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Gaming Grows Up

Educational games move from margins to mainstream.

What kid doesn’t like playing video games? So imagine kids able to attend a school where the curriculum is designed around games, and the emphasis is on learning by doing.

Marcelo Wright, 13, doesn’t have to imagine it. He’s a seventh grader at ChicagoQuest, a charter school founded in 2011 to teach skills like problem solving, creativity, collaboration, and resourcefulness in a gamelike environment organized around “missions” and “quests.”

Wright, who says he comes from “a family of creative minds,” liked school well enough until he started fifth grade, “when the process started getting old. You got textbooks, answered questions, and clocked out.” Lucky for him, he was able to find a place at a middle school that is anything but routine. At his former school, “they were teaching you what to think, and this school teaches you how
to think.”

ChicagoQuest is the second school of its kind in the United States that promotes using digital media, game theory, and design principles to engage students in learning. It was modeled after Quest to Learn (Q2L), a public middle school in New York City.

“We think it’s a powerful model for learning and has the potential to improve student engagement and bring learning to kids in a way they really understand,” says Sybil Madison-Boyd, director of education and leadership at ChicagoQuest. The model uses “some of the tools and ways they interact with the world in the classroom.”

With millions of kids devoting a good chunk of their waking hours to playing video games each week, using games in education makes sense. After all, skills used in games, such as the ability to focus, attention to detail, and problem solving, are also critical to being successful in school.

“The starkly obvious difference between games and traditional schooling is that good games always involve play, and schooling rarely does,’’ write Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweil, and Katie Salen in “Moving Learning Games Forward,” in a paper for Education Arcade, an MIT project that explores the intersection of learning and games. A child at play, they maintain, has the freedom to fail, the freedom to experiment and fashion various identities, and the freedom of interpretation.

Some of the barriers to adopting games in school, according to the authors, include curriculum requirements. Schools have historically been reluctant to give up textbooks or purchase educational technologies that either are not linked to state standards or haven’t proved their merit. Other issues include parents’ and educators’ negative attitudes toward video games, and even the attitudes of tweens and teens themselves, who might shy away from educational games if they are perceived to be good for them. Support for teachers, the logistics of integrating game playing into the school-day structure, and the ability to assess skills learned through game playing on standardized exams are still more challenges, the authors note.

In spite of these hindrances, the gamification movement in education appears to be growing, if more at an individual teacher level, observes Bridgette Wagoner, director of educational services at the Waverly–Shell Rock School District in Iowa. While she hasn’t yet witnessed examples of gamification in her own district, Wagoner says she’s heartened when she hears broad-based discussions among superintendents about using games in the classroom.

“There are certain things that lend themselves to gamification, especially skills that are discrete and easily measured,’’ such as math facts, says Wagoner, who coauthored a 2011 article “The Gamification of Learning.” Less easy to “gamify” would be abstract concepts, like understanding what a democracy is.
Wagoner acknowledges, however, that if too many aspects of learning are gamified, students would learn only the basics of a subject. “If we gamify everything, they’re getting stuff at a pretty surface level and individual students may be missing things that are core and are not appropriate to gamify.”

“Every decision we make from a curriculum perspective, we need to be really clear about the standard and the level of thinking and depth of knowledge we want [students] to have,’’ Wagoner emphasizes. “In some cases gamification matches the intent beautifully, and in other cases it doesn’t match it at all.”

Gamelike Lessons
One of the pioneers of gamification in education is the Institute of Play, a nonprofit that was started to explore how to make games engaging and relevant to schoolchildren. The original intention was to work with teachers and students on using games in the classroom. But New Visions for Public Schools, an NYC–based organization that works to develop schools for the city’s highest-need students, approached the institute, and in 2009, Quest to Learn opened, with one sixth-grade class of about 90 students and six teachers, says codirector Arana Shapiro. A new grade has been added each year, and the school currently goes up to ninth grade, with about 330 students from a diverse mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. Eventually it will serve grades 6 to 12, Shapiro says.

Early curriculum discussions focused on incorporating games that “provide students with concrete goals, ongoing and immediate feedback, and ask students to step into an immersive space and take on that goal,’’ says Shapiro. “Our question was, Can we take those principles and apply them to a classroom? There are times when the games are digital and times when they’re not.”

Every trimester students are given a mission and told about a complex problem they need to solve through a game that will lead them through a series of levels. “The curriculum is rolled out like a game,’’ explains Shapiro.

For example, in the sixth grade, to meet science curriculum standards, students in New York City study simple machines. At Q2L, says sixth-grade teacher Ross Flatt, students are introduced to Troggles, “fictional characters who live in a world where they like to build things, like a village or a machine, but they can’t do it because they don’t know physics or how things work.’’ Students have to teach Troggles to become better builders through a combination of discovery-based learning and teacher instruction, labs, and games.

Flatt, a humanities teacher who has been at the school since it opened, says his students are also working as curators with a fictional group of people based on characters from The Simpsons to create a museum. “Students will be given a museum that Bart Simpson would have designed, and it’s terrible and they have to go back and fix it,” explains Flatt. One of the museum’s exhibits is of a planet that is poorly labeled on a map and has no landforms or features. After conducting research on geographic properties, students play a group-based game where they have to create a planet.

Q2L has turned out to be a good fit for Flatt: “I like to teach in an immersive, gamelike way,’’ and to give students as many “authentic activities” as possible. If he is teaching about the judicial system, for instance, his students will put on a mock trial. When teaching about Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire, he has students dress up and role-play.

In addition to formal tests, students at Q2L have “embedded assessments,” where they are observed during a lesson and have to show Flatt that they’ve mastered the problem they set out to solve. In the case of the museum, that means things such as correctly labeling their maps and answering questions about landforms.

“This is another way to assess them—to find out what they’re learning through their discussions with one another and through questions I’m asking them,’’ says Flatt. “I have a much better idea of which students understand the material and which ones need more help.”

As with any approach to teaching, Flatt says the challenge in a gamelike environment is to ensure that the games are meaningful and are being used in the best way possible. “One thing we’re
constantly asking ourselves is, ‘Why are we using this game, and if we didn’t use it would students have just as much knowledge, or less, or more?’” Before a game is used, he says, teachers try to do a preassessment to see what students already know. “Sometimes a game is used to introduce a concept or assess or reinforce a concept. It’s flexible, and we make sure that the students are getting a lot out of it.”

Taking on a Role
The ability to do things that can’t be done in a traditional classroom is what drew eighth-grade teacher James Haycraft to ChicagoQuest, a grade 6–8 school that has just under 300 students, most of whom are African-American and Latino. Everything in the curriculum is centered around students taking on an identity or a role, which, Haycraft says, has the potential to transform learning and education. In his own experience with algebra as a student, Haycraft says everything “felt isolated.” But at ChicagoQuest, because the focus is on developing a gamelike model with a narrative, there is more flexibility to bring together concepts. Last semester, he took linear equations and matched them up with the Pythagorean theorem, “which generally wouldn’t be taught at the same time,” he says. “One of the phrases we use here is ‘need to know,’ and with gamelike learning there’s always a reason to use something, or there should be.”

Creating a need to know is the basis of what ChicagoQuest is trying to achieve, and kids are used to taking on roles and learning through play, concurs education director Madison-Boyd. “Every course should have a story, mission, and overarching goal that the students are trying to achieve.”

Of course, neither Quest to Learn nor ChicagoQuest is appropriate for all students, administrators hasten to add. Says Q2L’s Shapiro, “This is a unique place and it requires a kid who doesn’t need a superstructured environment.” Curriculum developers and teachers design the games, with support from game developers. Shapiro says it’s important that there is teacher input so they are invested in what they are teaching. However, that teacher involvement is something of a double-edged sword, observes Haycraft. “We have to create all these lessons and experiences with gamelike learning in mind. We’re kind of novices, and learning as we go. It’s definitely a challenge.”

Wright, the seventh-grade student, says coming to ChicagoQuest has been worth it, even though it means a longer commute and leaving friends behind. “The goal for me is to channel all of my creative thinking into the curriculum. At my old school I couldn’t do that.”

When the game-oriented environment is really working, “what you see is just pure engagement,’’ says Haycraft. “They’re so into it, like they would be with a video game, they never realize they’re working and collaborating. It’s goose bumps—pure magic.”

—Winter 2013—

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