Category: Assessment

The Pac-Man Model of School

Ready! Chomp – chomp – chomp – ch – ch – ch – chomp. Eat the dots. Avoid the ghosts. Clear the screen. Repeat.

How many hours did children of the ‘80s invest in Pac-Man marathons, navigating that maze, staring at the same straightaways and right angles? Enough to create repeatable patterns to clear each screen with nearly mindless precision. Yes, the game required some strategy and skill; however, once players understood the concept, game play was reduced to a matter of accumulating as many points as possible by eating dots in a maze before running out of lives.

Flash Pacman

Got some time to kill? Play a round of Flash Pac-Man on-line.

Old School Design

Pac-Man is a classic video game—as old school as it gets. However, while fans of retro video games still exist, many of our young gamers are not attracted to the simple graphics and redundant concept. With more appealing options available (such as Call of Duty games) to this generation of gamers, Pac-Man fails to maintain their attention long enough to keep them engaged. As video game systems continue to be part of our everyday lives, improved models have evolved to meet the standards of emerging technology and consumer demands. The most popular games present stimulating challenges, authentic experiences (multiplayer options, online gaming, first person views), multiple options to explore, real-time feedback, ability to save progress, and fast-paced action.

Toru Iwatani designed the game to have no ending, as long as the player had at least one life remaining. Only the gifted arcade all-stars would see the game through all 255 screens. Sounds frustrating to the common gamer; yet, we continued to insert the cartridge into the Atari 2600, reset the game, and play again.

The Pac-Man Model

It’s no wonder, in the Pac-Man model of school, students feel trapped in a maze, facing the same routine everyday. The bell signals the start of another day. Down one hallway. Turn left. Then right. Hesitate. Look around for a moment. Resume.

Even during his strongest moments, Pac-Man is a consumer, not a creator. Times of empowerment are limited. The best players take advantage of each power pellet. They make significant progress toward their destination in a short amount of time. However, the further they advance, the more the game seems to speed up. The ghosts get quicker and return to the chase almost immediately. After chomping one ghost (surviving a quiz?), Pac-Man knows he will be challenged by a similar test again.  

Do we ask more from our students? Not according to the Pac-Man model of school. Naturally, students will do the minimum amount of work to meet their desired outcome—possibly engaged but far from invested. If students do not see the end goal from one unit to the next, or do not construct meaning from their learning, they will not find much purpose in our lessons. After the first week of school, their routines are set. They take the paths of least resistance to clear one screen, only to be presented with another. Unit by unit, compliant students complete the coursework, survive the tests, and meet expectations.

Although the system is mundane, the experience is not easy. Enduring the routine is intense. When students let their guard down, there’s a chance of ambush. One wrong move can mean disaster. Anxiety builds with the constant sense of being chased. Heart rates increase and hands get sweaty. Students are always on the clock. Learners do not get time to explore concepts in depth, connect with content, or simply take a break. Teachers can relate.

As intrinsically motivating as setting new personal bests might be, there’s always the temptation to collect a prize. Incentives and bonus points do not make the player better. In fact, pursuing the dangling fruit can misdirect Pac-Man from his course and into danger. The only purpose for such bonuses is to outscore other players.   

Even the benefit of multiple opportunities is limited. At every wrong turn, players lose a life. Eventually, they run out of chances. Sounds like the end of a mark period. Students have better accumulated enough points; the time has come to report a grade.         

In a Pac-Man model of school, point chasing is the sole purpose of the game; players run to survive. Each of the four ghosts represents a nemesis of learning. While students chase their grades, the ghosts’ relentless pursuit increases student stress and turns assessment to anxiety.

Blinky, the red ghost, is a chaser. It pursues Pac-Man, hoping to force him to make the wrong turn. In school, Blinky is the aggressive red pen of grading. Every mistake takes another life, subtracting points at will. Despite possessing the power to communicate feedback and encourage next steps toward improvement, Blinky’s negativity increases academic anxiety by exposing flaws.

Pinky, the pink ghost, is an ambusher. As a sneaky shape-shifter, Pinky is the traditional pop quiz seeking gotcha moments that catch learners unprepared. Pinky uses speed as an advantage to get ahead of Pac-Man. Likewise, the pop quiz mentality typically has punitive intentions, often grading behaviors and compliance rather than understanding. Who did the reading? Who completed the practice problems at home? Who’s unprepared? When such behaviors are factored in an academic grade, Pinky sabotages the accuracy and validity of the reported grade.

Inky, the blue ghost, cannot be trusted. He is variable, unpredictable and likely to change over time. By weighting grades, adding extra credit, deducting penalties, or assigning random amounts of points to each assessment, Inky’s grading practices leave everyone confused. Each number reported lacks meaning; it merely throws more points in the pot. Four out of five on the assignment. Thirty-seven out of fifty on the quiz. Seventy-one out of seventy-five on the group project. Zero on the homework. 103% on the test?

The orange ghost, Clyde, plays the role of feigned ignorance. Morally, he recognizes flaws in traditional calculation of grades. However, Clyde is slow to adapt. In fact, he is pokey when it comes to finding better solutions. Everyone understands how the 100 point scale works when converted to a letter grade, right? Clyde pretends there’s a way to distinguish an 89 from a 90 when measuring learning. Clyde’s random behavior excuses the 10 percentage point increments separating A, B, C, and D. He even attempts to justify the remaining 60 ways to identify an F. Clyde ignores the inaccuracies of averaging scores from early in the learning process with the end of learning and plays dumb when questioned about the impact of calculating zeros in the final grade. He sees nothing wrong with reporting scores by title of assessment rather than by each standard assessed. Feigned ignorance can be a killer in the grade book maze.

It’s time for a system reboot. While retro video games rekindle childhood nostalgia, old school thinking belongs in the past.



Academic Anxiety in an ‘A Culture’

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions.

We live in an ‘A Culture.’

In an A Culture, when students sense Assessment, they respond with Anxiety or Apathy. The A Culture creates a mentality of winners and losers where success and failure is determined by data, high stakes test scores, and grades. In a traditional system, weighted grades, grade point average, and class rank sort kids by calculating formulas for reporting educational worth. When students sense assessment, they know they are about to be judged, quantified, and assigned an academic price tag—creating all-time high levels of academic anxiety and perceived learner apathy. Continue reading

Big Bad Wolf or Home Inspector? Reporting a Final Grade

Ravaged. Snarling. Hungry. The beast is on the prowl. Can you feel it approaching? Students sense it. So do teachers. I know what lies ahead. No one can escape. Anxiety levels rising. The end is near. The semester is coming to a close.


A dark cloud of reality disrupts the sunny skies of the fairy tale world in the secure, carefree (gradeless, gamified, personalized, fill-in-the edublank) classroom. All the talk about learning and growth, feedback and revision, fades into the past, like a story from our childhood. Once upon a time there was hope—exciting new worlds to explore, characters to encounter, paths to choose. With challenges and adventures at every turn, lessons were learned, progress made, and artifacts collected.

But now, with one turn of the page, the fable reaches a resolution. The moral of the story speaks truth. There is no more practice. No opportunity to reassess. Time has expired. Despite months of training, the report card reduces an entire body of work to a single letter grade with room for several prefabricated comments. Although learning will continue into the next term, the calendar says it’s time to report a grade. How can one letter grade narrate an entire story? No wonder the end of a mark period is as daunting as the evil figure from a child’s bedtime story.

As an educator, the semester grade haunts me as well, but I refuse to let it become the symbol of evil in this tale. However, in a predictable plot twist, I somehow become the bad guy, holding the fate of each student in my hands and delivering a final judgment. Why is the teacher always perceived as the Big Bad Wolf?

Fortunately for the learner, the final grade is not about how long it took to get to Grandmother’s house, nor how many points were collected on the way. Rather, each student, with my guidance, will do a thorough house inspection to provide an honest, accurate assessment of the structures they’ve built. Then, we will reread the learner’s story to determine a final grade together.
Continue reading

Varsity: From Letter Grades to Letter Winners

As another baseball season concludes, I reflect on our team highlights and individual heroics that will become hometown lore, and inevitably, relive several “what-if?” scenarios, as if we could go back and choose new outcomes. I taste the bittersweet reality of saying good-bye to our seniors, while the renewed hope of next year’s potential emerges. I will miss our graduates, but would start a new season tomorrow knowing I have another chance to work with our returning letter winners. This is the annual cycle of emotions experienced by high school varsity coaches.

Since shifting to a personalized learning model in my high school English classes, I have experienced similar feelings. The more we invest in the individual, the more we get to know our learners–interests, strengths, academic needs, areas of improvement, learner preferences, future plans–and the more personal the relationship grows. While there are more technical definitions, that’s how I identify personalized learning.

Educators know the feelings. Satisfaction. Exhaustion. Fulfillment. Pride. Seasonal allergies are not solely to blame for end-of-year watery eyes as teachers wish their kids a final “have a nice summer” sentiment. There is an emptiness–a sense of loss–knowing the time has come for our students to move on. We’ve done our part, but now we must watch them become someone else’s responsibility. All of the progress, conversations, and feedback exchanged between teachers and learners reset; the learning process starts over next year.

So what do we do? Post a letter grade. Auto-fill several comments. At best, rush to write something nice in students’ yearbooks. And then, they are gone. The classroom is silent until a new group enters.

In my reflections this summer, I question how we end each school year. I question myself.

Continue reading

Homework Questions: In Search of the Answer Key

Every hour of the school day, a number of students hustle into my classroom, focused, and eager to get to work. Before the bell rings to indicate the start of my class, students are already invested in their studies. Backpacks are open, paperwork out, and pencils urgently filling in blanks. I don’t even have to provide motivation or verbal cues. My students are great kids. They seek approval from parents and teachers. They have positive intentions toward success and a sincere desire to please.

What’s my secret? Continue reading

Create Learning PERMANENCE Through Reassessment

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the learning process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions. We live in a culture that continues to reward, rank, and emphasize grades over learning, points over progress, and recall over creation. 

It’s time to reassess our culture of learning. By acknowledging and acting on the following truths, educators live up to their professional title and create learning permanence.

All students can learn.
Always return to this central truth as foremost in education.

Learning is a messy process; consequently, teaching all students to learn is challenging work. Continue reading

A Radiant Reflection 2015

Last year at this time, I committed to my one word for 2015: radiate. The time has come to check for accountability to see if I achieved the expectations identified in last year’s post. With humility and gratitude, I reflect on my opportunities for professional development and personal growth in 2015.


Radiate: To move from one’s center requires taking action with direction. It is time to emerge, flow with thoughts, and take action to produce something useful.

In 2015, I resumed my endless quest to promote a culture of learning through innovative engagement strategies, healthy grading practices, and assessment for learning. After years of exploring project-based learning, differentiation, genius hour, feedback strategies, and the paperless classroom, I began working with a personalized learning model in high school communication arts. The process was challenging but the results were rewarding. The efforts of my students and support from colleagues, along with my transparency in documenting the journey, led to a surprising honor. I received the 2015 Herb Kohl Fellowship Award for “the ability to inspire a love of learning in students and motivate others, and for leadership within and outside the classroom.” While the recognition was gratifying, it became a motivator to raise my personal expectations and professional contributions to education. Continue reading