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An unusual public school in New York City is using a video game as its model for how to teach and for what kids should know. The school called Quest to Learn is wrapping up its first year.

Heather Chaplin reports on how it has implemented the idea that playing and designing video games is part of 21st century literacy.

HEATHER CHAPLIN: Video games don't come with instructions. But have you ever seen a kid not figure out how to play? Something about video games turn kids into phenomenal learners.

Katie Salen wanted to harness this power.

Ms. KATIE SALEN (Executive Director, Quest to Learn): The big idea of the school is that we looked at how games work, literally how they're built and the way they support learning. And we thought could we design a school from the ground up that supported learning in the way that games do.

CHAPLIN: This idea has been advocated for years by scholar James Gee, one of Salen's mentors. They believe video games are key to a new kind of literacy for the 21st century.

Mr. ROCCO ROSE (Student, Quest to Learn): In math, we're traveling around the world.

CHAPLIN: That's sixth-grader Rocco Rose, a student at Quest to Learn and a citizen of Creepytown, an imaginary city where his class learns math and English.

Right now, they're travel agents converting currencies, keeping blogs about their travel experiences and budget and trips.

Ms. SALEN: So you wouldn't be able to go to Tokyo, you wouldn't be able to go to Athens without actually opening up that vault.

CHAPLIN: Creepytown is structured like a video game that's jumped out of the computer. Katie Salen explains that kids have 10-week missions culminating in a boss level.

Ms. SALEN: The second trimester, Creepytown went broke. They had, like, an economic crisis. And so the kids looked at all their receipts to figure out, well, what went wrong. And then they proposed the design of a theme park to bring revenue in. So they designed a theme park.

CHAPLIN: Creepytown, like a video game, is a complex dynamic system. A model that changes depending on what the player does. Salen says playing with complex dynamic systems give kids opportunities to learn.

Ms. SALEN: To learn how to solve problems, how to communicate, how to use data, how to begin to predict things that might be coming down the line.

CHAPLIN: They also learn something called systems thinking, which Salen says is one of the cornerstones of 21st century literacy. It helps you understand how, say, the behavior of a derivatives trader in Hong Kong affects housing prices in Florida. When a system becomes sufficiently complex, Salen says, you start to get outcomes that are hard to foresee.

Ms. SALEN: Suddenly you begin to get what's called emergent behavior. And in emergent behavior, that system, the elements in it begin to relate to each other in ways that can be unpredictable.

CHAPLIN: In a classroom across the hall from Creepytown, 12-year-old Liam Smith is working with his team to storyboard one of Aesop's fables. It's the first step of the game design process.

At Quest to Learn, students not only play in game-like environments, they also make video games. Salen says there's no better way to learn systems thinking than making one. It's also familiar, says Liam.

Mr. LIAM SMITH (Student, Quest to Learn): When you start playing games at age 3, I think it just comes naturally to you.

CHAPLIN: For parents, though, video games aren't necessarily so familiar. Sam Clayton said choosing to send his child to Quest to Learn was a difficult decision.

Mr. SAM CLAYTON: Getting involved with the school, since there has been no program previously existing quite like this, that was a complete leap of faith getting involved and like jumping off a bridge.

CHAPLIN: Kids at Quest to Learn do take the same standardized tests as all public school kids.

Valerie Shute has a grant to asses the school from the MacArthur Foundation, which put up the seed money for Quest to Learn.

Professor VALERIE SHUTE (Florida State University): The school is under a huge microscope right now. And there's a lot of people that are hoping for, you know, a wild success, and other people are hoping for the opposite.

CHAPLIN: Shute says she's optimistic traditional skills like math won't take a beating.

For Katie Salen, the bottom line of 21st century literacy is empowerment.

Ms. SALEN: What systems thinking does is it simply gives you a tool to manage complexity. Because of the complexity of problems, if you're not able to look at them as a system, you're just going to look at a blur. You will just be overwhelmed by the complexity.

CHAPLIN: The school has around 500 applicants for 85 slots in next year's class, so Creepytown will be thriving for at least one more year.

From NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin.

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