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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!

Photo Post – Maker Faire NoVA

At the start of the month I was privileged to be one of the photographers for the 6th annual Maker Faire here in Northern Virginia. Below are a few of the images I made and more are in this Flickr album.

Dissecting Dyson

The area of the Faire where anyone can tear apart computers, printers, and other electronic devices is very popular. I’ve always wanted to see what’s inside my Dyson vacuum but my wife would probably object.

 Drone Pilot

In the drones and robot section, this young lady showed some real skills as a pilot. Look at that concentration.

Antenna

You never know who or what you’ll run into at the Faire. This gentleman is an amateur radio enthusiast (I guess it’s still called ham radio) headed to his group’s booth.

Maker Faire NoVA - Johnson Center

I also made a few 360° images at the Faire. This is in one of the larger halls at the Johnson Center. More 360° are in the Flickr album.

Something Is Missing From This Space

C Note

Several years ago in a photography workshop, the leader told us that he never used the phrase “taking pictures”, preferring instead “making images”.

Besides sounding a little like theft, he said that “taking” was too passive for what we were trying to do. Making photographs is more of a creative process, rather than a one-shot deal.1 And that is how we should approach our craft.

This variation in the way we speak of photographs often jumps into my head when following discussions about maker spaces and Maker Faires.

Why isn’t photography included in maker space activities? Why aren’t photographers demonstrating their craft at a Maker Faire?

When the concept of “maker” is addressed, most people include things like robots, 3D printers, coding, and other things electronics-related.

Drones? Sure. Welding, puppets, and paper craft? Why not? Even VR and AR, which are still largely out-of-the-box activities that are not easy to make.

Making good images, those that evoke some kind of response from the viewer, requires thought and planning on the part of the photographer. And that creative process is very accessible to almost everyone, even more so than some of the higher profile maker space components. 

Ok, just something to think about when considering who and what is a “maker”.


The picture, made at the 2018 Maker Faire NoVA, reminds me that making music is also often missing from the concept of maker spaces. Although I think his tuba was more about the technology than the music. More pictures from this event are in this Flickr gallery.

1. Pun very much intended. :-)

Photo Post – Maker Faire NoVA

Last Sunday was the 5th annual Maker Faire here in Northern Virginia and I was fortunate to be one of the official photographers for the event. The Faire has grown tremendously in a short time and this year moved to it’s new home at George Mason University. Below are a few images of people and exhibits spread among three buildings and two outdoor areas. More are in this gallery.

Robots

A line up of robots waiting to come to life.

Robot Kids

There was lots to attract makers of all ages.

Dismantle Space

One of the most popular areas of the Faire allows visitors to take apart electronic devices like printers and DVD players. Because everyone is curious about what’s inside.

Maker Faire Johnson Center

I also took some 360° images at the Faire and this one of the exhibitors in the Johnson Center at GMU. Click your mouse or tap your finger in the image and drag around to see more. More 360° photos are in this Flickr album.

Making Is More Than Robots and 3D

Punkin Chunkin' in Washington State

When you hear the word “maker”, many people think of 3D printing, robots, coding, and makeshift devices like that pumpkin’ chunker in the picture. But, as Josh mentioned in a webinar last week, we should also be including some more traditional creative activities in our thinking, like blogging.

I would also add photography.

When professional photographers talk about their work, they will often not use the phrase “take a picture”. Instead they are “making an image”. It may be a subtle difference, but more than a few pros I’ve read and heard insist that making better defines their process than taking.

Because great photos, ones that inspire and move people, don’t happen by just pointing a camera at the subject and pressing a button. They are made through artful composition, a skillful use of light, and making the best use of the available equipment.

I won’t claim that any of the images I’ve posted here, on my photo site, or on Flickr qualify as “great”. However, I’m working in that direction, through experimentation, learning from others, and lots of practice.

Just like any good maker.


The picture, from Photos By Clark on Flickr, is used under a Creative Commons license.

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