NEW YORK — One morning, just before classes at New York City’s Quest to Learn Middle School broke for lunch, Etai Kurtzman found himself transformed into a lemon tree.
It was a warm day in late April, and his chatty sixth-grade class had been corralled from a narrow hallway into a classroom at the end of a short hall. Etai, tall and lanky, lugged a gray backpack to a desk that had been pushed up against a wall.
Each student had been cast for a role-playing game either as a honeybee sent out from the hive or as a plant. In a flurry of organized chaos, the students simulated the pollination process: student honey bees, wearing pipe-cleaner antennae, approached classmates pretending to be plants and received small, colored building blocks. When a plant ran out of blocks, it meant their flowers had been pollinated. But the bees had to be careful: some of the plants randomly gave them white blocks, which represented pesticides and caused the bees to die.
Their teacher, Kate Selkirk, was using this game as a starting point for an eight-week unit on math concepts — data analysis and graphing, proportions, probability and slope. But what does a beehive or a lemon tree have to do with any of that?
The designers behind Quest to Learn believe that student engagement is so significantly enhanced by narrative role-play, analog games and digital games that every subject — from health to math — begins or ends with a game.
Listen to Quest to Learn students on their school trip to Coney Island
A lesson about power and privilege, for example, might begin with a card game in which some players are deliberately and arbitrarily more disadvantaged than others. This type of simulation creates real empathy, which helps to make abstract concepts more concrete — and boosts engagement as a result.
But while blended learning — a mix of teacher-led and computerized instruction — is proliferating across the country, schools that wholeheartedly embrace games-based learning remain rare.
“There are a very small number of schools that really try to redesign the school around games-based learning,” said Justin Leites, vice-president of Amplify Learning, a company that makes digital education games. One of the biggest challenges, he says, is bringing games into schools that are bogged down by accountability demands—often ones that rely heavily on standardized testing. Attempts to use games as assessments ruin the playful experiences that make them an effective learning tool, he said. And designing good games is no easy task.
“It’s very hard to design a good game of any sort,” he said. “And a really good learning experience, that’s even harder.” The training teachers need to design strong games for the classroom takes time and money—a hard sell at schools strapped for cash and resources.
But this type of classroom, while unusual, makes perfect sense to Etai and his classmates. At the core of gaming is the concept of a challenge, and a player’s journey to meet it. That makes perfect sense inside a school building, Etai told me.
“It’s not competitive,” he said. “It’s more about ‘let’s figure it out.’”
Quest to Learn is housed in the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, a massive brick fortress that is home to six schools on West 18th Street in Chelsea. The overlapping schedules of each school create a steady echo of activity in the hallways: a couple of teens who showed up late for school explaining themselves to a school safety officer, teachers ushering wayward kids into classrooms, the sharp beeping of the heavy service elevators.
On that day in late April, the new unit in Etai’s “Codeworlds” math class was built around a narrative about a restless honey bee named Buzz, who leaves the monotony of the hive in search of real fun. The obvious metaphor for bored kids stuck inside a stuffy school building all day immediately seemed to resonate with the class.
The “roll out,” as it’s known in Quest lingo, was intended to get the class invested in the plight of Buzz. The actual math concepts would be delivered as the class returned again and again to this character.
In Etai’s old school, P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, these concepts would likely have been taught through daily lessons and note-taking. There were no games or role-playing. There were workbooks and worksheets.
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“I definitely learned a lot, but it was not as fun, not as interesting,” he said.
Mor Armony-Kurtzman, Etai’s mother, said he rarely talked about school while at P.S. 41. “I expected that when he got to middle school, we’d start hearing [even] less about school,” she said. “It’s the exact opposite.”
When I visited his class again, during lunch one day early in May, Etai munched on mini bagels slathered in cream cheese while he taught me to play a dice game.
The game, called Skunk, was a primer for a lesson in probability. Students roll dice to earn points. You can roll the dice as many times as you want through each of five rounds, but if you roll a one on either die, you earn no points. And a roll of double ones erases all your points. When I asked Etai what the purpose was, he said that he was supposed to learn about the relationship between choice and chance. These two concepts later helped him understand how calculating probability could help him make a decision about whether or not to take a risk.
For Etai, it is easy to find places in his life outside school where probability matters. In games he plays for fun, like Monopoly and another board game called Settlers of Catan, players make strategic decisions that can be more expertly executed if they understand the probability of rolling a particular combination of numbers on the dice.
In Settlers of Catan, Etai explained, players choose which parts of an imaginary new world to settle. Different types of terrain come paired with different numbers.
“In that game, you strategize where you place pieces based on the likelihood of numbers you’ll roll,” he said. “I never took into account the number of choices, the possibilities when rolling the dice. I thought the numbers were there just because. Now I know.”
And suddenly, the bee role-playing game that he had participated in weeks earlier also made sense. “I realized that the activity actually had something to do with probability, because there were only three white blocks,” he said.
This sort of indirect entry into a Common Core standard — in which students are supposed to realize the usefulness of a concept before they learn how to use it — is at the root of all teaching instruction at Quest, according to Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, the director of professional development for the Institute of Play, which promotes gaming in schools and designed Quest to Learn. The old mantra that demands kids work before they play doesn’t apply. Here, playing enables the learning. But the two cannot exist in isolation. Traditional learning must still happen to help students master standards.
“A game can’t do everything, and that’s a mistake we often see,” said Rufo-Tepper. “The game has a very specific role.”
In Skunk, that role was to get kids thinking about how and when they can use choice to beat chance. Only then were the kids ready — eager, even — to learn how to mathematically calculate the likelihood of rolling any particular combination on the dice.
The games demonstrate to the kids why the skills they’ll soon learn matter beyond tests and grades. Teachers then move on to use more traditional, straightforward teaching practices. Warm-up and group activities and quizzes appear regularly in Etai’s class, sometimes to help settle the kids after a rowdy lunch period.
In the sticky May humidity, Selkirk wrote definitions on the whiteboard with a squeaky black marker while the class fidgeted and copied them down. Video lessons, worksheets and group work followed.
These are, after all, sixth-graders. “There is a routine, a regular structure,” Selkirk said. “You can’t abandon traditional teaching practices. It’s not ‘Play a game and you’re never going to have to demonstrate that you’ve learned anything.’”
After playing Skunk, the kids had two days of more straightforward math lessons. They charted all the potential combinations they could roll on two dice to help them visualize how probable it was to roll any particular combination. They practiced expressing probability in fractions, in their notebooks and on worksheets. That learning was then reinforced with yet another game, called Caterpillar.
In Caterpillar, students used their knowledge of how likely it is to roll a specific dice combination to place blocks, called mushrooms, on a plastic game board. Etai’s favorite parts of this game? Doing the math quickly. Strategizing. And winning as a result.
And then it was time for the quiz.
Etai peered at the screen of a silver MacBook laptop, his notebook open on the desk next to him. He moved quickly through the multiple-choice questions, including one very confusing-looking chart full of fractions; he told me that it was a frequency chart. He scanned it, considered his options and paused. Click. Swipe. Remembering the chart he’d completed with his class a few days earlier, he answered all but one of the questions correctly.
But the class average score on the probability quiz was just 76 percent, a reflection of the sometimes-difficult task of getting kids to use game strategies when no games are present.
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And yet, middle schoolers at Quest perform well on state standardized tests. For example, in 2013, the school reports, 56 percent of Quest middle school students scored higher than their citywide peers on the statewide English language arts test. Richard Arum, an education researcher based at New York University, is working with the school to study its efficiency by tracking things like student test scores over time. But administrators stress that test scores are not the primary clue that a school is working. The games teach students how to think and how to design their own learning opportunities—skills not easily measured on a test.
By May 20, Buzz, the honeybee who fled the hive, had tried new food at a picnic (a lesson in proportions and bar graphs) and evaded the Queen Bee’s scheme to lure him back. The class had created line graphs and histograms, and had also learned about how bees see color differently from humans.
At the beginning of one lesson, Etai worked on a crossword puzzle filled with algebraic terms like “linear,” “absolute” and “y-axis.” I asked why he thought they were reviewing the terms, and what this had to do with Buzz. “In the beginning of the year, we learned about coordinates, so I think this may eventually get into that,” he said.
For the rest of the period, he sat hunched over a table with his classmates Alex, Sydney and Kevin. Linear equations flashed on a laptop screen. The game, called Get to the Point, required them to solve equations and plot all the possible coordinates on an oversized plastic graph. For example, “If x+y = 6” appears, the players put cubes on all the potential answers. It was a fast-moving game, but Etai seemed less concerned with winning than with getting the problems right.
They used quick mental math, their pens and notebooks banished to the corners of the desk, until one problem stumped them. “The product of x and y is positive or negative 12” flashed across the screen. Etai and Sydney reached for their pencils while the others worked through the math out loud, brows furrowed.
I stood by, the most confused in the bunch, while the boys tentatively placed blocks on the board, looking for validation in one another’s eyes. Kevin and Etai placed their last pieces on the board and peered at each other. “Are we done?” one boy asked.
As it turns out, they weren’t. An answer key on the laptop revealed that they’d forgotten one coordinate — grounds for lost points, according to the rules of the game. The next few minutes were spent arguing over who exactly would lose the point. And then they clicked to the next challenge.
In two years, Etai will start the high school application rat race in New York City. While Quest does extend to high school, whether Etai will stick around that long remains to be seen.
His parents say the games have made him a risk-taker, unaffected by the frustration he often felt in elementary school if something didn’t work the first time. It was not until he got to Quest that he realized just how good he was at math, said Armony-Kurtzman.
But some parents worry that if their children leave Quest for a more conventional classroom, the absence of games could be detrimental to their learning.
Anita Ramsey, whose daughter Mia is in Etai’s class, said her daughter used to be shy and reluctant to participate in class. Now she raises her hand frequently and comes home energized about her schoolwork. Ramsey worries that a return to rote memorization might push her daughter back into her shell, putting her at a disadvantage.
In 2014, according to Rufo-Tepper, 52 percent of Quest eighth-graders returned for ninth grade, while a sizeable 28 percent went to selective or specialized high schools around the city, a sign that the model is working well so far. Although 20 percent of students left after middle school, that is partly attributable to the fact that Quest to Learn has no track record yet for high school (it will graduate its first senior class next year).
Selkirk said narratives like the one about Buzz the bee teach her students creativity and problem-solving. “Those are skills that will lead them to be successful in any classroom,” she said.
Etai agrees. When I asked him if he thought that growing accustomed to learning with games would make high school harder if he left Quest, the answer was a definitive no. And for high school, he has no doubt he’ll be at least as prepared as anyone else — no matter what kind of school he attends.
At the end of May, the sixth-grade class left the bubble of their school. They’d spent three humid days drudging through lessons about slope — where to find it and how to calculate it. Now Buzz was on the hunt for something fun to do.
A long, noisy subway ride dropped them off at Brooklyn’s Coney Island for a good old-fashioned field trip. Chaperones ran after Etai and crew as they zipped on and off of rides at Luna Park. The students huddled together to answer questions from a handout about how they’d experienced slope in real time on the rides, and about how the games they had played illustrated probability and other terms they’d learned.
After a ride on a bumpy red roller coaster that dipped up and down and spun around sharp corners, Etai crouched near the exit and pulled out a pencil.
“No-slope is more thrilling because you’re going against gravity and it kind of makes you feel weird,” he wrote.
But after waiting in line for another ride, he changed his mind, darting out of his seat and bolting for the exit. That ride — mini-airplanes that spun and flipped their passengers vertically — had no slope, he told me. And no slope was a no-go.
The experience at the park would later help him design his own roller coaster in class — complete with an example of each different type of slope — using Minecraft.
At the park, Etai and his classmates looked like kids from any other middle school: energetic, loud, a little bit hyper. They seemed as concerned with re-riding the Steeplechase roller coaster as many times as possible as they were with finishing their assignment packets. They laughed and ate candy, but they were also talking about math, even while on the rides. When Selkirk rode a roller coaster with a group of students, they shouted out the different kinds of slopes as the ride whipped up and down.
The larger point of the trip — to see where math happens in real life — didn’t seem lost on the bunch. Playing games, whether at an amusement park or in the classroom, is no gimmick, said Ella Reyl, a classmate who was in Etai’s group for the trip. The games and activities and trips, Ella said, are for the future.
“It’s not to just copy stuff down,” she said. “It’s for next time, when we don’t have a game. We have a way to think about it.”
And learning how to think is arguably the point of it all.