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Public education: A space of possibility

This article was written by Katie Salen, a professor in the College of Digital Media at Chicago’sDePaul University. Salen is also executive director of the Institute of Play. She spoke at the Sept. 27 “What Matters and What Counts” discussion series breakfast.

When I tell people about the two middle schools I have helped to open, Quest to Learn and ChicagoQuest — schools based on principles of game design and play—the typical first response is, “No way.”

“How is it possible,” they ask, “to design a public school to meet all the state assessment requirements and support 21st century skills like empathy, collaborative problem solving, design thinking, and creativity? There must be rules and requirements that get in your way. How do you find teachers with the right kinds of expertise? How do you support technology integration? How do you cover all that content without teaching to the test?”

While none of these questions come with simple answers I often respond, by drawing on my own background as a game designer. Game designers approach rules much as players do: As constraints to be challenged, pushed against and creatively reconfigured.

One such constraint in public education is that students are required to pass standardized tests. These tests are not designed to measure what students know, exactly, but rather measure what they remember on any given day. But these tests matter because schools (and teachers) are rated based on test scores. So standardized testing represents a pretty serious constraint for anyone involved in the project of public education.

What the constraint of standardized testing doesn’t dictate, however, is how students are supported in learning on the days when the tests aren’t being given. It doesn’t demand that students are taught from textbooks, or that they work individually on drill and skill worksheets, or that they spend hours at home on homework focused on memorizing facts that they have little context for or interest in. It does demand that students cover the material. We have taken this demand as an opportunity to approach teaching and learning in a new way.

Rather than focusing on content as the driver of pedagogy, for example, we support our teachers in defining interesting problems that situate content in challenging contexts for students. “What is power,” asks one of our 7th grade humanities teachers, as she challenges students to disentangle the conflicting truths of American settlers involved in the founding of the 13 colonies.

“Why was 6 afraid of 7?” asks another teacher, in a 10-week math and ELA “mission” that challenges students to learn about sequences, patterns, and graphing by deciphering clues about 6’s whereabouts and movements as he hides from 7. In the course of this game-like challenge students take on the roles of mathematicians and gumshoes to solve the mystery of 6’s whereabouts. To do so they must learn to use knowledge about sequences, divisibility, algorithm construction, area, volume, similarity and conversion between fractions and decimals.

Other very real constraints we’ve faced are technology policies that limit access to web 2.0 tools, any url with the term “game” in it, and budget rules that require x amount of dollars to be spent on outdated textbooks. We embraced these constraints by installing a strange looking learning lab in the schools called SMALLab, which uses consumer grade motion-capture technology. The lab didn’t fit any known description within the DOE technology office (so couldn’t be categorized as something to “block”) and instead captured the imagination of the folks working there, to the point that they wanted to help us figure out how to increase the strength of the school’s wireless signal (big victory!).

SMALLab gave the DOE technology team a challenging and interesting problem of their own to chew on, and gave us an opportunity to share information with them about why we needed certain game and social media urls unblocked and available for use by students. And the money earmarked for textbooks? We advocated (not always successfully) for digital versions of the books that could be updated, and would allow students to use e-readers with annotation, bookmarking, and other embedded web 2.0 tools.

I don’t mean to suggest through these examples that implementation of any of these ideas has been easy—the reality is that every day the schools face a new sort of rule, be it slashed budgets, revised compliance measures, or conflicting political agendas. But our approach has been to challenge these rules creatively (again and again), while simultaneously holding a real respect for the limits of change. We have learned through this work that limitations seed innovation.

In the same way that rigid rules give rise to improvisational play, the constraints of assessment regimes, technology policies, and poor pedagogy contain within them the promise of new possibility.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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