average school? You get Quest to Learn, a school that is leading the way in collaborative learning and critical skill development in its designed approach to learning environments. You can read about it in this article from Joel Hood in the Chicago Tribune.
Taking School to the Next Level
Rock music blares in a Manhattan classroom as an 11-year-old builds a website for video game enthusiasts and a classmate solders LED lights and capacitors to a circuit board. In another room, students are immersed in a life-size video game as they kneel beside a virtual river, sifting through the remains of ancient civilizations.
What kid wouldn't love a school developed by video game designers?
Quest to Learn was designed to be different from the ground up. This complete reinvention of the typical urban middle school downplays rote memorization in favor of collaborative learning, critical thinking and imaginative exploration in an effort to change how today's students learn.
And this fall, it's coming to Chicago.
With more than $1.2 million in funding from the MacArthur Foundation and other philanthropic organizations, the public charter school to be called Chicago Quest is scheduled to open in September in a renovated school building at Ogden and Clybourn avenues on the edge of the old Cabrini-Green public housing development. Officials are already talking about one day opening Chicago Quests on the city's South and West sides as well.
For city educators, Chicago Quest is an important foray into 21st century thinking. Students will learn from video game designers and computer experts how to design and build their own video games, produce custom websites, podcast, blog, record and edit short films and connect with technology in meaningful and productive ways.
In an era of rigid standardized testing, city leaders say Quest is a novel approach to get today's wired 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds prepared for the technology-driven, global job market that awaits them.
"The only way we're going to catch up with the rest of the world is to reinvent how teaching and learning occurs," said Chicago Public Schools interim chief Terry Mazany. "That's why this is so vital. It's going to be an innovation engine for the district, and I'll strongly encourage the next leadership to keep them close and learn from them."
On a recent trip to Quest's cramped Manhattan headquarters, Elizabeth Purvis, executive director of Chicago International Charter School, seemed dazzled by what students were able to do.
"The only way we're going to catch up with the rest of the world is to reinvent how teaching and learning occurs," said Chicago Public Schools interim chief Terry Mazany. "That's why this is so vital."
"You can't watch how these kids work, how invested they are in what they're learning, and not come away amazed," Purvis said.
Chicago International Charter School, the city's largest network of charters with 13 campuses and more than 8,000 students, will operate Chicago Quest, which is expected to debut with about 300 sixth- and seventh-graders for the 2011-12 school year. Students will be selected in a citywide lottery to ensure a diverse population of boys and girls from all economic backgrounds. The school, like all CICS charters, is tuition-free.
While Quest's concept and framework will come from New York, organizers in Chicago will tap into the area's deep talent pool for teachers and game designers to give it a distinct local flavor, Purvis said. Some curriculum will be different, and lesson plans will try to align with state testing requirements. But the big-picture idea of using technology and gaming to inspire collaborative learning will be critical to the mission, Purvis said.
"The reality is, we are a Chicago public school," Purvis said. "So our (testing) scores matter. We're not going to say, as long as everyone is happy and the teachers think we're doing well, it's a good school. That's the furthest from the truth. The goal is hoping that we see accelerated performance in here."
What's most remarkable about New York's 2-year-old Quest to Learn isn't the technology, although it's impressive. It's that the students, while computer-savvy, are for the most part ordinary preteens, said Bob Holling, a design strategist with the Institute of Play, a New York-based nonprofit research organization that launched Quest to Learn.
"These students are not tech whizzes, not all of them," Holling said. "That said, they're of the generation that has grown up around technology."
That forms the basis of education at Quest to Learn. On a recent day, a dozen students filed into a classroom where a ceiling-mounted video projector was showing a computer-generated image onto a large white gym mat on the floor. The image consisted of two sandy banks, representing the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, bisected by a fast-moving river.
Four students knelt beside the river, pulling out computer images of stone tablets and papyrus, mud-brick arches and pottery, with water-bottle-size game controllers whose movements were tracked by wall-mounted infrared cameras.
The students had already studied the differences between the societies of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia with reading materials, a film and a trip to a local history museum. But the lesson on this day — demanding split-second decisions about which relics belong to which society and why — held the students transfixed in a way teachers at more traditional schools might only dream about.
"It's a different type of learning because of how they teach it, not what they're teaching," said sixth-grader Connor Fitzgerald. "They give you the facts, but more importantly they tell you about the relationships between those facts."
That same day, seventh-grader Isabel Clements was taking what she had learned in a lecture on genetics to create a computer-generated model of a different species of butterfly that could withstand life in a harsh new habitat of her choosing. A professional design firm hopes to use some of the class's creations in an evolution-themed video game.
"We've tried really, really hard to hold true to our vision," said Katie Salen, a game designer and professor at an acclaimed art, design and technology college in New York who co-founded Quest to Learn. "And so we haven't varied at all from the big, important ideas."
Those "big, important ideas" include a unique grading system that does away with traditional A, B and C and, instead, has students competing, in video game speak, to earn levels of expertise such as "novice," "apprentice," "senior" and "master." Students learn to help each other improve.
Gaming is central to the school's makeup, instructors say, because it provides the ideal platform for creativity, imagination and critique. It also creates an arena for learning where students expect to sometimes fall short, Salen said.
"One of things about gaming is that resilience is sometimes more important than ability, and that you can have kids with high ability who aren't that resilient and won't try and try and try again, and you may have kids with lower ability but their resilience is high and they may master the game," Purvis said. "What they're really teaching these kids are 21st century collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking."
Purvis admits it's probably too early to tell if the type of learning in practice at Quest to Learn better prepares students for college or even for high school. The ultimate goal, Salen said, is not necessarily to produce more Quest to Learns around the country, but rather to apply some of its most successful concepts to traditional schools. That, she said, may be the school's most enduring legacy.
"The vision is to try to help schools make the changes they want to make, to adopt as much or as little as makes sense for them," Salen said. "I think there is a little something here for everybody."