Quest to Learn: video-game-based school

Sara Corbett's long NYT feature on the experimental Quest to Learn school in NYC, founded by game designer Katie Salen with some MacArthur and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dough, is awfully exciting. Q2L uses custom-designed video games and game-like activities to teach and focus attention. Instead of getting grades, you level up ("pre-novice," "novice," "apprentice," "senior" and "master."), and subjects are interdisciplinary -- there's a "Math and English" class. Students design and build their own games, starting with physical prototypes made from cardboard and the like.

In Smallab sessions, students hold wands and Sputnik-like orbs whose movements are picked up by 12 scaffold-mounted motion-capture cameras and have an immediate effect inside the game space, which is beamed from a nearby computer onto the floor via overhead projector. It is a little bit like playing a multiplayer Wii game while standing inside the game instead of in front of it. Students can thus learn chemical titration by pushing king-size molecules around the virtual space. They can study geology by building and shifting digital layers of sediment and fossils on the classroom floor or explore complementary and supplementary angles by racing the clock to move a giant virtual protractor around the floor.

As new as the Smallab concept is, it is already showing promise when it comes to improving learning results: Birchfield and his colleagues say that in a small 2009 study, they found that at-risk ninth graders in earth sciences scored consistently and significantly higher on content-area tests when they had also done Smallab exercises. A second study compared the Smallab approach with traditional hands-on lab experimentation, with the group that used mixed-reality again showing greater retention and mastery. As it is more generally with games, the cognitive elements at work are not entirely understood, but they are of great interest to a growing number of learning scientists. Did the students learn more using digital mixed-reality because the process was more physical than hearing a classroom lecture or performing a lab experiment? Because it was more collaborative or more visual? Or was it simply because it seemed novel and more fun?

Learning by Playing

(Thanks, Menachem!)