Une école où l’on joue tout le temps

Je viens de lire le long (9 pages!) mais passionnant article « Learning by Playing » publié mercredi par Sara Corbett du New York Times Magazine.  Il s’agit d’un portrait en profondeur d’une école expérimentale dont j’avais entendu parler, la Quest to Learn (145 élèves de 6e et 7e année seulement pour le moment), où l’apprentissage se fait essentiellement à partir de jeux vidéos (joués ou développés par les élèves) et de médias sociaux. Les questions qui y sont posées sur les meilleures façons d’apprendre et, surtout, ce qu’il faut apprendre aux jeunes du XXIe siècle, m’apparaissent extrêmement pertinentes. 

L’école Quest to Learn a été conçu par Katie Salen, professeur de design et technologie à la Parsons the New School for Design, et son équipe de chercheurs de la Institute of Play, qui se penche sur les rapports entre jeu et apprentissage. Morceaux choisis [avec mes emphases]:

What if teachers gave up the vestiges of their educational past, threw away the worksheets, burned the canon and reconfigured the foundation upon which a century of learning has been built? What if we blurred the lines between academic subjects and reimagined the typical American classroom so that, at least in theory, it came to resemble a typical American living room or a child’s bedroom or even a child’s pocket, circa 2010 — if, in other words, the slipstream of broadband and always-on technology that fuels our world became the source and organizing principle of our children’s learning? What if, instead of seeing school the way we’ve known it, we saw it for what our children dreamed it might be: a big, delicious video game?

[…]

…Nearly every aspect of life at Quest to Learn is thus designed to be gamelike, even when it doesn’t involve using a computer. Students don’t receive grades but rather achieve levels of expertise, denoted on their report cards as “pre-novice,” “novice,” “apprentice,” “senior” and “master.” They are enlisted to do things like defeat villains and lend a hand to struggling aliens, mostly by working in groups to overcome multifaceted challenges, all created by a collection of behind-the-scenes game designers. The principles are similar to those used in problem-based learning, a more established educational method in which students collaborate to tackle broad, open-ended problems, with a teacher providing guidance though not necessarily a lot of instruction. But at Quest to Learn, the problems have been expertly aerated with fantasy.

Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest. And while students at the school are put through the usual rigors of studying pre-algebra, basic physics, ancient civilizations and writing, they do it inside interdisciplinary classes with names like Codeworlds — a hybrid of math and English class — where the quests blend skills from different subject areas. Students have been called upon to balance the budget and brainstorm business ideas for an imaginary community called Creepytown, for example, and to design architectural blueprints for a village of bumbling little creatures called the Troggles. There are elements of the school’s curriculum that look familiar — nightly independent reading assignments, weekly reading-comprehension packets and plenty of work with pencils and paper — and others that don’t. Quest to Learn students record podcasts, film and edit videos, play video games, blog avidly and occasionally receive video messages from aliens.

They also spend significant time building their own games. […] At its best, game design can be an interdisciplinary exercise involving math, writing, art, computer programming, deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills. If children can build, play and understand games that work, it’s possible that someday they will understand and design systems that work. And the world is full of complicated systems.

Does this educational approach actually work? And is it something that can, or should, find its way into schools in other parts of the country? As we fret about the perils of multitasking and digital distraction in adult life, the question arises: should a school provide practice with or relief from those things? […]

A game, as [Katie] Salen sees it, is really just a “designed experience,” in which a participant is motivated to achieve a goal while operating inside a prescribed system of boundaries and rules. In this way, school itself is one giant designed experience. It could be viewed, in fact, as the biggest and most important game any child will ever play. To this end, Quest to Learn has three full-time game designers supporting the work of the school’s 11 teachers — a ratio that reflects a trend more familiar to the business world, where designers and design-thinking have ascended to new and voguish heights. [NDLE:  Plus loin, l’auteure précise « I was struck by how enviably resource-rich the school was, with its game designers and curriculum specialists and a full-time technologist wheeling carts of netbooks up and down the hallway »]

[…] “There’s been this assumption that school is the only place that learning is happening, that everything a kid is supposed to know is delivered between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and it happens in the confines of a building,” she said. “But the fact is that kids are doing a lot of interesting learning outside of school. We acknowledge that, and we are trying to bring that into their learning here.”

[…]

…Children are proving to be wildly adaptive when it comes to using media outside school. They are fervently making YouTube videos, piloting avatars through complex game scenarios, sampling music, lighting up social networks and inventing or retooling (or purists would say, bludgeoning) language so that it better suits the text-messaging pay plan on their cellphones, only to show up to school to find cellphones outlawed, Internet access filtered and computers partitioned off from the rest of the classroom — at least in many cases. […]

Clearly, not every community is going to have the money for interactive whiteboards, laptops and PlayStation consoles. Someone will also need to figure out how to train teachers, develop curriculums, establish assessment measures and decide to what extent the focus on systems thinking and design skills used in game-based learning should be tied to common standards — and win over parents.

[…]

…The school functioned with the intensity of a high-stakes start-up. It was clear the staff members worked long hours.  Still, if Quest to Learn was a “possibility space” — a sort of laboratory for the future of learning — you could also see how those possibilities might feel entirely out of reach to an educator working in a more typically cash-strapped, understaffed school.

[…¸]

…Quest to Learn students who took federally mandated standardized tests last spring scored on average no better and no worse than other sixth graders in their district, according to Elisa Aragon, the school’s executive director. Valerie Shute, an assessment specialist in the educational psychology and learning systems department at Florida State University, is working on a MacArthur-financed effort to develop and test new assessment measures for Quest to Learn, which are meant to look at progress in areas like systems thinking, teamwork and time management.

[…]

…One topic under discussion [by those « who work in the field of games and learning »] is the broader question of “transfer,” whether a skill developed by playing a game actually translates to improved abilities in other areas. They also note that we are only just beginning to tease apart the mechanisms that make game play so powerful. And inside those mechanisms, there is at least potential to advance our country’s educational aims — if only we can sort out how we feel about games…

[…]

When it comes to capturing and keeping the attention of children, game designers appear to be getting something right that schools, in many cases, are getting wrong. James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University who grew interested in video games when his son began playing them years ago, has written several seminal books on the power of video games to inspire learning. He says that in working through the levels of a complex game, a person is decoding its “internal design grammar” and that this is a form of critical thinking. “A game is nothing but a set of problems to solve,” Gee says. Its design often pushes players to explore, take risks, role-play and strategize — in other words putting a game’s informational content to use. Gee has advocated for years that our definition of “literacy” needs to be widened to better suit the times. Where a book provides knowledge, Gee says, a good game can provide a learner with knowledge and also experience solving problems using that knowledge.

[…]

All this goes back to the debate over what constitutes “21st-century skills.” How do schools manage to teach new media without letting go of old media? Is it possible to teach game design and still find time for “The Catcher in the Rye”?  […] [Selon Al Doyle, un enseignant de Quest to Learn] “Ten years ago, it would have taken a week to get kids to learn the difference between ‘save’ and ‘save as,’ ” he said. “Now I show them GarageBand” — a digital audio sequencer produced by Apple — “and five minutes later they’re recording and editing sound.” Doyle made a point that others had also made: whatever digital fluidity his students possessed, it hadn’t been taught to them, at least not by adults.

Here, perhaps, was a paradigm shift. As Doyle saw it, his role was moving from teaching toward facilitating, building upon learning being done outside school. He talked about all the wasted energy that goes into teaching things that students don’t need so much anymore, thanks to the tools now available to them. Why memorize the 50 states and their capitals? Why, in the age of Google and pocket computers, memorize anything? “Handwriting?” Doyle said. “That’s a 20th-century skill.” Realizing this sounded radical, he amended his thought, saying that students should learn to write, but that keyboarding was far more important. He took aim at spelling, calling it “outmoded.” Then he went back to podcasting, saying that after a student has written, revised, scripted and recorded a podcast, “it’s just as valid as writing an essay.”

I must have been wearing the shocked expression of an old-guard English major, because Doyle tried to put a finer point on it. “We feel like we’re preparing these kids to be producers of media — whether they become graphic designers, video designers, journalists, publishers, communicators, bloggers, whatever,” he said. “The goal is that they’re comfortable expressing themselves in any media, whether it’s video, audio, podcast, the written word, the spoken word or the animated feature.” He added: “Game design is the platform that we can hook them into because this is where they live. Video games are more important to them than film, than broadcast television, than journalism. This is their medium. Games are this generation’s rock and roll.”

 […]

[Another important] concept is something that Will Wright, who is best known for designing the Sims game franchise and the 2008 evolution-related game Spore, refers to as “failure-based learning,” in which failure is brief, surmountable, often exciting and therefore not scary. A well-built game is, in essence, a series of short-term feedback loops, delivering assessment in small, frequent doses. This in the end may be both more palatable and also more instructive to someone trying to learn. According to Ntiedo Etuk, the chief executive of Tabula Digita, which designs computer games that are now being used in roughly 1,200 schools around the country, children who persist in playing a game are demonstrating a valuable educational ideal. “They play for five minutes and they lose,” he says. “They play for 10 minutes and they lose. They’ll go back and do it a hundred times. They’ll fail until they win.” He adds: “Failure in an academic environment is depressing. Failure in a video game is pleasant. It’s completely aspirational.”

It is also, says James Paul Gee, antithetical to the governing reality of today’s public schools. “If you think about kids in school — especially in our testing regime — both the teacher and the student think that failure will lead to disaster,” he says. “That’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll never get to truly deep learning.” Gee and others in the games-and-learning field have suggested that someday, if we choose to channel our resources into developing more and better games for use in classrooms, the games themselves could feasibly replace tests altogether. Students, by virtue of making it through the escalating levels of a game that teaches, say, the principles of quantum physics, will demonstrate their mastery simply by finishing the game. Or, as Gee says: “Think about it: if I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”

[…]

…Jan Plass, a professor of educational communication and technology at New York University […] works at an organization called the Games for Learning Institute, directed by Ken Perlin, an N.Y.U. computer-science professor, that is dedicated to exploring the granular details of what makes games so mesmerizing and effective for learning.

We were watching a small group of sixth-to-eighth-grade girls play a relatively low-tech math game on a series of laptops. The girls played in pairs, solving equations to score points. All the while, the laptops’ built-in cameras recorded their voices and faces, while an imbedded piece of software tracked their movements inside the game. What Plass and his research team were hoping to find inside this data — which was being collected at 12 New York schools — were answers about whether children learn more when playing individually or collaboratively. (In order to measure progress, researchers gave the students tests before and after the game playing.)

Two of the girls were talking and pointing at the screen. “They’re spending time discussing how to solve the problem,” Plass said in a low voice. “They might not solve as many problems. But the question for us is whether the conversation adds to the learning, versus if they spent their time on more practice. Does discourse result in deeper processing?”

A question like this is, of course, as old as Socrates and not at all limited to game-oriented learning. But given that digital games like those designed by Plass and his colleagues allow researchers to capture and examine a student’s second-by-second decision-making, they offer what seem to be uniquely refined opportunities to peer into the cognitive process. What they are studying, Plass said, is the science behind focused engagement — a psychological phenomenon known as “flow.”

Much of this work is still in its infancy. Neuroscientists have connected game play to the production of dopamine, a powerful neuro­transmitter central to the brain’s reward-seeking system and thought to drive motivation and memory processing (and more negatively, addictive behaviors) — all of which could have implications for how, when and what type of games should be used to advance children’s learning. But as it is with just about everything involving teaching and learning, there are no simple answers. Games, for example, appear to trigger greater dopamine releases in men than women, which could mean that game-based learning is more effective with boys than girls. Or, says Plass, it could be a matter of design: ideally, games can be built in such a way that they adapt to the individual learning styles of their players.

Paul Howard-Jones, a neuroscientist who teaches in the graduate school of education at the University of Bristol in Britain and coordinates the NeuroEducational Research Network, says that dopamine sends a “ready to learn” signal to the brain, essentially priming it to receive new information pleasurably. His research has shown that children’s engagement levels are higher when they are anticipating a reward but cannot predict whether they will get it — or, as Howard-Jones put it to me, “when you move from a conventional educational atmosphere to something that more resembles sport.” He is careful to add that games are not meant to supplant teachers nor undermine the value of more traditional learning. “Children need to learn how to read a book,” he says. “They need to learn how to ask questions.” But as our understanding of both cognitive science and game design continues to advance, he says that game play will find a central place inside schools. “I think in 30 years’ time,” he says, “we will marvel that we ever tried to deliver a curriculum without gaming.”

Cet article me fait prendre la mesure de la complexité des rapports entre apprentissage et jeux.  Entre l’intégration des TIC à la classe (et le besoin élevé de ressources, voire les distractions, qu’elles supposent), le développement d’habiletés requises pour le travail au XXIe siècle, l’apprentissage collaboratif, le transfert des habiletés acquises dans le jeu en vue de leur intégration, l’interdisciplinarité, la distance critique face aux codes du jeu, la transformation du rôle de l’enseignant, le droit à l’erreur, la production de dopamine permettant plus de concentration et de motivation, il me reste encore pas mal de matériel à creuser…

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