Flight Control / Lesson Plan

I love the iPhone game Flight Control for all the reasons I love a good lesson plan.

  1. It builds from a simple, visceral premise. “Land the planes. Don’t let any collide.” ¶ Which packs the same clear punch as “what is the combination?
  2. Harder, differentiated challenges arise naturally from that premise. Which is to say, as you get better at the game, it doesn’t just double the speed of the planes or throw up concrete clouds or reverse the controls. It introduces different planes into the airspace, planes which move slightly faster. ¶ In the same way, a good lesson plan doesn’t adapt itself to faster learners by doubling the length of the same problem set or imposing artificial constraints like, “what if one of the buttons was broken?” It tells the learner, “okay, we dusted the lock for prints and found out that these four numbers get pressed a lot. What can you do with this?”
  3. Those new challenges necessitate new skills. In its early stages, Flight Control accommodates a player’s sloppiness but when you have three 757s approaching the landing strip and three helicopters holding in a pattern you have to keep your approaches extremely tight. ¶ The combination lock forces the need for permutations.
  4. Those new skills are assessed simply and clearly. A lesser game would assign separate point values for larger planes or include bonus multipliers. Flight Control assesses your skill along one simple metric: “How many planes have you landed?” ¶ After all the calculations in “Will it hit the can?” the assessment was simply “Were you right?”

Not every game or lesson can accommodate this aesthetic. Nor do I expect them to. But these are my favorite. These are my students’ favorite. And they are too few and far between. We need more.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I think you are touching on something very important. Our lessons should arise out of a sense of necessity for our students. Just as new vocabulary is created to describe our world, our students need to be allowed to “create new math” in order to tackle their world. The thing is that it isn’t new math, it is just new to them. Not only do we need to scaffold our lessons in order to put them in a position to succeed, but we need to scaffold our curriculum. That is where I am right now…how do I do that?

    I think the differentiation is found in allowing the inquiry to move to investigation.

  2. I would add:

    #5 Good games/lessons don’t focus on failure – keep track of the planes landed not the number of planes crashed.

    #6 Good games/lessons are always being improved – perhaps Flight Control has an auto update?

    #7 Good games/lessons invite both genders to navigate through them – couldn’t help notice the ol’ time stewardess

    One other matter I’d like to address- what’s the deal linking to the comment about the broken button? We got what you meant without the link. Why showcase the criticism? I’m not saying you should pull your punches. You responded to this in the comments of the Door Lock post. That was enough. Why come back with another jab below the belt by taking the time to consciously link to the comment you disagree with?

  3. Hi Dale,

    If I had linked to a comment I agreed with – one that recommended dusting the lock for fingerprints, let’s say – would you have written:

    What’s the deal linking to the comment about dusting the lock for fingerprints? We got what you meant without the link. Why showcase the praise?

    I don’t hyperlink to score cheap points or to prop myself up or for any other reason except that the more sources I link into a post – whether those sources or off-site or on-, comments I wrote or that someone else wrote, comments I agreed with or disagreed with – the more valuable the post will be for me when I come looking for it in the future.

    Criticism and disagreement have been unfairly stigmatized by edubloggers as something that only bullies do to put other people down. This is a sad fact, especially for a job with stakes as high as ours. Can we respect one another and the commitment each of us brings to us a difficult job while at the same time setting a high bar for our ideas and practice?

  4. You asked “Would you have written…”

    No, I would not have. You also took care of this in the previous post.

    You asked “Can we respect one another and the commitment each of us brings to us a difficult job while at the same time setting a high bar for our ideas and practice?”

    Yes we can. I read your post “‘Swap Design’ for ‘Edublogging'” and I agree with it. However, I think there is a fine line between being honesty and being mean.

    Our respect for one another – despite our good ideas and practice – erodes if we use criticism and disagreement too frequently as our only means to set a high bar.

  5. No, I would not have.

    This is my point, Dale. Disagreement, to your eyes, is negative and needs to be minimized. Agreement is positive and should be maximized. But they are both value neutral. Disagreement and agreement are equally capable tools for uncovering truth wherever it lies, for exposing and clarifying the thought processes underlying our practice. Stigmatizing one of them is functionally the same as laying half your power tools out on the lawn beneath a sign that says “Free – Please Take.”

  6. Dan, you wrote:

    This is my point, Dale. Disagreement, to your eyes, is negative and needs to be minimized.

    Dan, that is not how I see it. Disagreement should not be minimized. I think it should be on even ground with praise.

    (also, if I wanted to minimize disagreement I would not continue this discussion — for me, this is an opportunity for growth)

    I liked your tool example but I think we shouldn’t lay out more sledge hammers and axes than nail guns and screw drivers.

    I’ll let you have the last word. We can’t continue this exchange forever.

  7. I worry about this with kids–I had a kid come back from a city-wide math competition with a 17th PLACE ribbon!! Oh Pleeeezzzze—I refuse to heap shallow praise on my kids. I agree with you Dale, can’t be all negative–but all positive is just as bad.

  8. Random geeky aside: to the best of my knowledge videogames combos originated in arcade games that wanted to promote a certain style of play to keep people from “playing it safe”.

    In the context of modern casual games, bonuses often have no purpose other than an extra shiny thing. For example, if Flight Control had bonuses there wouldn’t be any change in player behavior since players are trying to miss as few as possible landings already.

    (Also, maybe it’s just me, but I would find a 17th place ribbon more humiliating than no ribbon at all.)

  9. Jason–agree with the 17th place ribbon!! My 3 sons are grown but I remember back in the day when a soccer team could lose every game and still have the pizza party with trophy presentation!! Perish the thought a kid would ‘lose’.