Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

Quest To Learn – Good Gamers Are Good Learners

Quest To Learn“, a middle school with the curriculum based on video games, is the brainchild of a professional game designer named Katie Salen. Salen, like many people interested in education, has spent a lot of time thinking about making learning  more relevant to students and more connected to the world beyond school. And the answer, as she sees it, lies in games. Operating on a public-school budget but powered by additional grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is a well-financed and carefully watched educational experiment concerning children and video games.

quest to learn, gamification of education

Nearly every aspect of life at Quest to Learn is 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.” A lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest. 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 inproblem-based learning, the motivation to solve a problem becomes the motivation to learn. It doesn’t necessarily use games in the classroom, but does use game design principles in learning spaces.

The students have traditional homeworks like independent reading assignments, weekly reading-comprehension packets and works with pencils and paper, but they also record podcasts, film and edit videos, play video games, blog frequently and occasionally receive messages from aliens. They also spend significant time building their own games. Sometimes they design board games using cardboard, markers and tapes. Game building is a very important element in their curriculum, they use Gamestar Mechanic which lets kids design their games without coding a line. Because a game is a system with certain rules extracted from our real world, kids build up the capability to deal with complex system in this process.

Quest to Learn is the first school in the country organized around the principles of game design. It was developed by a team from the Institute of Play committed to creating a game-based learning curriculum. Institute of Play is a non-profit research group that studies on game-playing and learning. There is an new expansion of the Quest to Learn model in Chicago last fall, ChicagoQuest. It’s a charter school and receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation too. (video:

How did the school recruit teachers? In this interview with the founder you can find the answer. The criteria for teachers are that they should be really good collaborators. Teachers didn’t necessarily have to be technology people, and a lot of them weren’t necessarily gaming people either, but they were able to work in teams. They had to have a very good sense of how to enable kids to be innovators. And finally, teachers had to have done project-based work before, our curriculum includes project-based work in it.

More about the story of Quest to Learn can be found in Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom and In Chicago and New York, a look into the digital classroom. About the standard test result of students in Quest to Learn, although they had a poor data after the first year, but the second year’s result is catching parents’ eyes. Although I think the standard assessment method itself is needing “upgrading” when we talk about evaluating 21st century skills.

According to Institute of Play, embedded assessment is a constant during their learning process. This kind of assessment gives both both teachers and students data in real time, which can be used to gauge and further support learning. These assessments are also so well integrated into the flow of learning, that oftentimes students do not even notice they are being assessed. Embedded assessments are different from typical assessments, such as quizzes, tests, and reports, because typical assessments focus mainly on what students know, whereas embedded assessments allow for teachers to gauge what students know and how students use the knowledge in action. (check out an example here)

Because of technology, children today are into games, which indeed keeps them engaged. Neuroscientists have connected game play to the production of dopamine, a powerful neuro­transmitter central to the brain’s reward-seeking system and thought to drive motivation and memory processing (maybe negatively, addictive behaviors) — all of which could have implications for how, when and what type of games should be used to advance children’s learning. Neuroscientists are also studying the science behind focused engagement — a psychological phenomenon known as “flow” — from second-by-second decision-making of gamers.

From the book “Gaming Education” by , there are at least three different classes of digital games in schools.

  • The first group, the classic edu-tech games, have danced in and out of schools for so long that many kids take them for granted. Most of these programs are cute, but they fall short on pedagogical ambitions and graphic design. That doesn’t make them worthless; it just limits their effectiveness.
  • The second group, by contrast, a handful of educators a few years ago sought to put game controls directly into students’ hands by teaching them how to build their own games. Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT’s Media Lab, is the reigning champion here. But the Scratch kids have to be self-motivated.
  • The third approach is so called “gamification of education“,  it suggests adding far more sophisticated game mechanics to learning process. It doesn’t rely on internal motivation. Instead, it’s using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification can help build kids’ competitive spirits. As they gain confidence, they may become hungry for tools that put them in control. At the end of the day, those who know how to create the rules of the game, know how to win.

The meaning of knowing today has shifted from being able to recall and repeat information to being able to find it, evaluate it and use it compellingly at the right time and in the right context. How to design a effective mechanism in meaningful learning process is an ongoing quest to learn for all educators and education systems.


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3 Responses »


  1. Case Studies of Teaching with Games | Classroom Aid
  2. Gamification Could Facilitate Authentic Challenge-Based Learning | Classroom Aid
  3. Pushing The Boundaries of Game-Based Learning – Institute of Play | Classroom Aid

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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