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What a 'Bag of Stuff' Can Tell Us About the Future of Assessments

Kids in craft class
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A Different Kind of Question

"I knew something had clicked when the groups just jumped right in," says Lisa Maurer.

Lisa helps run Kids CoLab at Pearson with design centers in Chandler, Arizona and Hoboken, New Jersey. Kids and adults collaborate together each week to field test existing learning tools, learning concepts, and learning research—and brainstorm new ones.

"This time, their ideas started sprouting instantaneously."

Lisa is referring to a recent series of sessions at the two centers when designers were asked to think and dream about the future of assessments.

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Today Before Tomorrow

"At first, kids had trouble thinking about the concept of assessments in ways that went beyond school and tests and homework assignments and quizzes,"says Elizabeth Bercovitz, a Usability and Participatory Design Research Associate at Pearson.

"So we started writing out ideas on a big piece of paper," Elizabeth says. "We talked about assessments, what they are, and what they look like."

Kids and adults collaborate together at the Kids CoLab in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Kids and adults collaborate together at the Kids CoLab in Hoboken, New Jersey.

"We asked, 'How is a piano recital a kind of assessment?' And, 'How do you demonstrate to someone you know how to play basketball in the same way you demonstrate to a teacher you know how to add numbers?'"

Elizabeth and Lisa and the rest of their colleagues used those conversations to understand what kids were thinking about assessments now—before turning to what kids think assessments should be.

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'Bags of Stuff'

Once kids at the design centers were primed about assessments in a broad sense, facilitators broke out the 'bags of stuff.'

These were bags full of art supplies like pipe cleaners, beads, paper clips, styrofoam balls, fabric string—everything was without a specific label or function.

collaboration

The bags also contained recyclable materials like lids from milk containers or old produce containers—any three-dimensional object that could inspire the building process.

"It’s all about the kids and adults working together and we intentionally remove all the regular power dynamics to smooth the process," Lisa says. "They build on each other’s ideas and, in the end, it’s impossible to know who started with the idea in the first place."

"This kind of approach helps the groups generate ideas that break the mold," she says.

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Seeing Patterns

Out of the 'bags of stuff,' kids and adults in groups of five or six started to assemble what the CoLab calls 'artifacts,' the make-believe future assessment design concepts they would eventually share with the other groups. (See some of their artifacts lower in this story.)

"As the kids and adults dumped out their bags, that's when the ideas started," Lisa says. "Something in your hand could suddenly be anything. A styrofoam ball isn't a styrofoam ball anymore, it's a mind reader."

This kind of cooperative inquiry has roots among learning scientists in the 1970s, and Lisa's group grounds much of its CoLab process in decades of research generated at the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

"Right away, we started seeing patterns," says Elizabeth Bercovitz. "One group started coming up with an idea while a different group came up with a similar idea on their own."

"There were powerful themes that came out of the session," she says.

Assessments of the Future

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