The best thing about “Learning by Playing,” the most excellent feature in this week’s New York Times magazine, is not that it gives a fairly fair and balanced look at the potentials of learning games in the classroom. No, instead, it’s the willingness to ask big questions in a big, hairy mainstream publication that lots of people read:

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?

Contrast that with the somewhat tired thinking that Time magazine offers around “What Makes Schools Great” and there’s no doubt we’re nowhere near a tipping point here or anything. (As someone who was thinking we were there like seven years ago, I’ve learned my lesson.) But I will say that it feels, at least, like more people are open to thinking about transforming schools, not reforming them, of seriously looking at “entirely different learning environments,” not just tweaks with tech. The National Ed Tech Plan, love it or not, at least pushes the thinking. The NCTE literacy standards are tough to meet in a traditional classroom. Some good stuff moving in the right direction.

The Times article, (assuming you haven’t read it yet) is about Quest to Learn, Katie Salen’s new school in New York City, funded by the Gates Foundation, flooded with technology, subject of all sorts of study, and for a host of reasons, difficult to replicate. But it’s also about a new language for classrooms, like

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.

And

The traditional school structure strikes Salen as “weird.” “You go to a math class, and that is the only place math is happening, and you are supposed to learn math just in that one space…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.”

We need more of this type of conversation getting “out there” into the mainstream as conversation starters. I know that to most, the idea of a “gaming school” is just off the charts, and I’m waiting to see if the Times opens comments on the article. But if we get more and more of this, all the better.

One last point. There’s a video with the piece that is worth the watch. About 1:20 in, pay close attention to the scan of the classroom as the teacher is talking. I couldn’t help thinking about Sugata Mitra’s comment that 1-1 classroom computing isn’t the best scenario; 1-4 requires kids to work together and collaborate in more meaningful ways. That’s writ large, I think, in that scene.

Lots to think about…