Tagged: Authentic Learning

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.



Innovative Power of Asking, “What if? Why not? & So What?”

Am I doing this right?
Is this what you’re looking for?
What do you think about this?
There is excessive self-doubt, inadequacy, and hesitation in our school culture. How can students be expected to take risks and produce original thinking if their only concern is a teacher’s judgment of their work?

Learning with a Purpose

As I personalize the learning process in my high school communication arts literature and composition courses, I hear students asking questions about how they can show evidence of their learning. They check in for approval even though we have created an environment of trust, innovation, and risk-taking. I want what we all seek: students creating new outcomes with learning; content they are intrigued by and learning they are invested in; engagement with and exploration of course material; and evidence of innovation.

Essential Questions

In response to student uncertainty, I hear myself routinely asking, “What if? Why not? and So what?” The impact of those three simple questions has completely altered student performance and depth of learning (from freshmen to seniors). The successful results of this model are worth sharing. The purpose of this post is to organize a session proposal for the 2015 CESA1 Personalized Annual Convening.
This year’s theme — Innovation, Iteration, Implementation — reinforces and focuses on the innovation cycle introduced six years ago and the premise of the action network approach — multiple sites trying different approaches to implement the Institute’s Personalized Learning Model, sharing that learning, making adjustments and trying new things, and feeding that back into practice.
With the Institute’s conference theme in mind, I propose the following session. I invite any comments and welcome feedback.

Continue reading

Believe in Personalized Learning: Outcomes With Impact

…one of my great fears is that ultimately my life will be a waste, that I’ll never do anything worthwhile, and it seems that sometimes I can already feel myself slipping…

Active learning environments. Student-centered classrooms. Ownership of education. Project based learning. Authentic outcomes. Innovative educators strive to attain the perfect balance–ideal in theory, but a challenge to actualize. Here is a glimpse of the impact and results of shifting to a personalized learning model during third quarter of the school year with my eleventh grade Visions in World Literature and Composition classes.

Third quarter of the course (structured in stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey) focuses on our transformation after facing trials, adventures, and challenges when separated from our known world. The transformation throughout the inward journey helps us emerge from darkness and isolation with new knowledge to utilize upon returning to our known world. The essential question is valuable for all to contemplate: Continue reading

Getting Personal

Time to get personal

I’m an educator. Teaching is my passion. Student learning is my purpose. I’m always thinking about the next lesson. Planning. How can I make the curriculum relevant and engaging? These are my classes. This is my classroom. These are my students. But this is not my education.

I began teaching at the end of the 20th century. Even then, I recognized that students should own their learning. Early stages of teaching focused on cooperative learning strategies. When the 21st century arrived, the classroom became more student-centered. Many learning opportunities were project based. My Master’s thesis focused on the impact of autonomy on student learning. I have since improved my understanding of the learning process and the value of assessment for learning. Differentiation became–and continues to be–a necessary emphasis of my professional development. Last year, students produced brilliant outcomes when introduced to Genius Hour. So why limit the energy, passion, and curiosity of learning to twenty percent of our time in class?

That brings me to the present year. Now that I am confident (but never satisfied) with my craft, and have a secure understanding of course content, standards, and learning targets, the next logical, but challenging, step is to personalize learning. All of this sounds like educational jargon, but it’s really a cultural philosophy if I truly believe in my educational motto: learn with a purpose. Read on for 10 observations… Continue reading

Cleaning Up Our Act 3

The body count has begun–Mercutio and Tybalt slain. “Fortune’s Fool,” a newlywed, is on his way to banishment. Yes, Act III, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet presents more twists than Tybalt’s blade. The scene contains enough action and controversy to promote engaging dialogue. I traditionally use the scene as our first Socratic circle discussion of the year and it never fails to provide engaging material. On the following day, we review the scene and put closure on the discussed topics. We also take the opportunity to dramatically reenact the fight scene.

After witnessing the classroom joy of having several students showcase their cheesy acting skills and reading voices, I shared a new mission for the remainder of the act. Groups of students would have the following day to prepare for a brief performance to be presented a day later. The expectations read: Continue reading

Change the Purpose and Audience to Renew Old Writing Prompts


Over the last fifteen years, reading Oedipus the King in-class essays has made me want to gouge out my eyes with a red pen. Students traditionally analyze the play’s themes, symbolism, irony, or character flaws. This year, while maintaining the integrity of the original prompts, I added a twist–I changed the purpose and audience. After reading the play, my juniors sent Oedipus to court to determine if he is guilty and deserving of his outcome, or not guilty–a victim of fate’s injustice. They came to court prepared to write from the perspective of the defense or prosecution. But in typical fashion of Greek drama, fate determined which side of the case they would present…after entering the courtroom. Continue reading

A Visionary Reflection: Pushing Exceptional Learners

Visions in World Literature and Composition: An intensive study of the Communication Arts for 11th grade visionaries, focused on critical thought, literary analysis, writing, and discussion, with emphasis on individual growth and autonomy in learning.

Rationale: The Need to Push Exceptional Learners

I have the privilege of teaching two sections of high school juniors in Visions in World Literature and Composition. These are high-performing, mostly compliant students. However, due to the competitive culture we have created, the strong students have learned how to play the system to get (not earn) better grades than their peers. These respectful, conscientious students admittedly complete work to the minimum expectations in order to receive credit. ​I observe as students rush to complete (or copy) menial tasks for their classes with little thought or effort. Many will not push themselves to explore concepts outside of class or read beyond the assigned material. Yet, they constantly check their online average and wonder why they are not getting an A in the course. Is this a local issue? A generational issue? A cultural issue? How have our actions enabled extrinsic rewards to nearly silence intrinsic motivation?

Visions students are capable readers, writers, and thinkers–many of which are college-bound and in multiple advanced placement courses. The majority have supportive parents, but face the pressure of (sometimes unrealistic) parental and personal expectations. They rarely take risks in their learning and tend to be satisfied when a grade is secured. For students and their  parents, learning is not viewed as important as the grade point average.

Some high-achieving students admit to not feeling challenged, but most feel overwhelmed with anxiety, knowing one subpar quiz will crush their average for a marking period. This stress is accentuated by the number of advanced placement courses on their schedule. As we direct more attention to accommodate the needs of all learners, my focus is on those already proficient in most English Language Arts standards.

I am frustrated with exceptional students settling for mediocrity by playing the game of school. And for what? To earn A’s and B’s so their parents may drive around town with a “Proud Parent of an Honor Student” bumper sticker on the back of the family SUV–but not to learn the material. They are honor students, but likely have little to show for their education. The reality hits when seniors struggle to craft memorable college application essays. It is time to push these students to create something greater–something authentic and meaningful. Let’s stop setting minimum expectations and have students challenge their own limits. This is a necessary step if we wish to remove the current ceiling on our schools. Continue reading