It’s been ten years in the making, but a former California middle-school teacher insists he’s found a way to accomplish the unthinkable: getting students to do homework on the weekends–while watching football, on the couch.

Forget about sophisticated graphing calculators. No need to lug giant textbooks home every night–not anymore. With the start of the professional football season less than a week away, veteran math instructor Dan Flockhart says a teacher’s best bet for getting students interested in mathematics is football–fantasy football, that is.

Flockhart–who spent several years as a math teacher at a San Mateo middle school before going to work as a professor at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif.–believes so strongly in the concept that he’s written a book to help other teachers integrate the popular gridiron computer game into their lesson plans.

Called Fantasy Football and Mathematics, the book started as a college thesis. Given the enormous popularity of fantasy football–analysts say as many as 30 million people now play the game–Flockhart’s tome seems poised to become an online phenomenon all its own.

“The guys were so psyched just to be able to talk football and not get in trouble for looking at the sports page in class,” said Heather Brown, a math teacher at East High School in Fortuna, Calif., and an early adopter of Flockhart’s fantasy curriculum. And as for the girls, Brown said, the prospect of beating the boys at their own game was just too good to pass up.

Despite the growing number of school-age children playing fantasy sports online, Flockhart said, the market for instructional materials that make the game relevant to what teachers are trying to accomplish in the classroom is almost nonexistent. Given the widespread use of statistics in professional sports, he says, the concept is a natural fit for most math classrooms.

Aside from encouraging students to work together in teams, Flockhart says, the supplementary program touches on a host of important middle- and high-school math concepts–from fractions and decimals to percentages and algebraic equations.

Math instructor Dan Flockhart wrote the book on a new way to energize students. (photo courtesy of Dan Flockhart)

“The amount of mathematics problems you can come up with is almost infinite,” said Flockhart of his fantasy curriculum, which he’s been beta-testing in classrooms since the mid-1990s. “Whatever we were working on at the time, it was reinforced by the game.”

Flockhart’s classroom version works much like other fantasy football programs available through Yahoo or ESPN.com–with a few instructional twists.

At the beginning of the football season, each student must start by drafting a team. After using the internet to research players’ potential based on their previous years’ performance, each student-manager makes eight selections–one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker, and a team defense.

The students then watch the games as they’re played, or check the box scores in the newspapers the following day, to see how well their individual players performed. If their quarterback threw for a touchdown that day, for example, they might get six points. If their field goal kicker booted one through the uprights, they might get three; an extra point, one, and so on. Bonus points also are awarded for additional yardage. Conversely, players might lose points if they commit a fumble, or if someone on their team is brought down in the end zone for a safety.

Flockhart first started experimenting with fantasy football as a learning tool during the internet boom of the 1990s. At the time, he said, he was looking for a way to make math more relevant to students. He also wanted a program that would mesh with students’ often varied and diverse learning styles. Not only is fantasy football technology-based, he said, it also encourages students to interact with one another in an atmosphere that’s competitive–but still fun.

“The content in most math textbooks doesn’t even come close to relating to [students’] experiences–to their lives,” he said. With fantasy football, students have a way to track what they’re learning with an event that’s happening in real life.

And you don’t have to be a football fan to play, Flockhart says. Whether you spend Sundays on the couch, watching game after game, or simply check the box scores the next day to see how your team performed over the weekend, he contends, the competition factor is enough to keep the game exciting and relevant for crazed fan and layman alike.

Then there’s the gender thing. Looking back on the early years of his experiment in San Mateo, Flockhart knew the majority of boys in his classes would show an interest. It was the girls he worried about. In middle school, girls typically are more caught up in boys and fashion–and anything, really, but football, he said.

But after a few weeks of playing the game, female students, too, got caught up in the excitement. Before long, he said, it was the girls who were taking it to the boys.

“In seven years of playing fantasy football in classes, I think I only had one boy who actually won,” he said. “The rest of the time it was the girls.”

“The competitive edge was huge,” added Brown. What’s great about fantasy football as a math tool, she said, is that students–especially struggling ones–get so involved in the competition, the thought never even occurs to them that they’re actually learning something.

“A kid will say to me, ‘I can’t do that.’ And I’ll turn around and say, ‘You just did,'” she said. “It’s almost like they do it without realizing they’ve done it.”

Depending on the age of the student, Flockhart said, it normally takes anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes for kids to add up their point totals at the beginning of each class. In some cases, he says, students get so excited to play the game that they actually add up the totals over the weekend before they arrive at school, thus saving their classmates the trouble.

Once the totals are tabulated, Flockhart’s book recommends teachers step up the challenge by requiring students to convert their point totals to fractions based on a 1-to-1/48 ratio, or some other variation of that scale devised by the instructor. Once the conversions are complete, Flockhart says, students can construct bar graphs, line graphs, and other visual depictions designed to measure how well their teams perform each week in relation to their classmates’ teams.

All told, the book offers 46 different worksheets and matching assessments teachers can use when constructing lesson plans around fantasy football play, he said. From looking at an individual player’s performance from week to week to tracking the play of the entire team, he says, there is no limit to the number of equations teachers can devise to test their students’ knowledge.

So what happens when a student uses his or her understanding of the game to draft only the best players?

Realizing some students might have an unfair advantage over those who know very little about professional football or how the game itself is played, Flockhart devised a system that assigns dollar figures to each player based on their skill level and point potential. For instance, Peyton Manning, the All-Pro quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, might cost team owners $4.7 million to acquire, while a less accomplished player–say, Detroit Lions backup quarterback Jeff Garcia–might cost a relatively modest $2.9 million.

To even the playing field, each team is allotted a certain amount of money at the outset of play. As the draft goes on, students must use strategy to choose players based on the amount of money they have left in the bank. Any miscalculations could hurt their chances come playoff time. So while football acumen is helpful, Flockhart says, just knowing who the good players are doesn’t guarantee you’ll field a winning team. The key is to spend wisely and plan ahead based on research, he said.

While the book isn’t exactly tearing up the best-seller charts, Flockhart says he’s already tasted modest success. Despite having done very little marketing to promote the book, he estimates he’s received “dozens” of orders since putting copies–which sell for $19.99 apiece–up for sale on his web site. That was less than three weeks ago, and he expects those numbers to climb as the season ramps up.

What makes fantasy football such a hit in the classroom? Flockhart says the answer is simple.

“Millions of students in the U.S. are not proficient in mathematics because the subject matter does not interest them, and they do not see the relationship between math at school and math in their personal lives,” he said. “Fantasy Football and Mathematics makes connections between math in the classroom and math in the real world.”

Brown, who plans on starting her second year of classroom competition this fall, agreed. “The kids are really into it–and it’s fun,” she said. “For me, I just love the dynamic that goes on in the groups, especially watching the students try to work together to calculate the points … it’s really exciting.”

Links:

Fantasy Football and Mathematics
http://www.fantasyfootballmath.com