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Boss Level: Collaborative Student-Led Learning at Quest to Learn

Rachelle Vallon

Middle School Guidance Counselor and Wellness Coordinator/ Quest to Learn
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Reframing Failure as Iteration Allows Students to Thrive (Transcript)

Boy: A Rube Goldberg machine is complicated for a simple task.

Girl: Boss Level is a week where we work with our home base to complete a project by the end of the week. And we also don't have homework or any other of our usual classes.

Teacher: You walk into a Boss Level classroom, you're not seeing really a classroom. All of the desks and tables are pushed aside. You're seeing a lot of materials of all different sorts that are kind of strewn around. You see a lot of sixth graders either tinkering or in a group brainstorming, possibly sketching. It's a lot of creativity and innovation going on in the space.

Boy: We could do something like this, if we had a hole.

Boy: How about this one?

Girl: They're tiny.

Boy: No, we already have a marble.

Girl: I know.

Boy: Yeah, I fixed them here.

Boy: Wait, wait, wait, wait. To make it look cool--

Teacher: My favorite part about Boss Level is the actual building phase. When kids fail during the creation of Rube Goldberg and then they iterate, they are really learning to take risks.

Girl: Failure is really bad, but I guess if you have a good attitude, then you can always make it what you wanted it to be and not to get frustrated. So failure's not so bad if you know how to fix it.

Boy: Failure reframed as iteration means when you fail, just try again. [music playing]

Kids: Yeeeahhh!!!

What?! What, what... NO, Nooooo!

Teacher: Students really take a lot of ownership for the machines that they create. Their advisor is in the room, but their advisor really is not helping to do any of the building, or even creating. They're really just there as an adult to help facilitate and to make sure that things are going smoothly and safely. So if you walk into a Boss Level classroom, you really see the students as teachers, as learners, as innovators, and they are really helping each other through the iteration process. They are creating this blueprint for their machine in the beginning. They're putting it to the test, they're watching it, they're seeing where the kinks are, where they need to iterate and they are going through this process really on their own. I think that's also a really great thing about the process, to be able to watch students move through this system on their own and actually succeed at it.

Girl: Home base is... I think it might be a little bit like a homeroom.

Teacher: To be able to see students really incorporate things that they learn in home base and model that during the building is really a great process. One of my home base students, who's in eighth grade now, talks all the time about how he feels that Rube Goldberg was what really brought us together as a home base. So it's a really great moment for us.

Boy: Since you have to work together and you spend a lot of time together in a classroom or in a confined space, that you really get to know one another and how one another works.

Boy: If you're doing a Rube Goldberg machine, you need to have a lot of teamwork so that one person isn't just working on the front and like a million people are working on the middle. You need to have an even share of everything.

Teacher: Having gone through the Rube Goldberg process with my own home base, it really proved to be beneficial for many reasons. I mean, not only are they implementing skills that they've learned in the classroom, but as a home base, you really see them bond and really build. You know, they're really kind of stuck in a room for days at a time and they have to really learn how to get along, how to share ideas, how to respect ideas. Teamwork is probably the most important facet of Rube Goldberg building.

Girl: If one person makes one part of the machine and another person makes another part of the machine, if they don't work together, those parts won't work together either and it probably will not complete its goal.

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  • Director / Camera / Editor: JR Sheetz
  • Associate Producer, Edutopia: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video, Edutopia: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Special Thanks: Quest to Learn, Rachelle Vallon and her students

This video was originally produced by Institute of Play, and was made possible through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

What if instruction could actually engage students and get them excited about learning? What if school could foster student creativity and support their expanding imaginations? What if educators around the world had the tools to provide students with the 21st century skills to imagine and create their own futures in our ever-changing global society?

Education innovation is in full creative flower at Quest to Learn, a New York City public middle and high school. As the Guidance Counselor and Wellness Coordinator, I support the groundbreaking and effective teaching and learning that takes place here, nurturing social and emotional learning (SEL) as well as 21st century skills like inventiveness, risk taking and collaboration.

Developed in partnership with non-profit design studio Institute of Play, Quest to Learn has used research in game-based learning to create a rigorous and engaging collaborative learning space where students feel safe taking risks and using their successes and failures to create and apply new knowledge. Q2L students succeed academically not just because they are learning from teachers, but because they are learning from each other and, more importantly, taking charge of their own learning.

Students working on a Rube Goldberg machine.

Standards and skills give students the tools to be active participants in their own learning. The application of acquired knowledge in a creative space keeps them engaged and empowers them to take ownership of their learning. At Q2L, one of our best creative learning spaces is known as Boss Level.

Welcome to the Machine

Boss Level is an informal creative learning structure where students create and execute a complex project that requires them to apply the knowledge they have gained over a trimester. They incorporate skills and concepts related to Common Core, SEL and 21st Century Skills areas, which creates opportunities for teachers to assess some otherwise difficult-to-assess skills. For two weeks at the end of every trimester, normal classes are suspended while the whole school participates in the Boss Level design challenge, and students effectively become experts, teachers and learners in a complex problem-solving space.

Boss Level challenges vary for each grade, based on content and skills emphasized through the previous trimester. As new members of the school community, sixth graders participate in a Boss Level design challenge that tests not only their academic knowledge, but also their teamwork and creative problem-solving skills. In Decembers past, sixth grade students have been tasked to build a Rube Goldberg machine -- a complex system made up of several parts that can successfully complete a simple task. To foster collaboration and teambuilding, sixth grade students experience Boss Level in advisory groups known as Home Base, small groups of 12-15 students that meet with an advisor four times a week throughout the year to work on SEL skills.

In week one of the sixth grade Boss Level, students participate in electives or "strands" that provide them with the tools to work collaboratively to build a machine. For example, a teamwork strand teaches students the components of successful collaboration and allows them to playtest and assess their group work skills, creating norms around working together. In week two, they start designing and building. The Rube Goldberg project culminates in a presentation of machines, attended by the broader school community including family, friends and "celebrity" guest judges. Home Bases are judged on various academic criteria and are acknowledged for overall success of the machine, creativity and teamwork.

From Learner to Leader

Academically, the Rube Goldberg challenge speaks to the science concepts learned from September through December. Each Home Base's machine must include simple components such as inclined planes, wheels and axles, levers and pulleys. SEL and 21st century skills learned throughout the trimester are also assessed throughout the building phase. Home Bases must work together, learn to receive and implement feedback, and self-regulate emotions.

The term "Boss Level," by definition, is the culminating challenge in a video game where the player must use all the skills he or she has acquired to solve the complex problem ahead, or "beat the Boss." At Quest to Learn, Boss Level is more about "being the boss," as it signals a clear transition from learner to leader. This is the point at which students take the figurative wheel of the classroom and demonstrate all they've learned by creating, testing, iterating and completing one comprehensive and creative embedded assessment.

As a member of our sixth grade staff, I am rewarded every year with seeing Boss Level come to life in all the Home Bases. Students who are introverted and soft-spoken find their voice in creating and contributing ideas. Headstrong and over-eager students learn through practice that part of being a leader is allowing others to lead. Most importantly, groups of students who normally would not gravitate towards each other build relationships with one another and leave the project sharing a major academic success.

Creating a Boss Level-style project in your own classroom requires a little creative planning, a lot of building materials, and the willingness to stand back and let the students take control with an often-chaotic design process. But it will leave you with one of the most rewarding feelings as an educator -- being able to let go of the reins and watch your students take ownership of what you have taught them as they bring it to life through applied creativity, collaboration and problem-solving skills.

How have you seen your students flower with these 21st century skills?

Intrigued by game-based learning, but not sure where to begin? Edutopia's new Made With Play series takes a look at game-like learning principles in action and commercial games in real classrooms -- and offers tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice. Get more resources for game-based learning here.

Videos made possible through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Made With Play series is a co-production with Institute of Play.

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Made with Play: Using Games for Learning
Game-like learning principles in action, commercial games in real classrooms, and tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

This sounds so similar to what we do in the Critical Skills Classroom (! I love anything that gets kids moving, thinking, applying and creating! Thanks for sharing this- I can't wait to pass it along.

Terry's picture
Special Education Math Teacher at Point Pleasant Junior Senior High School

As you can tell from my information above, I am a Special Education Math teacher for High School. I have been teaching for four years now and I am very interested in Q2L. I am experiencing apathetic students in my room and no matter what i do, they remain unengaged. I want to change the climate in my room... any suggestions?
Is Q2L a subscription type of curriculum? Can one class do this or a group of classes? I have tried Carnegie and was not impressed with the results and how difficult it was for Special Education students.

Ashley Cronin's picture
Ashley Cronin
Digital Resource Curator

Terry, you might want to check out some of the Resources for Educators available from Institute of Play. There's info there about the design and development of Quest Schools and some pieces within their Q design packs that may help you think about how to bring game-like learning principles into your classroom.

Chuck Meinert's picture

Boss Level: Collaborative Student-Led Learning at Quest to Learn
My critique of this video and article is as follows. It shows how engaged a student can become when they are allowed to set their own boundaries and goals. The students learned many principles of physics by building their Rube Goldberg machine. At the same time they also learned that teamwork is important. It showed clearly that Boss level students can make the transition from learner to leader. If a teacher wants to implement this into their classroom they must be aware that they must stand back and let the Boss student do his thing.

judyd123's picture

Boss Level program gives students more ownership over their learning. They have projects they create and learn through experimentation and play. This is not new approach.

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