MIT Developing Assessments To Quantify Makerspace Educational Value

University's Teaching Systems Lab is teaming up with MakerEd and two schools to try to quantify what students learn and, in the process, change the mind-set of educators and parents.

The problem with makerspaces in school, and maker-centered education in general, is that they don’t fit into the traditional educational structure. Multiple skills are developed at the same time. Success can be personal growth. There is no one right answer to a problem. There is no test to show what a student has learned. In short, their value can’t be quantified.

Traditionally, administrators and boards of education that control budgets don’t like that. They want to measure learning. Where are the standardized tests that score perseverance, creative problem solving, tinkering, critical thinking, and collaborative skills? How do you assess a makerspace as an educational tool?

The MIT Teaching Systems Lab, in collaboration with nonprofit maker education training and resources organization Maker Ed, is working on just that—how to embed assessment into maker activities to quantify what the students are learning, while not destroying the pedagogy in the process. Beyond Rubrics: Assessment in Making is a two-year grant project funded by the National Science Foundation. Research scientists, maker experts, and schools in San Mateo, CA, and Charlottesville, VA, are working together to create a way to evaluate making. Robert Pronovost—San Mateo district lead for this project and innovative learning and technology integration coordinator for the California county with 23 school districts—sees establishing assessments as key to maker sustainability.

“One of the reasons that many of us are so passionate and excited about this project is that we have seen the power of making and the amount of creativity and learning and growth that comes through making,” says Pronovost. “But I am—and I think many of us are—worried that without some way to have a better record of student learning in making that making in general will be tossed aside as the latest fad. That’s our larger goal, to show the power and importance of this, so it does not get discarded.”

In the early stages of this project, the MIT staff, Maker Ed representatives, and selected teachers met to define and align their goals and start to create prototype assessments. Pronovost says it’s important to get core subject teachers, not just those who run makerspaces, involved. At the middle school participating from the Portola Valley School District in San Mateo County, a math/STEM/science teacher and an ELA/history teacher are taking part.

Designing the rubrics with the teachers’ input is important, says MIT research scientist Y.J. Kim. They not only need to document the process so it can be replicated in different contexts, they must show teachers that assessments can be “playful.”

It’s not all fun, of course. There are many challenges, she says, including the lack of a singular result in maker activitites, the difficulty in pinpointing constructs, and how to embed an assessment into those constructs without constraining the activity.

“Some of the [maker] constructs are not just content or knowledge,” Kim says. “They’re big, fat, fuzzy constructs that even the assessment community has been having a hard time measuring. Things like tinkering, willingness to take risks, challenging yourself, and being self-reflective.”

Kim calls this project high-risk, high-reward. The risk is failure—not finding a way to embed assessments without affecting the process. The reward is a measuring model that could transform education.

“Assessment here is really a communication tool and an empowerment tool for teachers and students to be able to do really meaningful work that goes beyond boring rubrics,” says Kim. It’s inextricably linked with changing the educational mind-set, she says.

“School is really all about grades, and people think you need to have a score for everything,” says Kim. “We see this as an opportunity to reimagine what that communication looks like. Does it need to be one score, or can it be a colorful palette of different constructs that shows individual growth for individual students?”

Even if the project fails to meet its goals, Pronovost says there is much to gain. The process will help the participants better recognize the skills developed in maker-centered education, and the teachers will learn to take a “more intentional” look at integrating the philosophy and maker activities into core subjects, he says.

Kim is excited by the attitudes of the staff at the two school districts involved. They have different needs and goals but the same willingness to find a better way to measure achievement.

“They want something they can point to and engage the students and parents and [say], ‘Hey, this is how you’re growing, and this is more than one number,’” she says.

“They recognize that just teaching kids [traditionally] is not enough to prepare them for this ever-changing competitive economy, so they really want to empower students to do more complex problems and interesting tasks that foster skills that really matter for the future.”

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