A “Game-Changing” educational pioneer, whose cutting-edge ideas are still far ahead of their time, left this earth on February 20, 2019. Dr. John del Regato’s educational background was impressive. While attending the John Dewey inspired Fountain Valley High School in Colorado Springs, the seed was planted for a lifelong belief in experience-based learning. John graduated from Colorado College in 1967. From there he continued his studies at Vanderbilt University and the University of London in biostatistics. He returned from London to attend the University of Wisconsin. It was here that he decided to pursue education, rather than music, his long-time love. John’s choice would change hundreds of thousands of lives including his own.
After chairing a high school math department, he received his Master’s Degree in mathematics and math education. He then headed West and enrolled in a Doctoral program at Oregon University where he directed a Piagetian Lab. From this experience John was greatly influenced by the importance of both developmental and conceptual learning. While completing his Doctorate, John invented a system and device to teach mathematics to the blind via sound. This ground-breaking achievement was featured in an International Edition of Newsweek magazine and Hewlett Packard offered to manufacture this device. However, the greatest impact of John’s work with the blind was not the creation of this device, but rather how it profoundly influenced his value of the importance of visualization and spatial reasoning in mathematical thinking.
After his formal education, he taught mathematics and math education at higher educational institutions. In 1979, while at Saginaw Valley University, in Michigan, John created the 20 Math Pentathlon Games for students in K-7 to honor the International Year of the Child. He based these games on strategic thinking and his concept of Active Problem Solving. He defined this concept as a critical futuristic skill and ability to resolve problems that are continually undergoing change. John envisioned these games as the vehicle to put into practice Active Problem Solving as well as his theoretical beliefs in conceptual, developmental, and experience-based learning.
John’s fundamental belief was that ALL students could learn to like, or even love math, if they were engaged in exciting, interactive, strategy games. In contrast to traditional math instruction, that to this day still emphasizes rote instruction and arithmetic, these games stress spatial, logical, and computational reasoning. John used the format of games to make math fun and interesting. He believed that this would motivate children to practice math skills and problem solving more frequently, and thus, help them become more successful at it. In turn, this would develop students’ confidence and self-esteem in math and many other life endeavors. And, to practice these strategies and skills on a consistent basis, he invented the related Math Pentathlon Academic Tournaments. The Games in combination with the year-end Tournaments were a big hit.
In 1983, John was invited to join the faculty of Butler University, with some initial funding by Eli Lilly Foundation, to bring his teachings and the innovative Math Pentathlon Program to Indianapolis. The Math Pentathlon Program became even more popular. Two years later, the Program was demanding so much of his time, that he had to make another difficult decision. John had to choose between a career as a university professor, which was safe and known OR follow his heart and form an institution dedicated to experience-based learning. John believed that his greatest impact could be made by putting all of his energies into the Math Pentathlon Program and experience-based learning. In 1985, along with his Co-Partner Mary Gilfeather, John founded the Not-For-Profit Pentathlon Institute dedicated to conceptual and experience-based learning. This freed both of them to focus on the Math Pentathlon Games and National Academic Tournaments that brought students, parents, teachers and the entire educational community together to celebrate students, referred to as Pentathletes, who diligently strived to become better Active Problem Solvers.
Forming such an avant-garde and independent organization involved many years of hardship, struggling against an educational establishment that did not want to change the long-held belief in rote math instruction. But Math Pentathlon’s popularity could not be denied. Parents, teachers, and students became passionate proponents of the Program who spread the word of how powerful the games and Active Problem Solving were in transforming learners’ problem-solving skills and attitudes. Beyond math, adults were especially impressed with how the Math Pentathlon Program and National Academic Tournaments developed character, good sportsmanship, teamwork, respect for others and how to stand up for oneself. Word traveled to Austin, Texas where Rene LeBlanc joined the team, becoming the third key leader. John, with a big smile and twinkle in his eyes, referred to the Team of 3 as “The 3 Musketeers who performed many daring deeds against all odds.”
Today, the Pentathlon Institute continues John’s legacy and his dearly-held belief that each one of us can make a significant and lasting impact in this world based on thoughtful choices that we make every day. Indeed, John chose the road less traveled and that has made all of the difference in countless lives of children, teachers, parents, administrators and all of us who joined him on this challenging and adventurous road trip.
While we still grieve his loss and miss his joyous spirit, we take solace in the fact that John achieved what so many of us hope to accomplish in our lifetime: changing the minds and hearts of those we touch to make this world and the future a better place. And, if we think logically, as well as from the heart, we can choose our paths wisely so that we too can discover the best road to travel.