Playful Assessment

Media Lab Main Room 2

Returning to the general maker topic, when you bring that whole concept into school, how do you assess the work students do for a project? Because we know that anything done in the classroom must be assessed.

That’s one of the questions researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Playful Journey Lab1 wanted to answer.

Advocates of maker education have a lot of student success stories to share but not a lot of data. Measurable results could help convince cautious administrators and skeptical parents that kids should spend more time on open-ended, creative pursuits rather than reading more books or memorizing the formulas and facts that burnish grade-point averages and standardized test scores. Plus, evidence-based assessments could improve the overall quality of project-based learning by helping educators tailor projects to specific skills and vet a lesson’s overall effectiveness.

In order to address that lack of measurable results, researchers created what they call “playful assessment” tools and worked with a few teachers in two different schools to see how they might work.

The term describes gamelike measures of knowledge and abilities, and also the tracking of skill development in playful learning activities, which was piloted over the past year by middle-school teachers at Corte Madera and the Community Public Charter School in Charlottesville, also known as Community Middle. The goal is to blend mini-evaluations into learning activities, collecting evidence about student choices and behaviors throughout the process, rather than focusing on just the final result.

According to the writer of this article, the tools were largely successful at one school but not so much at the other. The reason was not the difference in students or teachers, but in the overall cultures of the schools.

MIT’s assessment tools were a great fit at Community Middle, which is an experimental lab school and already steeped in interdisciplinary, project-based learning. But most schools are more like Corte Madera — governed by schedules, academic standards, report cards and other ties to traditional measures of student achievement — and there, the pilot was a mix of triumph and struggle.

Plus lots of pushback from parents who believed teachers were abandoning instruction in the traditional areas of reading and writing.

However, nothing in this story is surprising. We hear educators and political leaders talk about transforming school using the maker concept, along with its cousins STEM/STEAM, coding, PBL, and others, but few are willing to make the necessary changes to the traditional structure.

Maker in most schools is usually done in a “space” – outside both the classroom and “regular” work. Students work on maker projects during lunch, participate in pull-out programs, are given the time as a reward for completing their academic tasks early, or drop in after school hours.

All of those “open ended, creative pursuits” are not included in the standard curriculum, are not officially assessed (playfully or otherwise), and are not an integral part of the school culture. Reading more books, memorizing formulas, and passing tests are still the most important part of students’ time during their work day.

But I’m just not sure our society really wants an educational system built around playful assessments. Where classrooms look very different from what we saw. Spaces where students have some autonomy to work on projects of their own choosing. And learning cannot be described using those “traditional measures of student achievement”.

The kids may be ready, but most adults, including their teachers and parents, are not.


The picture shows the main room at the MIT Media Lab when I visited about ten years ago. For me, that’s what a classroom should look like: lots of open space with flexible work areas and plenty of toys. Especially for high schools, most of which still expect students to sit still and listen for anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes at a stretch.

1. Let’s face it, MIT has the coolest names in all of academia. By far!

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