NEW YORK — If Mr. Pai's third-grade class has seven laptops, two desktop computers, 11 Nintendo DS portable gaming systems, 18 learning games, 21 digital voice recorders and no homework, how well will his students do in math and reading? The surprising answer has prompted education officials to think about how they might recreate such learning in other U.S. classrooms.
The students huddle together to compete in educational games on their networked handheld game consoles, or play online math or vocabulary games against international students. As a result, their math and reading performance ranking among all students advanced by as much as 11 or 12 percent, compared to just 1 or 2 percent for regular classrooms.
"In a gamified classroom, the time allocated to each topic varies, but the learning is constant," said Ananth Pai, a teacher at Parkview Centerpoint Elementary in White Bear Lake, Minn. "You are advancing at a different pace from another student, but you're advancing nonetheless; that's what works."
Such success by the businessman-turned-teacher has drawn a stream of classroom visitors, ranging from California's commissioner for education to Best Buy's chief technology officer. Pai described his efforts at the Gamification Summit — a conference about the use of gamelike challenges and rewards to provoke deeper engagement and more dedication in otherwise less interesting activities — held here Sept. 15 and 16.
Pai began his classroom experiment by talking to kids about what interested them and buying Nintendo DS systems using his own money. From there, he built up a library of both offline and online educational games, gave his students in-class assignments, and set them loose.
The effort effectively allowed his students to act as independent learners connected through the Internet to useful educational games and international students. Pai gives overall guidance and still has time to provide personalized help to students who need it.
In the first year alone, Pai's students went from a slightly below-average third-grade class to a mid-level fourth-grade class in reading and math. The "gamified" initiative seemed to help almost all students, regardless of whether they had special needs or represented unusually gifted prodigies. Only students who missed class or had severe reading impairments ran into more trouble.
Most former students appear to retain their learning edge even after they go back to traditional classrooms in the higher grades. That's key, because Pai wants to ensure that students have a reading and math foundation at the critical third- and fourth-grade levels. He pointed out how California estimates its need for future jail cells based upon how many of its students do well in reading at the fourth-grade level.
"My interest is in that peak and then the decline that starts there," Pai said. "We have to arrest the problem right there at that stage."
Pai's voice choked up with emotion at times as he urged the game developers, entrepreneurs and business representatives at the Gamification Summit to get involved with education. He highlighted one student's petition to create a law for making similar technologies available in all American classrooms.
"So I call on you to do something as a person, a parent and an adult, more than paying taxes," Pai said. "I work with these kids so close, every day. They're brilliant … so please. Please help."
As he stepped away from the podium and wiped away a tear, the audience erupted into loud, sustained applause.