George Lucas Educational Foundation

Katie Salen on the Power of Game-Based Learning (Big Thinkers Series)

Katie Salen, executive director of nonprofit design studio Institute of Play, offers a look inside the ground-breaking school in New York City that she co-founded, Quest to Learn. The school uses core principles of game design as a framework to help students become lifelong learners and design thinkers.
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Katie Salen on the Power of Game-Based Learning (Transcript)

Student: It's really cool school. I've never gone to a school quite like it.

Student: Well, we get to design games and play each other's games, so instead of just doing work, work, work all day.

Student: Well, we have the basic classes of a school, but we gave them different names, like math is called Code World. Science is the Way Things Work.

Student: We learn everything that all the other schools learn. We just learn it differently.

Katie Salen: My name's Katie Salen and I wear a couple of different hats. One, I'm a professor at Parsons, the New School of Design and I teach in a program there called Designing Technology. I also run a nonprofit called the Institute of Play, which is a games and learning space where we develop all kinds of stuff around games and learning. And then my last hat is, I'm an executive director of design at this new middle school called Quest to Learn in New York City.

Quest to Learn is a new sixth grade through twelfth grade public school that opened in New York City in Fall 2009, and it's a school that has the tagline, school for digital kids. And all that means is that we believe that kids can and do learn in different ways outside of school, often via access to digital media and access to kind of online community support. And that if we know that learning outside of school matters a great deal to kids' ability to learn well in school, we have to pay attention to that.

So it's a school that from the ground up has been designed to leverage the kind of digital lives of kids, and it also looks at the notion of how games work as learning systems, and it's developed a pedagogical approach that delivers what we call game-like learning. And all that means is that kids are dropped into complex challenge based context, that they have no ability to solve at the beginning of ten weeks. And then that ten week structure, what we call a mission, is broken down into a series of smaller challenges, that scaffold and really engage that kid in learning how to do something that will allow them to solve that complex problem.

Teacher: In watching these games, you realize the reason why these games are so popular, is they're so carefully balanced between offense and defense. There's so many choices, there's so many challenges.

We're trying to prove that game design can help kids think deeper and more abstractly about everything else. And that we feel that the thing about game design is that that's this generation's mode of discourse. It's a fully mainstreamed art form, just like cinema is, but a hundred years ago, you couldn't study cinema in a school. Now every school has a cinematography class, and game design has now reached a sort of mainstream acceptance. It's how kids socialize, by playing games.

Katie: A lot of concerns that parents have when we start talking about games is a concern around competition, and a concern around notions of kind of incentives and rewards. And what they get worried about is, "Oh, there's this game stuff where kids get addicted and all they wanna do is get better, better, better." And so we've tried to strike a balance with that to say that, "Well, what's really awesome about that is that kids are driven to get better." And one thing games do do very, very well, is they understand how to incentivize players to want to get better.

Student: And then you have two goals, but one of them is impossible to get to.

Teacher: Okay.

Student: My game has two goals that are both possible to get to.

Katie: So the way that our curriculum is structured in mission and quest based, so it actually builds on that trope from online gaming. And the idea is that quests actually get harder as you move through them, because you're actually developing tools and developing knowledge and developing experiences. And the goal is that you actually can't move to a quest until you've completed one prior. They're proceeding through some kind of challenge and they're getting closer to some kind of end goal, and we have found that that's very motivating for kids, that they know where they're at, they know how far they've come and they know what they need to work on.

Student: Game design is not just sitting in front of a computer and creating a game where somebody runs around collecting coins or something. Game design is all about trial and error and figuring out all these things that would make a good game.

Katie: Two of the big ideas that kids have been working on all year, one is ideas of teamwork and collaboration, which we think is a central skill in the twenty-first century. Being able to not only work together with somebody, but to have a specific expertise and being able to talk with someone about that, share with someone about that, and kind of co-build something together. The second idea is around this idea of multi-modality, of kids being able to read and encounter text and stories and image making in a lot of different kinds of mediums.

This trimester in the Sports for the Mind class, which is one of the central systems thinking classes, where kids are making games as a way to learn about systems, we decided to work on a kind of translation project. So they're studying a story, studying Aesop's fables, and they're looking at, what does it take the translate the components of a story into a live, three D game environment? And so we're moving from things like a static page, into an environment where the kids have created and costumed characters, they've built sets. And then the final exhibition is, the kids will, in this three D game, perform this story live. So it's a little bit like a virtual theater performance of a story that has come from a kind of oral tradition of storytelling, moved to a printed page, moved to a kind of graphic novel format, now into a three D game environment.

We think that design thinking is actually a way of looking at the world. It's a way of looking at the world as someone who is active in thinking about how to solve problems, is active in kind of analyzing and understand how things work, and we think that's a great stance to have, to look at the world generally. So we believe these kids are gonna grow up through work in our school as design thinkers. That doesn't mean that they're all gonna go on to be designers in professional lives. We would imagine and love that some of those kids will step into roles as wanting to be scientists, wanting to be writers, wanting to be musicians, you know, wanting to be whatever. But they still will have this perspective on how they look at the world, and that will inform any discipline that they go into.

Well, I think at the kind of heart of everything we're doing is, we're trying to help kids understand how to be in charge of their own learning, and continue to grow as learners across their whole life, because we just understand that's critically important these days. These kids are not gonna graduate, enter a job and be in that job for the rest of their lives. They're gonna need to be able to adapt. They're gonna have to learn new things constantly. And so that's the type of learner that we're looking to graduate.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography: Drea Cooper
  • Editor: Drea Cooper
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

This video was originally produced by Mobile Digital Arts for the New Learning Institute, from the Pearson Foundation.

Big Thinkers Video Series

Some of the most compelling visionaries in the world -- from Sir Ken Robinson to Jane Goodall to Martin Scorsese -- are focusing their attention on how to improve education. From innovative classroom concepts to suggestions on how to foster creativity and collaboration, they share their valuable insights for teaching and learning and illuminate new solutions to old problems.

Get inspired by their big ideas.

More Edutopia Coverage on Game-Based Learning:

The New York-based Quest to Learn school has continued to grow and evolve since its founding in 2009, and now the model is being remixed in Chicago at ChicagoQuest. Katie Salen continues her work with both schools as executive director of the Institute of Play. Institute of Play also offers a great page with resources for educators about game-based learning. In addition, Katie has since moved on from Parsons the New School for Design to become a professor in the School of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University in Chicago. Keep up to date with Katie Salen and Institute of Play on Twitter.

Visit the Big Thinkers series page to see more videos.

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