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Katie Salen

Professional game designer Katie Salen is turning traditional pedagogy on its head. By adapting gaming to education, she believes schools can become flexible learning spaces where children learn through play.

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“As they’re learning to become designers, kids become confident in their abilities as creators, as transgressors — people who might break rules.”

​When Katie noticed the staggering high school drop out rates among New York City students — some dropping out as early as ninth grade — she set out to create a learning paradigm that not only engaged young people, but also prepared them for a future with fewer opportunities. She immediately looked to gaming as a way of letting students immediately “thrive and contribute.”

Katie explains that play serves a “very powerful function” in learning because it is made possible by rules, and within their greater structure, she says, “you can do whatever you want to do.” With the Institute of Play, Katie began to apply the game design principles to her pedagogy: creating structure, challenges, motivation, feedback, incentives, and — most importantly — a place where failure could be turned into “a positive act of creativity.”

She has already launched two public school programs: Quest to Learn in New York City and Chicago Quest. Students learn by working through a series of smaller missions that culminate in a final goal: a “quest.” Unlike traditional schools, where each subject is studied separately and individually, her challenge-based model uses an interdisciplinary approach. Children address subjects within a meaningful context and problem-solve together to achieve a goal.

Katie believes the new types of skills students acquire through her model are the ones they’ll need to navigate a “complex global economy” — skills such as “being adaptable and flexible” and being “empathetic to multiple points of views.” To Katie, “learning is social,” and these skills are the ones that will serve them most. By creating educational communities and creating a space for these communities, students can learn in a setting that more closely resembles how they will solve problems in their jobs and in their lives.