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ChicagoQuest promotes game-playing at school

Teachers learning new technology ththey will use with kids starting sep. 6 unique new school thembraces gaming. The Chicago International

Teachers learning new technology that they will use with kids starting sep. 6 in unique new school that embraces gaming. The Chicago International Charter School 1443 n Ogden. Friday, August 26, 2011 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 4, 2011 7:59PM

Games are good.

Failure is fun.

Those may not sound like the tenets of your typical school, but they are the backbone of an unconventional new one opening Tuesday on the northern edge of Cabrini-Green, not far from the posh Old Town neighborhood.

ChicagoQuest Charter School is determined to harness the power of game design and the digital world to ignite learning. After all, game designers helped create the school for sixth- through 12th graders — along with The Institute of Play. Plus, two game designers will be developing ChicagoQuest curriculum alongside teachers all year long.

“We use a lot of games here,” said Sybil Madison-Boyd, ChicagoQuest’s director of education and leadership.

“Our school is trying to implement game-like learning. That means in our curriculum, the kids are going to be given a really complicated problem — we call it a ‘mission’ — that they need to solve or achieve.

“Instead of saying, ‘You need to learn fractions because we’re on page 56 now,’ it’s more like, ‘We need to learn fractions because we have to build this roller coaster.’”

Textbooks? You’ll find most of them downloaded onto the iPads that all 260 students — only sixth- and seventh-graders this year — will receive.

Desks? Look for kids sitting at tables instead.

English, language arts and social studies? Sure, you’ll get them here, but folded into one 75-minute course, or “domain,” called “Being, Space and Place.” Science and math are featured in “The Way Things Work,” while math and writing are covered in a third domain, called “Code Worlds.”

A key foundational course is “Sports for the Mind,” in which kids will learn game design and the sophisticated “systems thinking” that underlies it. By the end of the course, they’ll create their own video games.

ChicagoQuest, located in the old Truth Elementary building at Ogden and Clybourn, is among six new charter campuses and two newly built school buildings to open Tuesday.

Its $8.4 million in renovations include a unique “SMALLab.” This “Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab” uses a video projector to project an image representing a problem onto the floor, allowing kids to literally walk through and amid the problem as they try to figure it out. Experts call the technique “embodied learning.”

During a training session with an Arizona State professor who founded SMALLab Learning, ChicagoQuest teachers were confronted with a projected “scenario” aimed at teaching how bacteria spreads.

Initially, all teachers knew was that they had to save 14 villagers, each represented by a circle projected onto the floor, by using a controller to drag villagers to a circle of water or another of medicine.

Eventually, teachers realized they had contaminated the water by dragging a sick villager to it — but only after they killed off the whole village.

Even so, ChicagoQuest curriculum specialist John Buzzard declared: “The failure was fun. Part of our philosophy is it’s OK to fail. We want kids to have a go, jump in, have it go wrong and try again.”

Solving the bacterial “scenario” required “systems thinking,’’ or deciphering how the parts of the scenario fit together, as well as teamwork and time management. Those are three “21st century skills” that showed significant gains among students at ChicagoQuest’s New York City counterpart, called Quest to Learn, said Katie Selan, the founder of both Quest schools as well as the Institute of Play.

“We are not trying to graduate great test takers,’’ Salen said, although she notes that Quest to Learn seventh-graders are outscoring New York City averages on traditional reading and math test measures. “We are trying to graduate kids who are adaptable and flexible problem solvers and have ideas to contribute to the world.’’

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