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February 27, 2010 |
The National Association of Independent Schools

A talk for
The National Association of Independent Schools
February 25, 2010

Last year we did a press release on the findings of a three-year study of youth online, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Our message was fairly straightforward – that kids were engaging in diverse forms of learning online. What was interesting, though, was that the public uptake of our study focused not so much on learning opportunities as much as on intergenerational tension.


Here’s a headline from the local paper here in Silicon Valley. This was a very solid article that conveyed the message that we were trying to get at with our press release, that there were many valuable learning dimensions to kids’ social and recreational online activity. At the same time though, the headline gives voice to some problems in how we view learning, intergenerational relations, and new media.

The headline assumes that parents and teachers are uptight or should be uptight about kids’ online activity. That we think that new media like games, social networks sites, and text messaging are at best a necessary evil in today’s day and age, and at worst a serious distraction from learning. It is assumed that good parents and educators, concerned parents and educators, will want to limit and restrict kids’ online activity and that is their primary role in this space. I was constantly asked to offer up strategies for how to get kids off the computer so that they could engage in more serious pursuits, like homework, or healthier pursuits, like sports.

So my question is this: Why is it that we assume that kids’ socializing and play is not connected to learning? And on the flip side, why do we assume that learning only happens when kids are engaged in schoolwork or other tasks that adults have set up for them?

I understand that not all of you in this room share these assumptions. And you may not have a negative view of kids’ social activity online. In fact, if you’ve come to this session, you might be more optimistic than most as to how social media can support learning. Maybe you have been experimenting yourself on how to use social media in your school or classroom. But I think the issue that all of us recognize is that today’s kids are growing up in a radically different media environment from the one that we grew up in.

It’s a media environment that keeps them connected 24/7 to their peers, information, and entertainment. It’s a media environment that captures kids attentions through visual media, participation and interaction, challenging educators to reconsider traditional models of instruction. It’s a media environment that makes the bedroom and the home porous to a much more diverse range of information and social interaction, complicating the task of parenting in new ways.

Things are changing. With today’s mobile, interactive, and networked media environment, we are living through one of the most profound shifts in recent history in how we engage with culture, knowledge, and our social lives. And all of us are struggling to understand those changes and to respond in a way that is going to be a positive force in our kids’ learning and development.

The world outside of the classroom has changed dramatically, but classrooms, not so much. Classroom learning has always had to fight an image problem of being boring and irrelevant to kids everyday concern, unresponsive to their personal interests. Parents have had to struggle to get their kids to attend to academics in the face of entertainment media that captures their attention and markets to their needs. This image problem, this gap between the compelling experiences that kids get in their out-of-school contexts and the kinds of experiences they are getting in more explicitly educational context is just growing. Kids can text message one another at the dinner table or under their desks. They can access the music, TV shows, and movies they love when and where they want it. They can play games that adjust to their level and interests and draw them in with visceral interactive experiences.

How to respond to this growing gap? Instead of shutting out these out-of-school experiences through regulation and monitoring, instead of complaining about the corrosive effects of entertainment media and kids peer culture, we need to work proactively to close this gap and change the role that schools play in kids’ learning.

My appeal to you is to look at the new media environments of today’s youth, as not a space of problems and concern, but a space of promise and potential. Independent schools are in a really unique position in being able to take advantage of this opportunity and changing our vision of learning and education. You can lead the way in genuine and fundamental innovation, innovation that is timely and responsive to the opportunities being offered by today’s new media environment.

Today’s networked media offers an unprecedented opportunity to support learning that is highly personalized and learner-centered, driven by passionate interest and engagement. But very few kids, parents, and educators are taking advantage of this opportunity. The reason for this is that too often we separate the worlds of kids and adults, play and education. We hold onto the old boundaries between school, peer-culture, and home life, between what looks and feels like learning and education that we grew up with, and what looks and feels like socializing, hanging out, and playing around. Even if those boundaries were never that real to begin with, in today’s networked world, they are even more untenable.

In the next 40 minutes, I’m going to argue that we need to engage with kids’ peer cultures and recreational lives outside of school if we want to tap into the power that today’s networked media offers for learners. And I’m going to suggest that interest-driven learning is the key to unlocking this power. I’m going to walk you through several cases that hint at the ways in which we can do this, and some learning principles that emerge from these cases. But first I want to paint a picture for you about what new media learning looks like in kids’ out of school lives.

Learning from Pokemon

I always find that the best way into these issues is through Pokemon.Pokemon was and still is a global media sensation that first swept childhood culture in the late nineties. The kids who are graduating from college now are the first post-Pokemon generation. These are kids who grew up with ubiquitous social gaming and convergent media as a central part of their peer culture.


More specifically, it placed portable gaming formats of game boy and trading cards at the center of game play. What’s so important about portable media is that it changes the kinds of environments, both physical and social where gaming takes place. Gaming escapes the confines of the home, as kids carry their game boys and in the car, the waiting room, in the park, or on the plane. And this is not just about gaming infiltrating more and more physical settings, but about gaming infiltrating more social settings and relationships.

In addition to the portability, the other important thing about Pokemon is that it developed a new format for the narrative content of a children’s series. The story centers on a game-like narrative based on the acquisition of Pokemon and knowledge about how Pokemon perform in battle. Currently there are almost 500 different Pokemon, each with its unique characteristics, powers, and ways of evolving. The series is not particularly complex in the ways we think of in traditional narrative, like character development and complex narrative arcs. But it is an incredibly rich knowledge ecology because of the sheer volume of esoteric content generated by the series. Traditional children’s narratives have a very limited set of characters – a good guy, a bad guy, a sidekick, maybe a love interest. Creators of children’s media assumed that kids couldn’t grasp a whole lot of complexity. Pokemon blew that assumption out of the water.

And it’s not just that there is a lot of content. The key is that the content is about gaming and social action. In other words, the content invites collection, strategizing, and trading activity. It is media that mobilizes kids to DO something with it.

Marketers talk about this as viral or contagious media. For kids it means media that has social currency. When a kid pulls out a Pokemon deck or a game boy, you’ll see a kind of flocking behavior. The media is the social glue, the common language that means you belong in the same cultural universe. After almost every basketball game that I take my son to, the boys pull out their game boys and start exchanging monsters, tips, and cheats about how to get ahead in the game. The same goes for birthday parties and sleepovers these days. Even with parties that my daughter is invited to, there will often be explicit instructions: pack your bathing suit, sleeping bag, and game boy.

The other thing is the personal relationships kids develop with the content. When kids put together their Pokemon deck, they put together a unique combination of characters and abilities that reflect a personal identity and style of play. They will debate the merits of having a deck focused on grass, water or fire Pokemon, or centered on particular combos and strategies. For many generations people have socialized around media like books, television, music, and movies, often creating deep person identification with the media content and characters. What is different about current interactive digital media, like Pokemon is that personalization and remix is an actual PRECONDITION of participation. It is at its very core about engagement and communication. And this is what I mean by social media – not just media that is about social communication, but media, like Pokemon, that invites social exchange and engagement.

Interest-Driven Learning

Let’s pull out from the particular case of Pokemon and extract some higher level learning principles and dynamics. I’ll touch on these quickly now, and keep returning to these as I move through the different cases.

The first thing to note is that kids are not playing Pokemon for the explicit goal of learning skills or gaining knowledge. Skills and literacy are a by-product of social engagement. We’re starting to see some research just coming out about the kinds of complex language skills and visual literacy that kids pick up with complex gaming environments like Pokemon or Yugioh. But again, a by-product, not a focus of the engagement.

Secondly, the focus is on demand, not supply. John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davidson have written about a shift from supply-push to demand-pull. Instead of working to build stable stocks of information in kids heads – in supplying a standardized body of knowledge – supply-pull is about giving kids skills and dispositions to be able to access and draw from a highly dynamic and unstable informational environment that is too massive for them to internalize. Kids don’t have to memorize the 500 Pokemon in order to play. They know that universe of information is out there, and they access it flexibly and opportunistically as the need to know arises.

Thirdly, the sources of expertise come from peers and not just institutionalized authorities. Kids will occasionally consult official rule books, but they will much more often look to their peers for knowledge. Certain kids in a given peer culture will gain reputation as Pokemon experts, and the more advanced of these will be posting walk-throughs, reviews, and cheats on online sites that a much broader range of kids will be accessing. Part of the excitement is that kids can take on the role of participants, experts, and knowledge creators, not simply knowledge consumers.

And that leads me to the fourth principle. Networked games like Pokemon support specialization, development of personalized relationships to the content, and depth expertise. Instead of being asked to master a standardized body of knowledge that is the same as all their peers, measured against the same benchmarks, these more informal learning environments allow kids to choose their own areas of interest and engagement. One kid can develop a reputation as a water Pokemon trainer and expert, another can master the universe of cheat codes.

And finally, the overall knowledge ecology is highly distributed. Nintendo still plays an incredibly important role in provisioning the content of the franchise. But the circulation of knowledge and the learning is highly distributed across different kids, different sites, and different media platforms.

Let’s back out even further now and think about how a game like Pokemon fits into the broader learning ecology of particular kids. There are certain very structured and bounded environments of home, school, and afterschool program, and and then there spaces that are accessed in a more ad hoc basis, that has to do with peer culture and online and entertainment resources. Some of these are embedded in local communities, like museums and libraries. Others are part of more far flung media networks, whether it is Pokemon online forums, MySpace, or Wikipedia.

When you look at an overall learning ecology from kids’ points of view, it’s clear that they are navigating a wide range of learning environments in their everyday life. School plays a central role in the learning and daily life rhythms, but you’ll also see that the interface between school and other learning contexts is very limited. School is one node in a kids’ learning network, but it’s a node that is often disconnected from what happens at home, after school, and in the online space.

This is not a new insight. We know that most learning and engagement happens outside of school. For decades, progressive education has worked to integrate the learning happening in schools with what kids find important and meaningful outside of schools.

And there’s also an important equity component to all of this. We also know that the kids who are most successful in schools are the kids who have home environments or community environments that support and validate the kind of skills, culture, and knowledge that are valued in school. One of my advisors from graduate school, Ray McDermott argues, “School is a place where you show off what you learned elsewhere. If you have to learn in school, you’re in trouble.” The kids who do well in school are the kids with shelves full of books, who geek out on complex and cognitively challenging games, and who can access online information and resources whenever they want – not just at the school and library. Today’s media environments run the risk of exacerbating the equity gap by giving privileged kids even more resources in the home and in high-class extra-curricular settings to outshine their peers. We need schools to perform the function not just of assessing what kids are learning elsewhere, but also reducing the gap in access to learning opportunities and experiences outside of school.

You can take Ray’s statement to be a negative commentary on the role of schools – that it’s not a space for kids to learn, but a place for kids to be counted, sorted, and compete with your peers. But I think there is also a positive take on this in reconsidering the role of schools in a networked age. The school is a place that validates and reinforces certain forms of knowledge and literacy. It performs an incredibly important legitimizing function. And further, it is potentially place where kids and adults can come together to reflect, evaluate, and assess the learning that happens in the full range of settings that kids travel through in their everyday lives.

So how can we connect these different sites of learning?


We have this divide in our culture and our institutions, between commercial culture and kids peer culture on one side, and educational institutions, content, and practices on the other. In many ways, this division makes a lot of sense. Kids want their own spaces to have fun and hang out with friends and they don’t want adults always in their face. Schools need to run on a mission centered on learning, excellence, and perseverance, not the focus on pleasure and play that characterize the marketing of commercial culture. But there are times when this division gets in the way: when school becomes devoid of passion and interest, and when entertainment and fun is about pandering to the lowest common denominator. We need schools to recognize and validate the positive kinds of learning and engagement that kids are pursuing in their homes and peer environments. And we need a peer culture that isn’t hostile to being smart, interested, or passionate. We need a peer culture that doesn’t marginalize geeky or creative kids, that doesn’t teach kids that it’s profoundly uncool to care.

I realize that this is an incredibly tough nut to crack, and it’s one that much brighter minds than I have have grappled with for decades. I do think, though, that we have big trends in the networked world on our side here. I don’t think that new media has an answer to all of these big institutionalized divisions within our society. Bu there is a tremendous opportunity to bridge some of these divides if you focus in very specific and strategic ways. I want to argue that the key is ‘interest-driven learning.’ These are the kinds of learning experiences that we tend to think of as extra-curricular or enrichment activities – violin lessons, chess clubs, sports and the like. They’ve often been a space of partnership between home and schools, and can, in some instances, even be a positive for kids in terms of their status in peer culture.

Interests are the key pathway to highly personalized learning that is driven by passionate engagement. And I would argue that the ability to pursue interests, to specialize, and to link up different elements of a diverse learning ecology is the key to success in the 21st Century.

Friendship-Driven and Interest-Driven Participation

Now that I’ve set the stage with some of the big picture ideas, I want to talk about some cases that have come from our research in the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative. The DML Initiative is an effort that the foundation has been supporting for over 5 years now, asking these kinds of fundamental questions about how kids everyday lives and learning are changing because of today’s new media environments.

As part of this work, I helped lead the Digital Youth Project, a three year collaborative study of what kids were doing with new media – specifically Internet communication, gaming, and new media production. Let me give you a few of the findings from this research, as a way of introducing some promising new directions in how we can use networked media to support kids interest-based learning.

The most important top-level finding from our work was that kids online life divided clearly along two lines, what we called friendship-driven and interest-driven participation.

Friendship driven participation leads to the most common kinds of practices that we see in young people’s online behaviors today. For most kids, this is about sites like MySpace and Facebook. These practices of status display, flirting, and gossiping are the kind of peer-to-peer sharing and reputation building that has been ubiquitous among children and youth ever since they have been placed in age-segregated institutions of schooling, and which we see being reproduced online today.

The dominant mode of friendship-driven participation is what kids call hanging out. This is the relatively unstructured, often impromptu ambient social activity where so much of youth socialization happens. Although young people will almost always say that they would prefer to hang out in real life rather than online, often the online space is the only viable way to keep in touch informally with their friends. In school, young people are subject to restrictions on the kind of socializing they can do, and out of school there are more and more restrictions on their mobility and ability to congregate in public places like the mall or the street. Online sites such as MySpace and Facebook and tools such as IM and text messaging provide opportunities for young people to hang out in these unstructured ways, and out of earshot of adults who have authority over them.

For the most part, friendship-driven spaces like MySpace and Facebook are tightly intertwined with the local, given social contexts of school, the kind of intense give and take among peers that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. When someone comments on your MySpace profile, you are expected to comment back. When somebody puts you on their top 8 list of friends, it’s awkward if you don’t do the same. Teens scour their peers MySpace profiles for clues as to what’s cool or uncool, and how to position themselves as a unique individual while also mobilizing shared markers of status.

We tend to think of this kind of teen peer culture in negative terms, as peer pressure. But this kind of peer review and reciprocity is also a context of learning and engagement, where kids are evaluating and negotiating status with one another as peers and co-participants in a networked public. And this is highly motivating. Unlike their relationship to mainstream media, unlike their relationship with content and activities that adults provision for them, these smaller scale peer publics are ones that they participate in not just as consumers but as producers and distributors of content, knowledge, taste and culture. They make decisions about how to craft their profiles, what messages to write, and what kind of music, video, and artwork they want to post, link to and forward. And these choices about what media to display and circulate are conducted in a public space, visible to their peers, that has direct consequences to their reputation in the social circles that matter to them the most.

The process of creating an online profile, and articulating and ranking Friends is one of the ways in which social media take what is normally implicit and make it explicit. And this really does change things. This has been the focus of danah boyd’s work on MySpace and Facebook. Deciding how to craft an online self-representation which includes how networks of friends are represented, these are new social practices and literacies that youth are developing in tandem with a changing media landscape.

Most kids don’t go much farther than this kind of casual and everyday messing around with technology and media in these friendship-driven networks. But we are seeing some youth taking these capacities as a jumping off point to engage in what we’ve been calling more geeked out interest-driven genres of participation.

Interest driven participation is not about popularity and mainstream status, but is more about the lives of the geeks, freaks, musicians, and dorks – the kids who are identified as smart or creative, the kids we see at the margins of teen social worlds. This is about kids with passionate interests and serious hobbies finding peers online. It is not about the given social relations that structure kids’ school lives, but its about expanding an individual’s social circle based on interests. Kids who have a strong interest-based orientation will often talk about how they don’t like to participate in sites like MySpace and prefer online forums that are focused on interests.These are the kids who are creating YouTube videos, leading guilds in online role playing games, remixing movies and videos and sharing them online, or participating in Harry Potter fan fiction groups. The interest-driven practices we looked at are incredibly diverse, but all have certain similarities that distinguished them from the friendship-driven side. Unlike the friendship-driven side, interest-driven participation involves specialization and geeking out on niche knowledge domains, and it also involves a broader context of publicity for disseminating the media works that youth create.

Unlike in friendship-driven spaces, that focus on local peer groups, friendships, and romantic relations, adult participants are generally welcome in interest-driven contexts. Most of the leadership in interest-driven groups includes adults, even when youth comprise the majority of participants. Adults participate as fellow passionate hobbyists, leaders, and peers, not as traditional authority figures or instructors. In other words, adults have a very important role to play in interest-driven contexts, where their involvement in friendship-driven contexts is generally seen as a form or surveillance, or even worse, creepy.

The other important thing to underscore here is that the interest-driven kids are a minority once kids enter their teen years. As kids move from elementary school to middle school and high school, Pokemon-like practices start to drop of as a central focus for peer activity. Kids start to focus peer-group status on their positioning in a heterosexual marketplace, instead of on media and knowledge. This is one reason why we start to lose kids in middle school who may have been passionate about certain academic or extra curricular activities. And this happens first with girls, who lead the shift towards this new teen-centric social mode. Boys have cultural permission to stay geekier for slightly longer, without losing status in their peer group. But even with boys, if they identify too strongly with intellectual or creative pursuits, it can lead to downward social mobility within the peer and dating economy. The peer culture works against their interests too. We didn’t do a formal survey of this, but our rule of thumb is that about 90% of kids in a given teen peer group focus their public identities on the mainstream friendship-driven side, and 10% display an interest-driven identity in their real-life peer group. This doesn’t mean that only 10% of kids have interests. What it means is that age-segregated peer culture that centers on school cohorts tends to give status to kids who invest in the friendship-driven side, and tends to marginalize kids who invest in the interest-driven side.

So that’s a bit about the social and cultural dynamics we have inherited. I want to turn now to what possibilities and mechanisms we have at our disposal to use interest-driven and peer-based learning to our advantage. I want to quickly outline three cases that center on the peer-culture, afterschool and school contexts respectively, to demonstrate how interest-driven participation can be the focal point that links up these different settings in the service of learning and that crosses the divide between adult and kid culture.

Writing with Peers Online

I’d like to start by describing the experience of Clarissa, a teen who one of the researchers in our study, CJ Pascoe, has written about. She comes from a working class home here in the Bay Area, and aspires to be a writer.

Clarissa participates in an online role-playing board, Faraway Lands, with a few of her friends from school. To join the site, potential members must write intricate character applications and receive a moderator’s approval. These character applications are lengthy descriptions of a given character, its race, its history and its location. After staying up most the night to write her first character application, Clarissa received glowing reviews from the site’s administrators. For Clarissa, Faraway Lands is a place to hang out with her existing friends as well as develop new friendships. She has gotten to know people from all over the country, and even has one friend in Spain who she is developing a role-playing scenario with.


That you should generally follow but are not necessarily required to follow.
Take criticism constructively and give it out the same…

Compose your writing to the best of your ability. Do your best to be understandable and to spell all words to the fullest with conventional letters. It’s easier to read for people and generally earns you respect…

This is some text that I excerpted from the rules of another role-playing board. What I want to highlight here is the ethic of reciprocity that you see in these peer-based learning environments. Participants are both writers and critics of each other’s work. Clarissa and her role playing friends take their writing very seriously and constantly critique each other.

She indicates some of the ways in which her writing for role playing is not the same as writing for school. Online, she is not doing it for a grade: “It’s something I can do in my spare time and not have to be graded… You know how in school you’re creative, but you’re doing it for a grade so it doesn’t really count?.” Instead, she is driven by her own interests and passions, and a nurturing creative community that respects her and appreciates her work. The evaluation and appreciation by peers who share her same passionate interests feels both more authentic and consequential to her. In Clarissa’s case, the networked world provided her with access to a context for publicity, and a network of peers who shared her interest, supported her identity as a writer, and helped her improve her skills in ways that her local peer group or school environment couldn’t provide for.

At the same time, the skills she has picked up in the role playing world have served her well in school. For one of her school assignments she chose to write a 100 page screenplay based on one of her characters she developed on FL. And in her college applications she writes about role playing as preparation to be a screenwriter. In her applications, she submitted creative writing samples based on her role playing writing. She was admitted to both Emerson and Chapman and she feels these writing samples were a big part of why she was accepted.

Let’s return to the principles of interest-driven learning. Just as in the case of Pokemon, Clarissa’s participation in Faraway Lands is about an interest-driven practice that has important skills and literacies as a by-product, and not a central focus. It’s about just-in time access to knowledge and resources, rather than building stocks of knowledge in advance. It’s about the authority of peers to assess and provide feedback rather than relying on institutional gatekeepers. It’s about developing a specialized and personal voice within a shared cultural domain. And finally, it’s about expertise and knowledge being highly distributed through an interest-group.

The important difference with the Pokemon example though is that Clarissa was able to take this learning that was happening in the informal and peer-driven side, and make it consequential to school-based learning. These are still early days in kids, teachers, and parents making these kinds of linkages, but we are starting to see evidence that it is happening even in the absence of explicit policies on the school side.


Let’s turn now to some more intentional interventions in using new media to bridge the divides between school and out of school learning.

I’d like to highlight the work of one of my colleagues in the Digital Media and Learning initiative, Nichole Pinkard. Nichole has been working for many years out of the University of Chicago, and now DePaul University, to develop the Digital Youth Network, afterschool programs in new media production that bridge the cultures of entertainment that kids are immersed in their peer cultures, and cultures of school-based learning. She’s seen a focus on making media such as rap music or digital video as a productive way of bridging these cultural divides.

Last year, Nichole helped redesign a 5,500 square foot space on the first floor of the Harold Washington Library in downtown chicago. In this space, called YouMedia, teens have access to laptops, high-end computers, a recording studio, a perfomance space, game machines, books and adult mentors and workshops. And this space is for teens only. It’s the only space in the library where teens are allowed to bring food, make noise, and just hang out. Just months after the space opened, it’s been buzzing with activity, and the librarians have seen a dramatic increase in the circulation of books as well as the laptops and other media on offer.

The space was explicitly designed based on some of the findings of our Digital Youth Study, and was meant to mediate between friendship-driven and interest-driven activity. The space provides for an area for casual hanging out, with game machines, a shared monitor, and comfortable places to sit. The messing around space is a transitional space for tinkering with media, where there are lots of resources for kids to try out individual projects. In the geeking out space, kids can dive deeper with the help of expert mentors, in more intentional workshop-like environments. All of these spaces are within a shared, open space. And the idea is to facilitate movement between these different ways of engaging.

Historically, museums, libraries, and afterschool clubs have functioned as an interface between schools, homes, and local communities. Nichole’s work builds on these existing kinds of models, but takes it one step further by being very deliberate in her effort to link up the learning across these different settings.

In addition to running programs in school, after-school, and in the library that supports kids interests in media production, Nichole has created an online social network site that is centered around these interests. She is working to merge the genres of interest-driven and friendship-driven participation, where the more geeked out interest activities become visible in a positive way in kids local peer culture, and in turn, the local peer culture can better support these interests. These are also spaces that are centered on youth, but that bring in other adults and mentors who share their passionate interests and who can help mediate the gap between in school and out of school learning.

Again, let’s return to the principles of interest-driven learning. Like Pokemon and Clarissa’s experiences writing online, YouMedia is centered on youth peer culture and interests, allowing kids to specialize, and access a diverse and distributed set of learning resources as they need them.

I’d like to add one more item to this list of interest-driven learning principles: redundancy across the network. Unlike the cases of Pokemon and Clarissa, Nichole’s work is consciously designed to bridge different learning contexts and to reinforce skills and identities across these contexts. The underlying hypothesis is that you need to have literacy, knowledge and skills reinforced across multiple contexts in order for them to really stick, and for them to perform a bridging function across academic, social, and recreational settings. This is a concept I take from Katie Salen, and I’d like to turn to her work next.

Quest to Learn

Katie Salen is a brilliant game designer who I work with as part of the Digital Media and Learning Initiative. There has been talk for decades now about how games are ideal learning systems, a set of ideas that was crystallized by the work of James Paul Gee, another collaborator in our work. Katie had the crazy idea that she was actually going to put these ideas into practice by designing a school around a games-based pedagogy. Quest to Learn opened its doors last fall to 79 sixth graders in New York City.

Drop kids into inquiry-based, complex, problem spaces that are scaffolded to deliver just in time learning and use data to help players understand how they are doing, what they need to work on, and where they need to go next.

A games based-curriculum does not mean that Katie has kids sitting in front of screens, using games to deliver a set of standard content. For Katie, a games-based pedagogy has meant designing a series of quests, or inquiry-based problem spaces, where kids work collaboratively to to move ahead on a complex task. The quests are designed so that along the way, kids need to hit the state standards in ways that are integrated to an overarching goal.

The curriculum is designed around certain domains of knowledge and practice. One domain is an integrated math and science domain called the Way Things Work that is modeled on design and engineering. Codeworlds is an integrated English language arts, programming and math domain that is organized around symbols, language, syntax, and grammar.

Katie has described the curriculum as creating a need to know, a need to share, and occasion to share, and linkages out. For example, in one quest, the kids are recruited by a TV producer to create a location guide for a reality television series. They then need to figure out how to navigate an atlas, distinguish elements of a map, and create character studies for potential contestants. The quest are in turn tied to boss levels, which are stealth assessments designed to provide opportunities for kids to work collaboratively on creating objects that displays the skills and knowledge they have acquired.

And again, it is the principle of redundancy and distributed learning opportunities. Quest to Learn also supports an afterschool programs that allows kids to go into more depth in more personalized ways, and she has adapted Nichole’s social network platform that provides a persistent set of linkages across these contexts, and that kids can access from home.

I think it’s pretty clear the ways in with the Quest to Learn curriculum is about interest-driven learning. It’s the power of Pokemon unleashed for academic subject matters. This experiment has just begun, but I find Katie’s work incredibly inspiring in giving us a roadmap for how we might think of mobilizing interest-based participation for learning both in school and out of school.

Where Do We Go Next?

Again, these are still early days – early days in the birth of social media, and early days in our experimentation to harness these new media in the service of learning. But I firmly believe that the opportunity is out there to not only support the kinds of informal and social learning that kids are doing out of school, but to make those forms of learning matter in the classroom.

This is a tremendous challenge. We have the weight of existing assumptions, practices, institutions, working against us. The ways in which we have historically separated out kids peer cultures from learning, created an opposition between education and entertainment media, and created institutional boundaries that separate home, school, and the community, these are all things working against us.

But I hope that I have managed to convince you that for those who are willing to experiment and to seize the opportunities that today’s digital and networked world has to offer, there is tremendous opportunity to expand the learning potential for a new generation of kids. The technology itself has no power to transform learning. It is up to us to take that technology and do something new with it, something that doesn’t just reproduce our tired old scripts that pits kids cultures in opposition with adult learning goals. These experiments and explorations won’t succeed, spread or scale without a dedicated network of educators, kids, and parents who are working together to build a new model for 21st century learning.

In closing, I want to underscore that all of the work I have talked about today comes out of a highly distributed and collaborative network that I have been involved with as part of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Our network has started with a core set of researchers and projects, but we are very eager to reach out and expand the conversation, and to learn from a broader set of partners and efforts. We’re beginning to consolidate our resources and projects on a new web site,, and we’re committed to making our research findings open and accessible online. I invite you all to participate in this expanding effort.

Special thanks to:

John Seely Brown
CJ Pascoe
Nichole Pinkard
Diana Rhoten
Katie Salen
Connie Yowell

For more information: