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.
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