“Global competence is a 21st-century skill, and schools aren’t doing it enough,” said Nelson, a social studies teacher at North Lakes Academy in Forest Lake, where the classroom has suddenly become grounds for healthy competition.
To sharpen his students’ analytical skills and combat their “zombified” expressions and inattentiveness, Nelson last fall introduced a fantasy football-style game in which students select or draft countries, rather than NFL players, and rack up points based on the number of times their country is mentioned in media outlets such as the New York Times.
Students compete head-to-head with their classmates, with the student compiling the most points being crowned the winner at the end of each season, which can stretch for two weeks. But getting to the top requires some study. Here, a basic knowledge of current affairs comes in handy — for example, stories mentioning Russia have spiked in recent weeks with the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Nelson hit on the idea of Fantasy Geopolitics back in 2009 after discovering, like many teachers, that it was difficult to keep his students engaged in the material covered in class.
The idea came to him after he had played several seasons of fantasy football in a league with friends.
“When I started playing fantasy football with my buddies, I thought it was a weird idea at first. But when I really dove in I found out that I was learning a ton about the NFL,” the 27-year-old said.
Nelson says that educators are increasingly using “gamification” — the strategy of using game mechanics in nongame situations — as a way of influencing student behavior and fostering creativity.
The payoff, he says, is that his students seem more engaged.
But, he adds that without more data, it’s difficult to know for certain whether student performance has improved.
Falling creativity scores among U.S. schoolchildren over the past three decades has contributed to what the Association of American Universities has described as a growing innovation gap.
“Ignoring the innovation deficit will have serious consequences: a less prepared, less highly-skilled U.S. workforce, fewer U.S.-based scientific and technological breakthroughs, fewer U.S.-based patents, and fewer U.S. start-ups, products, and jobs,” the association said in a letter to President Obama and Congress.
Nelson says the fantasy game approach has caught on with other teachers at the school. He also has presented his ideas at education conferences and workshops in Chicago, New York and New Orleans, and put together an online fundraising campaign to help revamp the class’s fantasy game website.
While some educators remain skeptical, Nelson said, the initial reception has been largely positive.
“The way children are growing up today, with iPads and TV, everything is entertainment. They’re all learning through animated things and dancing around. It’s very interactive,” said Barry Kudrowitz, who said he is unfamiliar with Nelson’s work. “So if you grow up that way, learning everything through a cartoon or learning through animations, and you walk into a classroom and you have someone talking at you in front of a chalkboard, you’re going to lose them.”
Kudrowitz, 31, who teaches product design at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, sees his role as more of a facilitator than instructor. To get his students’ creative juices flowing, he creates competitions for them in his toy design and concept sketching classes encouraging them to use their new skills.
Checking the standings
On a recent morning, Nelson started class by asking his ninth-graders to pull out their laptops.
The students fired up their school-issued Google Chromebooks and pulled up the class website that features an interactive world map. Nelson pointed to Russia, which stood out because it was shaded in dark green, meaning it had been trending in the news.
Next, students looked at the class scoreboard. The leader, who had picked the countries of Russia and South Korea in the class draft, had 296 more points than a second-place competitor, who had selected France and Israel.
Upon seeing the standings, a student sitting near the front of the class groaned.
“Croatia sucks. Why did I pick Croatia?” he said.
The discussion continued, pivoting from the Olympics to a conflict in Iraq to the looming shortage of “eligible men” in Australia.
As the class kicked around the issues, one student protested what she considered to be a disparity in news coverage.
“This is horrible,” she said. “There’s a lot going on in my country, Ukraine: their economy is going down. I say that’s big news!”
Nelson nodded approvingly.