Ananth Pai uses games and technology to reach every student


Ananth Pai, a third grade teacher at Matoska International in White Bear Lake, believes that using games to cater to the individual needs of each student, is the key to success. Using his own money and some grants, the teacher from India, who spent two decades in the private sector, has turned his classroom into place where students use the internet and technology to learn skills at their own pace. On October 19, he spoke at the Committeee to End the Achievement Gap Brown Bag Lunch at University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis.

Ananth Pai was originally a pharmacist in India. After three years, he “couldn’t handle it any more,” he said, and got more involved with computers, eventually starting a business in graphics and advertising design and print design. Then he took those skills and created something similar in Singapore. He then applied to the University of Wisconsin, and moved to the United States, continuing to work for various graphics companies.

When his daughter was about eight or nine years old, she suggested that he become a teacher, and he made that career change. 

One day, when Pai was teaching in his classroom in White Bear Lake, he asked his students what rights children have. A student named Jeremiah said that they have a right to technology. On his way home from work, Pai began thinking about what Jeremiah had said. The next day, he systematically began to dismantle all of the technology in the classroom, right after making a fake call to the custodian. 

“They were looking at me — ‘What is going on with this guy?’” Pai recalled. “I said, ‘you don’t have a right to technology. In order to have any right, you have to fight for it.’”

When school let out, and the kids were walking to their buses, one of his students had composed a song about him, that a group of them were chanting in the hallway.

The next day, Pai was gone for some staff development in the district. When he came back to the classroom, another student, Sabrina, brought him a petition that the entire class had signed. She said it was “for the technology we want back. You said we have to fight for it.” 

That’s when he brought the computers back, and, at the suggestion of his daughter, began to introduce games as a major element in his classroom. After a while, he noticed that the kids stopped throwing erasers on the floor and going after pencils. 

“What I set out to do was not based a research article from Harvard,” he said. “These are children who have a profound ability to think and be creative. You can’t discount how capable young people are.” 

Today, Pai’s third grade class has seven laptops and two desktop computerss, 11 Nintendos and 18 games for math, reading, vocabulary and geography, and 21 digital voice recorders for learning how to read. They use websites to learn reading and math, and games to learn about the judicial system.  

The scores show that Pai’s methods seem to be working, with scores showing very high growth, according to researcher David Heistad, whom Pai cites on his website.

In his classroom, Pai focuses less on skills teaching, and more on conceptual understanding. Pai uses games to make learning fun, but also to cater to each student’s individual needs. Students learn the skills doing games, while he helps them with broader questions.  

Part of the reason students in regular classrooms remain at the same percentile, Pai said, is that generally there’s “massively mismatched content” to children as they walk in the door, until they can no longer handle it. “It’s not they aren’t learning, it’s that they are learning how to throw the eraser down. They are learning how to get into trouble.”

The NEWA adjusts the tests to the learner, so that in a class of 24 students, they won’t all be getting the same test, which is dynamically adjusting. 

The only time his methods don’t work, he said, is in cases where the students are significantly impaired when they begin the school mid-year, or have many absences. “The rest of them thrive,” he said.

The idea is that the instruction is individualized, and each student learns until they master the content, Pai said.  They get continuous feedback, they are learning from their peers, and there is reduced behavior disruption, he said. Plus, there’s no homework.