A New Approach to School, which creates enthusiasm, competition

  • A system is presented where existing computers in classrooms might be used to make much of the learning process into something resembling a computer game (which nearly all kids love)
  • As in a game situation, there is an element of competitiveness present. And Prizes! But the computer would be alert to students who typed more slowly or who had trouble finding where some letters were on a keyboard, and it would gradually learn such facts about each student, in order to "adjust" the scores for such students where they would sometimes be the WINNER! The system would therefore make sure that ALL the students were at least occasionally that WINNER, for valuable validation.
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So each student is sitting at a desk, with a computer (or a simpler version of one).

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The Teacher says "Give me the name of one State that was named after a man." And the teacher then hits a button, which starts timers in all the student computers (like stop watches, but better!) (and makes a beep)

Say that you think of George Washington. You start typing in either Geor... or Wash... The instant that you get the first four letters spelled right, a timer in your computer records the time and gives you "partial credit" (1/2, in this case), which is divided by that time in the computer to create a partial score for you. But you are not done! Once you correctly spell the rest of the name, you now get full credit, divided by the total time. The computer adds up your two part scores, say 50/1.3 seconds for the first four letters and then 100/2.9 seconds for the whole name. Your computer would have your total score of 38.46 + 34.48 or 72.94. The teacher's computer shows her the totals for every student, with the one highlighted that got the highest score, so that student could get the praise for that question!

NONE of the students' computers would ever beep regarding completing the task, so none of the students would actually know whether they were the fastest or not! Or whether some other kid was faster!

The next question is to name a State named for a woman! Some people might get a Maryland right away, or a Virginia, but some may have to think for quite a while. No one (except the teacher) will see the results of a really bad answer. Some people may go beyond a 20 second cutoff, and not get an answer in.

Next question (verbally) the teacher says spell "condition".

Next question "what is four times five?"

Next question "Name any country in Europe"


The point is that the kids would have so many chances to "compete" in this "game" that every kid would be likely to win at least a few times. And if that was not happening, the Teacher would see that Molly had not yet gotten a "win". The Teacher would then have two options available. One is trying to ask questions about some subject that Molly is known to like, and the other is to press a few keys to give Molly an advantage for the next five questions, like a 20% higher score.

This sort of approach would get kids INVOLVED, and INTERESTED, and COMPETITIVE. For older students, say that the Teacher tells the class that tomorrow we will have questions about State Capitols, about countries in South America, about spelling words starting with W, and with science stuff about cats. Do you think that a LOT of those kids would ACTUALLY STUDY their homework? You bet they would. MANY would, not just one or two.

These kids would WANT to come to school, and after school, they would definitely brag to each other about how many "wins" they each had that day.

And when some OTHER kid wins with the answer of France as a country in Europe, don't you think that a lot of the other kids will be paying attention and remembering, because they have figured out that Teacher seems to repeat the same questions after a few weeks?

You may be thinking that there are kids who wouldn't even have interest in something like this. You might be wrong! Because of the PRIZES! The Teacher would keep a chart somewhere where all kids could see it, either in their computers or on a bulletin board, which would show vertical bar graphs. And across the top of that chart would be some lines, the very top one being "an hour out of class" or "two-hour hall pass" or many others. Lower (easier) lines could also be on that chart, like "getting a milk while in the classroom" (as a status symbol) etc.

If the Teacher arranges the right Prizes, nearly all students should have some interest in trying. As long as the Teacher stays aware of students who do not win very often, and does something to improve that, a bunch of happy, enthusiastic, learning kids should result.

In ANY school, in any neighborhood, and probably at any grade level. The only students that it might not be appropriate for would be students that might try to destroy the computers, behavior problems.

I trust that it is obvious that this is quite simple (the technology to do this has existed since the early 1980s) and quite inexpensive. If no computers now exist, there are very simple and inexpensive existing equipment that could do these things.


A somewhat different version of this concept of using a computer is something I had thought up around 1970, except that computers where then not available and I had had to consider a physical version of the idea! I will describe the physical version first.

A page of a child's book would have the usual simple structure, such as "Jack and Jill ran up the hill on a sunny day." I had proposed (somehow) having "multiple pages" Velcroed together, maybe six separate sheets of paper. Only the first one was normally visible. BUT if a kid had curiosity about some aspect of the information on the visible page, it would have been possible to peel the pages apart to read the SECOND of the pages, which might mention how hot the surface of the Sun is, or how steep a hill they might be able to RUN up. Each following page which could be peeled off would have more and more advanced "background information" on the initial page!

Once computers came along in the 1980s, and then the sophisticated ways they have advanced today, this would all be extremely easy to do now! In fact, such things are often already done! In many web-pages, you can put the mouse over some difficult word, and a thought-bubble appears which contains a definition for that word. There could also easily be links provided in every page to other pages which had useful "background information" regarding anything on that page!


There is another variation of this theme which seems even more beneficial today, given that MOST students today have access to a computer in class (and also at home, regarding doing homework the same way).

For a First Grade lesson, a screen could show the words of the first five lines of some familiar Nursery rhyme or other story. EVERY word would actually be a link, to an audio file which pronounced that word. Each word would also have a SECOND link (by just holding the mouse over it on the screen), a thought-bubble would appear with a definition of that word and with some synonyms for it.

You can change the way the words are shown:

the dog barks the dog barks the dog barks the dog barks the dog barks
Mary is the name of a girl Mary owns or owned had one a small, young little a farm animal, a baby sheep, with a lot of fur or wool lamb,

with, it has with fur, wool fleece compare, comparing as white white compare, comparing as pieces of frozen water snow,

Any child should be able to learn to read AND UNDERSTAND with such a system, which is extremely easy and fast to program! Better still, the child would HEAR the correct pronunciation of each word, so that students would then realize that the word ASK should NOT be pronounced AXE (as though the letters were mixed up!).

Notice that for small children, they could select an appearance for the text which they were most familiar with. For example, the Comic Sans font shows the small letter a in a manner that very young students often first learn, where they might not as easily understand the appearance of the letter a that we adults are most used to.

You can see that each student would also be able to do these same practice lessons AT HOME on their own computer, or at the Public Library where a computer is always available to them. Their proficiency in reading and understanding would progress very rapidly. Better still, each child would be able to advance at his or her own rate, and there would be no social stigma for not being able to read as fast as other kids in a class.

This concept includes an obvious next step as well. The story (which must be interesting to keep the attention of the kids), might include "Jack bent down to pet his pet _________, Spot. The child would be required to put the mouse over that space and TYPE IN THE CORRECT SPELLING OF THE WORD DOG. The screen would include a scoreboard where the child would see that they just scored a thousand points for a correct spelling! The child would know that the Teacher would get to see and record their TOTAL SCORE for that class period, both toward creating the grades and toward possibly earning rewards or even prizes!

Again, the child would KNOW what TODAY'S lesson was several days earlier, so he or she could have practiced typing various attempts at the spelling of DOG at home, where when they saw it in class, they would seem really smart in being able to quickly spell it right!

You can see that Math lessons work exactly the same. A screen might show

5 add the two numbers together + 4 show the total = type the number now ________.
The PLUS SIGN is a link, where a thought bubble appears that explains that symbol meant that you are supposed to ADD the two numbers together. The EQUAL SIGN is another link to a thought-bubble which explains that you are now supposed to type in the TOTAL of the addition of the two numbers. And again, once the correct number 9 is typed in the space, the child sees his or her score rise by 500 points. There would also be a reference that they could get BONUS points by ALSO SPELLING the answer out, in this case NINE! (for an extra 500 points!)

I have to believe that a LOT of kids would spend time AT HOME (on their computer) NOT playing the usual games, but instead DOING THIS HOMEWORK! Then, again, when they are sitting there in class, and the Teacher causes the 5 + 4 = _______ to show up on all their computer screens, little fingers would be pounding keys like crazy! And LOTS of little smiles from seeing all the points they just scored and even bigger smiles from the BONUS points!

Nearly any subject, nearly any subject matter, and at nearly any level, this approach could be incredibly helpful. I can even see it as wonderfully beneficial in College! I remember when I first attended classes as a Freshman at the University of Chicago, the Professors in Physics were REGULARLY saying technical words that I had NEVER heard before, much less actually knew what they meant! It would have been immensely helpful to me then (before available computers!) to have a laptop computer where I could have put the mouse over "Cherenkov Radiation" so I could have seen a definition and some information on what the heck the Prof was talking about. (I guess my public High School was inferior, as my High School Physics class never mentioned Cherenkov Radiation, or even any of the simpler concepts on which that understanding is built, so I was terribly in the dark for the first several months of classes at UC.)

Some stellar objects can produce Relativistic radiation, where a particle which is moving at very near the speed of light, but in a dielectric medium, can effectively be moving at a speed FASTER that the calculated speed of light in that medium. As a result, it must lose some energy, which is emitted as Cherenkov Radiation, at very specific angles. Cherenkov Radiation which is then radiated out in specific directions from the object.


Biology, a page with drawings or photographs of leaves, each with blanks under them to be filled in with the CORRECTLY SPELLED names of the trees they were from! And if a student typed in OKA, the computer would know to suggest that the student might be right but that there might be a spelling problem. Again, a RUNNING SCORE BOX would always be visible on the screen!

Geography. a page with outlines of the continents, with the blanks. Each continent would be a link to "hints" such as "Canada, the United States and Mexico" or "only one country" or "France, Germany and lots of other countries".

The BEST part of all of this is that every student would be able to see these EXACT same screens at home, in doing their homework! They could all enter the classroom with great confidence!

When it came to Test time, the Teacher would have created SIMILAR computer pages to the pages which the students had worked on over the previous week or two. The Tests would NOT be seen ahead of time at home, but they would be so similar to the homework that no student should then be fearful or intimidated!

When I mentioned above that this seems compatible with ALL levels of education, it seems certainly so! When I dated a woman who was in Graduate School in Medicine toward becoming a Medical Doctor, I watched her spending immense amounts of time in working at learning the exact Latin names of every bone in the body, and every muscle, and every tendon, and thousands of other components. I wish I had thought of this then, for her! I now imagine a drawing of a human leg which shows all the bones. Each bone would be the same two links as before, and maybe even three. One would be a thought-bubble with the LATIN NAME of the bone. The second would be an audio file with the proper pronunciation for that Latin name. The third could be another thought-bubble with a discussion of the purpose and function of that bone and its possible movements.

A second drawing of the leg would show only the muscles, with all the links. A third might show the blood flows and all the names of the arteries and veins and capillaries. A fourth might show all the components of the nervous system in the leg. And so forth. After watching all the time she had to devote to memorizing those exact names of everything, and the spellings and the descriptions and functions, I am convinced that THIS tool might have really helped her, both to learn all that much faster, but possibly also even BETTER!

Nearly every textbook, on nearly every subject, could be set up this way! From First Grade through a Doctoral Program, students might be comfortable in seeing the SAME pattern and structure, to then be able to quickly get right down to actually LEARNING!


This presentation is among several different presentations meant to provide ways of improving the American public school system's performance. Here are links to the presentations:


This presentation was first placed on the Internet in Dec 2006.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago