An 11-year-old boy taps furiously on a laptop, blasting enemies as he weaves through a maze. They wipe him out before he can reach the end—game over. Frustrated, he opens the game’s programming window, adjusts the gravity setting, and this time bounds over the baddies. Victory!
This could be the future of American education, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Quest to Learn school opened last September in Manhattan, welcoming the first class of sixth-graders who will learn almost entirely through videogame-inspired activities, an educational strategy geared to keep kids engaged and prepare them for high-tech careers.
With this in mind (and with MacArthur Foundation funding), three years ago Salen started the Institute of Play, a nonprofit collaboration of game designers and learning experts who create games to teach school material. After successful tests in city classrooms, the group worked with the New York City Department of Education to open Quest to Learn.
This year’s 72-student class is split into four groups that rotate through five courses during the day: Codeworlds (math/English), Being, Space and Place (social studies/English), The Way Things Work (math/science), Sports for the Mind (game design), and Wellness (health/PE). Instead of slogging through problem sets, students learn collaboratively in group projects that require an understanding of subjects in the New York State curriculum. The school’s model draws on 30 years of research showing that people learn best when they’re in a social context that puts new knowledge to use. Kids learn more by, say, pretending to be Spartan spies gathering intel on Athens than by memorizing facts about ancient Greece.
Salen has pilot studies to back up that risk; however, she won’t know if the school prepares kids for real-world success until the first class graduates. But Quest has already proved itself in one area: The kids love it. “It’s fun,” says student Nadine Clements. Her least favorite part of school? “Dismissal.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.