The Boss Level Challenge: Designing and Doing

Teacher: Boss Level is this unique space because it kind of like takes what we normally do, it condenses it into this smaller package, but it's like amplified. So during Boss Level, kids are met with these challenges, multiple, multiple challenges every day.

Student: For my Boss Level I did with Kate is that I went to the MOMA with her. In that Boss Level, I was able to prove my talent.

Teacher: On three, Bruce, say "Go Boss Level." Ready, one, two, three…

All: Go Boss Level.

Teacher: I think if kids really recognize what their teachers want to teach them and want to expose them to, that the sky's the limit in terms of what their future can hold. With Boss Level, I feel like the teacher's really able to pick a topic that they are passionate about and then use that passion to inspire the students.

And because you have such a long period of time to work on a project, it feels more satisfying than even playing a game for two periods or two lessons. Like you're really spending five or six periods a day with the same group of kids, really pushing them towards this challenging goal and it allows the students to really embody what an artist does or what a scientist does or a fundraiser.

And so that really is a special experience. The students have to embody the role of that individual to get to the end results. As opposed to, as a student, the end result is prescribed by the teacher and defined by the teacher. They have to define the end result for themselves.

Student: Boss Level is like where you get to show what you know from the past trimesters that you've learned from your teachers and see if you can show that you improved from the past months.

Teacher: I think it's important for the kids to be at MOMA first of all to be in the space and be two feet in front of a Jackson Pollock. Like that's a sensory experience that's really important.


Teacher: The idea of learning by doing is so important because we really believe that in order for students to really understand something, like to really deeply learn something, you have to do something with it. So it's not just about learning something, but it's about taking the information and creating something out of it, or making something out of it. And so that kind of learning is not limited to a classroom space, but it also happens in a classroom space.


Student: In MOMA, you can only look at the art and you can't touch it, or you'll get in trouble. So we wanted to give people the opportunity to touch and feel the art. Student: Okay, what should it be? I was thinking it would be called Spa. We're going to walk them through it and then they're going to say what they feel. Let's say they feel rocks, but it's actually dirt, we write down what we think and then we show them the sheet of paper of all the things they touched.

Woman: Ew!

Student: Don't kill it.

Woman: Is it bagels?

Student: Yeah.

Student: I think embodied learning means that like you learn but with your senses. So like touch, feel, look, and yeah.

Teacher: Because you're not in a classroom, what you expect to happen can be totally open. It lets you access your creativity in a way that’s different from being in a place that you're always in.

Teacher: He keeps saying, "Oh it's fine, it's fine."

Student: No, it's fine.

Teacher: Really, I don't know, I don't think I believe you. I think there's a catch here, because there's been a catch in all of these.

Teacher: My students can always count on me to support them in being successful in life, not just in seventh grade. And for their future lives, not just a state test or some sort of end assessment.

I want them to feel like they can achieve whatever goal they want to achieve and I'll always support them in that. And I think sometimes holding them to high standards, which can seem like being a strict teacher, is actually sort of helping them in the long run. And I think it takes– for my students, I think it takes them a little while to recognize that, and I think when they do, that it's a really nice relationship that's formed and hopefully continues over the years.

Boss Level, a special time built into the school schedule at Quest to Learn, enables teachers to plan project-based learning units that can happen outside of the classroom. For students, Boss Level is an opportunity to participate in a design challenge while taking on the role of an artist, filmmaker, chef, or any number of other real-life jobs.

And for teachers, Boss Level allows us to bring our own interests and passions to the job. I've been a mathematics educator in New York City's Department of Education for ten years, and I joined the Quest to Learn staff three years ago because I was drawn to the game-based learning approach and the amount of autonomy and creativity that teachers were empowered to bring to their curricula.

Action-Based PBL

For the last three years, we collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for our winter Boss Level design challenge. The learning outcomes for the students are dramatic, immensely satisfying, and endlessly memorable. Our school believes that students "learn by doing,"so we literally take them out of the classroom, put them in a gallery space, and give them an artistic challenge that is rich and trans formative. The first year, we asked them to create an interactive art exhibit at MoMA that embodied the phrase "Take Comfort."The following year, we picked the theme of "Escape"(featured in the video above). Both themes were flexible and compelling enough to reach all the students.

But the artistic theme or setting isn't necessary. In another Boss Level project, my colleague Leah and I designed a Thai cooking challenge that required the students to learn recipes, shop, advertise, and ultimately cook a five-course Thai meal for 100 people inside the school. The key to any successful design challenge is making it difficult enough to be daunting but totally achievable.

Design challenges are appropriate for all grade levels, but the maturity of the students will dictate the tools, location, and amount of adult supervision necessary. Most design challenges will mandate that students work in groups, use some type of technology, and manage their time. In fact, these learning activities prepare students for adult life far more than textbook problem sets ever could, because the kids actually have to do something. Students cannot be passive they must take action to reach the goal.

furthermore, students must go through the design process: empathizing with their audience, defining the problem, brainstorming, prototyping, and modifying their final projects.

5 Steps to the Boss Level

Teachers reading this post may feel discouraged. You may be thinking,"My school doesn't have Boss Level, so I could never do this."But I would challenge you to discard that notion.

Here's how you can bring a Boss Level design challenge into your own classroom:

1. Start With Passion Pick a topic that you're passionate about: cooking, graphic design, comic books, dance, art museums, or anything. Students can tell when you are excited about something, and excitement can be infectious. The teacher's enthusiasm for the topic can drive the students' learning.

2. Timing Is Everything Find a time in your school schedule that allows you take field trips, such as that window after the state exams when students are anxious for summer break.

3. Daunting But Achievable Come up with a design challenge that fits your topic. Do you want students to visit water sources, act like scientists, and design a conservation project? Do you want students to visit historical sites around your city and give informative walking tours to pedestrians? The sky is the limit!

4. Seek Allies Gather resources and recruit other educators to help you. Knowledge-based institutions like museums and libraries, and even corporations with a presence in the community may be more willing to help than you imagine!

5. Make a Schedule Plan out mini-lessons to teach each step of the process. At MoMA, we had the kids create small art projects throughout the week before we gave them their final challenge. And the Thai cooking project required the kids to learn a series of recipes, practice knife skills, and learn about kitchen safety in short, manageable lessons.

I often joke with my colleagues that Boss Level is the best week of my life. You may think I’m exaggerating, but the learning that happens during these challenges is so authentic, liberating, and enjoyable for the kids and teachers that it feels like we’ve uncovered some crazy secret here at Quest to Learn. But design challenges are educational and accessible for all — and I hope you feel inspired to try one!

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