On Education, Badges and Scouting

by Aaron Silvers. Average Reading Time: about 4 minutes.

There is a growing amount of discussion about the use of “badges” in education. I’ve been following a few strands of discussion on the topic and this morning something clicked for me and I began tweeting a little about the stream of thought I had on the subject. Some people on Twitter thought it might merit a blog post, so what follows is my thoughts and ideas for the use of badges.

"merit badges!" photo by rocket ship - http://flic.kr/p/6DEhwz

Photo by rocket ship - http://flic.kr/p/6DEhwz

I am a second-generation Eagle Scout (yes, my dad is an Eagle Scout, too). If you are wholly unfamiliar with how Boy Scouts works, let’s just say that statistically only one out of every hundred scouts ever becomes an Eagle Scout. It’s the highest rank one can achieve in the program and the body of work required, independent of the board of review to be accepted for that rank, is significant for any youth. I share this background only a little for bragging rights (and to flesh out which of my readers might also be Eagle Scouts with stories to share).  I share it mostly because it’s important to the construct of understanding how badges and rank fits together.

There are many people who are starting to pick up on the idea of badges for education, and there are many perspectives grounded in their experiences.  If you’re a fan of what Foursquare and other gamification approaches to badges, then it’s simply a rewards or achievements layer that you slap on top of an existing experience. I think I’ve expressed my thoughts on this subject in a few arenas already, but for the uninitiated I think this is a particularly unwise approach for many reasons — not the least of which is that you end up killing the intrinsic motivation to do things you didn’t need to be rewarded to do before.

The Boy Scout model for badges worked as part of a larger strategic design for a whole person with a certain stance at the end of their experience. Stay with me here. Merit badges were/are focused on key skills. The badges represented an evidenced level of proficiency/mastery (argue your points in the comments) — evidenced by a subject matter expert who was your coach in that domain. These were not necessarily your Scout leaders. These were people in the community recognized to sign off on your proficiency. The badge is a recognition of that milestone.

Merit badges were introduced to Boy Scouts around the rank of First Class. There are many ranks to Scouting, and each one represents a certain amount of maturity in the overall curriculum — not unlike a grade level. Do you see where I’m going here? Each successive rank is harder and harder to earn because the work and the dedication involved increases. The system was designed to shape a young man to develop a core set of values (say it with me Scouts: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent). The merit badges provided the curricular areas of focus for skill building, but the values are reinforced throughout the attainment of the badges, and the awarding of a new rank was recognition of the maturation of the Scout in their overall development. Badges are part of it, and there are subjective evaluations, as well.

This is the overall challenge for public education when looking at Boy Scouts (caveat: I don’t know much about the Girl Scouts program so I don’t go into it here) as a model. Merit badges are a fine idea, but we have to really think about what it means to have experts to coach and mentor the different badges we might want for public education. 500 badges to choose from, as Thomas Vander Ark poses even hypothetically, requires a level of coordination that is difficult for teachers, administrators and parents alike to imagine, even if both groups could agree that this is the right idea. Add to that the notion that the teacher is empowered to decide whether or not a child deserves to advance to the next rank? With this political climate around schools, I just don’t see how this can work.

Still, I hope.

I love the idea of merit badges in education, but only if we’re going to bring with them the framework by which they are effective. As an Eagle Scout, the thing I remember most was the different mentoring I had from people in the community I wasn’t exposed to. Police officers, firefighters, forestry people, craftsmen, farmers… I had to have a relationship with people across many fields in order to advance. I valued the direct mentoring I had with my Scouting leaders who shared life lessons and made decisions to advance me (and sometimes slow me down to develop a little more) with great amounts of care.

Anyone who’s interested in this idea should read the great edReformer post from earlier this year, and I’d also suggest reading up on Mozilla Badges, which are as close to a real framework for accomplishing this as any that’s out there currently.

  • Interesting idea, Aaron.  (I’m also impressed by your Eagle Scout status.)  For higher education I think we do have a sort of badge system, albeit maybe not completely similar to the Boy Scouts.  Individuals proudly display diplomas on their office walls, wear class rings and tack on every earned acronym to their email signature.  In these cases we don’t see the progression of education, just the ultimate achievement. Applying this idea to primary education raises a lot of questions for me.  I’ll be looking for your thoughts as well as others’ as to the answers. If students were to earn badges, where would they display them?  On a school uniform?  Sewn onto a backpack?  Or simply stuffed into the permanent record in the principal’s office? If displayed for other students to see, do you think that would motivate those who had yet to earn that badge?  How does that play out for Boy Scouts?  Are there different tracks to take to achieving Eagle Scout status and could you see a, say 4th grade achievement, badge being earned in a variety of ways? In some schools the badges may have an opposite effect.  Some kids might be reluctant to earn or display a badge for fear of being taunted or bullied by others and in some cases, a student without the badge may try to simply take it from someone who earned it.  Also, how long before a sub-culture of badges start to appear?  Badges designed to show “achievements” that are not sanctioned by the school?

    As you know I’m a foursquare user, and as much as I hate to say it, the fact that there was a Red Cross badge for donating blood got me back into the habit of doing so.  The badge got me to attend an event, but the reminder of just how important it is keeps me going back every 55 days.  So don’t underestimate the motivation factor.

    Workplace badges, now there’s a topic for another post….

    Thought-provoking, as always, Aaron.  Looking forward to reading the responses.

    • Michael, some merit badges are required for a certain rank. For example, you need the First Aid merit badge to earn First Class (I think… it was something like that). For Star, Life and Eagle, there may have been *some* required merit badges (my memory gets fuzzy here) but there a lot of elective badges you could earn. You ended up with a total of a minimum 21 merit badges to even qualify for Eagle. There were over 100 I think when I was a Scout, and I knew a few guys who earned every single one.

      In WoW, you’d call those guys end-gamers. They play to earn all the content 🙂

      I think you raise a lot of good questions. Boy Scouts may well work *because* it is a sub-culture. It turns out the Mozilla Badges have a framework based, in some part, on self-organization which would allow localities and sub-cultures to spin off their own systems with some way to cross-walk from one set to another. I’ve followed a bit of John Lilly (CEO, Mozilla) who had a great presentation to Stanford on how Mozilla is a *chaordic* organization (http://www.slideshare.net/johnolilly/stanford-presentation-on-mozilla-presentation).

      The chaordic model is based on work by founder of the Visa credit card company, Dee Hock (One from Many) and they developed a self-organizing system to deal with the many member banks of the Visa card. There’s a lot to go into there, but my point is that Lilly leading Mozilla, their chaordic leanings combined with badges leads me to suspect that there’s a great deal about the Badges framework which would allow for the very types of specialization you’re talking about.

      It’s an interesting idea, indeed. I’m glad you shared your thoughts on it, Michael 🙂

  • From John Schulz, Xyleme…

    Ahhh, a kindred spirit! I knew there was something different about you when we first met. I was in the Eagle Scout class of (hmmm, let’s just say MTV was actually playing music videos).
    Intriguing idea, but I think there are a few obstacles that the education space will need to address:

    1. Credentialing
    I, too, enjoyed the opportunity to meet many different mentors/coaches as I worked my way through my merit badges. As a hard core introvert, I would have happily stayed in my shell for most of my scouting career if the need for merit badges hadn’t pushed me to connect with these ‘experts’. Whole new worlds opened up in those conversations.

    Frankly, I’m amazed that such a model can even exist in today’s environment – sending teenage kids into a ‘stangers’ house, typically without your parent around. But I think that speaks volumes of the credentialing process that the BSA has developed to vet these people and certify that they a) know their subject, and b) aren’t a risk to the kids.

    As you noted above, the logistics of managing this pool of experts across the universe of available badges will require significant effort on behalf of the public education community.

    2. Limited universe of badges
    The BSA did a fine job of managing the universe of merit badges that were offered to scouts. This was not an infinite list – badges were updated or dropped when their learning objectives grew outdated, and new additions to the list of merit badges went through a rigorous approval process. The act of keeping this list of merit badges under control, and properly aligned to specific ranks where required (yes, there were merit badges that were mandatory, though many were elective) made it simple to set goals as a kid.

    Controlling the universe of badges available within public education is likely to be a significant challenge. It’s difficult enough to get districts in the same state to agree on a common set of goals, let alone across the entire country.

    3. Meaning/value within specific population
    This brings me to my final point – value. As a scout, merit badges were kind of a double edge sword – I was always psyched went I was awarded new ones, but it only meant anything to my scouting friends. My other friends had no appreciation of the hard work that went into getting that little piece of cloth, so it never opened any dialog with them. The badge had little ‘value’ outside the scouting community. Frankly, I think this is one of the reasons why so few scouts earn the Eagle award – many don’t feel the sense of accomplishment at lower ranks because the difficulty in earning it isn’t recognized by those closest to them.

    For such a system to work in the public education space, those badges have to hold value. Everyone, both in the school system and outside of it, will need to have some appreciation for the effort that went into earning that badge. Only then will the student feel like they’ve done something important.

    Thanks for opening up the conversation and brining back fond memories. Next time we meet we’ll have to use the secret Eagle Scout handshake.

  • This is why I insisted my children join the scouting movement. I knew that they would learn a different set of important skills in the scouting movement. The key point here is “core set of values” In the public Australian Education system this is only offered sparingly, mostly with the belief that it should be the parents that instill values into their children and that it is NOT the place of the teacher. To that end I sought out Scouting. My son thrives on the goal setting and the achievement, I adore the mentoring he receives from a range of community representatives outside of our small family network. My daughter could care less about the achievements but is surrounded by a social set that is NOT the same as the one at school – handy for when (if) those cliche arguments arise and she suddenly finds herself on the out. Having been a guide and now involved in scouting AND a teacher….my suggestion is leave scouting where it is and embed it INTO our schooling system as a valued co-curricular activity. (there are other community organisations that I believe offer similar nurturing and support by the way.). For all the reasons you suggested  I agree that it would be difficult to implement in the schooling system and it would lose its value and integrity in the process.
    Just some some thoughts

    • I’m pragmatic, but not without optimism. I think badges are going to happen eventually.  All I can hope is that we consider the many things about Scouting (in a long tail) that won’t translate well to public education as well as the things about Scouting that on the surface seem to translate very well.

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