Anthony Selley Head of Gameplay at the Allan Gray Entrepreneurship Challenge and Creative Leadership Collective Founding Friend talks gamification, creating the entrepreneurs of tomorrow and the future of education.
Curiosity, a healthy imagination, and the drive to do better differently are just some of the traits associated with creative leadership.
So when a young maths teacher cashes in his pension to immerse himself in Silicon Valley chasing an idea that uses tech and expansive thinking to improve education, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
WHEN GOOD ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH
Anthony (Ant) Selley was well on his way to becoming part of the Old Boy’s institution: leave school, study, go back to a prestigious school to teach what you studied. He was smart enough, liked teaching enough and fitted in well enough.
Luckily, it simply wasn’t good enough for him.
As a talented maths educator who had struggled with the format of the schooling and tertiary system as a student, it wasn’t good enough to watch students trudge along the same well-worn path he and countless others had.
It wasn’t good enough to keep preaching a system that he knew worked only for a small group of students. It wasn’t good enough to sit with what he calls ‘a growing cognitive dissonance’ with how he was being expected to teach and what he felt needed to change about it.
And so he did something about it.
Now the Head of Gameplay at the Allan Gray Entrepreneurship Challenge, Ant is a gamification expert with a special interest in entrepreneurial education.
How he got there is a lesson in self-motivation and perseverance in bursting one’s own bubbles to find the thinkers, doers and tribes that speak your language and the language of the future.
THE EDUCATION BANDWAGON
‘Many students, and I was one of them, just go to varsity because it’s the thing you do and you don’t make really good use of those four years,’ says Ant.’
‘The way things are structured is a bandwagon. It’s just a “go and consume” system, just do what you’re told to do. And it’s ultimately not very productive. The difference between a motivated learner and a learner that’s just doing the bare minimum to get by – of which there are a large group in universities and schools – is vast.’
A top achieving student, Ant was urged to forgo a gap year and study one of the options traditionally offered to maths-oriented learners: actuarial science, medicine or engineering. He chose actuarial science, but finished up with finance.
‘I wasn’t inspired by any of that. Mostly I wanted to have a useful impact on the world,’ says Ant. ‘I’d been tutoring during varsity for pocket money and I’d done some coaching and I quite enjoyed both of those things. When someone suggested that teaching might be a good option for me, I thought I’d give it a go.’
Ant went into to teaching high-school maths and although he loved the interaction and process of educating, he found himself frustrated within a constrictive system.
It became increasingly clear to him that when it came to teaching, learners needed to be given more say in the process. ‘I realised that one of the biggest things we need in education is more student autonomy and one of the reasons I stopped teaching is because I came across better models for this.’
UNLEARNING WITH THE EDUCATION INNOVATORS
While teaching, Ant read, researched and followed the online trails to the thinkers and innovators at the forefront of education and teaching techniques.
‘The first spark of insight came from Khan Academy, a programme with some truly world changing ideas: the “flipped classroom”; self-paced learning; automated feedback that’s immediate, reliable and “smart”; automated guidance for peer tutoring; powerful dashboards for tracking student progress…
‘The ability to meet each student at their level of understanding was particularly exciting for me. I was teaching classes of 30+ students, all of whom are at different levels, and found it incredibly tough without automated support to meet the various groups at their correct level.’
After applying these innovative principles in his maths classes and experiencing the benefits first hand, Ant started looking around at what else was going on this space.
ANT QUIT THE SCHOOL, CASHED IN HIS PENSION AND WENT TO SILICON VALLEY
‘I came across UnCollege, which was rethinking the university value proposition and really asking why it is that you’re going to university and whether the assumptions you’re making around it are true. It really resonated with me.’
What resonated with him aligned with his itch to learn and his real desire for transformation in the education space, ultimately changing his career path forever.
‘I’d been teaching for three and a half years and it may have been a bit reckless just to say “alright I’ve seen something better and I’m going to go and check it out and bring it back”, but that’s what I aimed for.’
In 2014, Ant quit the school, cashed in his pension and went to UnCollege in Silicon Valley, San Francisco – the Shangri-La of innovators and creative leaders. It was to be his entrepreneurial awakening.
BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE
Three months in the belly of the possibility beast is enough to inspire change that will last a lifetime.
‘It was a massive jump going from teaching to Silicon Valley,’ says Ant. ‘Like jumping from the narrow confines of the known into this entire universe of the unknown. It opened my eyes to how much opportunity there is in the world.’
Inspired by the attitude of optimism and possibility, his time there revealed something else fundamental to innovation: ‘You can find opportunity if your eyes are open, if you’re looking for it, and you can find your way around obstacles. This was very transformative for me and how I view the world and my career since then.’
It was here that the entrepreneurial bug bit, says Ant. ‘I was living in an incubator programme run by some of the best and biggest venture capitalists in the world. The people I was surrounded by were all driven, passionate entrepreneurs, working to make their dent in the universe.’
Part of this brisk initiation into the entrepreneurial spirit was a reality check.
Ant had left South Africa, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with ideas to return and implement an UnCollege franchise in South Africa. ‘But being in Silicon Valley made me realise how much I’d been teaching in a bubble and how much I still had to learn.’
‘IT OPENED MY EYES TO HOW MUCH OPPORTUNITY THERE IS IN THE WORLD’
Having failed to raise the funding required for his new venture, Ant returned to South Africa where he landed the role of setting up an education division for a small but growing business consultancy named GCX Africa. After six months Ant returned to the arena he most enjoys – working with teens.
He started his own business running a series of entrepreneurship clubs at high schools. ‘There were about seven locations across private and public schools,’ he says. ‘I got to know some super interesting people that came to speak to the kids and, honestly, I think I was the one taking the most notes.’
It was over this time that Daniel Hampton from the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation was doing paper-based trials of an exciting new entrepreneurial game.
‘Dan had then been promoted to run the association and was looking for someone to hand the project over to because the results had been promising. We connected through one of the schools where I was running a club and he got me on board to report on the first iteration and then to continue developing it from there.’
The result was Blue Helix, a browser-based game that would evolve to become the basis of the organisation’s Entrepreneurship Challenge, a school-based competition run since 2017
GAMIFICATION TO BUILD THE NEXT GENERATION OF ENTREPRENEURS
Gamification is the application of game-design elements (think: point scoring, competition, levels and rules) to other areas not traditionally associated with games – such as education, product sales or training – to encourage user participation, engagement and loyalty.
Using a variety of different tech platforms such as browsers and apps, gamification principles can make difficult concepts easier to understand, maintain user interest and make the hard stuff fun.
As head of gameplay at Allan Gray Entrepreneurship Challenge (AGEC), Ant is in charge of the design of the competition’s game and the management of its development.
AGEC GAMIFIES LEARNING ABOUT ENTREPRENEURSHIP FOR STUDENTS
A high school-based competition involving more than 600 schools and thousands of learners, AGEC gamifies learning about entrepreneurship for students in Grades 8 to 12, and is designed to engage them in acting and thinking like entrepreneurs, with rewards for those who finish among the top performers.
The competition runs over the course of six weeks and each week learners are presented with challenges that expose them to entrepreneurship concepts and entrepreneurial thinking.
‘The idea is not that they start a business within this time,’ says Ant. ‘It’s difficult enough to start a business as an adult, so expecting kids to do so among all their commitments at school is unreasonable for most, (although we do have incentives in place for those who do!).
‘Instead, we aim to shift their mindsets in terms of how they look at the world and how they’re able to spot opportunities, and then how they’re able to make an impact by coming up with solutions to the problems they may face.’
To do this, the AGEC equips them with a range of tools, skills and ‘habits of thought’ that they’re able to apply to the variety of different scenarios they’re presented with.
‘For example, negotiation is one of the skills that we look at and so we’ll get them to negotiate in five different scenarios,’ explains Ant. ‘These include getting better interest rates for their parents on their credit cards, getting a discount at a shop on anything, and trying to get something for free. So they’re repeatedly applying certain mindsets or skill sets in the real world and then feeding their experiences back into the platform.’
Since the competition is gamified, every time learners complete a challenge in the real world, they reflect on it by typing it up or posting a picture or a video on the platform where it gets peer reviewed with teacher moderation. Points are then allocated to the individual, their class and their school all of which is placed on the competition leaderboards.
The best submissions each week earn cash prizes, as do those students topping the weekly leaderboard. At the end of the challenge the top 20 finishers are flown in for a glittering awards event where the entrepreneurial ecosystem gathers to celebrate and support their success. The top three finishers win a 10 day trip to Silicon Valley to soak up some of its optimistic and collaborative atmosphere, with the aim of bringing more of these outlooks to SA.
THE MAKING OF AN ENTREPRENEUR
The challenge looks to cultivate entrepreneurial mindsets among the competition participants.
Over the course of the foundation’s 10 years it’s highlighted creativity, action orientation, resilience, self-efficacy, need for achievement and locus of control as being six of their most sought-after characteristics in young entrepreneurs.
But Ant’s experience has taught him to develop processes for something even broader than this: the world outside of school.
‘In the current schooling system there’s very little exposure to the real world and the majority of students don’t ever get to try things or see things in the real world,’ he says.
‘So when they get to Matric, and have to start making choices with a limited range of options that’s put in front of them, they have no idea of what’s really out there and the possibilities open to them.’
The importance of teaching what he calls the ‘useful stuff’, such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, opening up networks, how to look for opportunities and track down resources, is a big driver for him.
‘Having done the entrepreneurship clubs at schools I know the difference in outlook and possibility between kids at a rich private school and kids from poorer public schools. I want all kids to have access to this information. Ultimately, this is what will change the economic future of the country.’
BRINGING TOMORROWLAND TO TODAY
His work with AGEC means that he’s able to equip and empower far more students and teachers with this powerful tool than what he could ever have reached as a traditional teacher.
‘The really exciting thing for me with the Entrepreneurship Challenge in this gamified format is the ability to scale. Rather than teach 150 kids at one school, I can provide input to a powerful tool that reaches tens or hundreds of thousands of students.’
This is real marker of the value in harnessing the power of tech in education. ‘Even so, the importance of the teacher-student relationship has to be acknowledged,’ says Ant. ‘Scaling a powerful digital tool is one thing, but it doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t someone to ignite the initial spark of interest – someone who cares enough to have built the relationship.
‘We’re immensely grateful for the tremendous work done by the 100’s of AGEC teachers around the country… without you what we do just wouldn’t be possible!’
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