Where Was This Place When I Was Twelve?

Walking into the strange space that was Epic Middle School, I realized instantly that this was not the type of learning I was used to seeing. Having grown up in Virginia—and being a product of the public school system—Epic looked like mass chaos. Students sat at large tables in front of computers, they were often loud and talking to each other, their focus was sometimes seemed questionable, and it was hard to really understand what was going on.

We moved into a small room, where we got to meet some of the staff at Epic and get to know better what was actually going on in this new environment. Epic is a middle school in Oakland, California, that is run by Education for Change, a charter management organization (CMO) that operates six charter schools in the Oakland area.  All of Education for Change’s schools are public and aim to help improve neighborhoods.

What makes Epic different, though, is not the fact that it is a charter school—it’s that the entire school is one big game.

Students are split into “houses” when they first come to the school; then, they are given different ways to progress through the “game” of school. Epic has no traditional grades or traditional methods of deciding where a student is at developmentally—they have replaced grade levels (like sixth, seventh, or eighth) with levels 1–3, and each level requires a different amount of points. Points, in this case, have replaced the A–F grading system, and students receive these points based on mastery of the material.

This game culture is something that I found incredibly appealing. Being a person who appreciates video games, board games, and puzzles, I thought to myself, “Where was this school when I was 12 years old?” I also look at things differently now that I am an educator. Walking into the classrooms, it was unclear what students were supposed to be doing in many cases. Long gone were the traditional elements we’ve come to expect in classrooms (objectives, essential questions, agendas, etc.). Students seemed to completely understand what they were supposed to be doing—and furthermore, they were actively engaged in making that happen.

Leaving Epic, I felt highly conflicted. I was initially hooked by the idea of turning education into a game, but I was then challenged by the way the school asked me to change some fundamental ways that I looked at education. I think Epic as a school asks us to reexamine what is really important about learning. Why do we have grade levels based on age? Why do we make kids take classes at the same time? Most importantly, what is the job that we want schools to do?

Epic is a school that is building problem solvers. From the first day, students are presented with puzzles to help determine something as simple as their daily schedule. Problem solving is built into the school and is how students progress and become successful. In an economy that more and more often is putting a premium on problem solving skills, it seems to be worth asking the question, “Is Epic a school ahead of its time?”

Nick Ford, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Ballou Senior High School


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