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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!

Teaching How To Fail Shouldn’t Be An Option

This is just a short rant about something that’s been buzzing around my head for a while. Feel free to ignore it.

Over the past few months, at several conferences, in a webinar or two, in more than a few articles, and in a long Twitter discussion, I’ve heard some variation of the “it’s ok to fail” trope. Usually accompanied by the idea that we as teachers need to teach kids “how to fail”.

That’s garbage and we need to stop saying it. Especially to our students.

Failure is not a good thing. It’s not something that builds character. It should not be a part of our instruction.

Instead, we should be teaching students an iterative process that identifies possible errors and fixes the problems as they are identified. NASA calls that midcourse correction. Some relate it to design thinking.

I rather like the very simple way that Mitch Resnick from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT explains it in this creative cycle.

Creative cycle

Whatever you want to call it, the whole “permission to fail” business should have no place in our instruction.

What if: School as Hackathon

The mission of Hacking Arts at MIT is to “ignite entrepreneurship and innovation within the creative arts”. On one Saturday night (and way into the following Sunday), a large group of students came together to work in small groups on something that challenged their imagination. To create something new.

Spend five minutes to watch this film.

 

Now take that idea and expand it beyond one weekend and the creative arts.

This is a wonderful model for what K12 education could and should be. Instead of preparing for tests that don’t matter, what if students spent most of their time in school working on issues that really matter and about which they were passionate?

What if school was like a multi-year hackathon as described by the young woman at the end of the film: “That’s what hackathons are about, solving problems with your resources and the people around you.”?

Coding for Lifelong Learning

At a recent TEDx event, Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, presents the case that learning to code is an essential skill all children need to learn.

In the first part of his talk, Resnick argues against the tired old belief (excuse?), held by so many teachers, that kids are far more tech savvy than they will ever be.

All of us have heard young people referred to as “digital natives”. But actually, I’m sorta skeptical of this term. I’m not so sure we should be thinking of young people as digital natives.

There’s no doubt that young people are very comfortable and familiar with browsing and chatting and texting and gaming. But that doesn’t make you fluent.

Young people today have lots of experience and lots of familiarity with interacting with new technologies but a lot less so with creating with new technologies, and expressing themselves with new technologies. It’s almost as if they can read but not write with new technologies.

He goes on to discuss how we expect kids to become fluent at reading and writing the written word and we should also be helping students learn how to effectively create with new technologies, not to improve their consuming skills.

However, just as we don’t teach reading and writing so kids will be come professional writers – very few will follow that path – we should also have other, higher goals in mind when teaching the process of coding.

Again the same thing with coding. Most people won’t grow up to be professional computer scientists or programmers. But those skills of thinking creatively, reasoning systematically, working collaboratively, skills you develop when you code in Scratch [the programming interface for young people developed by his group] are things people can use no matter what they’re doing in their work lives.

 Watch the whole thing for more of his ideas and a look at some new Scratch features coming soon.

A Snapshot of Your Online Identity… Maybe

I’m not sure what to think of this.

personas_smallThe graphic (click to see a full size version) was created by Personas, a project of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media lab and which according to their web site, creates a “data portrait of one’s aggregated online identity.  In short Personas shows you how the Internet sees you”.

Interesting, since in almost seven years of ranting in this space, I don’t remember writing much if anything about sports, fashion, or religion.  (Of course, there’s always the possibility that my name isn’t as unique as I’m assuming it is. :-)

Another factor that gives me doubts about the accuracy of this particular portrait is that in repeating the process, the sports stayed but the fashion and religion vanished, even though it seemed to be analyzing the same sources each time.

Anyway, it’s still fascinating to watch the visualization being built and, as the developers refine the underlying algorithm, this could be a wonderful tool to use with students (or adults) to get a snapshot of themselves online.

And as a starting point for a discussion of how it got there.

[Thanks to Karen for the link.]

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