Ask any elementary or middle school student what they would rather do in the afternoon—play basketball or do math—and it’s almost guaranteed they’ll say basketball, hands down. While it’s no surprise kids prefer playing basketball and talking about their favorite NBA players to solving equations, math proficiency across the U.S. is a huge problem. 82% of low-income 8th graders are not proficient in math. Failing a middle school math class is a proven indicator for dropping out of high school, which severely impacts a student’s trajectory for success later in life.
After experiencing these problems first hand, Khalil Fuller, a math aficionado and NBA devotee, created NBA Math Hoops, a game that fully integrates NBA teams, players and stats into what just might be the funnest math game ever. The game has been a huge success so far. Students actually feel like they are playing basketball while using NBA Math Hoops, when really they are thinking through probability, statistics and expected values through math equations. Based around Common Core State Standards, NBA Math Hoops effectively gets kids engrossed in math by providing them an educational experience that closely relates to their interests.
Learn Fresh is now developing an NBA Math Hoops app that will allow students to play the game even when they aren’t in the classroom. In our interview last week, Khalil shared details on building the new product, the inspiration for NBA Math Hoops, student success stories and his thoughts on the future of math education.
Can you talk me through the personal experiences that inspired you to launch Learn Fresh?
I grew up in a really supportive family of educators. My mom began her career as a high school English teacher and my step mom is an elementary school teacher. They set the bar high and expected a lot from me. I was always expected to excel – I couldn’t bring home B’s. Thankfully I enjoyed school. I loved math and I latched onto it when I was pretty young. When I was going through high school my two best friends ended up dropping out because they fell so far behind in math. When that happened, I entered this difficult period of my life. I was mad at my friends, I was mad at myself, and I rebelled against our teachers as a result. Finally I channeled this anger and aggression into a positive outlet and started tutoring kids in math. I realized I didn’t have the tools to make math come alive and help kids fall in love with math the way I had. I started thinking about this. Growing up in LA the Lakers were life for us, while math was this thing kids were force fed. In reality the two are very interconnected, and I realized if we could peel off one layer and show the connection to kids, it could be a game changer. My first year of undergrad I met people who were putting the building blocks together for NBA Math Hoops and I started working on this full time.
How did the partnership with the NBA come about?
We partnered directly with the NBA and got a royalty free license for what I’m told is the first time in history, and we created this supplemental math curriculum centered around basketball. It’s different from other education products because the learning is intertwined into the game. It’s not extrinsic motivation. If you look back at the 90’s, there were these little math workbooks that showed the math in the typical format accompanied by little pictures of NBA players with captions saying things like, “Hey math is cool!” Just slapping the NBA onto a really boring education product. It didn’t work. Sometimes when people hear about NBA Math Hoops, that’s where their head goes, but in reality what we’ve created is a special sauce that uncovers the math you have to do to actually play the sport of basketball. We allow kids to go through that experience so it feels like a true basketball game, but they’re doing math along the way. We’ve been honing this for the past 5 years. We’ve grown from 1 to 25 cities over 3.5 years, we are reaching 1,000 schools and after-school programs during the school year and 15,000 kids every year.
What are some of the biggest issues in math education today and how does Learn Fresh counter these challenges?
The biggest thing, and we hear this all the time, is kids are bored in math class and super disengaged. Kids are truly, chronically disengaged from education in general, but specifically math because they don’t feel like it’s connected to their lives. With the rise of common core and increased standardization of math, there are not a lot of tools out there to meet kids where they’re at and bring them into the light of loving math. Most programs push kids directly into the hard math side, and the challenge for teachers is kids don’t want to be there. The coolest thing about NBA Math Hoops is students really want to use it. We have stories from teachers whose kids want to stay inside at recess so they can keep playing NBA Math Hoops. We have stories about kids who want to take NBA Math Hoops home over the weekend so they can keep playing and brushing up on their skills. We have data that tells us that 75% of teachers say using NBA Math Hoops makes them happier and more excited to go to school and teach. For the first time ever kids want to do what teachers are asking of them. It takes away what is a huge struggle for teachers, specifically math teachers, getting the kids to turn on the desire engine. Once you can turn on the desire engine, and this is really my theory of life, everything else falls into place. If a kid wants to do something they’re going to do it. All children have the capacity to learn, it’s a matter of flipping that switch and showing them that learning can be fun. It’s not something that’s a punishment or forced activity.
How does the game tie in basketball to math? Can you give me an example of some of the problems students solve?
The way the game works is students draft a team of NBA and WNBA players. When they’re drafting these players what matters are the player’s statistics. So right off the bat they’re having to look at and think critically about the stats. Do you want to draft Carmelo Anthony or Maya Moore? You might initially think Melo is a better player because you know more about him but in reality maybe Maya Moore is an absolute baller, statistically speaking. You have to think critically about those stats. To play the game you roll 10 sided dice and do addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with the numbers you rolled as a way to find numbers on the game board that are your shot options. Once you have your shot options, then more math comes into play because you should take the best possible shot. If you can take a 3-point shot with Steph Curry from the 2, or a two point shot with Elena Delle Donne from the 14, which will yield the highest probable outcome? That’s drilling down into probabilities and expected values. The simplest core example of the math integration is deciding which player to take a shot from and understanding the expected values behind those players’ shots.
Will the mobile app be different from the physical board game?
Yes, it will be different. I see the mobile app and board game as complimentary products with the overall goal being to allow kids to engage in math in a fun way wherever they are. The mobile app will be specifically optimized for out of school time. We want it to be an opt-in for kids when they’re not in an educational environment, whether that’s riding the bus or hanging out at home. The game covers similar math concepts, but the mobile experience is different than sitting across from a friend playing a board game. The game mechanics and ecosystem will be different. The goal of the mobile app is to progress through different levels and unlock stuff—player cards with exclusive content or swag for your customizable avatar for example. Each level is comprised of different mini games, which are where the math learning happens. They play on different elements of basketball. Some of the games might be built around basketball metaphors, quick game mechanics, statistics of teams, or NBA trends. We want this to be the funnest math game ever made. This will be something kids want to play. With mobile games, the social component is a huge driver and users will have the ability to challenge friends to different levels and see who gets the higher score.
What sort of results have you seen from students who consistently play NBA Math Hoops?
We’re doing two main things to make an impact in the education world. The first is improving fundamental math skills that everyone needs to progress to higher grade levels and more difficult subjects and to be a functioning member of society. We also aim to change students’ attitudes towards math. From a raw math score standpoint, student scores improve roughly 30% pre-to-post test. All students take a pre-test before the 16-18 week season and then take a test after the season. The test is comprised of items typically seen in standardized testing. Prior to using NBA Math Hoops, about two thirds of students were only completing their homework sometimes. After playing a season of NBA Math Hoops, those students are now doing their homework most of the time. This is an indicator that we are actually improving student’s work ethic and making them better math students. 75% of teachers say NBA Math Hoops makes them happier and more excited to teach, which is super important to principals and teachers.
How were you able to lock in partnerships with major brands like the NBA and Hasbro to make NBA Math Hoops a reality?
The not so secret secret about partnerships is figuring out what the levers are and what people want and need. Once you figure out what really drives them, if what you are doing really aligns with them in an authentic way and you’re able to articulate it, it shouldn’t be too hard. Hasbro is the best board game company in the world and they really care about kids and communities. We’re giving them the opportunity to use that expertise that has historically been their revenue driver to do some good. Rather than asking for grants of toys and games or financial contributions from the Hasbro Foundation, we asked to work with their game designers to flesh the product out and help us with our prototypes since they are one of the few board game companies that still runs production in the U.S. Similarly with the NBA, they really care about helping communities but also have to be risk averse in terms of things they explicitly do. They will not create their own math curriculum because of the risk, so we assume all the risk as a math education company. We are leveraging their brand because kids are obsessed with that and have fallen in love with the NBA. They are great partners for us. We all feel really great about this and scaling the game over the next couple years.
Has it been challenging converting the Math Hoops board game into a mobile app?
It’s a totally different ball game, if you will. The mobile gaming landscape is fierce, competitive, and strewn with the failures of people who have tried to do this successfully. We are entering an arena that is difficult, but I think that it’s the arena education has to go into if we actually want to see changes in the next decade. I see education evolving in that the lines between school and home life are becoming increasingly blurred and eventually will fall away completely. As that happens we can’t force kids to learn in the way that traditional education has forced kids to learn in the past. If kids don’t want to do math, there is nothing to do to force them. As scary as it is, education products need to compete in the same arena as the sports and mobile games kids are instinctively drawn to. We have the biggest differentiator in that we have the NBA brand and that’s very meaningful, but we still need to build amazing products that kids love. To really do that and make sure the mobile launch is a success, we are getting in front of kids early and often and being really humble when we sit down with them to learn what works and what doesn’t work. One of the things that’s really beautiful about starting from something that’s not an entrenched product is that nothing we build out on the digital side is beyond editing, changing, or completely scrapping. The feedback we receive from kids helps shape every step of the process, which will help us launch something kids everywhere will love.
Do you plan to expand Learn Fresh to other sports? School subjects? Or will it always be math?
We will certainly be expanding to other sports and eventually other subjects as well. The broad and intentionally abstract mission of Learn Fresh is to make learning fun for everyone. I envision a day where any kid can engage in any subject in a way that’s personally meaningful to them. We are doing our part to make that mission a reality. We are starting with other subjects and other avenues to teach math. We’ve built up really strong institutional expertise around 3rd-8th grade math and we will continue to leverage that with other sports and other unique, innovative ways of thinking about math. Right now we are very focused on the NBA Math Hoops mobile app, but in the next three years we’ll have other products out in the world.
Can you share some examples of student or teacher success stories?
Angela and Patricia are twins from Oakland, and they may just be the best Math Hoops players in the country! We first met them on a site visit last year, when they decidedly beat our COO Nick Monzi in a head to head battle. After the game they said they became inspired to strive to attend Harvard, like Nick, because if they could beat a Harvard grad in Math Hoops then of course they were worthy! Demystifying the Ivy League and instilling confidence in low-income kids.
They ended up winning the Bay Area Championship Tournament last year in dramatic fashion, and guess what? They won AGAIN this year! The father of our repeat champs called the day after the tournament to say that he has never seen his daughters, or anyone in their community, so engaged in something educational.
How do you see Learn Fresh impacting the current state of education in the long run?
There are two main ways we are doing this. As we scale and continue to prove efficacy, we’ll help entrenched education systems see the value in products that are engaging and relevant to kids of varying background, paving the way for future innovations. We will influence or be a conduit for other sports leagues to use their incredible brands to unlock the learning potential of millions.