Blog Post

Still a Badge Skeptic

In a recent blog post, Cathy Davidson described her evolution from a badge skeptic to badge evangelist. Indeed, it seems that almost everyone is now a badge evangelist. Go to any conference about learning and education, and you’ll be surrounded by discussions about the transformative potential of badges.

So why do I remain a badge skeptic? I have great respect for Cathy and many other badge enthusiasts. And I certainly appreciate the value of badges as credentials. It is often useful to have an external indicator of what you’ve achieved and accomplished, so that others can understand what you’re capable of.

The problem, for me, lies in the role of badges as motivators. In many cases, educators are proposing badge systems in order to motivate students. It’s easy to understand why educators are doing this: most students get excited and engaged by badges. But towards what end? And for how long?

I worry that students will focus on accumulating badges rather than making connections with the ideas and material associated with the badges – the same way that students too often focus on grades in a class rather than the material in the class, or the points in an educational game rather than the ideas in the game. Simply engaging students is not enough. They need to be engaged for the right reasons.

When we develop educational technologies and activities in my research group, we explicitly try to avoid anything that might be perceived as a reward – what Alfie Kohn characterizes as “Do this and you’ll get that.” Instead, we are constantly looking for ways to help young people build on their own interests, and providing them with opportunities to take on new roles. In our Scratch online community, for example, members can become curators or moderators. These roles are different from badges or rewards, since they are associated with specific responsibilities in the community. People take on these roles because they want to contribute meaningfully to the community.

Will badges always, necessarily be perceived as rewards? Will they always, necessarily crowd out other sources of motivation, undermining opportunities for learners to develop sustained engagement with the underlying ideas and activities? Perhaps not. But, at a minimum, I think it’s critical for badge designers to think carefully about the motivational consequences (sometimes unintended) of their badges, and to take steps to reduce the likelihood that their badges will become the central focus of motivation.

We’ll be discussing these issues at this week’s DML conference, in a session titled “Are Badges the Answer? Perspectives on Motivation for Lifelong Learning” (Thursday, March 1, 2:30-4:00). The session is organized by Natalie Rusk (who has deeply influenced my thinking on these issues), along with Avi Kaplan and Amon Millner. If you’re at the conference, I hope you’ll come join the discussion. If not, I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments below.





Thanks so much for this, Mitch.  I could not agree more . . . and I hope the winners of our Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition really, seriously, deeply consider these issues.   Skepticism is a great thing for innovation as long as it does not undermine innovation before it's even had an opportunity to dislodge systems, stuctures, and institutions  that are not serving us.   Ah, that's the rub. 


I talk about Scratch in virtually every speech, including one yesterday here at the DeLange Conference, with many former university presidents present, including your MIT emeritus president, Charles Vest.  It is the single best way I know to teach algorithmic thinking because it is fun and wonderful and has a great learning community.   The fun of the challenge is exactly its motivation---and I would be skeptical about how badges could make that system any better, where motivation IS, literarlly, its own reward.  


In so many other situations in our highly imperfect world, learning is not so brilliantly motivated and intrinsic and constructed by the learner.  Sadly, learning motivation is not  and never was the reason why schools adopted multiple choice testing and grades nor why HR departments at companies adopted rigid productivity "analytics."  

Our most impoverished forms of credentialing--and they are commonplace--are the ones I hope some creative, motivated learning-centered and peer-driven form of badging helps to displace . . . or, at the very least, that badges offer other ways to think about the two "problems" so many current credentialing systems were designed to solve:  variability and efficiency.  Until we have alternative possibilities that address those, we will not displace the really terrible systems that now rule much of the world.


So for me, institutionally, the issue is how can we address those issues of standardization that are not going to go away AND motivation too?  Is that possible?  I don't know the answer but I am passionately interested in experimenting, in trying, or more accurately watching our badge winners try over the course of the next year and seeing if there is something we might all learn from them..

Here's another blog on the problems current credentialing and assessment systems solve ----badly.  And why I'm willing to give badges a chance:


this post resonates with me a lot, thank you Mitchel.

I don't *hate* badges, and it's been fun to make fun of this on the twitters... but to be honest, I think this post sums up nicely how I feel about badges. 

I am trying to be more open to the concept and understand better how this can be used as a good model of learning. I'm not sure I'm there yet, but I can see how - used well and in the right context - it might be useful. I will say that to me, context seems very important. 

I hope this doesn't become one of those fads that is misused in education =( 

like you, Cathy, I look forward to seeing good examples of badge-deployment at DML and participating in healthy conversations around the issue. 



Thanks for the post, Mitch. I think badges have the potential to be useful, particularly in distributed online learning environments where procedural knowledge in learned. They are more troublesome when it comes to assessing how/why someone thinks (as opposed to what they think) and complex ideas where there aren't necessarily "right answers."


Another issue is how badges are awarded. Take, for example, Code Academy; do the badges represent that I've learned JavaScript or that I can copy-n-paste the correct answers from the Q&A forums?


Hey Mitch. While I'm sympathetic about your opinion, I'm not as skeptical. I do agree that you need to be careful, but my view is that there is a positive effect from the incentives created and kids are smart enough to focus on more than just the badges.

I'm very much a short-sighted interest driven learner myself, and I am very motivated by things like badges, points and games. I love getting my little Scuba diving cards and certifications, but I also love the amazing community, the interactions and the complex array of experiences and learning that come from my activities. I'm not Scuba diving for the badges, but they are a fun "meta-game". When I teach Scuba diving to kids, I often use the certification to grab their interest and help identify milestones like mile markers on the highway, but ultimately, in 99% of the cases, I've gotten them paying attention to the broader vision by the end of the course.

I find that the "meta-game" provides a kind of scaffolding and a sense of play and helps to modularize as well so that one can "chunk" the learning into smaller pieces for those with shorter attention spans.

I believe that there are people, especially among those who are successful at formal education, who are able to remain focused without simple or short-term rewards. There are also those of us who, especially as children, are unable to focus for long periods without some sort of feedback or reward. I recognize the risk that the badges might obscure more subtle and deeper incentives, but in my own personal experience, I was able to appreciate those too while processing and appreciating the rewards of "badgey" things in parallel.


Mitch, I appreciated your post, and the comments that followed as well. In our use of badges at Global Kids, we have not seen this become a problem. However, I do have a similar concern when I hear some people describe what they want to do with badges; these folks have the idea that badges in and of themselves are what provides the increased motivation, not the social systems surrounding the badges and other forms of alternative assessment that fill them with meaning and value. So my concern is less that learners will get distracted from the learning itself - that previously interinsic motivation gets replaced with exterinsic motivation - but that those developing badging systems will force the new paradigm into the old box, replacing grades or certifications with badges, and be disappointed when nothing miraculous occurs.

Unfortunately, I have to miss your panel - Global Kids' panel on youth shaping their identity through game design is scheduled opposite yours, as is the Principal of the Atlanta school running our badging system in their middle school. How can I get the badge for being in three places at once?


Henry Jenkins has written a marvelous blog on "How To Earn Your Skeptic Badge":  To my mind, this is a primer for anyone wanting to design a badge. 


Here's his summary of his four main points:


From Henry Jenkins, excerpted from above blog post:  "I guess what I am saying is:

  • Experiment with badges but really experiment -- that is, try to figure out if these mechanisms really do what you hope they will do and be particularly attentive to the ways that they have unintentional consequences and damage the very activities you are seeking to recognize.
  • Also seed other kinds of research and experimentation which looks more closely at other mechanisms for promoting and appraising participation, including those which may already be in place within such communities of practice.
  • Be aware that the process of badging is going to make things more comfortable to those who are comfortable with getting recognition from adults and may make things less comfortable for those who have not yet fully bought into the values of the current educational system.
  • And above all, if you are embracing badges, make sure you are doing so because you agree with the core premises, because it's the right thing to do for your group, and not because someone is offering a bucket of money to those who are willing to "give it a try."  "
Posted by Henry Jenkins at 6:45 AM  



hi Cathy, thanks for the comment - I liked your comment that almost everything we do is both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. My comment was aimed at something similar: sometimes, extrinsic motivation leads to intrinsic motivation. Very often, I think. So I am not arguing one or the other, just an intelligent use for each situation and awareness of the fact that the opposite also exists (extrinsic leads to lower intrinsic motivation). 


Yes, I agree . . . sorry if I didn't make that clear, I was building on your idea, not offering a contrary one.  Sometimes, I'm not sure if we ourselves know when our motivations are extrinsic and intrinsic.  It is one of those scholarly, research binaries that fades quickly in real life.  I love your awareness that the opposite also exists:  it almost always does.   In Now You See It, I end with my favorite Japanese proverb that translates as "the reverse side itself also has a reverse side."   Westerners think that means "two sides of the same coin."  No, it means that, when you see one side, then there is another--and then, from that new side, you should be able, also, to see another side, and on and on.  It sure makes research more complex and research when that's your paradigm, not a simple either/or.  Thanks for your contribution to a useful assessment conversation that, too often, gets stuck in the binary. 


Based on the level of motivation I see lately among high school students, an additional incentive to learn might be a good thing.

However, if badges are not viewed as extrinsic motivators but simply emblems of accomplishment in a variety of fields, there may not prove to be a problem at all.



In reading the original post and related comments I appreciate the sensitivity regarding the trivialization of badges as another passing fad and the caution of using a virtual badge as the sole reward for an endeavor that should be more about the learning journey at hand versus the badge as the utlimate reward. I think the notion of badges have obviously been around for years and used with recognized success in groups such as the scouts, and even for adults within government agencies like NASA, who award pins and patches that are worn with pride when bestowed for example by astronauts to mission support personnel after a successful mission (i.e., snoopy patch). As a boy scout myself years ago, I did not attempt  to accomplish or learn a skill to merely acquire a small patch to adorn at a monthly meeting or national campout (jamboree), but enjoyed the pursuit of the endeavor at hand. At least for me the badge was more akin to affirmation for the effort after the skill was learned and demonstrated, not the sole driver or end goal. The entire endeavor of selecting areas that were of a personal interest to me, setting individual goals to pursue, and collaborating with like-minded individuals in my troupe who were pursuing similar goals were the intrinsic drivers. It was “fun” and learning was the outcome, and I was aided by adults such as my troupe leaders and parents. Good stuff!

I appreciate the broad scope of the discussion, the cautions, and the arguments both for and against badges as a motivator. I think the context, purpose and audience matter for the various types of badges being discussed (e.g., assessment, learning scaffolding, democratizing of learning, etc.) and their related motivational potential. I would hope we wouldn’t be too quick to “rush to judgment” given the breadth of possibilities in this nascent area of exploration. Ideation, innovation, and iteration across various purposes, context, and audiences for various badges will reveal where and how they may help recognize effort and motivate (or not) those who achieve them. As with all things new, I suspect we’ll see a continuum between success and failure, with varied perspectives and perceptions depending on the context, purpose and audience making the judgment.

At the National Science Teachers Association, we are experimenting with various types of badges with some focused on recognizing participation in online communities, or natioinal committees, or serving as online advisors (roles), or NSTA Press Authors for our books and journals, while others are tied to demonstrating understanding of science concepts after passing a final assessment, and/or sharing a digital learning report with reflections, artifacts and evidences of personal learning. We look forward to learning from others in this exciting area of research and growth. See:


Thanks for continuing this important discussion. I have no idea if badges will ever substitute fully for grades obtained on the highly limited, defective, and cognitively restrictive forms of assessment that are now standardized by No Child Left Behind but also by our SAT's, our medical and law schools and graduate schools, and every other formal educational institution.  (I write about this at length in the "How We Measure" chapter of Now You See It if you want to read more in this area and haven't seen me talk about this before--which I do a lot!).   The intrinsic v. extrinsic motivation is an important conversation but even if we aimed much, much lower---at improving our extrinsic motivational systems--we'd be doing a huge service to society.   Let's start there.   Come up with a workable alternative to the terrible system we have.  And, in the process, come up with better motivators than the existing ones.


Will badges be perfect?  Hardly.  Will they be better than the Fordist assembly line tests invented in 1914 and that now tyrannize world educational policy and rankings (except in Finland)?  Yes, with even a very little bit of thought, badges can provide more flexible and customizable systems than we have now.  And they can be just as easy, just as automated, just as cheap, and just as comparable across institutions.   That's the goal.  


And motivational?  It's not an either/or.   Lots of things that are intrinsically motivating are also extrinsically rewarded.  I'm an academic.  CV.  Tenure.  Promotion.  It's all very, very carefully calibrated, recorded, publicly visible, and rewarded . . . and that doesn't mean I love my work any less.   Writing this comment, since it has my name attached, is already a form of extrinsic motivation, if you want to think of it that way.  Anything we do in public is extrinsic motivation and almost everything we do as social humans is public in some way or in some measure.  

Again, not simple issues, and the "pure v impure" idea of motivation is key.   And, in the meantime, our present system of evaluation and accreditation and motivation stinks. So just thinking about it, even if one hates badges, is a useful exercise.  Intrinsically.  And extrinsically. 


My comment on this post is short: what about badges, even when they perform as an extrinsic incentive, as a means to attract learners into the learning environment or retain them. What if a learner assumes math isn't fun, then decides to participate anyhow, because his best friend has a badge and he wants one as well (so he can show off to that nice girl in class).. and then suddenly discovers that math in fact can be quite interesting? Different extrinsic incentives leading to a higher intrinsic incentive. Quite a remarkable result! The design of the learning environment, of which the badge system is part, is then becoming essential. As it should be. But we should not forget that extrinsic incentives could lead to intrinsic ones (or discovery of interests) as well. 


Three little boys, ages 3-5, live next door to me. I both watch and listen to them play. They engage in all kinds of play from which they are learning a great deal.

Frequently, they will find something, do something, or figure out something, and I'll hear them shout (they just don't realize that the old guy next door wouldn't mind if they used their indoor voices, outside as well), "Mommy, look!!!" or "Mommy, come here!!!"

Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation. It goes in both directions.