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What is the Participatory Learning and Assessment Network?

Written by Indiana University Learning Sciences
November 16, 2011

What is Participatory Assement?

Participatory assessment is a comprehensive approach to instruction, assessment, and accountability. It is grounded in the notion situativity theory brings that assessment is central to learning; students are constantly assessing themselves and being assessed, and it is through these constant self and external (however informal) assessments that learning occurs. All participants in a particular setting are potential learners, including students, teachers, administrators, parents, designers, and researchers, and all have valuable insights to share. Participatory assessment includes multiple levels of assessment; this approach (1) aligns communal discourse to (2) maximize individual understanding in order to (3) indirectly increase aggregated achievement.

Participatory Assesment and the Participatory Assessment Network

We believe that writing – particularly multimodal writing – is the 21st century skill, but 21st century skills are so assessment driven, and writing is difficult to assess. Students need to practice writing about important things in different contexts in ways that are appropriate for those contexts. And they need to write about writing, because in use-generated knowledge contexts, the leaders are naturally those who write about writing. As Henry Jenkins and Rebecca Black remind us, the explosion of digital knowledge networks have made multimodal writing the mass literacy at the start of the 21st century the way the explosion of print made reading the mass literacy at the start of the 20th century.

The Participatory Assessment Network works to foster this type of writing through reflections. This network and the modules designed and implemented within it are organized around three core participatory assessment principles:

1. Let contexts give meaning to concepts and skills: Foster increasingly sophisticated discourse around valued concepts and skills by considering how they get their meaning from the contexts where they are used;

2. Assess reflections rather than artifacts: Rather than assessing student-created artifacts directly (i.e. with a rubric), assess student reflection on how creating the artifact gave meaning to valued concepts and skills;

3. Downplay assessments and isolate tests: Protect participation by using formal assessments to assess curriculum (rather than students), and using tests to evaluate the curriculum-assessment ecosystem. These principles are rooted in the implications of situative theories of learning for assessment (e.g.Greeno & Gresalfi, 2007).

These participatory assessment principles are part of a larger curricular design framework called Designing for Participation (DFP). To learn more about DFP, visit the Working Example at

“Spreadable Educational Practices”

In his blog If it Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead, Henry Jenkins discusses the notion of “spread” – “[t]he re-use, remixing and adaptation” of an idea – and this “spread” is exactly what is happening to the modules in the Participatory Assessment Network. Extending Jenkins’ argument to education, Daniel T. Hickey wrote If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Current Educational Practice. Here Hickey explains the importance of allowing curriculum to be spreadable, so that it may adjust to the situation and population in which it is being implemented. Teachers are encouraged to take up modules that have already been designed and remix them for implementation in their own classroom, as well as use the broader DFP framework and principles to create their own modules and then share them and the methods they used to create the modules with other teachers. As Jenkins mentions, copyright is not at issue here – the point is for the material – in this case the modules – to be continuously updated, adjusted, modified and remixed to fit the situations and populations they touch.

Aims of the Network

The Participatory Assessment Network aims to:

  • … assist practitioners in adjusting and remixing existing modules that follow the DFP framework and foster participatory leaning
  • … connect practitioners, researchers, and  innovators to encourage rich collaborative engagement and curricular development
  • … provide support for practitioners, researchers, and innovators in developing curricula that foster participatory learning, hone 21st century skills, and align to the Common Core Standards
  • … enhance curricular modules through participatory learning and assessment
  • … guide the development of new curricular activities and modules that foster participatory learning and assessment, hone 21st century skills, and align to the Common Core Standards
  • …assist teachers in preparing students to operate in a world of digital networks and a participatory culture

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