Blog Post

But What If Badges Could Give Profs (and Teachers) What We Want?

This is a response to a very thoughtful blog post and discussion of badging initiated by Michael Olneck,"Why Are MOOCs Controversial and Badges Are Not."  I left this as a comment on his post but, because it takes off in a different direction, thought it also might be useful to start a new thread on standardized testing, as a jumping off place from his  post.    Michael writes:  "What might make badges controversial? I can think of a few possibilities. One is that they actually "take off," and threaten to displace college and university degrees as labor market credentials, along the lines Kevin Carey has written. But, that is unlikely."

I want to take up the inverse of that:   What if university professors embraced badges in order to make their institutions design a form of credentialing (for acceptance, for graduation, for post-graduate entrance) that actually valued what we as professors value, not a terrible system that was designed for the Taylorist, Fordist industrial age---the multiple choice test that, we know, neither measures knowledge nor critical, creative thinking and does so in only a very narrow range of subject matter?

I wrote the "How We Measure" chapter of Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way we Live, Work and Learn (Viking Penguin 2011) in  2009-2010, before badges really existed in any coherent way and before the Finnish had schooled the whole world in the benefits of getting rid of standardized testing and class rankins and in valuing professionalization of teachers over standardized curriculum.   My "How We Measure" chapter is Deweyite, connectivist, and advocates real-time formative feedback and is full of research studies. 

To write that chapter, I also researched the history of standardized testing, including finding the papers of the inventor of the multiple choice test.   The ties between that form of testing (like standard deviation and IQ testing) and the relationship to eugenics and the scientism of measuring and ranking human achievement are clear in 1914.   Humans were ranked by "scientific" tests so that white race would rank superior to the non-white races (that included Jews and southern but not northern Italians in 1914 when the Kansas Silent Reading Test was invented.  That is a slight oversimplification but not much: Galton (inventor of deviation from the mean), H. H. Goddard (who made the Binet achievement test into a genetic-based IQ test), and Yerkes, head of the new American Psychological Association who used IQ testing to sort out who would lead and who would be cannon fodder in WWI:  all were professed, professional eugenicists.

  Frederick Kelly (inventor of the test as a doctoral student) himself was quite egalitarian.  He was appalled when it was used by those with eugenic or racist inclinations.   He was also appalled that it was used after the crisis of a teacher shortage no longer made a "test of lower order thinking"  for " the lower orders" a social necessity.  He went on to be President of the University of Idaho and tried to be Deweyian and was fired by faculty vote within two years:  he'd been made president so he could bring the new science of testing to the university and people felt betrayed.

Kelly was appalled again in 1925 when the Scholastic Aptitude Test adopted his multipe-choice test as the standard for getting into higher education.   It was a perversion of purpose and all research since then has shown how much this form of testing reduces the different complexities of the human mind to not just a lowest common denominator but one very narrow version of intellectual ability, narrowly conceived.  I do not know any college professor who thinks their university should celebrate SAT scores as the best way to recruit students.  They may exist but I don't know them.

The problem with my "How We Measure" chapter is it didn't provide any answers.  Against the 100 year history of standardizing standardizing testing, and requiring it as part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind national policy, we have theories.   Not a better way that is also fair and machine readable and standardizable and efficient.   Without that, we will never have a better way.  We will be tyrannizing youth over standardized testing that has a terrible origin that reinforces all kinds of social inequalities.

The more I explore badging, the more I am impressed by a system that, if done properly, requires an instituiton to come up with all the ways it values learning, ideas, achievement, knowledge, thinking, creativity---or whatever it is that it values.   A letter grade or a test score is opaque.  It "represents" the person's achievement with no other informatioin about that achievement but institutional imprimator (ETS, for example).  A badge is also a single representation of achievement but you click on it and its entire etiology is visible:  who gave it, for what reason, for what kind of accomplishment, achieved on this date,as certified by whom, what, where, why, when and how.    YOu can do the fast version and look at the badge or you can click on it and find all the "meta data"---so much better than the resume with its hyperboles and nuances, the recommendation letter that is fearful of litigation, or the test score that is opaque.

Is badging the answer?  I don't know.  But having a concrete alternative makes us deconstruct the whole history of the testing that rules the lives of youth and the organization (highly inequal) of our universities today.   For that alone, this alternative---tried along with a close reading of Finnish Lessons--is invaluable.  

My adage is that we have to come up with a better way to measure that counts what we value---and values what we count.   We have a terrible, impoverished system now that feeds rather than erases inequality and has the even worse side-effect of passing itself off as "neutral" or "unbiased" when all research correlates standardized achievement scores, in the US, to income and to educational resources.  We need something better.   If you actually sit down to think about what your organization might want to value in order to award badges, you find that the levels of questions (all glossed over by current testing systems) is extremely deep and complex.  This is why I have my students design a badge system (on paper) and award one another badges--it is about the complex and nuanced evaluation of what one values.   This may or may not be the end result of badging.  I'm not naive about how systems go astray.  

The process could give academics what we say we want:  a thoughtful way of understanding all the different kinds of thinking that, together, make intellectual life.   At the same time, badging has the potential, on a technical level, to address the issues of standardization and mechanization that are necessary if we want this to be not just a good theory but to actually serve as "what comes next": a practical--and more thought-filled--replacement to the bankrupt system we have now.

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