I still remember getting my first swimming badge when I was little. It was from the YMCA and it was white canvas with coloured embroidery that identified me as part of an elite group of “swimmers” (okay, so the elite part was only in my own mind!)The minute I got it I wanted my mom to sew it on my swimming bag so I could proudly show everyone that I was “on my way to the Olympics!”
Badges are making a come back and for several years now, digital badging has been very popular in some educational circles. The premise is much like my swimming badge. As a student, you earn a badge for showing proficiency in a new or important skill. You can then display that badge and set a goal for earning a new badge. It’s kind of a gamification of education and if there’s one thing most kids understand, it’s the desire to “level up”!
So, after talking to a number of teachers, observing several methods of badging and trying several myself, I have some observations and recommendations.
- Start Small
My son’s Grade 5 teacher, who is still to this day one of his favourite teachers, only used one “badge”. It was a little business card that entitled the bearer to write in pen. Of course, you had to earn it by being able to consistently be neat with a pencil.
By just having the one thing kids could earn, my son’s teacher made it easy on himself in terms of badge management and tracking. Which brings me to the second point.
- Think Things Through
If you decide you want to try badging in your classroom, think things through really carefully before you launch into it with your students. Consider how many badges you want to offer, how students will earn them, how they will display them (if they will) and how you will manage it all. If in doubt, start small (see above). There is nothing worse than launching a huge plan with the kids and then having it fizzle out once you realize it’s too complex. Don’t suffer from OPUD (over-promise-under-deliver). I speak from personal experience – just sayin’.
- Make ‘em Meaningful
If you want to get student buy-in and use your own time productively, make the badges meaningful to both you and your students and your class dynamics. If your students are in Grade 3 or 4, when memorizing times tables is a big deal, then a “Times Table Titan” badge (earned for knowing all 12 of the times tables) might be very meaningful and sought after whereas a Grade 7 student might view such a badge with disdain. Have a class meeting and decide which skills or behaviours your students are/should be striving for and build your first badges on those ideas.
- Have Hierarchies (Plan Pathways)
In badging lingo, a pathway is like a series of badges that build on each other, leading to the “ultimate” badge. In the example of the “Times Tables Titan”, that could be the ultimate badge. On the way to earning that one, there could be smaller badges for knowing each of the times tables. Breaking a big badge down into manageable chunks allows every student to have some success while still showing them the ultimate goal – the highest level-up, if you will! In Robotics, many of our pathways end in “Sensei” badges, which a student can earn when they have learned the underlying skills well enough that they can teach them to another student.
- Avoid All Academics
Huh?! No…I don’t mean don’t have academic badges! I mean, don’t make them ALL academic. Try to create a variety of badges that honour a variety of strengths. Have a “Chin-up Champ” badge for anyone who can do 10 chin-ups without stopping or a “Professional Artist” badge for students who can demonstrate that they know how to treat art supplies.
- Stay SMART
Remember the whole SMART goals thing? You can apply the same test to badges. Make sure they are:
Specific: be clear with yourself and the kids about what it takes to earn each badge. Trust me, this will make life easier, as every class has at least one budding negotiator who will try to talk their way into a badge!
Measureable: make it easier on yourself by making earning a yes or no thing. Either you can do 10 chin-ups in a row or you can’t.
Attainable: make sure the goals for each badge are attainable with your class. I’ve had classes where a “Bookworm Badge” for reading 100 books during the year could easily be earned by over half the class and I’ve had other classes where I am pretty sure if I’d set the number to 10 most kids still would have struggled to get there!
Realistic: see the advice about Attainable (above) and the advice about Start Small (way above). Whatever you decide to do, make it realistic in scope and size for you and the class.
Timely: try to make some badges that can be earned quickly and some that will take longer to earn. If they’re all hard and take a long time, some kids will get discouraged. Also, set a wrap-up date that’s a week or so before the end of the school year. The last thing you want to be doing in the end-of-the-year craziness is issuing badges!
- Design Decisions
Although it’s not the most important part of badging, the design of the badges is still an important consideration. They should look cool, they should be “branded” with your division or school mascot and it should be easy to tell what they’re for. I make mine on Canva (I have an account for me but I do not let my students use it) but you could also us Google Drawings or Adobe Illustrator or even draw them by hand. The example below is from Robotics . And hey, if you’re really brave, you can let the kids design the badges! In Robotics this term, one of their assignments is to come up with the criteria and design for a new badge. I’ve seen some pretty great ones so far!
- Display Decisions
Make a decision on how your students are going to collect and display their badges. This will depend partly on the age and independence of your students as well as your preferences and their access to technology. I have seen primary classes that keep “Badge Books” where students glue in a paper badge the teacher has given them and then they write a short reflection telling how they got the badge or showing “evidence” of what they did. And I’ve seen older classes where kids post a digital copy of their badge on their digital portfolio, along with a short reflection or evidence. In our district we would use Fresh Grade (K to 7) or myBlueprint (8 to 12). Notice that in both cases I mentioned some type of reflection or evidence. That metadata is an important part of the badging process. Students should be able to tell you exactly what badge they got, why they got it and why it’s an important badge for them.
The one thing I would argue against is posting them publicly in any way. Then it just becomes an obvious competition and while I believe that a little healthy competition is a good thing, this kind of compare and compete situation is a recipe for disaster, in my opinion. And whether you include parents or not is up to you – think it through carefully before you make your mind up on that one! ‘Nuff said!
- Avoid Assessment
Okay, this may seem a bit odd, as badging is kind of a form of assessment itself. Maybe if I give an example it will help? Consider the times tables example. If knowing the times tables is part of the learning outcomes for the grade you teach, you likely already have lots of ways that you assess this, such as Mad Minute Math, quizzes, homework etc. Don’t also give them a mark on whether or not they’ve earned the badge. Let the badge be the reward they get for learning the times tables.
Now, I know there are probably a whole bunch of you who are by now agitated and muttering about intrinsic vs. extrinsic and rewards and all that stuff. I hear you, I get it. (By the way, some of you are the same teachers who “reward” yourself after report cards are done by buying new shoes or going out to dinner!) There’s nothing wrong with rewards (in my opinion) if they are earned and not just given out “because”. And as far as motivation goes, from what I have seen of badging and gamification, it seems that it may start as an external type of thing but it generally shifts to intrinsic as the students become more invested in leveling up and learning that new or next skill.
Full disclosure: The badges we use in our Robotics program are a part of our assessment. It’s a system that was started before I came on board and it actually seems to work quite well. (Keep in mind they are high school kids and this is a program they chose to join.) Each badge is given a point value, based on the generally difficulty and time needed to complete it and students are expected to collect a certain number of points each term. However, they have freedom as to which badges they choose to earn, so there is the opportunity for diversity and individuality. Give me to the end of the year to decide how I feel about the whole points thing, though.
- The Elephant In The Room
Okay, time to tackle the big one….how much time is it going to take to manage badging and is it worth it? Those are really individual questions requiring individual answers but the basic answer is “it depends.”
First off, no one is telling you you have to do this. You can choose to do it or not, and if you choose to, you can do as little or as much as you feel you and your class can handle. You can do it all old-school, with photocopied badges and paper portfolios or you can do it digitally. There are online badging systems but at this time none of them have been approved by our district with regards to student privacy, etc, so if you work in my district, please don’t use them. Stick to using the digital portfolios we already use.
So, there really are no one-size-fits-all answers about how much time badging takes and is it worth it. But maybe after reading this blog you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about whether or not badging is for you!