Collaborative Curriculum Building
The challenge of keeping students in school and on track to succeed in the twenty-first century has sparked a search for new, more effective methods of training, monitoring and holding teachers accountable. But it may be that we also need to encourage teachers to see themselves in a new light, to support them in taking on a new kind of identity. That is one of the powerful ideas behind the New York City public school, Quest to Learn. The school sees its teachers not just as keepers of this or that branch of knowledge, but as designers who create experiences for students that engage students’ own appetite to learn.
A unique collaboration encourages teachers at Quest to Learn to inhabit the identity of a designer. Each trimester each teacher comes together in a team with a game designer and a curriculum designer. Together they create curricula that are grounded in the New York State standards and relevant to the lives of young people today. They also make games to address specific learning or assessment goals, focusing on areas where students typically struggle. So what does that look like in practice? A unit on the American Revolution, for example, begins when students are contacted by a bunch of ghosts bickering in the basement of the Natural History Museum, threatening to destroy the museum’s entire collection. Though all the ghosts—the loyalist, the patriot, the land owner, the merchant, the slave—lived through the same events, they cannot agree on what really happened. Can the students help iron out their disagreements? In the process, over the next few months, the students acquire all the facts and figures every other seventh grader in New York is required to know. In addition, they pick up higher order skills, like conflict resolution, and a sophisticated first-hand understanding of point of view. This is what is known as game-like or game-based learning, because it takes what games do best and applies the design principles that underlie them to the design of learning. The result: young people inspired to learn what they need to know now, and to sustain the spirit of inquiry that will serve them well in the future.
Magic happens in the collaboration that makes this kind of learning possible at Quest to Learn. Curriculum designers come away with greater playfulness in their approach to learning. According to Co-Director of School Arana Shapiro, “They’re able to trust that you can learn through play, because they’ve seen it happen again and again.” Game designers gain an appreciation for the simplicity dictated by a classroom’s constraints. “If it takes a whole period to learn to play, then the game’s not doing what it should,” says Game Designer Shula Ponet. “The more I design here, the more elegant my games become.” Teachers start taking risks and keep on refining their craft. “There’s always something I’m working on, something I’m trying to improve,” says sixth grade teacher Ameer Mourad. And the students? Indicators point to gains in their learning. Students are performing at or above New York City-wide averages on standardized tests. According to a study from Florida State University, in the first twenty months of the school’s operation, students showed statistically significant gains in systems thinking skills. And for two years now, the school’s Math Team has placed first in the New York City Mathematics Project Math Olympiad, as a result of superior collaborative problem solving. For the students at Quest to Learn though, there is nothing cooler about their school than being able to brush shoulders with real live game designers… except perhaps witnessing in real time the design of their own education.
At the heart of this collaboration—and of Quest to Learn—is a recognition that the endeavor of education is the work of a community and cannot be balanced on the shoulders of any one institution or individual, however talented or effective. The image of the teacher as sole purveyor of knowledge has outlived its usefulness. The same goes for the image of school as the only conduit for learning that matters. The possibility for the world in the work being done at Quest to Learn is to see the teacher—and by extension, the school—as one collaborator in the design of an experience, an open space that intentionally engenders learning and participation by many people and institutions.