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The bracketed tournament is forever linked with the NCAA’s March Madness, but fun variations are all over the internet:

This way of determining a “best” is interesting, since, rather than broadly looking at all possibilities at once, we closely examine only two at a time.

Because of this close-analysis, a bracketed tournament lends itself to debates and discussions in the classroom, especially when students must learn about many options.


Let’s take a common elementary school subject: learning the fifty US states. Typically, each student chooses one state and writes a report. However, there’s really only one state everyone wants, plus a handful of “cool” states like Hawaii and Alaska, and then everything else.

Learning the US Presidents takes a similar turn. Everyone wants Lincoln or Washington.

What if we did a bracketed tournament to determine the “best.” This demands higher levels of thinking, uses multiple perspectives, and requires developing criteria to make judgements.

A New Way Of Thinking

Students no longer see Washington, Lincoln, and then a bunch of other guys. Each week, they will have to consider a single matchup, like:

  • Jackson vs H.W. Bush
  • Garfield vs Tyler
  • Clinton vs Polk

States aren’t just a big list. Instead we have a weekly debate over:

  • Wyoming vs Nebraska
  • New Jersey vs North Carolina
  • Michigan vs Ohio

The Plan

Let’s look at this as a weekly exercise:

  • Monday and Tuesday: teach the necessary facts about each option.
  • Thursday: students turn in a paragraph explaining and backing up their opinion. Then, you can give students time to discuss, debate, and persuade.
  • Friday: the class votes to determine who moves on in the tournament.

As students make their decisions, you’ll want to demand some evidence of their thinking. Help them form thoughtful opinions by developing criteria. I wrote about this process here.

The first round will take the longest, since you’re introducing all of the options. After that, the match-ups will feature repeat contenders and will move faster.

Tournament Details

You don’t need to know the nitty gritty of setting up the brackets, since there are many online generators, but students should be familiar with two concepts: seeding and byes.


In tournaments, the best teams shouldn’t play each other right away. For example, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should meet in the finals, not round one. Instead, Washington would start against a low ranked president, like Van Buren. This process is called “seeding.” And if Van Buren were to beat Washington, we’d call it an “upset.”

If seeding is too difficult or time-consuming, just randomly select the match-ups.


A tournament works best when the number of options are a power of two (8,16,32,64). But, with 50 states and 44 presidents, this won’t work out perfectly.

Not a problem. The highest seeded teams get to skip the first round. We call these skipped games “byes.”

If you’re not seeding, then random teams will get byes. And again, byes are calculated by the bracket generator for you.


I used this ranking of the Presidents to seed a presidential tournament. As you can see, Lincoln, Kennedy, and FDR all have byes in the first round since they are highly ranked presidents.

Here’s a randomly seeded US States tournament.

You might run a tournament for the first 16 elements of the periodic table or the rare earth elements.

Characters from stories, explorers, or Native American tribes would all make for interesting, curriculum-based tournaments. I’m sure you’ll have even better ways to apply the brackets to your class. Let me know at!

4 Ideas

  1. Angela 26 April 2013 at 5:56 am #

    I came across a book called The Enlightened Bracketologist that has dozens of brackets–some school appropriate and some not. Good stuff for school: Great American Plays, Endangered Species, Memorable Lines in Speeches, Inventions, Punctuation Marks. The non-academic ones are fun, too, but aren’t necessarily PG-13: Samuel L. Jackson films, Great White Wines.

    If you’re going to do this activity in classrooms, I’d suggest having kids start off with no more than eight items. Otherwise, they’ll be swimming in research and the lose the focus they need in selecting the “winner.”

  2. Darelle 27 April 2013 at 2:13 am #

    We are about to start a topic on Money with our classes (11/12 year olds, accelerated learners). One of the things we were going to do was look at the different types of ‘money’ eg cash, credit cards, hire purchase, and extend it into the future – what might money be like? e.g. the new technology on smart phones etc. I’m thinking a bracketed tournament might be a good way for the students to compare and contrast the different types of money.

  3. Jeff Layman (@mrlaymanSS) 27 April 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    In my 6th grade social studies class we study ancient civilizations. Part of every unit includes identifying that civilization’s contribution(s) to the world. When the end of the year rolls around I collect and seed 16 of the best contributions and throw them in a bracket. I give each kid a bracket and ask them to fill it out. I collect them back and for the next 7 days we vote on one game at the end of class. Kids can voice their opinions and try and influence the vote. It gets pretty fun, and I give prizes to the kids whose brackets ended up being closest to what was voted. I even show them brackets from other classes, which prompt all sorts of arguments… what more can you ask for? :)

  4. Carissa Smith 13 May 2013 at 7:12 am #

    Our media specialist does a Book Bracketology during the NCAA basketball tournament. She pulls the circulation report and seeds the books accordingly (Catching Fire= #1 etc.) Each seeded book is paired with the NCAA basketball team sharing that seed number. Students and faculty vote on the ultimate book and team winner.

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