Ananth Pai, an elementary teacher in Minnesota, turned to game-based learning and a “split screen strategy” to engage and motivate students in the classroom. Education Evolving recently captured his story in a video:

Today, Mr. Pai shares increased insight into his shift to a “split screen strategy” and how his efforts to personalize learning through proficiency-based learning model fit into a predominantly traditional school setting – with seat time, grades, and more.

SC: How did come across the “split screen strategy?” What inspired the strategy?

AP: I was looking to replace the graveyard computers from the computer lab during my second year of teaching because I could never get the old iMac’s and decrepit PC’s to work long enough for small groups of students to sustain their interest to sites I had bookmarked in the browser. The hope was while one group was engaged, I could support another small group with conceptual learning needs.

SC: Did you receive any push back from parents, administrators or others when moving to the proficiency-based learning method?

AP: From parents, students, grandparents and community visitors to the classroom – I got gratefulness and support. Students even wrote a petition that is still running on my site. Some donated anywhere from very small amounts to a couple who directed the entirety of their volunteer matching dollars ($500) to a classroom fund. My wife and I had begun the fund with about $3K. We got matching dollars from her employer. The most recent activity is parents who are approaching their employers to donate lightly used  (2 years) surplus computers. They have gathered twelve so far and are trying to bring pressure on the administrators.

Aside from that, the “dark side” has deployed well over a million dollars worth of instructional technology in the District and no attempts to secure a small bit of it in the nearly five years since I began this has succeeded. Then there are the overhead costs of two full time Instructional Technology staff who have never visited my classroom. The only support has been from the Director of IT and his staff who assist with maintenance and networking. A parent called the Curriculum Director three years ago based on the success her son had in the class, yet no action! The school board chair can be seen in this video from four years ago, saying, ‘of course, we support innovations like this.’ Go figure!

SC: How does the elementary school provide evaluation of student progress (grades, grade level, etc.) for proficiency-based learning that easily translates to a greater system that is predominantly traditional: age grouped and letter grades?

AP: The grading system is traditional because the rest of the system is traditional. I don’t let that hold me back.

Ananth Pai with Student

SC: How has technology made personalized learning possible?

AP: Each student or small groups of students are on level with their interests and capabilities. I never teach the whole class because it would be criminal to do so knowing the diversity of abilities (ten percentile and under to well over ninety five plus). Students are learning and I spot who needs assistance, then provide that as needed.

SC: In the video it appears that students are working in a blended learning model. Can you describe the amount of time spent working independently, in groups, 1:1 with a teacher, etc. in the classroom?

AP: One third of the time in a given day, students are directly with me or working on things I am more closely guiding. Even here, there will be students working in a leveled manner. I am always monitoring the whole class. I do a lot of walking, observing, querying and assisting (only when needed).

SC: In the video, you said that personalized learning increases proficiency levels beyond expectations and standards. How can we redefine student outcomes and/or raise the bar of performance expectations with personalized learning?

AP: Let me try and if this is not clear, let me know. I have an opposite point of view.

Educational theory (Zone of Proximal Development, Lev Vygotsky) and common sense tells us that no one can learn things that are deviations away from where they are. Schools everywhere get assortment of students with range of strengths and weaknesses relative to an expectation/standard. If you put these two facts together, it is clear that not too many kids, no matter where they are on the continuum of learning, can be made to learn; whether through desire, laws or externally imposed expectation (standard/proficiency). Schools have tried this for generations and gotten back misbehavior (naturally) and are spending expensive resources, starting with learners future, principal time, behavior management staff and disruption to learning of the rest of the students.

Most of all, teachers doing this thing the society understands as ‘teaching’ is counter to how everyone learns, yet school leaders are making every sort of decision that perpetuates that product of the agrarian/industrial era. What needs to be redefined is not standards or proficiency of students so much as what the adults – leadership and foot soldiers in education, should be capable of doing and expected to deliver. If you look at things this way, you will see that in our system of education, most of the adults from policy makers, school boards members, superintendents, administrators and teachers don’t pass the threshold of proficiency in designing an environment in which existing resources are allocated in a way that is compatible with how students learn.


Additional results from Mr. Pai’s “split screen strategy” can be found here.

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