Josh Hoekstra and the Gamification of Education

Josh Hoekstra, a 39-year-old U.S. history teacher from Rosemont High School in Minneapolis, is revitalizing history education with his Teach with Tournaments method. U.S. history is one of American students’ worst performing subjects, and Josh wanted to give the topic the innovation it needed to inspire greater interest. Harnessing his students' enthusiasm for NCAA’s March Madness tournament, Josh created a passion-driven, competitive learning model that encouraged students to become personally connected with historical figures they studied.

Josh’s class chose the “most courageous Americans” and competed in a tournament where students presented and voted on Americans who embodied their definition of courage. The method was a success and is being incorporated by educators across the country in all kinds of classes. We caught up with Josh recently about the impact Teach with Tournaments is having on education. How did you come up with integrating the excitement of March Madness into the classroom? What was your inspiration? How did you conceptualize a vision that allowed students to become active participants in their own educations?

Josh Hoekstra: The inspiration for my "2012 Most Courageous American Tournament" (now part of my overall teaching method, Teach with Tournaments) was a conversation with some of my 10th-grade male students concerning the March Madness basketball tournament. These young guys were so excited when they were looking at the tournament brackets and match-ups. They were going through each game debating back and forth. I wanted to see that much energy, enthusiasm and competitiveness in my classroom.

I came up with the idea of putting some of the most courageous Americans we studied in a 64 person bracket and run a tournament to determine who students thought was the most courageous American in history. The students had come up with their own personal definition of courage during the first week of school and wrote it on the inside of their notebooks. They could also change their definition as the year went on.

Did you have any idea how personally your students would connect with these people? What is it about that personal connection that stimulates a love for learning, and how does Teach with Tournaments target that?

I truly believe that when kids make a personal connection to history, the desire to learn comes naturally. When kids see the men and women who made our country what it is today struggle with everyday problems, fears, disappointments — even tragic loss— they begin to relate to them. I had a pretty good idea that Teach with Tournaments would enhance their interest in history because it would allow them to dive into the personal details of the people they researched. I had a student come to class stunned that Abraham Lincoln lost his mother at age 8 and had to personally construct her casket. She remarked, "Can you imagine whittling the pegs to your mother's casket as an 8 year-old??" Now, when she studies Lincoln in broader terms, she'll have a deeper respect for the man, not just the president.

And teaching with tournaments can be used across the curriculum. Imagine: Most Impactful American Tournament; Greatest Scientific Discovery Tournament; Biggest Blunder in Military History Tournament. The options are endless! The bottom line is when the kids are competing and have a personal investment, they will take learning to a new level.

How come students have such a difficult time with U.S. history in particular? 

Students struggle with history simply because they have not been exposed to the personal side of history. What's interesting about a series of dates and facts they have no connection to? We as educators and parents have an obligation to "bring it alive" through reading, professional dialogue and sharing ideas. There is so much excellent material out there; we just need to bring it to our kids. A U.S. history teacher cannot “hook” students by using one textbook for everything he/she does in class. Educators need to be armed with different material. Keep it fresh!

What has the response been like from educators? Many teachers across the country are teaching with tournaments, and you've been speaking a lot about it. How are you raising visibility for innovative teaching?

In terms of getting it out to the public, I was so blessed to have been a scheduled guest on the Bill Bennett Morning Show on three occasions as well as being featured on I also produced a book and eBook on how to run this concept in your classroom and at home. I speak to large groups of professionals and educators on how to run this concept specific to their individual needs.

Where do you see this going, and what kind of a role do you want it to have in reshaping history education in America?

I want any teacher looking to inject energy and life into learning to adopt this concept. This idea can be used across the curriculum but is really effective in teaching history. There are so many ways to use this. Imagine a tournament related to the Civil War where the kids are researching/debating/voting on the most effective general of the war. An educator in New Jersey is running a tournament to determine the most effective abolitionist of the Antebellum era. Also, a gentleman from Texas is going to use this idea to teach his unit on Texas History.So many options!

Is there any story that stands out to you or any student presentation that moved you in a particular way?

As I told CNN, I won't forget the desperate plea of a young woman who became deeply connected to Tom Burnett (one of the heroes of Flight 93) as he was eliminated in the first round by eventual Tournament winner Michael Murphy. In an emotional plea she said, "Mr. Hoekstra... he can't be eliminated --- don't these people understand what he did?"

During the final vote, a young man who faced personal challenges made a compelling argument in front of his classmates on behalf of Michael Murphy. He acknowledged the valor displayed by Michael Murphy, but he explained that his reason for voting was that in 8th-grade Murphy stuck up for a special needs student at school. This young man made a personal connection that never would have been possible without Teach with Tournaments.