New charter school in Goose Island will focus on a digital curriculum

Gaming the system

07/13/2011 10:00 PM

Medill News Service

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Game on — for a grade.

This September, a new charter school called ChicagoQuest will open at 1443 N. Ogden Ave. in Goose Island and challenge kids to play more games as a core component of the curriculum, which also includes game creation.

Parents worry that their kids play too many video games. Even U.S. President Barack Obama has cited Xboxes and PlayStations as distractions when it comes time to do homework. Games can, however, be an invaluable tool inside and outside of the classroom.

“We want a curriculum that creates in students a need to know,” said Sybil Madison-Boyd, ChicagoQuest Schools director of education and leadership.

Chicago International Charter School will operate ChicagoQuest and the ChicagoQuest program, which will be tuition-free within the Chicago Public Schools system.

Madison-Boyd emphasized that video games will not be the only gaming component of day-to-day learning at the school, where the classes will be modeled off of lesson plans currently in place at an affiliated school, Quest to Learn, in Manhattan.

“Games are just complicated systems,” she said.

By teaching students to reverse engineer puzzles via board games and computer games, ChicagoQuest will initially work with sixth and seventh graders to develop drafting, revising and presentation skills as they learn traditional math, science, language and social studies material.

Class names may sound unfamiliar to parents, however. At Quest to Learn, for instance, math and science are taught under the heading “The Way Things Work.” Game design is called “Sports for the Mind,” and social studies and English appear under the heading “Being, Space and Place.”

“The titles for the courses are intended to communicate that this is an integrated curriculum,” Madison-Boyd explained. “We want kids and parents to understand the connections.”

Meanwhile, the classroom technologies will include some more recognizable, modern tools. Laptop carts and interactive whiteboards will be used. Google Docs and other software will facilitate collaborative blog writing and podcasting, and one lesson plan used Quest to Learn even tasks students with designing a new rollercoaster for a theme park.

Eventually, ChicagoQuest Schools hopes to expand to encompass two other schools in the city, said Katherine Floyd, Chicago International Charter School communications manager.

In the near term, the company will be racing against the clock to refurbish and prepare its North Ogden Avenue space, which The Ogden International School occupied last year before leaving for a new campus downtown.

Aside from video game savviness that many kids already command by sixth grade, gaming and game design-oriented teaching strategies can aid the learning process. And interest in game design a teaching tool is gaining steam nationwide.

“It’s growing,” said Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy in Bloomington, Ind. He worries that confidence in gaming technology could lead to kids being blamed if new programs are not successful, but thinks that they can be valuable in tandem with other engagement approaches.

When games replace traditional instruction with interactive models, especially in subjects such as science, students can learn through trial and error, according to educational researcher Michele Dickey, Miami University assistant professor of instructional design and technology.

“Putting students in these environments can allow for a lot of exploration,” she said. “That’s a very positive benefit.”

She stressed that competitive aspects of gaming culture can be problematic, though, and that teachers should focus on engagement over fun. Psychologist Fran Blumberg also said that engagement is key. Having looked at sixth and seventh graders’ cognitive and perceptual skills while gaming, she said that children can bring certain expectations to educational games.

“Kids do have expectations for what games should look like,” said Blumberg, an assistant professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education in New York City. “Another key factor that is emerging in the educational technology is the extent to which the teacher and the students buy into the specific games that are used in the instructional setting. Specifically, do they see the educational value of the games used?”

ChicagoQuest’s curriculum, just like that of other Illinois schools, will also need to prepare students for standardized tests.

“Another issue pertains to whether what is learned in the context of the games to be used will transfer to more traditional academic tasks such the standardized tests,” Blumberg said.

Madison-Boyd believed that strategies adopted by Quest to Learn in New York will carry over to Illinois, though.

“The New York standards are not that far off [compared with Illinois] and are probably a little bit stronger,” she said.

The ultimate test will come during the 2011-12 school year, though. Then, Chicagoans will find out if the experiment can advance to the next level.

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