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.

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