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Game on to learn your lessons

T his was New York City, a noncharter public school, inside an ordinary room that looked a lot like all the other rooms around it. Al Doyle, at 54, a veteran teacher and had logged 32 years in schools all over Manhattan, where he primarily taught art and computer graphics.

world Updated: Sep 18, 2010 23:59 IST
Sara Corbett

T his was New York City, a noncharter public school, inside an ordinary room that looked a lot like all the other rooms around it. Al Doyle, at 54, a veteran teacher and had logged 32 years in schools all over Manhattan, where he primarily taught art and computer graphics. In the school, which was called Quest to Learn, he was teaching a class, Sports for the Mind.

The lesson that day was on enemy movement, and the enemy was a dastardly collection of spiky-headed robots roving inside a computer game. The students — a pack of about 20 boisterous sixth graders — were meant to observe how the robots moved, then chart any patterns they saw on pieces of graph paper. Later, working on laptops, they would design their own games. For the moment, though, they were spectators.

Doyle was frenetically tapping the keyboard of a MacBook, connected to a wall-mounted interactive whiteboard. Doyle had 60 seconds to steer a little bubble-shaped sprite — a toddling avatar dressed in a royal blue cape and matching helmet — through a two-dimensional maze without bumping into the proliferating robots. In order to win, he would need to gobble up some number of yellow reward points, Pac-Man style.

“Go right! Go right! Go right!” the students were shouting. “Now down, down, down, downdowndown!”

“How much time do I have?” Doyle asked.

“Nineteen seconds.”

“Go! Go! Turn around. Don’t slow down. What are you waiting for?” someone called out.

“To the goal! To the goal! Al, run to the goal!”

Finally Doyle’s little blue self rounded a final corner, waited out a passing robot and charged into the goal at the end of the maze with less than two seconds to spare. This caused a microriot in the classroom. Cheers erupted. Fists pumped. A few kids lay back on the floor as if knocked out by the drama. Several made notes on their graph paper. Doyle leaned back in his chair. Had he taught anything? Had they learned anything? It depended, really, on how you wanted to think about teaching and learning.

It is a radical proposition, sure. But during an era in which just about everything is downloadable and remixable, when children are frequently more digitally savvy than the adults around them, it’s perhaps not so crazy to think that schools — or at least one school, anyway — might try to remix our assumptions about how to reach and educate those children. What makes Quest to Learn unique is not so much that it has been loaded with laptops or even that it bills itself expressly as a home for “digital kids,” but rather that it is the brainchild of a professional game designer named Katie Salen. Quest to Learn is organised specifically around the idea that digital games are central to the lives of today’s children and also increasingly, as their speed and capability grow, powerful tools for intellectual exploration. The traditional school structure strikes Salen as “weird.” “You go to a math class, and that is the only place math is happening, and you are supposed to learn math just in that one space,” she said.

Salen and Torres are at the forefront of a small but increasingly influential group of educationists who believe that going to school can and should be more like playing a game, which is to say it could be made more participatory, more immersive and also, well, fun.

Nearly every aspect of life at Quest to Learn is thus designed to be gamelike, even when it doesn’t involve using a computer. Students don’t receive grades but rather achieve levels of expertise, denoted on their report cards as “pre-novice,” “novice,” “apprentice,” “senior” and “master.” They are enlisted to do things like defeat villains and lend a hand to struggling aliens, mostly by working in groups to overcome multifaceted challenges, all created by a collection of behind-the-scenes game designers. The principles are similar to those used in problem-based learning, a more established educational method in which students collaborate to tackle broad, open-ended problems, with a teacher providing guidance though not necessarily a lot of instruction. But at Quest to Learn, the problems have been expertly aerated with fantasy.

Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest. And while students at the school are put through the usual rigors of studying pre-algebra, basic physics, ancient civilizations and writing, they do it inside interdisciplinary classes with names like Codeworlds — a hybrid of math and English class — where the quests blend skills from different subject areas.

Seeing this as learning required a kind of leap — the same way it required a leap to watch students build digital mazes and load them with plinking cartoon sprites and imagine it might make them more successful as future adults — that it would possibly help them untangle and rebuild whatever broken systems we will have left for them.