I would go back to middle school if I could go to Quest to Learn , the school described in this weekend’s NYT Magazine . Not only do students learn technology and game design directly, but all of the school’s learning is set out in a video game format: They don’t get grades, they advance to different levels. They learn pre-algebra, physics, ancient civilizations, and writing all within the context of a game or gameworld. They tackle big projects and open-ended questions. They fail, they succeed, they learn to fail and, in doing so, learn that you must fail to succeed.
At least that’s the gloriously positive spin on it. In reality, the kids aren’t necessarily learning the basics of the NYC middle-school subject matter any better than kids in an ordinary run-of-the-mill school. It’s too soon to say; Quest to Learn is only in its second year. But without any testing at all, the reason any parent would be happy to have a kid Questing away seems obvious. Quest to Learn isn’t just a school. It’s a passion. The teachers at Quest, along with its founder, Katie Salen, a professional game designer and professor of design and technology at Parsons, are driven, enthusiastic, and determined to reach their students and teach through their chosen medium. With that as background, you could take nearly any driving force, from gardening to animal science to journalism, and teach a group of somewhat self-selected seventh-graders the pack of knowledge they’re meant to gain in that year, while adding a more important lesson: If you love what you do, even the longest, most tedious task in its interest (like coding a precision robot move, setting type or tweaking page layouts, or planting carrot seeds) becomes worth it.
But that passion is exactly why Quest to Learn may fail at its larger task: to create a way to implement a methodology of digital media and learning in settings nationwide. Seventh graders in the hands of the clearly masterful instructor Al Doyle may learn something relevant from a lesson in “enemy movement” (within a video game), but the lesson may not translate in the hands of a teacher in Peoria whose primary interests lie elsewhere. In another article in the same issue, You Are Not a Gadget author Jaron Lanier looks at the underlying goal of education, which is-at least after a certain point-less about the transfer of specific facts and knowledge than about the “self-invention of a human brain.” Considered that way, the specifics of what’s being taught at Quest to Learn are less interesting than the quirky impulses that lie beneath them: allowing good teachers to use innovative methods to teach students to think. As a nation, we’re still struggling with what makes a good teacher, as well as how we teach students not just to learn the basics, but to continue to learn as the basics continue to change and evolve. Quest to Learn may hold a piece of the answer, but it’s not in the video games or the programming. It’s in the passion of the teachers at the controls.
Photograph of a young gaming boy by Quinn Norton for Wikimedia Commons.