North Lakes Academy teacher thinks big
Eric Nelson uses the word “engage” a lot.
The education problem he’s trying to solve is that “students are not engaged enough in learning about the world in which they live.”
His solution, the Fantasy GeoPolitics game, has been “an extremely fun and engaging way to get my students interested in current events the past few years.”
The company he is creating around this idea, Fantasy Learning, “takes the most engaging aspects of fantasy sports and uses them to help students become fans of learning.”
Nelson, social studies teacher at North Lakes Academy’s upper school, realized a few years ago that he was increasing his knowledge about the NFL by playing fantasy football with his buddies.
He applied this flash of recognition to a problem he struggles with in teaching: getting teens interested in current events.
In 2009, he started experimenting with the idea in his classroom. Using a fantasy-football-style competition, students could follow countries and world leaders “competing” for news headlines: Search the Internet for five countries to find out how many times those countries were written about in a week.
“I don’t think the typical student reads newspapers,” Nelson said. But with Fantasy GeoPolitics, students aren’t reading printed newspapers. They’re using computers to play a game, an activity very popular with students these days.
Here’s how it works: Each student drafts five countries, keeping the same ones for the entire “season.” Then, each week the student decides which three countries to “play.”
In the first round, of course, all the well-known countries get picked. To help them choose, Nelson ranks countries. China and Syria, for example, are snatched up quickly, because they are highly likely to be in the news frequently.
In the second round, the student who previously was last in line to pick countries is now first. The order reverses each round.
“I have to teach a little fantasy football, but they’re mostly familiar with it,” Nelson said.
He used the game with his civics classes, refining it each year.
“Grades don’t motivate kids. Engagement motivates kids,” he explained. Using the fun of competition makes the learning relevant to their lives.
The score depends solely on how many times the country is mentioned in the news. This can lead to interesting discussions, such as why a particular newspaper does not write much about the Congo.
“Every news source is biased,” Nelson said, and his game helps students study not just the countries but also the media.
For scoring purposes, the game requires a single news source. One class used the online New York Times, one the online Wall Street Journal. Another possible source is foreignpolicy.com.
To play the game, the student looks for that week’s three countries in the headlines. But there’s more to it than counting headlines.
For one assignment, headline analysis, the student writes three sentences about the article: a summary of the news, how it affects that country and how it might affect the U.S.
For another, White House brief, the student writes a recommendation to the president about what he should do about the news event.
Nelson is not teaching civics this semester. In his emotional intelligence class, he covers becoming self-smart (living with a positive attitude, monitoring your moods and behavior, improving self confidence and motivation, and bouncing back from adversity), school-smart (finding relevancy, eliminating boredom and developing organizational skills) and people-smart (getting along well with others, listening and talking effectively, resolving conflict and becoming immune to negative influences).
Sharing the idea
But he’s still very involved with Fantasy GeoPolitics.
At a recent Startup Weekend event in Chicago, Nelson presented his idea to developers, marketers, designers, product managers and startup enthusiasts.
Startup Weekend is a global movement of entrepreneurs learning to launch business ventures. They come together for one weekend to pitch ideas, form teams and start companies.
Anyone can share an idea and receive feedback from their peers. Teams form around the top ideas and then spend 54 hours creating a business model. The Chicago Startup Weekend focused on education.
Friday night was pitch night. Each of about 40 presenters was given just 60 seconds to sell an idea.
“They start clapping when your time is up,” Nelson said.
Nelson presented his idea to get kids reading newspapers, learning about the world and becoming fans of learning, all through his game.
Every idea was shown on a wall poster, and every participant had one sticker to attach to a poster, indicating the project he or she would like to work on.
Based on the number of stickers on each poster, Fantasy GeoPolitics was the most popular concept at the event.
By the end of Friday evening, Nelson had a team of 10 developers, business people and marketers.
The developers had other ideas. In addition to fantasy geopolitics, why not fantasy literature (counting author citations) and fantasy science (counting carbon, steel and oxygen references)?
They envision a company called Fantasy Learning, which takes the most engaging aspects of fantasy sports and uses them to help students become fans of learning. Fantasy GeoPolitics would be the first product.
All the games would be played online, making them appealing to teens.
He also has a partner working to develop the technology for online score keeping. Teachers using his game in the future will have it much easier.
“Manually keeping score takes forever,” Nelson said. “I did it this way, but it’s so hard for another teacher to do.”
Now Nelson is in New Orleans, where he will spend three weeks at a 4.0 Schools Launch program. 4.0 Schools brings teachers, entrepreneurs and technologists together to launch ventures that redefine school.
“I’m hopping on a trend,” Nelson said. In the old education model, he said, students sat in their seat and listened, with not much curiosity. The new trend is engagement, critical thinking and using technology to promote learning.
Nelson uses several terms to describe this new trend: social learning, educational technology, competitive fandom, gamification. Whatever it’s called, it seems to be working.
In a survey at North Lakes Academy, 100 percent of the students involved said they were now more engaged in learning.
“Educational technology is allowing that transformation,” Nelson said.
“The question is how do kids learn? The answer is they learn only when they’re engaged.”