Why Badges Work Better Than Grades

When the distinguished visitor asked Tim, my very intelligent and media-savvy student, why he was taking my class "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," Tim answered, "Because it suddenly makes sense of all the things I like to do and that don't count anywhere else."  He is on his way to a solid A in this peer-driven, peer-evaluated, media-heavy, and collaboratively organized class, but that grade does not begin to comprehend the leadership role he has assumed, the eloquence of his media skills, his dexterity at collaborative project management, or his innovative "fire starter" personality. I wish I could give him badges for all of these things!

 

What are badges? First, a badge is a recognized visual (physical or virtual) device or ornament or (heaven forbid!) piece of jewelry that typically designates in its design the symbol, insignia, colors, or name of the organization conferring it. That's important. That is, the very design of the badge acknolwedges the issuing body or community that has, collectively, agreed upon what counts as the minimum requirement for the badge.

 

Second, there is some equally visual symbolic representation of the knowledge, skill, goal, or feat for which the badge denotes mastery, accomplishment, service, or authority (such as when taking an oath to become a fire fighter).  

 

Third, the badge has to be accepted by a larger community as a legitimization of that which it represents. It stands in as the end result of a longer, hidden institutional process. A badge is a means of identification with the issuing organization, a conferal of some kind of status (as having met the requirements of that organization or of being employed by them). Badges can be used as advertisement or for branding too, but that is a bit different than what the Girl Scouts give out. We know "legitimization" is one implicit part of badging because, of course, the system is susceptible to parody or misappropriation (in researching girl scout badges I wandered into the whole world of porn badges . . . big surprise, that!) Or, for a hilarious treat:  "WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN BADGES": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqomZQMZQCQ

 

Fourth, the badge has to not just credentialize or certify learning but should also motivate it. By organizing a set of skills and interests (such as Tim's multimedia talents) into an actual, definable, measurable skill capable of assessment and judgment, badges inspire students to greater mastery. A hobby becomes definable as an intellectual, creative asset, something to be tended, improved, honed, perfected, advanced, and innovated. As with a game challenge, attainment becomes the floor not the end point, it becomes a step on a way towards even greater mastery. The badge inspires a certain form of learning by naming it and honoring it. 

 

Now let's go back to Tim. If I had established a badge system in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," I might well have had the class help me design the badge and then might have also worked with them to develop community standards or even a community certification group for deciding who had achieved badges in what area. Tim might have left the class with (a) a grade for the class; (b) a visual badge on his website that someone could click on and then find out all the various things Tim did to earn that badge in my class; and (c) several lines on his resume. That's something we'll work on the last day of class, thinking about the skills students learned in this unique, peer-driven class that one doesn't usually learn in a normal, hierarchical class where the teacher has the questions and the students write the best answers on the final exam.  

 

Badges are useful for certifying complex processes or skills that are not comprehended in our traditional grading systems.  Think about what those are. According to most employers, the skills we do not grade are often the ones most important to future success in the work place. What we do not grade--interpersonal skills, collaborative skills, imagination, innovative, initiative, independence--are most of the things employers most want in future employees. At present, education, including higher education, doesn't have a system for measuring or counting those things. That's why a number of  us have begun to investigate badging. And why the Mozilla Foundation is pioneering an Open Badge Project. Want to know more? Check it out here: http://openmatt.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/badges-in-the-real-world/

 

And, in the meantime, I'm hoping to give Tim the Firestarter Multimedia Expert Badge . . . he's not only exemplifying his skills. Today, he is coming into my other class, "Twenty-First Century Literacies," to work with the other students on perfecting their own video and multimedia editing and presentation skills.   

 

Why do badges work better than grades? Obviously they don't in all situations. For over a hundred years grades have represented or summarized a teacher's estimation of the worth of a student as quantified by a series of tests, often of the item-response variety (invented in 1914). Badges are simply another way, a more flexible way, of certifying a range of skills that our machine-age multiple choice mode of testing doesn't fully comprehend but that are crucial to the ways we live, work, and learn. 

 

 

bjoseph

More learning badge examples

Cathy, Great post! Thank you for helping to advance this much needed discussion.

For those looking for more examples, for the past three years Global Kids has been using badges for learning, within an after school program (Media Masters at the High School for Global Citizenship), a library (New York Public Library),  a K-5 School, a museum (American Museum of National History), within Global Kids (article), overseas in Senegal based on Global Kids' work, and for a serious game design certification program.

In addition, a short video of us talking about why we do this work, from the recent Digital Media and Learning Conference, can be viewed here.

 

Cathy Davidson

More badges

Thanks, Barry.  And thanks for the link to the DML Conference where you talk about this.   Anyone else have examples from their work? 

fnoschese

Khan Academy Badges

Hi Cathy,

Khan Academy's web-based math program issues students "badges" for completing certain tasks. See: http://bjk5.com/post/2426884194/khan-academy-now-has-badges

The KA math program is being piloted in the Los Altos school district and they are blogging about the experience. Here's what one teacher wrote about the badge experience: "A few months ago, Khan Academy added badges to motivate younger students to learn. However, the students now have ignored the exercises and videos, only to focus on badges. There are six types of badges, the Meteorite Badge, the Moon Badge, the Earth Badge, the Sun Badge, the Black Hole Badges, and the challenge patches. The Meteorite Badges are common and pretty easy to get. The Moon badges are slightly harder to get, but still are pretty easy. Earth Badges are much harder to get. The Sun Badges are increasingly hard to get, and the Black Hole Badges are pretty much impossible to get. In our class, most of the people already have Meteorite, Moon, and Earth Badges, but only 6 have Sun Badges. Many students corrupt their learning in attempt to gain a badge."
(from http://lasdandkhanacademy.edublogs.org/2011/03/31/sun-badges-and-beyond/ )

Curious as to your thoughts on this.

Thanks,
Frank Noschese

Cathy Davidson

Thank you!

I've been reading a lately about Khan Academy and I'm intrigued.  I'm also intrigued by your critique of them.  I don't know enough to comment about your view of them but I certainly approve of your view of education generally.  If all one is doing is changing methods to improve test scores, then that is putting the learnng cart before the learning horse.

 

Thanks so much for letting us know about the badge method and for the url where we can all read more!  I'm curious about this sentence:  "Many students corrupt their learning in attempt to gain a badge."   If badges are designed well, you by definition could not corrupt your learning to gain one.  So I wonder what is misfiring here or if this random comment is misleading?   If I were designing badges and felt they were "corrupting" learning, I'd either end the badges or have students work with me to change the method of getting them in order to do a better job of having badges that inspire, rather than "corrupt" learning.  Do you any more about this?

bradfox123

"Corrupt their learning"?

Coincidentally, I tried using the Khan Academy in an elementary classroom yesterday, and it worked well.  I happened on your site after watching a Howard Reingold YouTube lecture, and I like the concept of students earning badges rather than grades.  I'm reminded of Madeleine Hunter's mastery approach to direct instruction.  What's with the C- and B+ thing, anyway?  They have no real meaning.  I'd like to hear more about the problems with badges too.  The students we taught to read at Solano County Court and Community schools using direct instruction would probably have liked them.  Of course, they also lked learning to read.

Brad

bradfox123

"Corrupt their learning"?

Coincidentally, I tried using the Khan Academy in an elementary classroom yesterday, and it worked well.  I happened on your site after watching a Howard Reingold YouTube lecture, and I like the concept of students earning badges rather than grades.  I'm reminded of Madeleine Hunter's mastery approach to direct instruction.  What's with the C- and B+ thing, anyway?  They have no real meaning.  I'd like to hear more about the problems with badges too.  The students we taught to read at Solano County Court and Community schools using direct instruction would probably have liked them.  Of course, they also lked learning to read.

Brad

dellaccs

No innovation here

 

I agree with Justen's take on badges. http://justeneason.com/2011/09/24/we-dont-need-no-stinkin-badges/ 

The only badges I could see worth earning are ones promoting peace, service or collaboration by building libraries. Adults could earn and model for kids their achievement in these areas.

Then kids would model back to the adults the intrinsic motivation that is such a foregin concept to adults set on grades, scores and badges.

Just keep the stinkin’ badges off of kids.

My 2 cents.

------ We've done enough ranking and sorting. Jefferson's vision  for public education is different than mine.  I don't see public schools as factories to rank and sort students.  We continue with this path, whether it be with  grades, standard performance scores, badges or other.  Read the Department of Education's mission.and the DOE's goals. The DOE's mission and goals still align with Jefferson's vision and still promote ranking and sorting. So this leads me to some questions, in regards to public education...What should be the outcomes of public education?What are we looking for in regards to output of our public schools?What do we envision public education doing for our students, our communities, our country and/or our world? 

Cathy Davidson

Here's something else

Here's something else thoughtful to read on badges.  Thanks for writing.  Even if you don't want to participate in this particular competition, we're very happy for responses of all kids.  The point is an experiment in new models of peers supplying feedback and evaluation.  It's not right in all situations but, since right now, we basically have one defective system, the point is to come up with working models for other systems to give ideas.  Badges are not the end point of everything but something to consider so we can have another concrete system to measure against the one that prevails now.   Here's Sheryl Grant's very thoughtful essay on badges if this is something that interests you:  http://hastac.org/blogs/slgrant/2011/09/25/unpacking-badges-lifelong-lea...