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.
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.
Non-educators discuss education by using the language of an economics lesson—analyzing the material impact of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Public decision-makers assess a school’s value and teacher performance on ratings attached to standardized test scores. The political community seeks to reform education in terms of funding, privatization, policy, vouchers, and budget cuts. While recognizing these concepts have no connection to kids, educators also use business-related diction when referring to educational trends, college and career readiness, stakeholders, ownership, investment, portfolios, risk-taking, and assessment. Educators must be intentional and learner-focused, understanding how words and actions communicate core values.
Despite positive intentions, we have created a competitive, high stakes culture of success or failure. When we rank by grade point average or add merit to weighted grades, we assess students’ educational “worth.” Transcripts keep score but fail to identify what students know and can do. Online gradebooks turn reporting into nauseating stock market games.
We live in an ‘A Culture.’
In an A Culture, when students sense Assessment they respond with Anxiety or Apathy. Reassessing our culture of learning is serious business… Continue reading
At this time of year, the inevitable happens.
The splendor of autumn in Wisconsin is replaced by barren trees and morning frost on windshields.
Parents disguise their children as superheroes and princesses and send them on a quest to replenish the family candy bowl.
The World Series ends the baseball season, which means I lose a favorite excuse to avoid my To Do list.
And the first quarter of school comes to a close, leaving students and their parents anxious to read report cards.
Throughout the early stages of the school year, I have carefully monitored the progress of my students–with success attributed to community building, differentiated lessons, and standards based learning and grading. Students have overcome obstacles to own their learning in much the same way as highlighted by Rik Rowe in his recent post, “Student-Centered Learning.” My juniors, in particular, are learning to take risks while facing academic challenges, knowing they have continuous opportunities to show their learning. Continue reading
Communicating standards-based learning and grading was the topic of this week’s #sblchat. Question 6 asked participants, “What should be included on a standards-based report card?” The image above captured my initial response, and sparked some personal reflection.
I was reminded of the memorable day when my son returned home from another grueling week of 4K. He had survived the first quarter of his educational career and now it was time to unseal the envelope of truth–the report card. Having sent thousands of grades home to parents throughout my career, I thought I was equipped for this moment–my first experience as a parent receiving a student report card. Intense.
And there it was. A clear checklist of objectives my son had mastered at or beyond grade level. Good kid. Relief.
But wait. Naturally, my attention shifted to two “Not Yet” marks. Allegedly, my son had yet to master tying his shoes and cutting with scissors. The mild-mannered teacher in me transformed into a Hulk-like beast–a defensive parent. How dare this teacher accuse me of failing to prepare my first-born for the expectations of 4K? Surely, my son had successfully used scissors at home. And why didn’t anyone tell me he needed to know how to tie his shoes at this level of education?
Once Phase I (defensive, narrow-minded, fixed on the negative) passed, I moved on to Phase II: consider the evidence and be a proactive parent. Rational…check. We practiced tying shoes–one of the countless, precious father-son moments. After some rehearsal, the milestone was conquered. My boy learned to tie shoelaces. He strutted into his classroom the next morning and presented this new talent to his teacher–and even used double-knots. Impressive.
I was more perplexed by the scissors issue. When put to the test, he made straight cuts, but showed no finesse while butchering the outline of a circle. It took some experimenting and a Master’s degree, but alas, we discovered he was more comfortable executing fine-motor tasks with his left hand. Who knew? My right-handed throwing and hitting son prefers to write, cut, and hold a spoon left-handed. The feedback on a first quarter 4K report card made my job as a parent easier, but more importantly, provided an immediate opportunity for my son to learn.
BIG CONCLUSION: A standards-based report card–which separates behavior from academic achievement and communicates proficiency on specific learning targets–presents a clear picture of what a student knows, can do, and needs more time to master.
This information helps guide a teacher’s plans for instruction and answers the most frequently asked question at parent-teacher conferences: “What can we work on at home to help support our child’s learning?” (the question sometimes comes out as, “What can we do at home to help our child get an A?” but I prefer to hear it as I initially presented–makes me feel better about our priorities in life).
So why do we stop providing parents, students, and teachers this useful information? At some point in the educational process, reporting is reduced to meaningless letter grades and several automated comments–the traditional report card fails to communicate learning. Yes, the stakes get higher as students approach high school graduation and institutions want to see a grade on the transcripts. However, if so much of one’s future is at stake, shouldn’t the report become more specific? If I am a respectable post-secondary institution or place of employment, I want to know more about what is heading my way, representing my organization.
A standards-based grading and reporting system is the logical solution. I know because I am an educator, a coach, a parent, and a student. In fact, I am the student who somehow survived high school calculus. My homework average was an A (I completed all work with some assistance…answers to the odd problems were in the back of the book), quiz scores were in the B range (showed enough work), but my test scores were typically in the C range (sometimes lower). Final exam C-. When the report card arrived, I peeked inside the envelope to discover I earned a B+ in Calculus, “pleasure to have in class.” I was relieved and my parents had no hesitation displaying a Proud Parent of an Honor Student bumper sticker on the back of the car. I might have grasped some concepts, but did not learn calculus. I played the system, which is the one skill a majority of students are quick to master if they so choose.
After learning how to tie shoelaces and cut (but not run) with scissors, my son–now well into the third quarter of fourth grade–continues to enjoy the learning opportunities presented to him. My wife and I gained wisdom from the 4K experience and sent our daughter to school with enough skills to teach her classmates how to tie their shoes. Good thing standards-based grading provides specific feedback and allows for growth over time; I am proficient and improving, but yet to show mastery as a parent.
At the end of every school week our teachers receive a bulletin which provides valuable updates, cites interesting educational research, recognizes staff accomplishments, and highlights upcoming events. The format remains the same but new content is presented. The one constant is the series of (Du)Four questions intended to guide our practice and reinforce our mission statement: As the faculty and staff of a comprehensive high school, we will provide opportunities to all students giving them the skills needed to better themselves and society.
1. What do we expect our students to learn?
2. How will we know they have learned it?
3. How will we respond to students who are not learning?
4. How will we respond to students who already know it?
These four questions have provoked some of the most stimulating and challenging professional conversations I have experienced in eighteen years of training and professional development. In 2008, Dr. Tom Guskey opened our school year with a memorable inservice presentation, sharing his wisdom and expertise in healthy grading practices. As a result, the district formed a committee–of which I was thrilled to be part–to research, discuss, and establish a philosophy of best practices for instruction and grading. The brilliant work of Wormeli, Reeves, O’ Connor, Marzano, DuFour, Wiggins, Tomlinson, Wiliam, and Guskey–among other educational experts–inspired my teaching and affirmed my classroom philosophy (learn with a purpose). After numerous drafts and revisions, the committee published a 6-12 grading document which our learning community continues to review. The most positive improvements include:
- the elimination of zeros and extra credit
- grades indicate achievement only
- behaviors and work habits are reported separately with criteria identified on a citizenship rubric
- distinguishing between formative, benchmark, and summative assessments (as online grading categories)
- common summative assessments and consistent reporting in like courses (taught by multiple teachers)
- a reassessment policy for summative assessments
While teachers continue to make significant progress in building workable classroom models, some have struggled to transition from a traditional mindset of grading and instruction. The cause of this discrepancy is mostly due to varying interpretations of the grading guidelines document. The research highlights what Frank Noschese identifies as the spirit of standards-based grading–a positive first step in a traditional model; however, traditional district practices impede the path to officially commit to the philosophy. I anticipate many school districts can relate to being caught in a similar predicament.
So now what? In an educational world where so many conditions are predetermined, attitude is the one factor we as individuals are able to control. As more questions arise, teachers, administrators, parents, and students must seize the opportunity to create an environment with freedom for growth and expectations of achievement. Rather than resist this positive shift or complain about the inevitable challenges, let’s act with the mindset that all may thrive if we fully commit to a culture of learning.
In addition to expressing our own passion for teaching, love of our students, and zeal for learning, here are ten immediate, attainable solutions to impact our culture of learning.
1. Increase our reflective practice to contemplate what works or does not work and why.
Returning to the four guiding questions above is the best starting point. With respect to colleagues and friends, I challenge everyone to put their responses to the big questions in writing. And if those questions are too broad to start with, try answering these:
- Have you and your department identified standards and learning targets for each course?
- How are you assessing student performance on learning targets?
- What are the reasons why students are not learning?
- How effectively do you differentiate to provide opportunities for all students to learn?
2. Identify the purpose of each course and design units to meet course goals.
- Determine the course content and performance standards
- Craft essential questions to guide teaching and learning of standards
- Break each unit into student-friendly learning targets (“I can” statements)
- Allow common formative assessments to inform instruction as necessary to meet success criteria of learning targets
- Design summative assessments around common standards to measure learning
3. Define levels of proficiency so students can achieve course goals with the encouragement of a growth mindset.
4. Make Learning Transparent.
- post learning targets so they are always visible to students (then, attach them to reinforce purpose and refer to them throughout the learning process)
- emphasize the formative process to guide teaching and learning (continuous consideration of practice needed to become proficient on learning targets)
- know expectations of summative assessment
- students are accountable for monitoring their progress–there should be no surprises
5. Stop grading and reporting everything online.
- instead, provide constant feedback on progress toward standards without including a number or letter grade
- differentiate next steps for learning according to individual student needs
- teachers may record student performance but this should not factor into a grade
- better yet, have students chart their progress and take greater ownership of their learning
- homework should be considered practice–ungraded, assigned as necessary on an individual basis, and respectful of each learner’s time
- allow the process to determine when students are ready to be formally assessed. Then ask, “What can you create as evidence of your learning?”
- remember: learning stops when students see a grade
6. Stop grading on percentages or points (ex: 7/10 = 70% = C-).
Instead, assign a score based on a scale of proficiency (7-8/10 = PROFICIENT or 9-10/10 = EXEMPLARY). Teachers have professional freedom in this and may report as required by the online grading program or district guidelines (ex: 7/10 = PROF = B or 85 online).
7. Redesign assessments to compartmentalize learning.
- arrange by learning targets and label headings accordingly
- reassess portions only–the most recent learning gets reported
- students must prove they are ready–promote the mindset that students have earned the opportunity to reassess
- have students reflect on their growth or verbalize their learning
- embed reassessment into portions of the next assessment or formative piece (graded for individual students)
- make sure rubrics reflect an accurate description of success criteria toward mastery of standards
8. Change the gradebook and reporting of grades.
- set up categories to organize course standards
- report performance on standards separately, not as a single grade (traditional example: “Chapter 1 Test” does not communicate learning)
- report online by standards (ex: Understands How to Multiply Fractions)
- learning is continuous and should only be final at the end of a semester, which means stop averaging Quarter 1 with Quarter 2–allow for improvement, recovery, and growth. Remember, the MEAN is MEAN!
9. Network with other educators. Learn from their expertise. Be inspired.
There is no excuse for neglecting professional development. If we do not seek to improve our craft, we will fall behind. Yes, we lead busy lives, but teaching requires reflection and constant adjustment; it’s our responsibility to be lead learners. Twitter provides a constant flow of information and is always available for educators–begin by observing and then get involved. Follow #SBLchat #TG2chat #ATAssess #COLchat, some personal favorites and an outlet to engage in conversation about my passion–student learning.
10. If you commit to one suggestion from this list, PLEASE make it this one:
In every conversation with students, teachers, administrators, and parents of the community, make a conscious effort to replace “grades, scores, and points” with “learning, progress, and growth.”
Taking these simple steps to promote a culture of learning–with an emphasis on learning–will benefit any school environment. The reality of acting on these improvements will undoubtedly:
- guide daily instruction, planning, and assessment for teachers
- empower students to learn with a growth mindset, rather than be point chasers
- increase communication with parents about what their children know and can do
- impact the public image of the learning community
- shift the mindset of a culture