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Practice Analysis of a New Learning ‘Ecology’

Project Overview

Project Description

Parse a student learning experience in a computer-mediated learning environment. What are the elements and patterns of this practice in terms of teacher-student interactions, student-resource interactions, student-student interactions, and the nature of student assessment? How are these different from, and perhaps also similar to, traditional classroom interactions? This work could consist of a reflection on practice you have already used, or analyze a new or unfamiliar practice the dimensions of which you would like to explore. Consider and cite the theoretical models of learning ecologies developed by you and your colleagues in Work 1.

Icon for Quest to Learn: Game-based Collaborative Learning

Quest to Learn: Game-based Collaborative Learning



Quest to Learn (Q2L) is a public school in New York City that is the product of a collaboration between curriculum from the Institute of Play and funding from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gaming is at the core of their pedagogical belief, and they deliver this experience to 6th-12th grade students that are balanced between ethnic and socio-economic lines. Their student body is comprised of 35% White, 29% Hispanic, 25% Black, 6% Asian, and 1% other ethnicities. Following the trend of the broader gaming industry, girls make up only 35% of the enrolled students (Gure, 2). Around 25% of students have special needs, ranging from learning disabilities to ELL (English Language Learner) students. The average class size is 20 students, with the largest class holding 34 students and the smallest just 10 students.

The school was founded in 2009 with the help of Katie Salen, the Executive Director of the Institute of Play and author of Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Her work focuses on the intersection between games and learning, and is influenced by the principles of her mentor, James Paul Gee. Gee sees three primary learning principles in using games for education:

  • Empowered Learners: “co-design,” “customize,” “identity,” and “manipulation and distributed knowledge” (Gee, 5).
  • Problem Solving: game levels and difficulty control are relevent to the learner's Zone of Proximal Development (Gee, 11).
  • Understanding: meaning is understood as a direct result of the experience the student creates in the game-based learning environment (Gee, 22).

Salen, along with Robert Torres (a former high school principal with a background in learning science) and a select group of designers and curriculum developers, spent two years laying the groundwork for Quest to Learn along with MacArthur Foundation and New Visions for Public Schools. (Corbett).

Salen's basic idea for Q2L is rooted in the belief that learning is interdisciplinary, and that games are a reflection of this connection between interdisciplinary skills. The rules, challenges, and goals of games all require deductive reasoning and critical thinking, but they provide a more immersive and enjoyable experience for learners. As the learner gains an understanding of game architecture and design, they can then begin to comprehend system design which is an invaluable intelligence in our world.

Curriculum at Q2L is constantly evolving and versioning, much in the same way that the game industry iterates through title updates to stay on top of technology upgrades and trends. This takes place in the Mission Lab, an innovation studio located within the Q2L school that is a branch of the Institute of Play (Mullaney). Faculty are alloted two periods per week to meet in the Mission Lab along with a curriculum designer and game designer. Working within this three person team, the create classroom exercises called Missons and Quests (Gure, 4).

Brendon Trombley is a game designer station in Mission Lab and describes the process as each person having "very specific skills and considerations: The teacher knows the standards and the kids, the curriculum designer knows the vision of the school, and the game designer knows game mechanics and ways to engage users. We always start with standards and develop from there, looking for fun ways to engage the kids on those standards.” (Mullaney)

Not every solution is custom developed. The teams first look to see if there is an existing piece of technology or interaction design that they can use (think Prezi, Wikispaces, iMovie, LEGO Robotics). If there isn't, then they begin the process of turning the concept into a game. This may be a retooling of a standard gaming concept, or something completely new and different. (O'Keefe)

New curriculum concepts are playtested with students to get feedback early in the process. The teachers and game designers process their recommendations to make something age- and concept-appropriate. The curriculum becomes a collaborative exercise with a real-time feedback loop informing the game itself. The game can evolve over time by allowing students to expand upon them. Once the basics are mastered, the class can add new game levels, make play modifications, and environment modification. (O'Keefe) The games themselves then become a prepared environment for the students to explore and expand, similar to the Montessori classroom. This creates a culture of metacognition, which Jerome Bruner refers to as "thinking about thinking." He considers this to be so important that he has said it "has to be a principal ingredient of any empowering practice of education.”

The curriculum developed focuses on six pillars to support success: culture, systems thinking, design thinking, game-based pedagogy, resource management, and teamwork.

Primary Quest to Learn Goals (Shute & Torres, 22)

Culture: This is commonly seen as the driving factor of the school's success."Home Base" is a daily advising period that focuses on the student's "specific developmental and social emotional needs." The students stay connected using a custom social network built for Q2L called "Being Me." "Being Me" allows the students to look for help among their peers, connect using community games that result in "sparks" (the token system for support activity within the network), and check in daily with a mood tracker that creates a graphic representation of totem face with four emotion quadrants. Since the schools inception, attendance rates have managed to average around 95%, which is a reflection of an engaged student body. (Gure, 3)

Totem Emo creator in BeingMe

Systems Thinking: Students are taught to understand concepts as a whole instead of focusing on the sum of their parts. This is reflected in the multidimensional subject names; "Being, Space, and Place" covers History, Geography, Civilization, while "Codeworlds" combines Math with Reading, Writing, and Speaking. Salen sees systems thinking as "one of the cornerstones of 21st century literacy. When a system becomes complex, suddenly you begin to get what's called emergent behavior, and in emergent behavior, that system, the elements in it, begin to relate to one another in ways that can be unpredictable." (Chaplin)

Design Thinking: Students are encouraged to iterate and change ideas to see how that impacts the outcome. This process also teaches them resiliency and how to adjust to and overcome failure. This environment provides a Humanistic approach to learning, following Carl Rogers belief that “the structure and organization of self appears to become more rigid under threats and to relax its boundaries when completely free from threat.” (Rogers, 1951) Will Wright, designer of the Sims franchise, calls this “failure-based learning.” Games are perfectly suited to this style of learning because the failure is "brief, surmountable, often exciting and therefore not scary." (Corbett)

Game-based Pedagogy: Students "learn to be" instead of "learning about." This provides a deeper understanding of the concept and ands in the emotional development of empathy. Besides the game-based learning modules provided to them by faculty, students also expand their learning experience using Gamestar Mechanic, a tool for quickly developing and deploying games without requiring a programming background. The concept of Gamestar Mechanic mirrors the work that Seymour Papert did with the Logo programming language while at MIT. Both tools put students into the role of developer and iterator, which in turn expands their problem-solving skills.

Managing Resources: Through versioning and iteration, students and teachers learn how to effectively manage their time and meet deadlines.

Teamwork: Both faculty and students are expected to collaborate on curriculum in its development and execution. For students, this helps develop important emotional soft skills and be aware of their own actions in a larger context.


A Sports for the Mind class (Gillian Laub for The New York Times)

Student assessment at Q2L doesn't follow a standard letter-grade scale, instead the mechanics of gaming penetrate all the way to the grading structure itself. Students are ranked by their level of expertise: “pre-novice,” “novice,” “apprentice,” “senior” and “master.” (Corbett) This grading metric is more semantic, as a grade of "novice" implies to both the student and parent that their grasp on the concept is beginning but is in need of improvement. Compare this with what would be its relative counter-part, a letter grade of D, which provides no further detail or meaning.

Semantic grading at Q2L vs. Traditional A-F grading
Master A
Senior B
Apprentice C
Novice D
Pre-Novice F

Concepts are broken down into 10 week "Missions" and missions are comprised of "Quests." Teachers present the missions and quests and then assess and track learning progress throughout the exercise and concept. An example Mission for a 6th grade blended Science and Math Mission looks like the following:

Mission Title: Invisible Pathways

Background to Mission: Invisible Pathways follows a 10-week Mission focused on simple machines, which centers on the essential question, “What are the qualities and elements of a system?” and introduces students to science and math-based methods of building simple machines. In this second-trimester Mission, students build on knowledge from the simple-machine unit and apply these understandings to a study of light and matter. The essential question is, “How do the relationships between elements in a system create a dynamic?”

Quest I. The Problem of the Oar - Students will develop an inventory of behaviors for “Photon,” a beam of light that has lost its way.

Quest II. Enigmo - Having collected an inventory of behaviors describing Photon’s interaction with different forms of matter, students are challenged to apply this knowledge within a three-dimensional simulation tool called “Enigmo 2.”

Quest III. Can You Believe What You See? Students work with a digital model of the eye. Using “light-boxes,” they establish the conditions for sight: a light source, an object, an eye, and a straight unblocked path.

Quest IV. Invisible Pathways: The Mission culminates in a Quest requiring students to collaborate in small teams. The challenge: construct a pathway for a beam of light to travel to a target, but changing direction a minimum of five times on its way.

(excerpted from Quest to Learn: Developing the School for Digital Kids by Salen, Torres et al, p. 125-129)

The work generated from this mission – the three-dimensional space model, online notebook, test, self-assessment, concept map, and reflections – is then evaluated and graded.

In place of midterms and finals in a traditional classroom, students complete in "Boss Level" which gets its name from the difficult bosses at the end of games that require multiple attempts to tackle before "leveling up." With Boss Level, students are given two weeks at the end of each trimester to work in small teams and tackle a common concept or problem. Their results are then showcased at an event open to educators, staff, and family (Sims). Teachers act as advisors to the project, and assess individual development during the creation process. Outside creative professionals are also brought in to the showcase to critique the finished works.

Outside of regular class work, missions, quests, and boss levels, students also complete practice internships in which they apply and work for various departments within the school. (Gure, 4)

Students playing "Caterpillar" during embedded assessment

The majority of assessment within Q2L is the result of "embedded assessment." After presenting concepts to students, the faculty steps back to allow the students to "explode" the concept to gain a greater understanding. This involves evolving or changing the game to make it more challenging, which is a result of the student's own greater understanding. This observation and challenge is the assessment itself and is observed and noted by the teacher without the student being entirely aware of being assessed.

One of the difficulties faced by Q2L is how to align their assessment of students with the common state standards and national education standards. For less affluent families, their placement and options within the New York City public school system is dependent on standardized test scores. While students may have a greater grasp of the concepts, most Q2L students score along the median lines for the state. Critics of traditional schools blame this result on the fact that many school's curriculum is designed simply to result in higher test scores and not on understand the more complex systems of learning (Sims).

Quest To Learn, New York State Test Scores, 2012

A 20 month study of Q2L students by Valarie Shute and Robert Torres found that "students significantly improved their systems thinking skills over the duration of the study, and improved (albeit, not significantly) on their time management and teamwork skills as well."

The 2011-2012 New York City Department of Education Quality Review Report cited aligning assessment to curriculum and elevating school-wide instructional practices as areas that are developing and currently in need of improvement (Gure, 7-8).


Four years in and without a class that has fully matriculated through grade 12 and into higher education, Quest to Learn remains an experimental pioneer in education. It's pedigree of founding members and significant financial support from outside sources help buoy its concept, and feedback from students is encouraging.

With technology advancing at a breakneck pace, and students finding that media and technology permeate their everyday lives, it is inevitable that teaching has to evolve to meet this new challenge. Meeting students at their level with a learning style that they are naturally suited to help to create more whole learners that understand overarching concepts instead of just the sum of their parts. A game-based curriculum motivates students to expand upon their knowledge, addresses critical problem-solving skills, and helps make metacognition an enjoyable undertaking.

The technology loop - that technology breeds more technological development - practically guarantees that students with a background in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will have a variety of professional options available to them once they matriculate. While its standardized test scores may not ever accurately reflect the degree to which its students are gaining a deep understanding of content, their future professional developments may prove to be the proof of concept for this revolutionary teaching model. 


Chaplin, Heather (2010, June 28). "School Uses Video Games To Teach Thinking Skills." National Public Radio. Web. 27 September 2013. <>

Chaplin, Heather (2011, April 19). "Digital Media in the Classroom Case Study: Gamestar Mechanic." Spotlight on Digital Media and Leaning, MacArthur Foundation. Web. 28 September 2013.<>

Corbett, Sarah (2010, September 15). "Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom" The New York Times. Web. 27 September 2013. <>

Evans, Tyson, Robert Gebeloff, Andrei Scheinkman (2012, August 16). "New York State Test Scores: Quest to Learn." The New York Times. Web. 27 September 2013. <>

Gee, James Paul. "Learning by Design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines." University of Wisconsin-Madison. Web. 27 September 2013.<>

Gure, Elif 2012, May 21. "Quality Review Report 2011-2012." NYC Department of Education. Web. 27 September 2013. <>

Mullaney, Aidan (2013, August 8). "Quest to Learn: The Model for Gamifying Education." Gamification Corp. Web. 27 September 2013. <>

O'Keefe, Dan (2012, December 3). "Quest to Learn: A collaborative effort to design engaging game-like learning environments." School Library Journal. Web. 27 September 2013. <>

Shute, Valerie J. and Robert J. Torres. "Formative Evaluation of Students at Quest to Learn." Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Volume 4, Number 1. Web. 27 September 2013. <>

Sims, Christo. "Boss Level at Quest to Learn: Connected Learning in a Public School" Connected Learning. Web. 27 September 2013. <>