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An entire New York City public school classroom has been transformed into a fantasy cityscape, with skyscrapers made of cardboard boxes. There’s a Statue of Liberty, an Empire State Building, a Flatiron Building, a Lincoln Tunnel, even a Roosevelt Island tram made of string, with a car held on with binder clips. The sixth graders are each dressed in their own interpretation of New York City gear, from a Mets uniform to a CBGBs t-shirt. They reel off a polished and coordinated introduction to the assembly of parents, siblings, teachers and outside judges crowding the room. They explain that the purpose of their construction is to throw away a piece of trash, with the message of keeping their city clean.

Connected learning theory

Then it’s go time. A student “DJ” cues up “Empire State of Mind,” as another student rolls a marble down a ramp. It makes its way down to the “tram” and stalls there for several heart-stopping seconds. “It’s that New York city traffic!” ad-libs one of the kids. Eventually, gravity overcomes friction and the marble propels a tiny Cadillac through the “tunnel,” finally bumping a piece of litter into a wastebasket. Everyone cheers.

Quest to Learn is a New York City public school for the 6th through the 12th grades in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, and it’s unique in the country. Founded in 2009 in partnership with the Gates- and MacArthur-backed nonprofit Institute of Play, the entire school is organized around principles of games and connected learning. The students are constantly challenged to incorporate “21st century literacies” like iteration and systems thinking into their learning, to follow their own interests, to reach beyond the boundaries of the school, and to work together. The school’s ethos reaches its strongest expression for two weeks at the end of each trimester, when the students drop everything for an exercise known as Boss Level. During this two-week intensive, the students work in teams with their “home bases” (similar to homerooms) to incorporate what they have learned over the previous trimester and apply it to solve a new, complex problem.

The Boss Level challenges can range from writing a guidebook to New York City, to making a silent film, to a spring field day full of novel physical challenges. But the introductory Boss Level challenge for sixth graders is traditionally to build a Rube Goldberg machine. That competition is what I’m here to judge this December afternoon.

The student’s machines are built from regular household objects. They must accomplish a given simple task, like popping a balloon or watering a plant. They must incorporate a variety of simple machines, demonstrating knowledge of physics. There are optional creativity points for including a theme, like I Love New York or Winter Wonderland. As I see over the course of the day, teachers step back so the students can take charge. A huge amount of the value comes from the stressful collaborative process of designing, testing, and altering their machines. “We did it with teamwork, communication, and a positive attitude–sometimes,” as one of the I Love New York team members told the crowd.

You probably have a warm memory of immersing in some sort of project or competition like this during your school years, whether during a sport, an extracurricular or even a class. What makes Boss Level different is the time and respect accorded to the experience, and the way students are guided to connect it with the rest of their education. As a MacArthur Foundation case study puts it, “Boss Levels confer academic legitimacy on creative activities that are typically absent or marginalized at conventional schools.”

Connected learning theory

Boss Level offers students many different ways to excel and make a unique contribution. If physics doesn’t grab you, you can take charge of the costumes, or stand outside the classroom and play a Christmas carol on the trumpet to usher in the judges. The choice of the Rube Goldberg machine beautifully reinforces the school’s theme of interconnected systems. In the process of designing and testing the delicate, ad hoc machines the students experience risk and failure–a major theme of the school overall.

But it’s not all just fun and games. There’s a real rigor to the competition. Our team of outside judges included an artist and designer, a contributor to the education site Brainpop, a technology entrepreneur and Quest to Learn Board member, and Neo, a representative from the previous year’s winning sixth-grade team. In part, the novelty of being judged by outside observers helps motivate the students to bring their A-game, and in the judges’ room we took our deliberations very seriously. We found ourselves arguing about the essence of creativity and commitment: should we reward the ambitious teams for trying harder or the “perfect” kids who played it safer? The best Rube Goldbergs have a sense of drama that comes from just barely succeeding. Some overly elaborate constructions fall flat, while other designs function perfectly but at a less-than-thrilling minimum level of complexity. Teams can lose points during the competition if something goes wrong and they don’t try to fix it.

Boss Level in particular, and Quest to Learn in general, tack strongly against the prevailing winds in public schools, where data-driven decisionmaking rules the day, and success is a matter of individual performance as measured on a designated day and time by standardized tests. “Realizing Connected Learning principles in a public school setting is not without its challenges,” as the MacArthur case study says. “For one, Boss Levels can be seen as taking time away from preparing for state tests. While Quest hopes its students will score highly on tests, its students are evaluated against students who attend schools that place greater emphasis on testing. If the school cannot produce competitive test scores, many families will not apply to the school and the Department of Education could force it to change its leadership or even close. Given these realities, Quest is under constant pressure to scale back on less canonical offerings such as Boss Level, and it has had to diminish the number and duration of Boss Levels as it has matured.Parents, too, have pressured the school to focus more on academics. “Additionally, the school has had to educate some parents about the educational value of experiences like Boss Level. Less-privileged families, in particular, have pushed the school to focus more on canonical pedagogic offerings, in part because their children’s options in the NYC school system largely depend on test scores. “

Connected learning theory

According to New York City’s official ratings, Quest to Learn is only a “B” grade school, at the 44th percentile with a “C” for student progress. What’s not captured by these ratings is the school’s palpable sense of joy and camaraderie. The middle school years are the roughest in many ways and the time when many students make binding decisions about their future, whether they’re on a path to college or becoming permanently disillusioned with school. Quest to Learn appears to have cracked the code on inspiring a sense of commitment and focus in its students, a majority of whom are boys, who tend to struggle the most in school.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask Neo, the seventh grader who joins us as a judge. “I was a lost cause,” he says of his school years before Quest to Learn. “I don’t test well. I would freeze up. I probably would have dropped out.” He got interested in Quest to Learn because he loved video games, but through the school he discovered a love of so much more. He wants to become a mechanical engineer and to uncover the mysteries of dark matter. He’s now thinking about applying to Bronx Science, one of the country’s highest-rated public high schools.

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