Rules of Engagement and The Biggest Winner Challenge

When a School Leader in New Orleans wanted a rapid rise in math scores she turned to Ed Inquiry to create a school-wide “campaign” of change.  The campaign, called The Biggest Winner Challenge, resulted in math score increases of 22% in 1 year in target grades.  Students, teachers and parents were actively engaged in the development of an achievement culture that closed skills gaps and helped students that were more than 2 grade levels behind get on grade level.  Using new blended learning strategies and tools, introduced in the second year, students submitted more than 800,000 math problems online supplementing classroom instruction.  Progress over 2 years and in  2 school was monitored daily with personalized data paths for each student.  The results changed the culture, reset the bar of expectations for the school community and delivered measurable student performance increases.

This is an interactive post.  It will require about 15 minutes to read and participate. Click below and watch  a portion of a You Tube video before you continue reading.  Watch as much as you want and then read on.  It is 4:38 minutes long.  Scroll down when you finish!!!


Your Perceptions

After watching the video consider how you felt about it!  Did you like it?  Did you watch only a portion of it?  Did you understand it?  All of these questions will matter as you read on.


K-12 public school educators are facing many challenges these days.  New standards, curriculum and accountability  tests are all putting added pressure on school leaders and teachers.  In this high stakes testing environment student performance numbers matter and can mean life or death for schools on the margin, and those in transformation or turn-around.

Policy makers in education are generally very educated themselves.  Most with an advanced college degree related to their field.  Ask most of them and I bet they will tell you how much they liked school and that they were good students at some point.   But these policy makers attended school in times when there were fewer distractions and school was a primary focus and aspiration for most families.  But times have changed.  The kids of today are radically different then the kids of past generations in their ready access to a much broader range of activities to satisfy their interests.  Although many policy makers have children that may connect them to the current K – 12 school age generation, their families are probably growing up in a relatively secure financial household where at least one parent has an advanced degree and a good job,  which is quite different then growing up poor in a lower income neighborhood in the inner city or rural America.

It is unfortunate that many policy makers are losing touch with the generation they need to engage, motivate and educate.  Let’s dive into some data.

An Industry of Distractions

Now before proceeding, I have nothing against video games, computer games or any of the current popular distractions for students.  And I am not advocating a point of view on the matter. We are simply stating facts and reporting on data so we can better understand how to reach and engage students so we can improve their outcomes.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is the U.S. association exclusively dedicated to serving the business and public affairs needs of companies that publish computer and video games for video game consoles, handheld devices, personal computers, and the Internet.  Each year they produce a review of their industry.  The data from that report can be used to gain better insight into the day-to-day world of this new generation of students (and parents)  which is quite different from the days when I was a kid or when most of the current policy makers experienced their childhood.

Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of ESA stated in their 2015 industry report – “Video games are ingrained in our culture. Driven by some of the most innovative minds in the tech sector, our industry’s unprecedented leaps in software and hardware engages and inspires our diverse global audience. Our artists and creators continue to push the entertainment envelope, ensuring that our industry will maintain its upward trajectory for years to come.”

According to the ESA report and other sources:

  • US Census 2014 estimate of the population = 318,857,056
  • 155 million Americans play video games (about 49% of the total population)
  • 26% of game players are under 18 (40 million)
  • There are 50 million K – 12 public school students in the US*
  • 51% of US households own a gaming console
  • 42% of Americans play video games 3 or more hours per week
  • Average number of years gamers have been playing video games: 13
  • 30% of gamers play action oriented games (ed note: lots of stimulation)
  • 45% of gamers feel that playing video games help them spend time with family
  • 59% of parents play video games with their children
  • 28% of the video games sold in 2014 were action type games
  • 22% of the video games sold were shooter games (involving guns and killing)
  • $22.41 billion – the amount consumers spent on the gaming industry in 2014

Engaged Students Improve Outcomes

The data above paints a much different picture of the extracurricular lives of students then when I was a child.  Now let’s talk about student engagement.   The website – The Glossary of Education Reform defines student engagement as: “…the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of “student engagement” is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.” Stronger student engagement or improved student engagement are common instructional objectives expressed by educators.”

The fact that the many students are now hooked into a 24/7 world of ongoing entertainment and amusement presents a major challenge for educators, especially in neighborhoods where parental models often do not include college and professional careers.  Or from neighborhoods where the dangers of the streets are such that indoor play is the safest option.  Or from neighborhoods where economic opportunity is nonexistent so the only feelings one might get of success may come from gaming.

Many students, starting from a very young age, are exposed to some of the best quality games ever produced.  The gaming industry hires some of the most innovative and creative minds working in the private sector.  The quality of graphics has increased to the point where the realism and visual appeal of many games is much more stimulating than what many children may see in their day-to-day lives.

According to a Pew Research Report, 20% of children in the U.S., or 14.7 million, lived in poverty in 2013… (Poverty in 2013 was defined as living in a household with an annual income below $23,624 for a family of four with two related children.)  Much more than 20% are living in households that struggle daily with financial insecurity and the ills associated with persistent and pervasive poverty.  When students arrive at school they come with a set of expectations and experiences that impact their future vision and their engagement in the classroom.

The world of gaming offers many children a fun alternative to the world they live in.  In the gaming world they are not poor, they are not disenfranchised, they are not tied to their economic circumstance.  In many multi-player games, children partner with players from around the globe to conquer a battlefield, find treasure or other challenge.  In this “virtual” setting they are, for a time, equal to any other which may be in stark contrast to their reality.  Is it any wonder that the gaming industry is exploding, engaging both children and parents?  When gaming, the young play with the old.  The rich with the poor.  Many of the real world boundaries that separate individuals fade away.

If you want to see what 21st century engagement looks like watch a group of kids playing a video game together.

Educators today are competing with a virtual world that did not exist when most of the policy makers were children.  They are trying to engage children that are becoming expert at winning in the highly stimulating worlds created by the rich media of modern gaming technology.  For the most frequent gamers when asked how long they have been gaming, the average number of years is 13.

The Need to Engage Students

The US education establishment has recognized that the country is falling behind other nations in the preparedness of our children for the global economy.  So we have increased our standards as can be seen by the adoption of the Common Core by many states.  But as the rigor increases and students are asked to work harder to meet these new standards, many are opting out and shifting their focus from the school building to a world where they can feel some level of success and connection.  As we go through this generational change, we are losing too many children because of our ignorance of the current world they live in and the experiences that are shaping their perceptions.

While working in Louisiana with several high poverty schools, we launched and analyzed math diagnostics at the start of the year.   Many students were far behind grade level, lacking some very important foundational skills. Analysis of the the data for each grade and classroom showed wide variation of ability and skill.  Many students were 3 grade levels behind and few on grade level or above.  Our start of year diagnostic findings were consistent with diagnostic tests from other sources.

In discussions about our findings, we asked teachers how they coped with the variation.  Many acknowledged the issues, others simply thought that was the way it is and you deal with it. Teachers complained about losing kids (to disengagement) that were smart but did not have the foundational skills needed for the grade level material.  They also talked about how they did not have time to focus on those above grade level students who were also disengaged and performing poorly because they did not have any real challenge in their school life. Teachers complained because they were often judged on their ability to differentiate instruction but had no tools to address the needs of children so many grade levels behind.  Teachers also complained about a lack of parental involvement and support for their children’s studies.

The data from the ESA report above shows that many young parents have grown up gaming and regularly play with their children.  These parents often cite that this is a way of socializing with their family.  This type of collective family behavior, much different than the generations before where television was the communal activity, has implication for education practices and policy.  With so many children involved in the highly stimulating world of video games and with parents participating,  is it any wonder that educators are struggling to compete for attention, so they can reach and engage students.

 The Genesis of the The Biggest Winner Challenge Campaign

The Biggest Winner Challenge Campaign was designed as one solution for schools looking to find a way to offer a counter culture to the rich virtual gaming and entertainment world that has captured the attention of our kids.  The Biggest Winner Challenge Campaign was designed to be a school wide initiative, that creates an achievement culture for students similar to what they may experience in their gaming world.

The objective of The Biggest Winner Math Challenge Campaign is the achievement of quantifiable  significant growth in a school’s math performance scores in 1 year with steady growth in scores for the following 2 years. Students, parents and teachers must work together to achieve the goal.

We use the term “campaign” intentionally.  The concept of a marketing campaign, similar to one launched by a consumer brand like Coke or Nike, provides better context for the overarching nature of the The Biggest Winner Challenge.  The “campaign” mimics a TV game/reality show, familiar to most students, parents and teachers.  The “campaign” establishes a means to speak with its audience.  In this case the school community using familiar rich social media – branded to the “campaign” theme.  Students participating, voluntarily, are able to win real prizes as in a game show.  But the path to winning is through math skills gap closing activities – using blended learning technologies put in place for self paced learning.  Students can participate no matter where they are in relation to their grade level expectations.  Far behind or ahead does not matter.  The campaign is about the level of growth from the individual student’s starting point and each child  is rewarded with certificates of accomplishment based on skill mastery.  Certificates give them the chance to win real world prizes of interest.  The campaign works to transform the culture and shifts the focus of the school community to achievement.

For the School Leader, The Biggest Winner Challenge is a school wide campaign of change and transformation.  In one branded wrapper school leaders can reach students, teachers and parents, aligning them in the mission of rapid and significant growth in math performance – closing student skills gaps and getting them prepared for grade level work.

For many students their participation in the videos alone engaged them enough to sign up to use technology tools that helped them to close their math skills gaps.  But the campaign for change went further than videos.  Every 3 months students that participated in The Biggest Winner Math Challenge would receive school wide recognition for their achievements, no matter how far behind they were. The use of video and social media helped the School Leaders to open a direct channel of communication to parents and students, while modeling the desired behaviors for the entire  school community in a compelling way.  Check out the first 3 minutes of the video below to see how a communication with the community was established.

Focus and Engage the Community in Change and See Significant Growth

Students could relate to the challenge, the music, the rewards.

Parents were engaged  and participating as their children shared the You Tube videos with their families thereby consistently and continually delivering the messages of achievement broadly to the community at large.

The teachers felt they were a part of something special so they competed to show progress and saw the enthusiasm of the students.

All the while the data teams in the schools, being trained by Ed Inquiry, were collecting performance data from iReady, IXL and other tools used in the program and developing personalized learning plans  for students, with recommendations for skills gap closing activities using platforms like Kahn Academy, IXL, iReady.

Grade level math skills were translated into characters (Counter, Banker, Time Keeper, Builder)  so as to personify the needed skills and make it relevant to students.   Badge categories are used to show advancement within topic areas.  Children advance through a set of challenges in the way they have become accustomed to in the virtual world of video games.

Recognition and reward across the School Community

To further engage them in the process, certificates of accomplishment for growth are presented in school assemblies where the achievement culture is modeled for the school community.  Parents would often tell me that the certificates their children received were the first time their child had received ANY recognition for their math skills, especially if they were behind grade level.  Instead of feeling like a failure, experienced by so many kids that are far behind, The Biggest Winner Challenge provided a way for them  to feel success and to have that success recognized across their school community.  Students earned certificates for mastery of specific skills. They could earn many over the course of 1 year.  Each certificate earned was then entered into a raffle for digital prizes like Kindle Fire, IPads and other technologies that many student wanted but could not afford, thereby also closing the digital divide.

Innovative and Forward Thinking School Leaders Get It

The program was a success in the first pilot year.  In the second year the data confirmed that engaged students supported with blended learning technology tools can achieve significant increases in math understanding and ultimately in assessment test results.  Scores increased and many students, grade levels behind, caught up rapidly.  Students learned how to use new learning tools.  But as the these School Leaders departed their schools in the 3rd year and with new leadership coming into the district the programs came to an end.

Incoming School Leaders, shifted focus from engaging students to solely focusing on enhancing teachers through professional development  and adopting new curriculum.  The wealth of data collected in the 2 years definitively showed the progress with some classes demonstrating more than 2 years of growth in their individual scores.

Here is one story from The Biggest Winner Pilot that shows how the campaign engaged students and parents alike, while creating individual student learning paths suited to their specific needs.

The Biggest Winner Challenge is one of Ed Inquiry’s solutions to the many challenges that educators are facing today.  We believe that educators have to understand the students’ day-to-day world and create “experiences” for them so they can better understand the value of educational persistence.  We should recognize that students today live in a world very different than the one many of us (older generation) experienced as children.  We can learn much from the private sector’s approach to engaging, motivating and entertaining its consumers.  Thinking out of the box, using tools that have become pervasive outside of school, educators may be able to create a compelling counter culture where experience, challenge and success are combined with community recognition and reward.  Perhaps then we can help our students find that school is an environment where they can be engaged and successful no matter where they are starting from and no matter how far behind they may be.

Join our campaign for reform and spread the excitement!




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