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Responsibility Training part 4: Preferred Activity Time (PAT)

Having Fun with Responsibility Training

In the previous three segments we have described the mechanics of Responsibility Training. Responsibility Training represents a leap forward in the technology of incentive management in the classroom. It allows the teacher to generate cooperation from the entire class at very little effort while reducing wasted time.

In a nutshell, students earn Preferred Activity Time when they save time. Preferred Activity Time is something the students look forward to doing. Once you master the mechanics of Responsibility Training, operating the program boils down to having fun with the students, and, in particular, having fun with learning.

In this segment we will look at having fun with learning. Once you get the hang of it, you will be able to generate preferred activities with the snap of a finger.

Two for the Price of One

The fifth grade students had just taken their seats to begin the school day when their teacher made the following announcement.

“Class, before we start the day, I want to point out the art materials on the project table over by the window. The art project will be your PAT this afternoon.

“As always, I have set aside twenty minutes at the end of the day. You know, however, that once you start a project like this, you always wish you had more time. Well, you can have more time. All of the bonus PAT that you earn today will be added to the art project.”

The students did not know that, had their teacher never heard of PAT, they would have done the art project anyway. They only knew that all of their hustle throughout the day translated into art.

By using learning as a PAT, you get “two for the price of one.” You give the students a special enrichment activity that they enjoy while getting motivation for free.

Self-Contained versus Departmentalized

Teachers in self-contained classrooms have more potential PATs during a school day than they can use. They have art and music and reading stories to the class to say nothing of special projects. Add to this all of the curriculum enrichment activities that are available for the units being studied, and they have quite a list. Rather than spending a lot of time planning PAT, these teachers need only pick the best activity of the day and call it PAT.

PAT only becomes a potential headache in a departmentalized setting. Art and music now belong to other departments, and recess is just a memory. Of course, these teachers will often use curriculum enrichment for PAT just like their colleagues in self-contained classrooms. But their choices are more limited since they only have their students for one subject.

With fewer “freebies” lying around, these teachers will more often have to build PATs from scratch. If you teach economics, you will repeatedly have to ask yourself, “How do we have fun with economics?” The answer had better be cheap. I cannot grant you extra planning time.

Team Competition

Apart from curriculum enrichment activities, team competition is perhaps the most reliable and easy-to-use motivational “hook” in education. Anything can be taught in the form of a team game, and team games make terrific PATs.

The realization that you can make lessons into team games caused me to study team game rules. Did you know that there really aren’t that many different games in the world? Did you know that the rules to baseball, football, basketball, hangman, and Jeopardy are all the same?

With a half-dozen sets of rules you can generate hundreds of PATs, and you won’t need any planning time. You can do it on the spur of the moment!

Let me tell you what makes the best team games – time-on-task. Kids hate to sit and watch. They love to play. The more they play, the more they learn.

Academic Baseball

More Playing Time

In baseball, your team is up roughly half of the time, and the other team is up roughly half of the time. If PAT lasts 20 minutes, your team will only be up for about 10 minutes. By having innings in which teams takes turns at bat, you halve the length of everybody’s PAT.

How can we improve the rules of the game so that kids spend more time playing and less time on the sidelines? The answer is defense. Make the students play defense, and they will be engaged in playing when the other team is up at bat.

Playing Defense

You can play the game with questions at four levels of difficulty; singles, doubles, triples, and home runs. These questions usually come right off the top of your head. If you want to simplify the game, make every question worth a run.

Lay out two diamonds on the floor with small pieces of masking tape as bases. Have the students get out of their seats to “run the bases.” They have fun strutting their stuff, and you don’t have to keep track of who is on base.

Divide the room into two teams. On the team that is “up” first, pick a student and say,

“Batter up! Do you want a single, double, triple or home run?”

The student picks a level of difficulty, and you pitch a question. If the student gets a hit by answering the question correctly within ten seconds, he or she is on base. If, however, the student misses the question, you turn to the other team and say,

“Fly ball!”

Repeat the question and then wait before calling on anyone. This brings us to our next element of team game structure. Do you play this game open-book or closed-book?

Aha! If you play the game open-book, the team on defense can start looking up the answer as soon as they hear the question. As a result, the team on defense frantically flips through books, lab manuals, and notes to find the answer while the student who is “up” attempts to answer the question. There is actually peer pressure to look up the answer since dropping a fly ball means that a teammate was simply too lazy to look up the answer.

There is a certain contagion to looking up the answer that fills the room. Since kids hate to sit on the sidelines with nothing to do, the students on the team that is “at bat” usually start looking up the answer as well.

After you say, “Fly ball!” wait at least five seconds or until the rustling of book pages dies down. Then, call on a student. By calling on whomever you please, you can distribute questions more effectively while assuring that the weaker students get questions that they have a good chance of answering.


If students on defense answer the question correctly, they catch the fly ball and make an out on the other team. If, however, they miss the question and drop the fly ball, the batter is on base with an error, and all runners advance one base.

Normally in baseball the team with the most runs wins, but not in this game. In this game the final score for each team is calculated as runs minus outs. Catching a fly ball nullifies a run. In the final score it is the equivalent of hitting a solo home run. Defense is serious business.

Baseball Becomes “Double-Diamond Baseball”

Alternate questions between the teams. Consequently, a team would be up for one question and then on defense for the following question. By alternating questions between teams, each team has the same number of at-bats, and the dramatic tension is maximized since everyone can see who is ahead at any moment and what difficulty of question is needed to score.

Alternating the questions in this fashion eliminates innings. Rather, you have two games running side-by-side like a race. It is a race to see which team can get around the bases more often before time runs out.

The generic name for this game format is Ping-Pong since the play continually alternates back and forth between sides. Since you have two baseball diamonds on the floor, however, we have gotten into the habit of referring to this version of academic baseball as “Double-Diamond Baseball.”

Baseball Becomes Football

To change baseball to football, draw two gridirons on the board, one for each team. Begin the game by saying to a student,

“Ten, twenty, thirty, or forty yard question. What will it be?”

Questions alternate between the teams as they move their footballs down their respective gridirons. If a student misses a question, turn to the team on defense, and say,


If the student you call on answers the question correctly, he or she throws the other team for a ten-yard loss.

An alternative way of structuring academic football is to pit one team against another on a single gridiron as in the real game of football. Secondary students often prefer this variant. Start on the fifty-yard line. Rather than using the Ping-Pong format, each team gets three downs to score. Three downs to score forces the students to use the long yardage questions.

Baseball becomes Football

If a ten-yard question is missed, the teacher says, “Sack!” as in the previous example. A correct answer throws the offense for a ten-yard loss. If, however, a twenty-, thirty- or forty-yard question is missed, the teacher says, “Interception!” A correct answer gains possession of the ball at the line of scrimmage.

Of course, teachers can elaborate this basic format to suit their pleasure. You could have extra point questions after a touchdown. You could have difficult “Hail Mary” questions when more than forty yards are desperately needed. I have even seen teachers have a classroom Super Bowl complete with a satirical coin-toss ceremony. One teacher played football so often that she made a felt board for the gridiron with a felt football to make changes in field position easy.

Football Becomes Basketball

Think of football as simply a “path game” like the preschoolers’ board game, Candyland. In such games the players move down the “squares” of the path in order to reach a “goal.” A gridiron is simply a path with ten squares.

Once you envision games played on courts or fields as path games, you can play basketball or soccer just as easily as you can football. By answering more difficult questions, you can move down the path several squares at a time in order to score more quickly.

Basketball is simply a path game that requires seven “moves” in order to score, whereas football requires ten moves to score. In basketball, if the team with the ball misses the question and the team on defense answers it, they “steal the ball.” The game then switches directions.

Basketball is a path game


“What’ll it be? One, two, three, or four body parts?”

To use the Ping-Pong format, draw two gallows on the board, and alternate the questions between the teams. Add fingers and toes to make enough body parts so that the game lasts longer.


“Pick a ten, twenty, thirty, or forty point question. The category is…”

All games from television make great PATs. Jeopardy, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Pictionary and Twenty-One can be used to review factual information. However, some older game shows such as What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth are great for history.

In addition, coffee table games like Trivial Pursuit can easily be adapted to the classroom. Questions come from the unit you are teaching.

Academic Volleyball

Perfect for Vocabulary

In volleyball, your team can only score when you have the serve. When you have the serve, you can score points in succession. If, however, you miss, the service goes to the other team. Then, they can score points in succession until they miss.

You would not want to use questions that require explanations for answers. A team could be on defense a long time if the other team were to run up a string of points. For such questions, baseball would be a much better choice.

For volleyball, the questions must come “fast and furious” with quick answers to keep the game from dragging. The quick pace of questions makes volleyball ideal for vocabulary. Volleyball, therefore, is often used by foreign language teachers and biology teachers.

The Rules

Divide the room into two teams, and say,

“I will begin by giving a word to one of the teams. Then, I will point to a person on that team. You will have one second to give me the first letter of the word. Then, I will point to another person on that same team, and he or she will have one second to give me the next letter of the word.

“If someone misses, the word will come over to the other team. I will point to someone on that team, and he or she must pick up where the other team left off. The second team will keep the word as long as they spell it correctly. If they miss a letter, the word comes back to the first team. The team that gives me the last letter of the word gets the point and the next word.

“Ready? Here we go! The first word is ‘photosynthesis.’”

Point to a student, and you are off and running. Drive the pace of the game so that students must be on their toes. You are a high-energy game show host.

For younger students whose attention spans are short, you can reduce the burden on memory and attention as follows. Give the word to the entire class, and have them write it down. Then, as the word is being spelled, everyone can follow along to keep track.

Keep ‘em Honest

Perfect for Math

What kind of game rules work for math? The whole class could fall asleep while the person who is “up” attempted to solve a quadratic equation.

The game described below keeps everybody busy and eliminates paper grading. Divide the class into two teams. Pair each member of Team A with a member of Team B, and have the pairs place their desks side by side. Write a math problem on the board, and give each problem a time limit as follows:

“All right, class, you have two minutes for this next problem. (Write the equation on the board.) Ready? Go!”

Give the students a warning as time runs out.

“Class, you have fifteen seconds.”

Work Check Routine

When time runs out, go through the following routine:

“Time! Exchange papers.

“The answer is...

“Check them and return them.

“How many got it right on Team A?

“How many got it right on Team B?

“The score is now___ to___

“Class, you have three minutes for the next problem.”

Would people on Team A let people on Team B have extra time to work on the problem? Hardly! They’ll say, “I’ll take that!” and grab the paper.

Would anybody on Team A cheat for anybody on Team B? Not likely!

After the papers are returned, would students on Team B let their counterparts on Team A hold up their hands if they did not get it right? What do you think?

The whole check routine takes seconds, and each team keeps the other team honest. With every additional problem the score mounts and the tension builds.

More PATs

These examples of PAT games are meant to whet your appetite. There are many more examples of PATs in Tools for Teaching. In addition to a 13 page Appendix containing protocols for 18 different learning games, Chapter 24 (Initiating Preferred Activity Time) provides ideas for making PATs out of research reports, science and foreign languages. Finally, check our PAT Bank which includes PATs contributed by teachers.

Every teacher has good ideas for PATs. If you get together with some of your colleagues, you can develop your own PAT Bank. As your repertoire of PATs grows, you will find that the notion of having fun with learning increasingly permeates your teaching.

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