Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are badges an alternative for grading?

When I share with others that I abolished grading from my classroom years ago, I often get two reactions. The first looks something like stunned bewilderment; for these people, they can't even begin to conceive how school could function without grading. They might even go so far as to feel that I am not doing my job. The second reaction is one of interest, followed quickly by uncertainty for what would act as an alternative to grading.

Since I started blogging almost two years ago, I have received numerous e-mails from teachers asking me what I do in place of grading. Some teachers e-mail me asking me for my opinion on the alternatives they have derived. Recently, badges have surfaced as a potential alternative. (You can read about badges here, here, here, and here)

Before we can properly assess whether something is a worthy alternative of grading, we must first be crystal clear why grading is so harmful. 

Here's a short list:
  • Learners experience grades as an external focus of control which ultimately works against our goal that children find autonomy, mastery and purpose in their learning. (See Richard Ryan and Edward Deci's Self Determination Theory)
  • Grading distracts learners from learning by encouraging them to focus on the grades. There is an enormous difference between focusing on stretching one's intellectual boundaries and proving to others how smart you are. Most of our attention should be spent on *what* we are learning and only rarely would we ever pause to reflect on *how* well we are doing so. 
  • Grades provide no feedback for learners to understand what they've actually done well and what they can do to improve. In fact, the research has been showing us that the best forms of assessment have no judgment or evaluation at all. Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information. 
  • There is a big difference between valuing what we measure and measuring what we value. The proponents of testsandgrades have an oft-repeated mantra: "If it matters, measure it." I agree to a certain extent but only if you add, "Measure what matters, because what is getting measured soon becomes what matters most." Some take this further and say that "measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning." Ultimately, reducing something as magnificently messy as learning to stickers, stars, smiley faces, grades and graphics conceal far more than they ever reveal. 
  • Grading has encouraged teachers and students to see learning (and assessment) as a linear progression from one label or category to the next. This places very heavy stigmas on children convincing them that assessment is something that is done to them by someone else. This kind of labeling, ranking and sorting creates all kinds of problems, including a competitive climate where children feel like their success is contingent on other's failure. Under this climate, learners come to see their peers as obstacles to their own success. All this is made that much worse when some levels of excellence are artificially scarce. 
  • Campbell's Law warns us that any indicator or measurement (grades or badges) that has high stakes associated with it will be gamed and bastardized in a way that skews and misrepresents what ever that indicator was meant to observe, making any decisions based on this information compromised.
  • Paul Dressel once coined the phrase: "A mark or grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgement by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an indefinite amount of material." Alfie Kohn puts it this way: "What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment."
I once had a karate instructor contact me about his disappointment in his students for caring more about getting their next colored belt than loving Karate. Can you see how suggesting that he simply change or rearrange the color of belts or change the belts to hats would have missed the point of his disappointment?

I see a move from grades to badges as like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In other words, it is a massive exercise in missing the point. Badges, as far as I can tell, don't address even one of the issues above. 

What's missing from this picture?
I am also concerned that like hyper-personalization, badges are a trojan horse that carries an army of economists and shadow industries who have been stalking public education for a very long time. It's as if grades are seen as bad because they are dispensed by a subjective and biased teacher but badges are good because they are dispensed by an objective computer. Want proof? Check out this picture to the right... I see a student on a computer learning specific content... hmm, what's missing? 

Because grading is defined as any attempt to reduce learning to a symbol, it's important to note that 75%, B-, and "proficient" have distinctions without a difference. A grade by any other name is still a grade.

Any attempt to reduce learning to a symbol is ultimately wasting our limited time, effort and resources that should be spent on allowing a child's learning to speak for itself. Real learning is found in the children's exhibitions of learning not reductionist data. 

Like grades, badges will always conceal more than they reveal.


  1. Great post Joe. So many schools, districts, provinces, countries are trying to change their grading scheme to something different. To me, what is the difference between a C, a 75%, a 3 out of 4, or seven and half smiley faces out of ten? It is the same thing with a different name. Get rid of the lot of them, I say, and go to nothing but feedback, conferences, and narratives.

  2. So at the end of a semester how do you report a student's progress in your class? I love the idea of not giving grades, but my district requires that I do. Even if you just have a pass/fail for the course, how do you decide if a student passes or not? No matter what you do in your class, there has to be some point where you say that the students have reached some benchmark that you have set. I would love to see how you set up your classes in that regard.

  3. These are excellent arguments against grading and I like how gtading is defined here. Tracie asks what we should do about our oblligatin to grade at the end of each term. I give the grades I'm asked to give. There is no latitude about that. The best I can do is minimize the impact by focussing on outcomes and indicators. The rating scale is never referenced during learning in my room.

  4. I have such a hard time with grades that I wish I could do away with them. My students (like the karate instructor's) only care about the number or letter. As an English teacher, that means the vast majority of my time conferencing, setting goals, and mentoring students through the writing process is wasted. It is monumentally frustrating. For me, this assessment piece, is the next big hurdle in my professional development. I feel certain there is a solution that can work, I just need to find it.

  5. Badges seem much less insidious in cases where the learner has a very high degree of autonomy about what they learn. In a scenario where I could use a collection of badges to mark my own progress on topics of my interest, then they seem like a perfectly fine thing. They might actually support intrinsic motivation. But the power relationship with students is rarely constructed that way.

  6. I think badges are meant to be used by the person who earned them as a way to demonstrate to others what s/he knows, or what skills s/he has. The primary use is probably to apply for jobs. I think they provide people with a way to show the knowledge and skills they have gained outside of formal educational programs as well as within them. So, for example, if I become really good at event planning through work experience, and there's a badge for that, I can demonstrate my skills, earn the badge and then share the badge with potential employers, along with all the others I've earned over the course of my career. Badges are a way of supplementing formal credentials and job titles that don't convey what a person really knows.


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