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Quest To Learn: going with the flow

"What if, instead of seeing school the way we’ve known it, we saw it for what our children dreamed it might be: a big, delicious video game?" asks Sara Corbett in a recent New York TImes article that has aroused considerable interest.

In Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom, Corbett describes the Quest To Learn project running in New York schools. A carefully watched educational experiment funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, Quest To Learn provides equipment to schools and enables children to learn through collaborative and individual play and to design games themselves.

Results after two years are mixed, partly because tests do not assess some competences developed in games. "Quest to Learn students who took federally mandated standardized tests last spring scored on average no better and no worse than other sixth graders in their district. Valerie Shute, an assessment specialist in the educational psychology and learning systems department at Florida State University, is working on a MacArthur-financed effort to develop and test new assessment measures for Quest to Learn, which are meant to look at progress in areas like systems thinking, teamwork and time management. The federal government is likewise sponsoring an overhaul of standardized tests to be introduced in the 2014-2015 school year, with added emphasis on “higher order” thinking and problem-solving skills."

Scientists are studying the effect of game-playing on cognitive processes, looking at the science behind focused engagement — a psychological phenomenon known as flow. "Neuroscientists have connected game play to the production of dopamine, a powerful neuro­transmitter central to the brain’s reward-seeking system and thought to drive motivation and memory processing (and more negatively, addictive behaviors)." But there are no simple answers. "Games appear to trigger greater dopamine releases in men than women, which could mean that game-based learning is more effective with boys than girls. Or, it could be a matter of design: ideally, games can be built in such a way that they adapt to the individual learning styles of their players."

Long-term many take the view that game-based learning is a literally a 'game-changer' thanks to its motivating effect: "We will never get to the holy land in terms of educational performance unless we do something about the engagement factor," notes Michael H. Levine, who directs the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. According to Paul Howard-Jones, a neuroscientist at the school of education at the University of Bristol UK, as our understanding of both cognitive science and game design continues to advance, game play will find a central place inside schools. “I think in 30 years’ time,” he says, “we will marvel that we ever tried to deliver a curriculum without gaming.”