Online Education

In New York, a college the place every part is taught via the sport

“Do you have an emotional support dog?” Attending a Zoom session for parents of prospective Quest to Learn (Q2L) students, we really didn’t expect this kind of questions. And yet the father asked it. And Rachel Vallon, educational consultant, kindly answered it. In mode “we don’t have it yet, but we made a request”. But the main thing is different. Because this public school in Manhattan, in the heart of Chelsea, close to the High Line, has something unique: the game is used as a learning model. And it is precisely this specificity that attracted about thirty curious parents one November evening for a virtual visit behind their screen, Covid obliges.

“Try again and you will succeed”

So in Q2L, everything goes through the game: students (10-16 years old) learn by playing (or playing while learning), creating video games in the classroom, testing their ideas and limitations. Goal: To learn subjects and skills in a fun, creative and stimulating way. But above all, gain experience and develop systems thinking that can be useful to them in the future.


Games encourage collaborative problem solving. | Q2L

Games encourage collaborative thinking, persistence, problem solving, learning to anticipate difficulties or even solve problems. Who has never, in a video game or more classic games, experienced the frustration of always stumbling in the same place, with that almost obsessive desire to get beyond that stage and finally the feeling of victory once the step is taken? “Unlike traditional education systems, failure is an integral and necessary part of the game. They create a context that motivates learners to try again and succeed.”insists Rachel Vallon.

Parents listen diligently behind their screens, sometimes accompanied by a child. A little blond-haired boy makes faces and nibbles greedily on peanuts. Show must go on. The Zoom session also started with a mindfulness meditation exercise. Rachel Vallon’s mission is to help people understand how Q2L is different from other schools. She analyzes the strengths of games, the importance given to storytelling, and talks about “learning revolution”. It features short videos taken in a classroom where nothing is left to chance. Prior to the selection of the lyrics, it was used: “Express yourself! Whatever you do, do it well.» (Express yourself! Whatever you do, do it well.)

Play different roles

Children often do not need special instructions to play. There is this intuitive side that prevails. At Q2L, you learn by doing. It was this training that the teachers of the school put forward. Games also provide a more personalized learning experience that adapts to students’ possible difficulties and leaves them free to progress at their own pace.

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At Q2L, children learn by doing. | Q2L

“In games, children are often asked to play a role. For example, in Monopoly, it will be a real estate agent. Therefore, they acquire a variety of skills that will be useful to them in everyday life., continues Rachel Vallon. In Q2L, video games take pride of place. But board games, card games or role-playing games also have a place to be.

The school program itself is built like a game, each lesson has its own tasks and strategies. We don’t teach “geography” or “English” here. And here, for example, “Point of view” (point of view), which combines English and multimedia. Or How Things Work for math and science. At the end of each session, there is a “Boss Level”, which corresponds to the final exams, but also borrows its name from the world of video games.

On Zoom that night, Joshua Kahan, who teaches How Things Work in small groups, was in attendance to inspire parents to entrust their children to Q2L. He gave a very simple example of a game*. “Recently, I showed my students a video of a man who was trying to break the record for the most applause in one minute (the current record is 1103, set by an American in 2018 — ed.). But I showed them only a fragment. Together they must have thought about how to conclude whether this person won his bet or not.

Fictional city management

The older the students, the harder the riddles become. One class, for example, experienced Creepytown, an imaginary city where students develop the theme of travel by mastering several subjects. They learned how to budget, convert currencies… and after a few weeks of playing, they faced the city’s bankruptcy due to poor financial management. They had to analyze the reasons for their failure. But above all, find a solution to revive Creepytown and find new sources of income. Others have cloned dinosaurs for a fictional biotech company on a mission to find a viable ecosystem. A way to link genetics, biology and ecology.

Of course, not every child is made for such a school. Conversely, students who struggle in the regular curriculum may suddenly succeed in Q2L through an environment that will be more stimulating. Here is what Cathy Salen Tekinbas, one of the co-founders of Q2L notes: “We responded to a need that we saw… young people were removed from school.” The quote is highlighted on the institution’s website.

For Cathy Salen Tekinbas, the main idea after learning how games work and how they promote learning was to ask if a school could be built in the same way. So Q2L was born in 2009, thanks to the initiative of its Game Institute (which no longer exists as of 2019, editor’s note) and the Parsons School of Design, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education. In the first academic year 2009-2010, she had only one class with 76 students. Until 2015, he added a new one every year. Among the financial backers – a million dollars at the start – the MacArthur Foundation, Intel, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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In Q2L, video games take pride of place. But board games, card games or role-playing games also have a place to be. | Q2L

Cathy Salen Tekinbas was Q2L’s first manager but is no longer associated with her. A professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine and co-founder of Connected Camps, an online learning platform created by young Minecraft experts, she is a video game enthusiast and designer with a primary interest in games. and its potential for transformation. A reference book in the field of “game studies”, from which many specialized works have been written. A study of the Q2L model was also published in 2011. His mentor is James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003).

Moderation required

Since the time of James Paul Gee, several researchers have emphasized the benefits of learning through play. For example, a 2016 Columbia University study shows that young children who play video games have better academic results, but also better cognitive performance than others. They will also present fewer behavioral and relationship problems. This should reassure parents who worry about their kids spending hours in front of a screen or game console.

The study, published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, is based on a sample of 3,195 European children aged 6 to 11. About 20% played more than five hours a week. However, the researchers caution against overinterpreting the results: student success also depends on the ability of parents to know how to moderate access to games, for example by setting limits on screen use. A 2015 report by the American Federation of Behavioral and Mental Science Associations also links video games to improved concentration, thinking, and cognitive function. And in the article the author Wired published in 2014 on the power of Minecraft, Hannah Gerber, a literacy researcher, noted, for example, that some students only spend 10 minutes reading in English classes but 70 minutes playing games at home.

Oregon trail example

“There is a large literature on the benefits of games in the educational field.comments from Lausanne by Yannick Rocha, co-founder of GameLab UNIL-EPFL. Video games were often in the 1970s and 1980s the first reason for using the computer and therefore the gateway to the discovery of computing. As soon as they appeared, they were present in most schools in developed countries, often before they entered homes.

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The New York school boasts of being special (even if it has a younger sister in Chicago), but remains relatively low-key. | Q2L

Yannick Rocha is unfamiliar with Q2L, but confirms that Cathy Salen is a reference researcher in “game research”. He notes that the sandbox aspect is an interesting component of video games. They often allow you to test things, measure the impact of certain decisions. But he insists that good moderation is necessary for the training to take place correctly. Yannick Rocha is currently leading a project, partly funded by the Swiss National Research Foundation, which offers lessons to upper secondary and vocational school students in the canton of Vaud (15-20 years old) using video games as teaching material.

He remembers an example Oregon trail, a pioneer in educational video games that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Conceived in late 1971 by three young Minnesota teachers to improve history lessons and tell the story of settler migration between Missouri and Oregon in the mid-19th century, it was a great success in United States schools, especially until the 1990s. “You will be very hard to find an American in their 30s and 50s who hasn’t played in a class there”– slips Yannick Rocha. Principle? Ensure the survival of the pioneers over 3,200 kilometers by taking care of convoys that must endure all sorts of disasters, from dysentery to epidemics and rattlesnake bites. The game has been re-released and improved several times.

Thus, the concept of Q2L, in which teachers and game designers work hand in hand, did not arise from scratch. But she’s maxed out as everything goes through the game. The New York school boasts its own identity (even if it has a younger sister in Chicago), it remains relatively low-key and apparently reluctant to increase its media presence. It must be said that he went through some areas of turbulence, in particular with changes in his leadership. But each year, Q2L continues to receive between 250 and 300 new registration requests per 100 seats, says Rachel Vallon. Currently, the school has about 500 students. And soon, perhaps, a dog that will serve as emotional support.

  • The report was prepared with the support of Movetia, the national agency for the development of exchanges, cooperation and mobility in the education system.

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