I’ve been giving some weekend brain-cycles to a blog post that Atul wrote last week about Achievement and Playfulness.  He links to a post that Jess Klein wrote about badges:

 My colleague Jack Martin and I participated in this local learning incubator where we told a story with twitter. It was a fantastic and fun day and we loved what we made just as much as we did making it. However, after the activity was over, a learning assessment team came over during our presentation of our story and gave us badges for our story. It somehow cheapened the experience that Jack and I had and sort of reminded me that, yeah this was about learning and grading-not the fun experience.

I think that this is an extremely important cautionary tale.  Atul goes on to point out:

This is my main concern with achievements of any kind: they have the ability to twist existing, healthy incentive structures–making stuff for friends is fun and earns you their gratitude–and replace them with less interesting ones–making stuff for friends earns you badges which will increase your earning power.

Here’s another major danger.  Badges are there to approximately encapsulate a success, which makes them extremely gameable if someone has incentive to game them.

For example, let’s say there’s a “Made a Cupcake” badge.  (Yay!  Noms!)  This badge is rewarded whenever you successfully make a cupcake.  But there’s a lot more going on there beyond the existence of a delicious breakfast dessert.

  • You also successfully mixed together batter.
  • You successfully measured items and put them together.
  • You successfully put something into the oven without your sleeve catching fire.
  • You successfully removed it from the oven before it turned into a lump of coal.

All of these accomplishments are encapsulated in the “Make a Cupcake” badge.

Now let’s say badges become things that people really really want.  I might buy an EZ Bake Oven that come with pre-mixed cupcake goo (ew or yum, I can’t decide) that you just put into a mold, plug it in, and it auto-stops after 10 minutes when the cupcake is ready.  I have now made a cupcake, but I learned none of all of those additional skills that we’d assumed were along the path.

The ultimate example of this, of course, is the current education system.  True story: I can recite to you the definition of “erosion” in french.  Ask me next time you see me.  But guess what?  I don’t know where the word breaks are, and I don’t know what about a fifth of the words mean.  But I needed to know it in my geography class, so I memorized the syllables, and got a beautiful 10/10 for knowing that definition.

There’s more, of course.  Not only are students going to try to game the system, but educators ultimately will as well.  We all have days where our hearts aren’t really in it — and if your end goal is to help your students achieve badges, you’re going to take the shortest road to get there.

These things and more lead me more and more to believe that attaching “badges” to “core curriculum concepts” is dangerous.  I’m starting to believe that maybe badges should maybe be things that individual educators decide to award, perhaps even on the fly (see example below), as a separate system.

At the end of CSSI where I taught this summer, we gave awards to kids for all sorts of things: best UI, most innovative, most ambitious, etc. and some of these awards were developed like, an hour or two beforehand, because we saw specific attributes of going-above-and-beyond that we wanted to acknowledge.  If we’d attempted to give them awards for things like “able to code a Python web server independently”, then 2/3s of the class would have gotten that badge and that wouldn’t’ve been fun for the remaining 1/3, nor would it have properly acknowledged how far they had come on the road.

I know that this position is currently controversial within Mozilla Foundation, so I’d love to hear more from the badges = curriculum crowd to convince me otherwise! 🙂  Why is tying one tightly to the other a good idea?