Fires in the Mind

Coaching mastery in a new media world

How might the era of digital games and media change the way we coach young people in the habits of mind and work that we value? I’ve spent my reading time this week exploring this question in the the separate (but equally intriguing) work of two pioneers in that area: Robert Torres and Nichole Pinkard.

First, I pored through the book Quest to Learn: Developing the School for Digital Kids, which sets out in great detail the design principles of the new school Katie Salen and Robert Torres helped found in 2009 as part of New York City’s “Innovation Zone.” Quest to Learn (Q2L) is now in its second year with grades 6 and 7, and will eventually serve grades 6 to 12.

Then I explored the extensive website links of the Digital Youth Network (DYN), which sets out the ideas behind a digital literacy program that Nichole Pinkard helped design for Chicago students. Focused on new media skills, DYN takes place in school, out of school, and online, with strong links to the public library system.

Both initiatives are rich with opportunity, learning, and mastery pathways for the youth they serve. And I’m especially intrigued by how much they have in common. I haven’t yet had a chance to look at their work in person—can’t wait to do that!—but based on what I just read, here’s what I can tell you.

Both Q2L and DYN focus on igniting students’ motivation as a central principle of the curriculum. Both settings honor play as a vital part of learning, and the barriers to kids getting involved are intentionally set low.

Both use digital media to draw kids into learning. At DYN, kids use new media to create music, photography, video, poems, and stories as well as to design and make games, robots, and other projects. The curriculum at Q2L embraces urban design, game design, media arts, and computer programming as “Sports for the Mind.”

Both Q2L and DYN teach through experiences in which youth practice roles that require inquiry, key skills and habits, and conceptual understandings. The kids push toward mastery because they have a need to know and do what someone in their role would know and do—whether that is producing a CD or decoding a beam of light. DYN calls its experiences “Goal-Based Scenarios” and Q2L calls them “Discovery Missions” and “Quests.”

Both Q2L and DYN link the worlds of school and after-school. That might include the public library or other community institutions, the workplace, or the home. And it might take place in person (with older youth or adults as mentors) or in protected online environments.

Both Q2L and DYN teach kids how to self-manage and self-assess in everything they do. Q2L uses game design principles as the basis for its curriculum, because ongoing and immediate feedback is central to games. DYN’s Goal-Based Scenarios are organized to progress through three cognitive levels that start with kids practicing their critical skills, then move on to constructing something themselves, then enter a social stage of assessing their endeavors.

Both Q2L and DYN support the social and emotional development of young learners while they practice their new skills. Ongoing contact with mentors and advisers is part of this, but so are digital social networks. Q2L’s online environment “Being Me” is central to the school’s Wellness curriculum, and also provides space for peer critique of students’ work. DYN’s “Remix World” brings together youth and mentors for dialogue, critique, and sharing perspectives.

One important difference stood out for me. In addition to its online presence and its after-school offerings (once a week for two hours, at the public library), Digital Youth Learning does partner with schools to offer media arts classes in grades 6 through 8. But it’s not a program of the Chicago Public School system.

In contrast, Quest to Learn is a New York City public school. It operates under an array of constraints that include student enrollment policies, state standards and testing, class size, school calendar, teacher certification, professional development requirements, and union contracts. The book that describes its exhilarating goals was written when its first sixth graders were just a few months into the school’s first year. So how’s it going on all the issues just listed? I’m very curious to find out!

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