Where Gaming Rules: Middle School Students Accept the Challenge at ChicagoQuest

Filed in: Games, Schools

Filed by Christine Cupaiuolo

 

12.20.11 | This is how seventh grader Tamiel McKee-Bey describes her new school: “I really like this school, because, last year we weren’t interacting, and here I’m interacting and learning and not slouching in my seat.”

You might not think a middle-schooler would be so effusive about interaction, but at the new ChicagoQuest charter school, getting out of your seat and collaborating with others is exactly the point. Here, games aren’t add-ons to the curriculum—they are the curriculum.

Reporter Tom Mullaney visited ChicagoQuest, which is modeled after Quest to Learn in New York City, and wrote a story for the Chicago Tribune about the thinking behind using game design and digital media to teach skill development and problem solving along with traditional subjects like English and history.

The school opened its doors in September to 234 sixth- and seventh-graders, selected by lottery. African-American students make up the majority. By 2016, ChicagoQuest will serve students in grades 6-12.

A page from the ChicagoQuest website

Even the school’s website sets itself apart. Visitors can see if the school is a right fit for them by dragging and dropping answers to questions into a virtual backpack. The School Day page gives an overview of the schedule, which includes a “home base” check-in with advisors several days per week.

Courses, called “domains,” integrate related content and skills across subject areas. For example, “Being, Space, Place” combines English/language arts with social studies, while “CodeWorlds” integrates writing and math. Instead of grades, student performance is tracked on a scale that ranges from “novice” to “master of skills.”

Katie Salen, executive director of Institute of Play, a nonprofit that focuses on games and learning, led a team that founded Quest to Learn, and she helped oversee the launch of ChicagoQuest. Now a professor in the School of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University, Salen told Mullaney that it’s the pedagogy, not the technology, that matters most.
 
Salen discussed how game design can help students explore systems during an extended video interview with PBS earlier this year.

Inititally there were worries that Quest to Learn would be too focused on competition and rewards, but in fact the gaming structure has prompted students to want to get better. Just as in all games, the quests get harder as students develop more knowledge and acquire more skills.

“They’re proceeding through some kind of challenge and they’re getting close to some kind of end goal,” said Salen. “We have found that that’s very motivating for kids—they know where they’re are, they know how far they’ve come, and they know what they need to work on.”

Or, as one student puts it, “Game design is about trial and error.”

The extended interview is connected to the PBS special “Digital Media - New Learners of the 21st Century.” You an watch the full hour-long show online or view more extended interviews with familiar faces, including Nichole Pinkard and Henry Jenkins. And in this Spotlight interview, Salen talks with Pinkard, founder of the Chicago-based afterschool program Digital Youth Network, about applying game design to classroom learning.

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