Echoing Coleman, Young told me most adults don’t understand how strongly teenagers feel the need to belong to a group, fighting together for a common cause. In that sense, he said, letter or percentage grades “are horrible as general motivators,” especially for struggling students. Going from a D to a B in a class is such a long-term endeavor that most feel it’s a lost cause. “If you’ve had Ds for five years, you’re convinced you’re a D student and you’ll always have Ds, because even if you do more work it’s not going to have an immediate repercussion.” He hopes Classcraft will help break the cycle. As students move up through the levels of the game, they actually pay less attention to grades and more attention to keeping their guild teammates “alive” and “healthy.”
There are many other initiatives that play upon Coleman’s basic thesis. In 2013, visiting Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, affectionately known as “TJ,” I watched as two members of the math team sat at computer terminals and worked through a set of high-level math problems. They were competing against a group of four other students who were sitting, at that moment, in a similar room in a similar high school 600 miles away, in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana. The opponents were simultaneously attacking the same set of problems. Each time someone solved one correctly, the digital score counter moved on all six screens.
If math ever becomes a spectator sport—and stranger things have happened—we can look back on these problem sets and the massive tournament they eventually spawned and thank Tim Kelley. He is the man who dreamed up Arete (originally named Interstellar), the curious piece of software that he hopes will change how students feel not just about math but about academics of nearly every sort. Kelley has spent most of the past six years cold-calling school administrators, flying around the United States, and figuring out how to build NCAA-style bracket competitions in academic subjects. In Kelley’s dream, Arete will pit class against class, school against school, and, someday, nation against nation.