Blog Post

Institution, Know Thyself! How Members Can Decide What Counts #dmlbadges

Not everyone likes every kind of badge.  Take me, for example.  Some badging systems strike me as just visual emblems and substitutes for the kind of static, top-down, hierarchical form of "grading" that I've spent the last several years critiquing.*  Since that's the case, if I'm going to use badges next time I teach, I'm not going to use a system that replaces the one I already have rejected.  The whole point about badging, for me personally, is that it offers the possibility of a system that is not fixed, not predetermined.  A badging experiment offers any institution or network that sees a need for some kind of internal evaluation of its members the opportunity to, collectively, driven by its membership, evaluate what it wants to count and how.   Redesigning its internal systems of evaluation offers an institution--whether a business, a school, a class, a network, a community organization or something else-- an opportunity for collective, institutional introspection, for a conversation about values, merit, metrics, and the purpose of assessment for that organization and its members.


Typically, we simply inherit values and gradually, often without thinking about it, change those over time, as circumstances change, but we rarely stand back and really evaluate what we are value, why, and how, and why it matters that we give credit when it is due.  The activity of inventing a badging system means thinking through credentials and credit in a new way that, in and of itself (even if one decides not to adopt such a system), affords us a rare opportunity, as a collective, to think together about what we think counts and how we count what everyone contributes to the learning experience. 


Here's why I think institutional, collective self-reflection can be useful and important: 

(1) When you use an inherited system for measuring quality, someone else has already pre-determined what categories "count" as quality.   In school, that might be grades for reading, writing, math, social studies, etc.  In HR departments, that might be timeliness, hard work, lack of mistakes, collaborative abilities, not missing work.   What counts in your organization?   What about the ability to galvanize a group with inspired thinking?  What about the ability to play well with others or organize others?  What about the ability to implement someone else's ideas, to take a vision and turn into concrete action?  What about the ability to speak up and critique a project so it gets better?  What about the ability to finish a project and deliver a perfect product on time?  


(2) Badges don't operate on a scale, not A B C D or "most merit" and "least merit."   They simply and clearly reward what one has achieved. If someone felt a need to have "demerits" or "de-badges" one coud, I suppose, but, for me, one brilliance of badging is it records contribution, participation, achievement, and excellence but doesn't have to count against you those things where you do not excel.    If I am hiring you or selecting you for graduate school, I want to know your accomplishments, skills, talents.   I don't really care that you can't carry a tune if I want to work with you on web design.  I don't really care that you failed French if I want to work with you on a multimedia performance.   Others might want demerits.  I love the idea that people can count what they think counts about them in their adult life.   I wish our schools did more of that!     And, for general education, it's even better than pass fail.  If you succeed by the metrics of the teacher, you get the badge.  If you don't, you learn but no failure recorded, no badge given.  Win win, in my book.


(3) Badges give the details.   The badge is the visual emblem but, in the Mozilla backpack system, you own your own badges and they can be a portfolio of all you did to achieve your badge.   Nice.


(4)  Back to the main one for me:  without an inherited system of accreditation, members of the system can take the time to assess what they think is important, what they think counts, and how they think things should count.   I value badging systems that, like Top Coders, are peer driven, peer given.     I don't know any collective that wouldn't profit by self-evaluation of its core principles, its core methods for appreciating contribution. 


Okay, that's a start.   I personally don't know if this will work.   That is why I am so excited by the experiment.   I can't wait to see what creative systems people come up with.   I would love to see kids given the opportunity to think about what they think counts.   In the schools I visited, every kid knew the abilities and intelligence and skills of the other kids.   They also knew what their teachers thought of those skills.   And they knew what the "school system" (whatever that means) thought or didn't think about what counted as skills.   The variations in those things are the ground between "school" and "learning."  The same is true of every workplace--physical or virtual--that I know about.   People know who contributes, who pulls their weight, who goes the extra distance, and who you want on your team--and also knows the disparities between those qualities and they way those qualities are assessed by an inherited, top-down hierarchical predetermined system.


And that, to my mind, is the interesting place where an open, experimental conversation on badges as an alternative form of evaluation might take place.  If organizations, institutions, classrooms, networks, schools, companies, informal learning systems, and others take the challenge seriously, which is to say experimentally, I think we will all learn a lot that we can apply to our own process of evaluating our own institutional lives. 




[*Background,  in case you haven't followed my previous discussions on "crowdsource grading" and are interested in this topic:  Since my classes now are partly about content and partly about context, everything we do together is the subject of the course.  That includes grading.  I started crowdsourcing grading because a group of my very best A+ students (and I hardly ever give A+ grades) wrote on signed course evaluations that they had loved the first version of "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" but were puzzled that a course so visionary in content and form used such a 20th century form of grading.  They challenged me to come up with a better method for the interactive, peer-driven Internet age.   With my next version of this course, we came up with the contract + peer evaluation method I've dubbed "crowdsourcing grading."  I talk about this at length in the "How We Measure" chapter of Now You See It and in this blog:   and in this one: (and others too).]




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press).  NOTE:  The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization.  For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.   To find out Cathy Davidson's book tour schedule, visit

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I more than sympathize with your frustration with grading and tests, with traditional measures of competence, and with historical systems. Yet badging won't solve the problem until or unless there is a new concensus about who does what, why, and how we know it.

I've spent the last year exploring the impact of soft skills assessment on student achievement, in Somerville, a small (4500) very urban (60% low income, 65% other than English at home, and about 40% Voc-Tech) district. Adapting the Verified Resume, developed by Arnold Packer under a Kellogg grant through Learning Matters, itself adapted from his earlier SCANS study for the Department of Labor in the early 1990's, we first flipped the initial assessment from an observer to the kids themselves. They do know - much better than an observer - how responsible, creative, and curious they are, as well as how well they work in teams, listening and planning across cultures, with technology or in applying new knowledge or negotiating new agreements. That's a wide range of assessment, and gives plenty of room for kids to create their own ways of validating those skills - from videos of music and dance to powerpoints of papers and analyses, from sports to service programs.

That they did splendidly. And they evoked remarkable engagement from each other and from their teachers. Those responses ranged from a teacher in tears over a brilliant short poem, exclaiming, "I didn't know you could write so well, and I never assigned anything to find it out" to a team of kids directing a senior teacher in creating the final template for the next year. Putting the initial responsibility of assessment - particularly of these non-competitive, personal, and transcultural skills - in the hands of the students themselves totally changed the nature of that assessment. It made it socially responsible rather than individually ruthless, and it engaged teachers and other observers in compassionate understanding. And it was remarkably unsentimental - relying on clear, accessible evidence to demonstrate personal and interpersonal expertise.

I first thought your badges might be converted from these skills - a badge for teamwork, for example, might be awarded based on the portfolio. And then I reflected on how this would affect the students who did very well but didn't get the badge. And I consulted with my students. That kind of emblem is a very, very bad idea indeed. The goal is to show what works, and badging what works imposes a standard that can't avoid being historical, anti-contextual, and, ultimately, both competitive and arbitrary. After all, a "responsible" teen is not the same as a responsible adult. Nor does inquiry mean the same thing in high school as in a graduate program or in scientific research. They are just...different. Any attempt to equate them demeans both or all of those applications.

You may well get some nice badges from this competition, but they won't be from my bunch. We'll just do what they are doing already, so well, and so effectively. As one of the students last year said (which was applied by the school itself this Fall), "If I were doing this from Freshman year those colleges would be competing for me, rather than me begging the colleges."

In some ways it's too bad that your idea won't work here, since these are remarkable students doing very unusual and productive work. But, in other ways, bending a brilliant sword into a dollar sign is ultimately a failure. We'll watch what you get, but have little optimism that it could be anywhere near what we've already created.


Hi Joe, Thanks for writing again.  Obviously, this isn't for everyone, only for those who are looking for something to try as an alternative to what they have that may not be working for them as well as they want it to.  There are lots of things to experiment with in our world and this is just one small one.  Good luck with your work.  



Hi Cathy,
Recently wrote a piece on badges in my classroom. Chirs Wejr resonded yesterday via Twitter... here's a synopsis of the exchange...
Chris- How do you prevent the badges becoming the goal rather than the skill/process? How do we ensure badges don't become THE Story? re. "Badges to help tell our stories...
Me- Good question... early thoughts- by making them up as we go and promoting divergent thinking- infinite paths- end to means- we'll see;o) I'd say context is key. I'm framing as modern day heiroglyphics (pictographs) for my class... imagery to tell stories. No limits, few predefined paths. In context of class culture I don't anticipate badges becoming THE story- all about journey for us, hence only 5 predetermined domains- see Hope Wheel platform
Chris- Making it up as you go prevents the if-then aspect which should place the focus on the journey -becomes like a visual portfolio?
Me- Exactly my hypoth & wit a little deliberate focused guidance I think culture will emerge favorably. Limitless opportunites to acknowledge driven by students, teachers, parents, other members of the school family and extended community.
I think you are totally correct if I understand your assertion that badges will look different in different contexts. I am of the opinion that whatever the badge process, how it's defined in local contexts will work best if done in an organic manner... Fixed and dilated won't work very well, I think.

Such an interesting exchange.  Thanks for sharing.