Repsonse to the New York Times Magazine’s “Quest to Learn” article

We’ve come a long way.

The New York Times Magazine for September 19 has a lengthy article (“Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom”) about New York City’s Quest to Learn school, an experimental public secondary school that organizes learning around games and other 21st century literacies. The school was founded by our colleague Katie Salen of the New School’s Parson School of Design. (An article on learning games that Katie co-authored with Eric Klopfer and me can be found here.)

The Times article does a nice job of describing the school’s approach, which I won’t summarize in this short piece. Of interest here rather is what the tenor of this article says about the progress that’s been made over the last few years in the use of games in education. While the article is even-handed in presenting some counter-arguments to the value of game-based-learning, it strikingly doesn’t bend over backwards to engage the most vociferous naysayers but rather addresses an audience that is presumed to be open-minded about the approach. It speaks to a moment when a growing number of citizens are ready to replace the current outmoded factory school with something better, though there is still confusion and disagreement about what should come next. It is a moment that seems ripe with possibilities.

If the article has a short-coming, it is that it undersells the long history of education reform efforts that brought us to this moment. If one doesn’t read it carefully, one might assume that the purpose of games in education is to keep kids engaged (i.e., to bribe them to learn), or at best, to teach them wholly new 21st century skills. What is missing is the insight that play and exploration have always been the way we construct new ideas and concepts and that building such a scaffold of interconnected ideas has always been the source of our deepest knowledge and wisdom. This approach to learning does not just apply to generic cognitive skills such as problem-solving but also applies to what we traditionally view as academic disciplines such as math, science, and history. Successful practitioners in these areas have always engaged in playful and inspired ways of thinking and learning that look nothing like the rote memorization and repetition we call “school.”

Games may therefore be new and innovative in the context of formal schooling, but the kind of learning we hope to foster is what has fueled human advancement throughout history. That is a case that we in this field must make more forcefully.

Scot Osterweil

About Scot Osterweil

Scot Osterweil is Creative Director of the Education Arcade. He has designed award-winning games in both academic and commercial environments, focusing on what is authentically playful in challenging academic subjects. Designs include the acclaimed Zoombinis series (math and logic), Vanished: The MIT/Smithsonian Curated Game (environmental science), Labyrinth (math), Kids Survey Network (data and statistics), Caduceus (medicine), and iCue (history). He is a founder and Creative Director of Learning Games Network, where he leads the Gates Foundation’s Language Learning Initiative (ESL), and where he designed Quandary, named Game of the Year at the 2013 Games 4 Change festival.