When Badges Backfire

One of several things that worries me about the DML focus on badges is that it’s entirely possible that a badge will backfire.  Badly.

If a badge’s purpose is to motivate folks who are doing interesting work on the fringe of school or teaching and learning, well, that’s very tricky business for a couple of reasons.

It’s possible, likely even, that the folks already doing the work on the fringe don’t need the motivation. They are, of course, already doing the work.  And the institutionalization of the fringe work may well kill the work that you were trying to cultivate.  It might be that the fringe was what made the work, ahem, work.

And so the badge saps the motivation from those who were already motivated and kills the thing they were motivated to do before the badge came along.  That’s before it may, or likely may not, bring new folks to the work to witness its horrible death1.

That wouldn’t really help.

But, because I believe badges are here to stay, and they’ll likely be with us for some time, and I hope in my better moments that my cynical self is ultimately wrong about them, then it makes sense to take advantage of the opportunity.  The trick, in supporting badges, then, is to think about badges that wouldn’t actually be motivational enough to start folks doing the work, but would be handy to have for other reasons.  Credentialing, perhaps, or community discovery.  And you’d want to focus those badges on work that can live in the mainstream, and won’t die when brought from the fringe.

If you’re counting on a badge to serve as a motivator, a reason to get students into the game, then I’m thinking you’re miscounting.  But, if you’re wanting to use a badge much in the same way as Pac-Man uses power pellets, or Sonic uses rings, or Mario gold coins, then you may well be on to something.  Don’t let the badge be the carrot.  Let it serve as a map or a pointer.  Don’t let the badge sell the game – but let it add to the gameplay.2

And make sure that the organizations that are supporting the badges are the ones that you want pointing the way.

In my next post, I’m going to lay out why I believe that the , or some organization like them, should be pushing hard to propose a teacher inquiry or practitioner research badge.  They’re they right people to do so, and teacher research is certainly worth of more attention in our schools.  And teacher researchers could use tools like badges to help them find one another.

But that’s not the best reason to badge teacher researchers.  I’ll tell you about that in the next post.

In the meantime, what other stuff might you add to the list of useful badges?

  1. I recognize this is a cynical-sounding viewpoint.  I would enjoy being proven wrong here. []
  2. I also recognize that using a game metaphor here might be a bad idea – because plenty of the folks who are eager to see badges in play would also like to turn school into a big game.  That school, in many ways, already is a big game, just not a very engaging one, is another conversation for a different day. []

22 thoughts on “When Badges Backfire

  1. I appreciate your engagement with badges despite the (healthy) scepticism, Bud.

    Like you, I don’t want just an alternative system of grading. But that’s why I think that badges are useful: they focus on credentialing rather than assessing, a nuance you yourself brought out clearly in a previous post. 🙂

    I think Cathy Davidson (@CathyNDavidson), author of ‘Now You See It’ and Professor of English at Duke, would be most interested and supportive of your proposal for using badges in the National Writing Project.
    Doug Belshaw´s last blog post ..What I Learned at #MobilityShifts last week in NYC.

  2. Dear Bud,

    I want to start off by saying that I do not know what you are talking about when it comes to badges…that you haven’t brought the reader into your world…If I get what you are saying, that the system that you are working in wants to switch over to a system where badges are given as merits for good work or ultimately for passing a grade? If so, I concur! I am of the belief that intrinsic motivation will lead to the most desired drive and you can never exchange passion for and extrinsic motivator like a badge or a grade or a star or a happy face. They work to a point, but they eventually backfire because other extrinsic forces become better motivators eventually…like peer pressure!

    Not so far from the Alien path…

  3. Bud,
    I have a hunch that what makes it difficult to wrap one’s brain around the issues with badges is that there are really two purposes with badges that can either be in concert or in conflict with each other. The first purpose is the intention of the badge giver: badges for learning something outside of the classroom, badges for alternative certification, badges for assessment, etc. But the user herself brings a purpose as well: motivated by the content, motivated by the pretty badge, motivated by wanting a new job, whatever it is. Users engage for a variety of reasons and the impact of the badge is going to be mediated by those motivations. Just because the badger has a certain intention for the learning experience and assessment, doesn’t mean it matches up with the badgee’s motivation and experience. It’s hard to make a judgement of the usefulness of the whole enterprise when in reality, it seems to me, it will change depending on the experiences and intentions of badgers and badgees.

      1. I wrote this comment while I was watching the #dmlbadges webinar yesterday and I started to think about the entire competition, how it’s being setup with the first round of content and programs, followed by the second round of design and tech, it struck me that to even get started with the creation of a badging framework you have to have a serious amount of technical prowess to make the whole thing work.

        What if you could design a badge creation system for the lay-folk (teachers, students, etc.) that would allow them to lay their own badging system over a framework of rubrics, standards-based assessments, and “off the cuff” input from the students and teachers involved in the learning process? Make it as easy to use as WordPress, or even easier, make it as easy to use as a Google Doc, where people can dynamically and flexibly collaborate and alter their particular badging system.

        Say I want to create an entire badge system around encouraging positive communication and discussion in my classroom. I start with a single goal “get students talking with one another”, and then let my students offer up their own goals. As we develop our goals and start to formulate rubrics and checkpoints to help us determine whether we’ve hit our goals, we can start to create those “guide post” badges you described that would signify to other members of your learning community particular skills that students are comfortable with. Most importantly, badges would be flexible enough that they could go away when needed (if they begin to encourage “gaming the system” behavior), and possibly be recreated, remixed, or moved along the continuum of what makes good communication. The final piece of this system would be that badges could not be earned by any direct action that a single student performs (commenting on a specific amount of posts or topics, giving out a certain number of resources, etc.), but rather, only given by others. Members of the learning community would signify how others are helpful to them by creating badges, or awarding badges created by others to show how their colleagues and peers are valuable to them.

        This of course, is just one big moving thought, and could change tomorrow, but I’d love to see something that robust and flexible.

  4. I think that badge could be an opportunity to improve an existing system of assessment. Moreover, i think that badge could be a carrot for students who don’t like studying. Sometimes, motivation is not enough for many student and other benefits could be a perfect solution. However, I agree when it is told that badge are made for longlife learning and not to play a game in which people have to earn badge with they activities.

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