Design Thinking

The Boss Level Challenge: Designing and Doing

With passion, timing, desirable goals, strategic alliances, and careful scheduling, Quest to Learn’s intensive PBL “Boss Level” challenge can succeed for any school and grade.

November 11, 2014

Boss Level, a special time built into the school schedule at Quest to Learn, enables teachers to plan project-based learning units that can happen outside of the classroom. For students, Boss Level is an opportunity to participate in a design challenge while taking on the role of an artist, filmmaker, chef, or any number of other real-life jobs.

And for teachers, Boss Level allows us to bring our own interests and passions to the job. I've been a mathematics educator in New York City's Department of Education for ten years, and I joined the Quest to Learn staff three years ago because I was drawn to the game-based learning approach and the amount of autonomy and creativity that teachers were empowered to bring to their curricula.

Action-Based PBL

For the last three years, we collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for our winter Boss Level design challenge. The learning outcomes for the students are dramatic, immensely satisfying, and endlessly memorable. Our school believes that students "learn by doing," so we literally take them out of the classroom, put them in a gallery space, and give them an artistic challenge that is rich and transformative. The first year, we asked them to create an interactive art exhibit at MoMA that embodied the phrase "Take Comfort." The following year, we picked the theme of "Escape" (featured in the video above). Both themes were flexible and compelling enough to reach all the students.

But the artistic theme or setting isn't necessary. In another Boss Level project, my colleague Leah and I designed a Thai cooking challenge that required the students to learn recipes, shop, advertise, and ultimately cook a five-course Thai meal for 100 people inside the school. The key to any successful design challenge is making it difficult enough to be daunting but totally achievable.

Design challenges are appropriate for all grade levels, but the maturity of the students will dictate the tools, location, and amount of adult supervision necessary. Most design challenges will mandate that students work in groups, use some type of technology, and manage their time. In fact, these learning activities prepare students for adult life far more than textbook problem sets ever could, because the kids actually have to do something. Students cannot be passive -- they must take action to reach the goal. Furthermore, students must go through the design process: empathizing with their audience, defining the problem, brainstorming, prototyping, and modifying their final projects.

5 Steps to the Boss Level

Teachers reading this post may feel discouraged. You may be thinking, "My school doesn't have Boss Level, so I could never do this." But I would challenge you to discard that notion. Here's how you can bring a Boss Level design challenge into your own classroom:

1. Start With Passion

Pick a topic that you're passionate about: cooking, graphic design, comic books, dance, art museums, or anything. Students can tell when you are excited about something, and excitement can be infectious. The teacher's enthusiasm for the topic can drive the students' learning.

2. Timing Is Everything

Find a time in your school schedule that allows you take field trips, such as that window after the state exams when students are anxious for summer break.

3. Daunting But Achievable

Come up with a design challenge that fits your topic. Do you want students to visit water sources, act like scientists, and design a conservation project? Do you want students to visit historical sites around your city and give informative walking tours to pedestrians? The sky is the limit!

4. Seek Allies

Gather resources and recruit other educators to help you. Knowledge-based institutions like museums and libraries, and even corporations with a presence in the community may be more willing to help than you imagine!

5. Make a Schedule

Plan out mini-lessons to teach each step of the process. At MoMA, we had the kids create small art projects throughout the week before we gave them their final challenge. And the Thai cooking project required the kids to learn a series of recipes, practice knife skills, and learn about kitchen safety in short, manageable lessons.

I often joke with my colleagues that Boss Level is the best week of my life. You may think I'm exaggerating, but the learning that happens during these challenges is so authentic, liberating, and enjoyable for the kids and teachers that it feels like we've uncovered some crazy secret here at Quest to Learn. But design challenges are educational and accessible for all -- and I hope you feel inspired to try one!

For more inspiration, check out our blog post about the Rube Goldberg Boss Level design challenge, or learn about how Rebecca Grodner's anti-bullying Boss Level became a part of her core curriculum.

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  • Design Thinking
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Game-Based Learning
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)

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