Category: Education

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

A Reflective Approach to Personalize Learning

Leading change. Launching new initiatives. Driving improvement. Shifting a mindset. These phrases inspire some to turn visions into purposeful actions, but leave others with frustration and trepidation. Typically, leaders present ideas, committees are formed, and agendas are set. Responses are mixed—investment levels varied—but we move forward in education.

We’ve identified our purpose. We will reach every student, every day to prepare learners for success in a dynamic world, as advertised in school mission statements. But at the end of a typical (chaotic) school day, can we claim success in achieving our goal? There’s no perfect solution that packages a best practice script, complete with a how-to manual and answer key. However, with the help of educators sharing their experiences and effective models, we can shift a cultural mindset toward personalized learning. Personalized learning is not a program nor a new initiative; it is a philosophy.

The process of where to begin may appear hazy, but our efforts are validated by a clear purpose—reinforced by several simple educator truths.

  • We care about our students.
  • We want all students to learn.
  • We are passionate about education.
  • We take pride in our professional roles.
  • We impact lives.
  • We can always improve our craft.

The last truth often gets misinterpreted as a deficiency—a professional flaw or incompetence—but this is certainly not the case. As the world evolves, so must education. For educators, this means finding new ways to engage, challenge, and empower our learners. While we acknowledge the importance of placing students at the center of learning, many teachers continue to lead from the front of the classroom. Breaking the expected norms of what it means to teach (especially when being evaluated) is daunting. Before diving in or battling with logistics, educators should approach their entry point based on individual understanding and readiness. For educators seeking to personalize their classes:

  • Know where you’re at
  • Think big but start small
  • Design backwards to move forward

Professional growth begins with reflection

When we reflect on our current practices, we may find personalized learning is not far beyond our reach. I invite educators to utilize the reflection guide to increase understanding of personalized learning and recognize how many components of the personalized learning model they already implement. 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

Framing Powerful Memories of School

Remember the excitement of fifth grade? We had enough tools in our backpack to read and write, problem solve, ask big questions, and attack the world with vibrant eyes and independence. Every Friday, I rushed off the bus to search encyclopedias (remember those?), call my grandparents, and contact library reference desks to find the answer to Ms. Setzer’s weekly trivia question. She piqued my curiosity and inspired my thinking with an optional weekend challenge.

By Monday morning, I proudly placed an answer on Ms. Setzer’s desk. Nothing beat the feeling of conquering another quest, and the look of satisfaction in my teacher’s warm smile. During the week in Ms. Setzer’s class, I eagerly completed daily content lessons so I could sit in the oversized chair—the one by the fish tanks—on the stage in the back of the room. In that sacred space, I had time to read for pleasure, solve brain teasers, learn how to play chess, or work on a project.

The most memorable project extended well beyond the fifth grade curriculum. Our school was running a silent auction to fundraise for a charity. Each student was asked to reach out to family and friends for auction items. My buddy and I brainstormed ideas from the oversized chairs in the back of the classroom. What could two fifth grade boys possibly contribute to the cause? Continue reading

Unleashing Learners’ Superpowers

Heroes quest for knowledge and crave adventure. Their journeys consist of trials–tests of strength, skill, resourcefulness, and endurance. With each challenge, heroes are expected to be courageous, take calculated risks, and prove their worthiness. Fortunately, heroes find mentors–teachers who provide guidance, wisdom, and feedback during training, and help each hero recognize their unique gifts.

While heroes appear superhuman, they must face the truth: like all humans, heroes are flawed. The greatest adversity is self-doubt, a conflicted mind, the temptation to give up. Heroes must look inward to conquer their darkest fears. Only then may they return to impact society and leave a legacy.

When we replace hero with learner in the classroom, we witness the impact of personalized learning. When we empower learners, we unleash their super powers. Empowering learners to explore the unknown requires courage–for educators as well as learners. It is not easy for educators to unlearn what they know and what has traditionally been expected of them.

Accept the call to adventure. Join our hero’s journey on a quest to personalize learning. If you are unable to attend the 8th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning, follow the Twitter hashtag #PLconf17

Want to “Foster Powerful Learners“? Unleash their superpowers!

We never know what our learners are thinking or capable of creating. When we provide time, tools, space, and opportunities to make their own connections, students will remove their masks and use their powers to answer questions educators would never consider asking. 

Attendees of Not All Heroes are Created the Same: Unleashing Learners’ Superpowers will be treated to a session featuring the voices of my heroes. Four courageous students will reflect on a year’s worth of challenges, adventures, and personal transformation on their quest for understanding. They return from their journey to share their stories, guided by essential questions from the Epic Final Exam.

Stage 1: Separation from the Ordinary World

  • What did you discover about yourself as a learner?
  • What was your call to adventure? Did you initially accept or resist the call?
  • How did crossing the threshold in this course force you out of your comfort zone?

Stage 2: Initiation – Trials and Challenges

  • What was your most memorable adventure in this class?
  • What was the most challenging obstacle for you this year?
  • What academic risks did you take throughout the year?
  • What was your greatest achievement?

Stage 3: Transformation – The Inward Journey

  • How have you transformed throughout the year?
  • What traditional habits and thinking did you have to unlearn in order to transform? Reflect on your growth and self-understanding.

Stage 4: The Return – Impact Society. Leave a Legacy

  • What new knowledge about the world have you gained by studying the content of this course?
  • Use the literature you’ve read to answer the essential question: “How may an individual impact society?”
  • Discuss your contributions to society. What have you created that did not exist before?

Throughout each stage, participants will receive supernatural aid and tools to support their quest to personalize learning. Before the session ends, heroic educators will be well on the way to crafting the story of their next educational journey.

Unleashing Learners_ Superpowers - Google Slides

Leveraging Personal Learner Profiles

By the midpoint of first quarter, teachers are in tune with their new group of learners. They note tendencies and behaviors. They design instruction around interests. Teachers’ precise radars sense something off when a student acts out of character. Special relationships with an unspoken language develop throughout the school year. Teachers notice because they care.

Despite the established rapport, not all learners enjoy the same experience. What students project on the surface is often misleading—a protective camouflage for school survival. How well do we really know each learner? There are pages missing from the entire story. While respecting the personal background of every student, how can we make better use of what we know? Continue reading