PSFK in partnership with HP Matter speak to Katie Salen Tekinbas, Director of Research and Design at the Institute of Play, about why dissenting perspectives enable the best collaborations
Innovation is the new currency in today’s Idea Economy. In recognition of the leaders who are disrupting our tech-driven world, the editors at thought leadership site PSFK.com partnered with HP Matter to create the Innovators Index, a roster of digital pioneers making a global impact. This week we’ve featured Katie Salen Tekinbas for her efforts to bring game design into the classroom.
The rapid evolution of technology has had profound impacts on society, changing the way we work, live and socialize. As every industry struggles to keep pace with the rate of innovation, uncertainty is establishing itself as the new normal. For individuals and businesses to succeed in today’s world, it’s become clear that an adaptable set of knowledge and skills will be required, yet many of the models that dictate how we teach and learn have remained the same.
As a way to better prepare students for the future and arm teachers with more engaging curriculums, the Institute of Play is bringing the principles of game design to the classroom. By developing experiences that simulate real world problems, the institute’s lessons challenge learners to come up with dynamic, well-rounded solutions that draw on competencies across subjects. Through its two Quest Schools in NYC and Chicago, and freely available resources, the institute hopes to make education more relevant.
As part of our series of interviews for the Innovators Index, we caught up with Katie Salen Tekinbas, the institute’s founding Executive Director and current Director of Research and Design to understand why seeking outside perspectives and exploiting gaps in existing structures are key to innovation.
PSFK: Can you give us some background on the Institute of Play?
The Institute of Play is a nonprofit that grew out of a game development company called gameLab. There were a group of us that were very interested in connections between game design and the larger space of education. We felt like game designers had a lot to contribute to the conversation around how people learn, but hadn’t necessarily been invited to the table for lots of reasons.
The first big project we took on was with a public school in New York City called Quest to Learn. The school was to demonstrate what learning could look like if you place the child and questions of engagement at the center of the teaching model. The school was designed from the ground up around ideas of game design and play, which means that principles of game design infuse the curriculum, infuse the structure of the day, the culture of the school and the types of tools that students and teachers use. That school will graduate its first class of 12th graders next year.
The institute has also done a lot of work over the years helping to train teachers. It helps them re-imagine what teaching and learning can look like when they start to think like designers. So we’ve started to develop a national teacher training program, called Teacher Quest, that brings teachers into the space of games and learning and helps them think about the types of things that they might do in their own schools.
PSFK: What motivates you, and what do you enjoy most about your work?
I love to collaborate with people in disciplines outside of my own field. At the Institute we get to collaborate with a range of people from educators and schools to companies and science programs. I really love that kind of learning process around new content and new approaches. I am also constantly surprised by how transformative play is for people.
PSFK: Can you walk us through your creative process around the design of the school?
The work on the school really began with the question of how can we re-imagine classrooms as deep spaces of engagement. Once we started to ask that question, then we had to start looking into what engagement means from the perspective of learning scientists, psychologists and kids. So there’s a research phase to really understanding the limits of the problem space—what’s known and what is unknown. And then you can begin to come up with strategies so as to intervene in that problem space.
The school in a way was a solution or a strategy to get at that question of what engagement could look like. Instead of saying, “Oh, we’re just going to develop a piece of curriculum,” or “we’re just going to develop a game,” the strategy was to design it at the level of the school and not just at the level of the classroom since learning is such a systemic experience and school is such a complex system,
PSFK: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a person or a company looking to reinvent themselves?
I’d say to collaborate with someone who comes from a space or a discipline very different from your own and that actually shares a worldview that’s also very different from your own. In a way, you want to extend and transform the way that you look at the world, which will then change the way you look at problems.
PSFK: What does the term “disruption” mean to you? How does it shape your own approach?
I’ll talk about disruption from a game design perspective. One of the most interesting things about the way that games work is that there’s a rigid rule structure that gets activated through play. There’s this wonderful balance between rigidity and improvisation and choice. When a person is at play, one of the very first things that many people do is they start to push against the rules to find the gap, the spaces where they can kind of transgress those rules, spaces where they can be innovative.
When I hear that word, “disruption,” and think about it in the context of our practice, what we’re really trying to do is take a system like a school or the space of teacher practice, and figure out the intervention that transforms it so that it begins to behave in a different way. It’s not about breaking a system. It’s actually about working within it, but in a way that exploits some aspect of it to have a transformative effect.
PSFK: Could you describe the key forces and factors that are driving innovation in the education today?
I believe that there’s quite a universal recognition that we’re not doing a good job with our young people. The way that we’ve approached education traditionally really has to change. At the same time, there’s been a movement toward the privatization of education and learning, which ultimately doesn’t benefit all kids, particularly those living in poor communities. So there’s market competition now in a way that maybe there wasn’t before. This creates a mandate around public education to come up with a different approach.
I think that there is a whole host of people that previously were not engaged in conversations around education, that now are. The game industry, in particular, has really started to look at the contribution it might make either to the question of learning games or beginning to find different approaches to creating new tools for the classroom. So there’s a larger recognition that more people can contribute to the transformation of education and that different kinds of expertise might be able to create new kinds of solutions.
PSFK: What is the industry that’s in the most need of radical change, and why?
I feel like globally there are a lot of questions around just what it mean to govern a nation or a nation state. As we’ve moved into a more globalized world, it’s not clear that the current model will allow for the types of collaboration that could be beneficial to humankind as a whole. I feel that governments are very lost in the models that they’ve been using.
At the same time, there’s a huge challenge around the haves and the have nots. Globally there’s a rising gap between the rich and poor. And I think that we’re going to have to grapple with questions of economics and equity.
It feels like there’s a real mandate to rethink notions of government in order to help all people in all nations be able to survive and thrive.
Innovation is the new currency in today’s Idea Economy. In recognition of the leaders who are disrupting our tech-driven world, the editors at thought leadership site PSFK.com partnered with HP Matter to create the Innovators Index, a roster of digital pioneers making a global impact. Each week, we’ll share POVs from these experts on their work and process, sharing insights on reinvention and how to embrace change.