Hacking Badges

Some of my team members will tell you that I’ve been talking a lot about badges lately. It’s true. So true that they’ve started giving me elbows. I’ve been reading research, blogs, articles, and even taking some field trips all in the pursuit of hacking badges.

Critics say they don’t get digital badging. Naysayers dismiss badges as external rewards that will decrease student motivation, citing Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink. They accuse the curiosity-driven, edu-innovators of chasing after the latest, shiny toy. I say Teddy Roosevelt knows best, “It’s not the critic who counts…”

Badges have been used for centuries by knights, armies, nurses, police, and scouts as visible representations of a set of skills, knowledge, or abilities.
Badges have been used for centuries by knights, armies, nurses, police, and scouts as visible representations of a set of skills, knowledge, or abilities.

A crack team of middle school teachers will have the opportunity to try their hand at hacking badges as part of an exciting kickstarter grant this summer. There is a lot of work to be done and many challenges to solve if badges are to survive.

We want learners to be intrinsically motivated, but is extrinsic motivation getting a bad rap? Is it inferior to intrinsic motivation? I read “Drive” by Daniel Pink. I like it. I like research. It makes sense. I come to work everyday motivated to go above and beyond what is written in my job description. I create. I add to the description. I love to learn. Daily, I seek out new skills, approaches and methods to leading a team of teachers and students. Yet, without the external reward of a paycheck, I would most certainly not keep showing up. Would you?

In the real world, both types of motivation play a role. Why can’t this be the case in schools, too? Perhaps when it comes to learning, only intrinsic motivation matters? Why is giving rewards or recognition an argument against the use of badges? The fear is that learners will become conditioned to perform only if they are receiving an external reward for it (if this, then that). If properly designed, I believe badges can be an effective motivator for learning. Certainly not the sole motivator, but part of a larger system. Others say it’s a fading trend…

Digital badges may be new, but badges and the concept of badging are not. Police badges can be traced back to medieval times. Knights, nurses, and military forces have issued badges throughout history. According to a quick Wikipedia search, “Merit badges have been an integral part of the Scouting program since the start of the movement in the United Kingdom on August 1, 1907, and are an important part of the uniform and insignia of the Boy Scouts. Scouting came to the United States in 1910; the BSA quickly issued an initial list of just 14 merit badges, but did not produce or award them. In 1911, the BSA manufactured the first official 57 merit badges and began awarding them. The number of badges available has been as high as 127 in 1975 and again in 1987. As of March 2014, the number of badges available is 134.

The MacArthur Foundation claims badges, “…hold the potential to help transform where and how learning is valued.”

Abramovich, Schunn, and Higashi pose an interesting question “Are badges useful in education?” with even more interesting research to support.

Credly will be supporting the Education Design Lab, seven major private and public universities, and regional Washington, DC employers and employment groups in a unique design challenge and partnership to address the “21st century skills” gap.

EdTech sites digital badging as one of the emerging technologies in education in the next 4-5 years.

DIY has had success in our own Lower School as a motivator for learners and they are launching camps that are compelling students to petition their administrators to replace homework with DIY challenges.

Are external rewards damaging to learner motivation, and therefore a reason to abandon the pursuit of digital badges in education?
Are external rewards damaging to learner motivation, and therefore a reason to abandon the pursuit of digital badges in education?

Is the badge just a symbol? If so, is it any different than the symbol of a numerical grade?

Much work remains to be done to hack badges into an effective gauge of student learning. I believe digital badging is imperfect, just like other measures of learning, yet still worth the pursuit. I look forward to continuing this work with the help of some of my daring teammates this summer and throughout next year. While the code has yet to be cracked, here are a few clues and ideas that I think serve as breadcrumbs along the trail…

Badges should be designed and used to facilitate differentiated instruction. Every educator I know talks about differentiated instruction, yet few actually know how to implement it. I believe there is potential here.

Badges could be meshed with rubrics and I Can statements. We use karate belts as a motivator in teaching music students how to play the recorder. Why not have a similar system with specific learning outcomes in our curriculum?

Badges could become a form of currency for learners. On a recent Marta train ride, Dr. Kytle, Mrs. Wilkes, and I were discussing the issue of badges. Dr. Kytle dropped this bombshell idea in my lap and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What could learners do with badges once they’ve been earned? Besides as a trophy or resume credential?

Badges ultimately need a centralized designer and issuer, but to get the momentum, learning, and iterating underway, there needs to be a highly decentralized (in the short term) empowering of classroom teachers and even students to create, design, and issue badges. This is a scary idea. And yet a single avenue or clearinghouse for badges creates some challenges for rapid prototyping and testing.

Our teachers use UbD to create unit designs. We have been intentional as a whole school (PS – 12) over the past several years to train our teachers in the UbD approach and emphasized the importance of intentional unit design.

Staying with idea of units, what if each unit had a badge attached to it? It would be more than a mere participation badge because specific knowledge and skills (learning outcomes) would have to be demonstrated (throughout the unit – through a variety of formative, innovative, authentic, and summative assessments).

What if every student who passed received the “blue” badge for X unit? Then, the students who went above and beyond were able to earn the “gold” badge (allowing for differentiated instruction)? Imagine if students could also choose to “badge up” within a unit well beyond the teacher’s design and propose their own products and performances related to the content? For example, let’s say Billy is really motivated to learn about the rock cycle. And he is passionate about the “maker movement.” What if he proposed and earned a “maker badge” for that unit, in addition to the “blue” or “gold” badge he earned for completing the basic minimum requirements that all students are expected to master?

And, what if, unapologetically, students were awarded (without prior expectation) Mount Vernon Mindset badges within each unit? Billy went above and beyond and was awarded the “collaborator” badge by his teacher. Now, Billy has 3 badges to display in his Eportfolio and share at his student-led conference. The next unit will contain similar options and opportunities – one “blue” badge for demonstration of the required learning outcomes and the potential for an upgrade to “gold” for more advanced work, a student initiated choice “maker” badge (or “artist” badge, or “public speaker badge,” etc.), and/or a Mount Vernon Mindset badge. In this way, digital badges could be more than just an award, but a source of feedback and another gauge on the progress monitoring dashboard.

What are your ideas for badging? How do you envision badges as a form of differentiated instruction?

1 thought on “Hacking Badges

  1. Jenny says:

    I enjoyed reading this post, mainly because it shows your passion about badging. I liked how you question whether an external motivator was necessarily a bad thing. I had asked my chatty class the other day if they could possibly exercise some self-control if I offered them money and they all responded affirmatively. Of course, that was just a joke but I was trying to determine if they were actually capable of not talking out. Clearly, they could be motivated by an external force.

    On another note, I spoke with students last week about badging in their academic futures and asked them for their preference for digital or a physical badges. They unanimously voted for physical badging… something for us to consider going forward. I suppose this could definitely depend on he age group/grade level.

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