Using Open Badges To Give Focus And Meaning To Descriptor-Based Assessment

One thing that excites me about the Open Badges movement is how is can help to remedy, rather than merely challenge, the paucity of descriptor-based assessment that has been the norm these last twenty years. To ensure this, we need to insist that badges, especially in this early phase, escape becoming merely descriptor-based in themselves. To achieve this we need a find a simple but universal litmus test to help us gauge when an Open Badge can be issued.

What lead me to thinking about this recently was my son Jack’s terrible school report. Wait! Before you offer me a sympathetic chin clench, let me clarify. My boy did just fine, I think, as far as I can tell. It was the actual report format that was terrible: a list of forty-five descriptors so decontextualized as to be essentially meaningless. A list in which a sense of my child’s learning or any meaningful communication of his merits and needs is strangely absent. A list that the teachers find as uninspiring a process to compile as I do to read.

By way of example, the Grade One (term 1) Social Studies section tells me that my child:

  • Is able to identify various Canadian symbols
  • Can locate Canada on a globe or map of the world
  • Is able to present information orally, visually, or in written form as assigned
  • Is able to identify ways to address problems at school (eg, litter, taking turns with equipment)

The first two are fairly specific but on reflection not that thrilling in terms of possible application, the last two so vague they render themselves redundant. They are meaningful only in terms of how they are being applied, what context they have been observed in and whether my child perceives any value in these skills, but there are no such clues given.

Essentially they are micro-skills bereft of any ‘macro’. They feel like asking for an app and just getting the code and no place to paste it. As being able to see computer code is useful to a coder but not a general user, the descriptors may be useful for the teacher as micro-skills that pertain to some larger goal. They may help plan the route and the ground that may to be covered but in themselves they predicate neither assessment nor reward in any meaningful way.

So when should a badge be issued?

In the threads of discussions around the development of an approach to Open Badges the same worries and examples of poor practice comes up again and again, especially in the context of K-12. That is, what is the circumstance in which a badge should be awarded? The worry is that a badge is given for too trivial an expectation, for example, badges given for not running down a corridor, for handing in homework and the like. I would suggest that the above descriptors are no better candidates.

This is why we need a litmus test.

My approach to a solution would be to borrow in part, Howard Gardner’s wonderful definition of (an) intelligence:

‘An intelligence is the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings.’  (Gardner, 1983/2003)

Rephrase this and we may have the basis (basis, mind!) of a litmus test for when a badge can be issued. Let’s call it a badge test:

A badge can be issued when the learner has done either of the following:

  • Solved a problem
  • Created or provided a useful product or service

The above-mentioned Social Studies descriptors fail to stand up to either of these requirements. To do so they would need to be part of a larger task the result of which would be to solve a problem or create a relevant product/service. I am no primary specialist, so purely by way of illustration, imagine:

Task: The Grade One class is going to help the Kindergarten class learn about North America. There is a display on North America showing a map of Canada, the US and Mexico and pictures of Canadian, US and Mexican symbols on cards that can be stuck on the relevant country. But oh no! The symbols have all been mixed up! Using picture books on the three countries and information or course work from previous lessons the students, in groups, need to work out which symbols belong to which country and put them back in the right places. Each group then decides how to take turns explaining to the rest of the class their decisions and can change the placements if they choose to.

The cards and maps are decorated and displayed. The students then write instructions, based on set sentence patterns that can be read out to the (imagined or actual) younger students to help them remember which country is which on the map (ie ‘Canada is the county that has the red and white flag’, ‘Mexico is the country with the pyramids’ etc).

This way, all four micro descriptors are covered but within a context that solves a problem (the mixed-up cards) and creates a useful product or service (helping the younger learners learn). If the task is achieved the badge can be given. However, if the task is partly achieved but particular descriptors are not met there is clear context for the learner as to where this should be applied. Each descriptor is implicit to the task rather than an abstract ability or proclivity. The learner can be guided, and the teacher targeted by the descriptors which have become routes rather than destinations.

To borrow an illustration from Pete Rawsthorne’s blog on badge system design in which he represents (metaphorically and for sake of simplicity) a tea-making skill hierarchy as such:

Given the badge test, the three micro skills should not be ‘badgeable’ because it is doubtful whether they solve a problem or create a useful product/service. The selection of the tea bag is no use in itself until the macro event, the tea, is made (and then hopefully only if suitably satisfying). That is where the badge, in this metaphor, could be awarded. Issuing the badge for a micro skills that does not pass the badge test devalues the whole concept of open badges.

Something missing?

But wait! It would seem that completing, say, an arduous track event, the winning of a soccer tournament, the ability and discipline of meditating or hiking a mountain trial would potentially warrant a badge. However, they do not directly solve a problem or create a useful product as per the badge test so far.

I would therefore add a third aspect to the test that considers if the learner achieved a goal contributing to their physical, emotional or spiritual state of being. Add this to the mix and the badge test becomes:

A badge can be issued when the learner has done one or more of the following:

  • Solved a problem
  • Created or provided a useful product or service
  • Achieved a goal contributing to their physical, emotional or spiritual state of being

Is there anything missed in this formula? I’ll be happy to hear.

Neil, Learnbase

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