Katie Salen on Building a Public School Around Game Design and What Comes Next


Photo/Katie Salen.

10.8.13 | Katie Salen is professor at DePaul University of Computing and Digital Media, and executive director of the Institute of Play.

This post is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning (DML) has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: Six years ago you were a game designer and a professor at Parsons—what was the initial connection between that work and the digital media and learning space?

Katie Salen: I was doing a lot of theoretical writing around games at the time, trying to understand how games actually worked in terms of being designed systems. As I was doing that I began to realize there was a lot of crossover with literature on learning.

Were you already working on Gamestar Mechanic at this time?

Yes, that’s the other strand. Gamestar Mechanic was the first time I’d done something with an explicit intent around learning—and for young people. I got really excited because I realized there was a really close overlap between the core principals of good learning and the methodology of good design. That was a big ah-ha moment for me. I thought, wow, there are a lot of parallels here, but with really distinct entry points.

What do you mean “different entry point?”

Learning folks tend to think about content from the beginning, and designers tend to think about the experience from the beginning, which are radically different approaches. I was interested to see if there was a way these two perspectives might come together and actually lead to the design of experiences that were engaging but also got at the content and learning objectives.

It seems like a lot of people were starting to think about the same thing around the same time. Was the idea that good game design mirrored good learning an idea from Jim Gee, or were you thinking about it independent of him?

It was around the same time. I stumbled on his book after I’d been thinking about it for a while. It definitely informed and shaped my thinking.

When we started the school we thought, how can we transform the experience of the kids? What we’ve found is that we’ve transformed the experience of the teachers.

Why do you think all of a sudden, so many different people were starting to home in on similar ideas?

For one, I think MacArthur, as a kind of convening body, had started to connect people that had some kind of shared interest but came from different areas. I think that cross-pollination sparked some ideas in people. MacArthur really gave a name to a set of things that helped people attach the work they were doing to a larger set of ideas.  That’s one thing. The other is the maturity of games. This was around 2006 and there was a sense that we were starting to understand games better as a form. A bunch of books came out on the topic. Once we began to understand explicitly how games worked, it was much easier to see connections to other fields and areas.

What’s been surprising in your work around Quest to Learn [schools that incorporate the concepts of game design in their design]? What’s turned out better than you expected? And what’s forced you to question your own thinking?

The Quest project is one big surprise just by the very fact that we were able to do it. Still when I say, “We started a new school in New York City,” people say, “What?” They don’t understand how we could have done that.  It is still quite surprising to me that in the face of all the challenges, we were able to do this. It’s not perfect, but in the balance of things it’s doing more things well than not well. Four and a half years in, the big challenge is really maintaining the vision of what it’s supposed to be. I hear over and over from people that you start with a vision but you end up somewhere else entirely. So it feels really good to look around and see that the school looks and behaves like we imagined it would.

How have the teachers at Quest reacted to such a new kind of school?

The piece that’s been most surprising has been the change in teacher practice.  When we started the school we thought, how can we transform the experience of the kids? What we’ve found is that we’ve transformed the experience of the teachers. We see a shift from teachers seeing their classroom as their own isolated domain for which they are solely accountable, to a more openly collaborative model. Teachers are doing a tremendous amount of sharing and starting to see themselves as designing experiences for their kids—which is not what most of them came in with. I say this, because it’s what I hear over and over from our teachers. It wasn’t our focus, but the impact is there.

What are some of the challenges in the other work you’re doing?

The big challenge we have, and I think other people have this too, is how do you get the thing you build into the hands of kids and teachers? You have this product, but how do you get it deployed? What’s the business model? How do people find out about it? If you don’t have a marketing budget, how does that actually happen? We’ve developed a number of products, some in the school, some outside of it, and we’re really struggling with these things. We don’t have networks to tap into to actually get the stuff out there in a highly visible way.

That’s interesting. Do you feel like that’s the next hurdle that needs to be addressed? What happens after you give all these smart people money to do all these smart things?

The initiative won’t go anywhere if that doesn’t get addressed. It’s complex; especially if you have values around openness, network sharing, and transparency. What does the IP model look like? What do the business models look like? We know we want to make this stuff accessible to the most people possible, but how do you do that in a real way that generates enough revenue to allow you to keep doing the work in the first place? For this work to have impact, we have to move beyond the pilot phase, which is really where we are.

What’s your thinking on how to do that?

You have to think about these questions from the very start. You can’t develop something and then ask the question, ‘oh wait, how do we get this out?’ At Quest to Learn, we say with every project that we want to reach a million kids. And when you start to think on that scale, the decisions you make—right from the very beginning—are different.

In doing these interviews I always ask people “What’s next?” And so many people have said, “We’ve focused on informal learning, and now we need to think about formal learning.” But you’ve been in the formal space from the beginning.

We wanted to do a public school because we wanted to be in the formal space. And we wanted it to be an ordinary public school, meaning non-selective. We felt this was important because schools have been so resistant to change, and here was MacArthur doing all this interesting work outside of schools and thinking about what schools ought to be, and we felt that until there was a school that was explicitly open to these ideas, they would always be operating in the perimeter.

It’s an interesting perspective; a lot of people I’ve talked to are very hostile towards the public school system.

Can we create something where kids want to be rather than have to be?

I know a lot of folks think public schools are broken and we should just blow them up, but in our opinion schools are a really important space for kids. A lot of kids don’t have anywhere else to go. If you blow public schools up, that really only serves kids of means. For the kids we serve, school is more than a place to learn how to read and write; it’s a safe space to be during the day where there’s an adult around who cares. We wanted to address formal schooling as an institutional space that we know needs to be there for a whole lot of kids—and then ask the question, can we do this in a way that makes the experience better? Can we create something where kids want to be rather than have to be? At the same time, the design of Quest to Learn is explicitly open as an afterschool and summer space too. We wanted to break down the distinction between formal and informal.

Are there a lot of constraints working in the public school system?

If you want to stay open, you have to do OK on standardized tests. And for that to happen, there has to be some kind of explicit test preparation. You might say, theoretically, that you’re totally against that, but the fact is you can’t ignore it. We try not to go against our values, but standardized tests are just a reality. It’s been very difficult to move parents and teachers out of that mindset. Until we have some alternative forms of what assessment could look like, until we develop measurements for assessing 21st century learning, standardized tests will always be dominant.

Is there anyone you’re watching right? Anyone who’s work you’re finding particularly inspiring?

I feel like I’ve drawn from everyone in some way. I still always look to the National Writing Project as an organization that has really understood scale.  It feels like they know how to find teachers and get them really excited.

When you look around the DML space is there anything that just horrifies you?

The national conversation around digital media and learning is still a productivity conversation. People say the reason we should adopt digital media or that we should use more data in the classroom is that it’s going to make teaching more efficient. People say we should customize the curriculum because then kids will get through it faster. If things happen faster, that’s cool, but that should not be the goal. The goal should be that the quality of education is fundamentally different and more effective for kids. What horrifies me about this productivity focus is that it’s very easy to fall into a trap of designing bad experiences for both teachers and kids.

Anything else?

The other thing that worries me is we need to have a much stronger conversation around learning outcomes. Even within the MacArthur community, when we talk about 21st century learning, we have a lot of words we use—complex problem solving, deductive reasoning, collaboration—but still, it’s very mushy. I worry that we need to get clear about what we’re talking about. How are we going to measure these ideas to show evidence they matter to kids in a way that’s not just academic? How do we measure the impact on their identities, their civic engagement, and in their peer communities? We’re six years into this, and my worry is that we really need to get there pretty soon.

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