Katie Salen is definitely on to something. As the executive director of the Institute of Play – a non-profit design studio that explores new ways of learning and undertakes a number of projects such as Quest Schools and GlassLab – and a game design professor at DePaul University, Salen is a pioneer in charting new ways of learning in the classroom.
I want to focus on the Quest to Learn (Q2L) project because it is pertinent to what we discuss in class. According to the Q2L Report, the Q2L research and development document, Q2L is “a sixth- to twelfth-grade small school in New York City that opened its doors to its first sixth grade class in the fall of 2009. The school was designed by the Institute of Play in partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, the largest education-reform organization in New York City dedicated to improving the quality of education children receive in New York City’s public schools” (p. xv). Without explaining all the nuances of Q2L, it utilizes a trimester schedule in which objectives and skills are learned through approximately ten week long discovery missions. After students complete the mission, which could consist of helping “Troggles” create new inventions or acting as a medical student and diagnosing illnesses, the students enter the intensive two week boss mission as a capstone of the entire trimester. Additionally, Q2L views schools as one of the many places in which learning occurs versus school being the only place where it occurs. Ten core practices underlie Q2L, including giving and receiving feedback, inventing solutions, practicing in context, and theorizing and testing, among others. The cherry on top of this project is that the students also satisfy state education standards.
I am a fan of Salen and this project. I think her leadership role in exploring new ways of educating is bold and exciting. I believe in the learning principles she advocates including collaboration, team building, problem solving in complex places, forgiving environments, and utilizing different identities when learning, reachable challenges, and scaffolding instruction (providing information on a need to know basis). I believe that we need exemplars such as Q2L to showcase the best environment and practices for teaching. However, while reading about Salen and these projects I began to feel a slight resentment toward the project. After reading the design and more about Salen, I reflected on this feeling and attempted to figure out why. What follows is why I think I felt this way.
To me, Q2L seems necessary, but there was something foreign about it. As Salen said in a video about Q2L, it is really unusual, unique, and different. The reason for this is that the non-profit works hand in hand with the public school. What does this mean? It means that many of the resources in the form of teachers, curriculum developers, technology, etc. are subsidized by the non-profit. As I read through the research document more, I began to feel like a child watching Care Bears or Teletubbies in that I was becoming immersed in a far-off world to which there was no bridge. I do not mean this disrespectfully. I am a proponent of creating the most ideal situations possible, and I am an idealist to a fault myself. But in creating such an environment, I felt myself harboring my feelings as I continued to ask myself, “How will they implement all these things without the same resources?”
I wondered how everyone that was not fortunate enough to have the same types of resources or time (such as the 80 minuets per day instructors had for professional development) could effectively utilize the same curriculum. To be fair, the Q2L website does have four documents to use in implementing Q2L practices. But the fact remains that not all schools have the same resources available. For instance, Q2L sees school as one place of learning, but there is staff available to link it to other learning spaces. Many schools do not have this ability, and many students do not have home lives that support learning or mentoring.
I understand this critique may be short sighted. Essentially, I’m comparing the ideal environment with the most supporting factors to the least ideal environment with almost no supporting factors. I think that starting more toward the middle of the spectrum in creating curriculum would be more realistic. In this way, the design would account for navigating more state requirements and a lack of resources. I understand the “so what?” question regarding Q2L, but I’m left asking “now what?”
I believe that the negative feelings I have may result from some of the small town Texas in me. I imagine some of the teachers I had resenting this program due to a feeling of their circumstances not being understood. If they were to be presented something like this, I imagine many of them retorting that they have to be at school at 7 am and have duties that keep them there until 4:30 pm, with little time to themselves outside of a 45 minute off period. I also imagine them citing the fact that they use computers over 10 years old. I can see them asserting that there are not enough funds to equip students with the technology to enable them to complete missions and boss levels as described as well.
After saying all this, I am compelled to restate that I like what Q2L seeks to do. The project is setting standards for learning in new ways. My critique is that I fail to see how this can be realistically implemented. There is a real possibility that I did not scour enough sources to realize this is happening or that others are doing this as I type. If this is not the case, however, perhaps this could be the next step for the project. Perhaps using that manpower to navigate not so ideal situations could prove fruitful and be something applicable to schools with little to no modification.