Playing games in school?

While skimming Slashdot this morning, I found a link to this article, which describes a new public school in NYC (set to launch next month, if memory serves) with a curriculum based entirely on games.  In a nutshell, the school appears to be eschewing the traditional subject-based school curriculum for something more interdisciplinary and creative, with a focus on gameplay and collaborative projects as a means of both content delivery and content mastery.  Some of the games will be video games, but some of them will be role-playing or board games as well.  In addition, it looks like there will be a focus on content creation as well—the article alludes to the use of Adobe Flash and Maya, a 3D modeling program (although, annoyingly, it provides no further details).

I think this is a super-interesting experiment, and I am very curious to see how it all turns out.

As a computer scientist, I should be most excited about the use of technology to foster learning.  And don’t get me wrong—I think that’s very, very cool.  Getting students to create their own content is definitely a good thing, and exposing them to the tools of the trade is a smart move.  (Those tools ain’t cheap, either, so I’m assuming they have some good partnerships going on with tech companies?)  There’s a growing body of research on the effectiveness of games as educational tools, too, and it will be interesting to see if an entire game-based curriculum bears out some of the positive research findings.

But I actually find two other parts of this more intriguing:  the fact that the curriculum is entirely interdisciplinary, and the focus on collaborative learning.  Both of these make a bold statement as to what skills are important to foster right now for future success for our kids, and what the future world of work and school and society will look like.  I think the move away from “silos of learning” to a more holistic way of presenting and engaging with material—one that touches on multiple subjects at once—is the right way to go, and is the only way we’re really going to prepare students to deal with the Really Big Problems, like climate change and globalization.

As a professor, I am always thinking about context.  How do I best frame and present this information, or teach this concept, in such a way that I engage my students’ interest and meet them at their current level of understanding?  Often, my context comes from other fields, many of which have nothing to do with technology.  This school basically takes “context” and puts it on steroids:  figuring out a context that will touch on multiple learning goals from multiple areas.  This is way more difficult than what I do, and requires, I’m guessing, a ton of collaboration among the educators themselves.  But ultimately this harder work can have a much bigger payoff:  not just in what and how the students learn, but in the very fact that the educators themselves will be modeling the very collaborative behavior they wish to foster!

So I will be watching this experiment with interest.  I hope it succeeds.  And I’m curious what it can teach us, at the college level, about interdisciplinarity and collaboration.