Some Thoughts on the B-word*

*not that b-word! Sheesh, what kind of potty-mouth do you think I am? I meant the other b-word.

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Forgive me Frank Noschese, for I have sinned.

I have lusted in my heart after the Turquoise Horse badge. I have felt the bitterness of rage after failing to earn it.

I have assuaged my anger through my attempts to earn the Flamingo & Hamster badges simultaneously.

 

I have long since earned the Turkey  and Penguin  badges.

 

Who has led me down this path of temptation? What is the meaning of all these badges? This is the diabolical workings of a website called 750words.com, a site which encourages people to write 750 words each day and rewards those who do with a variety of streak-length and behavior-based badges. For instance the Turkey badge was earned after I wrote for 3 days in a row; the Penguin after 5 days. The Flamingo is for 10 days of writing. The Hamster badge is a behavior badge. It is earned for writing for 10 days in a row without “distractions”, in other words you don’t stop writing at any point for more than 1 minute.

And this isn’t the only instance of badge-earning that I’ve been up to. No, Frank, the damage runs deep. I’ve been real, real bad. You see, in May I participated in the Team Bike-To-Work Challenge. I entered my bike rides onto the website and my team earned points. And I earned, yes, it’s true, more badges. I earned my 5 mile, my 10 mile, and my “All That & a Bag of Chips” badge (for burning off a bag of chips worth of calories). Unfortunately, soon after earning this badge I got a really bad, lingering cold and didn’t have the stamina to keep riding to work for the rest of the month.

The cold is gone now, but not the lust for badges! I have become a badge-aholic.

And I’m not the only one. Sam Shah sent me this message the other day, after becoming my friend on GoodReads:

 i love your ambition! i put 30, and i’m almost there. the only reason i’ve been on such a kick is because i have this site to keep me on track. it’s pretty awesome.

Really Sam, you’re doing better at something because some website is tracking your progress towards an arbitrary goal? For shame! How dare you?

But the thing is, it’s not actually an arbitrary goal–it’s a goal Sam set for himself, in order to challenge himself to do something that he wanted to do anyways. Just like I’m not writing on 750 words just to get the badges; I’m doing it because writing daily is something that I want to push myself to do.

And the other very important aspect of earning these badges and Sam reading those books is that it’s not a high-stakes environment. It’s really not that big of a deal (at least not to anyone other than us) whether or not we meet our goals, whether we earn our badges, or we don’t. Sam isn’t going to fail life if he doesn’t read 30 books by the end of the year (which he’s totally going to do, by the way. Go Sam!). The world didn’t end when I forgot to write one day in the first week of June, thereby failing the challenge to write every day that month that I’d signed up for–and causing the Turquoise Horse badge to slip through my fingers!

The only thing that happened was that I didn’t meet a goal that I had set for myself. I was upset about that. I had pushed myself to do something that I had wanted to accomplish. I had set an achievable goal, and I didn’t meet that goal. But the key factor was that I set that goal. If a teacher had told me that I had to do this, I wouldn’t have been as motivated to do it. And a silly badge with a blue horse face on it wouldn’t have motivated me anymore than not having a blue horse badge being dangled in front of my face.

The main problem I have with Khan Academy and similar points-based systems is that the whole issue of giving students rewards for doing stuff isn’t necessarily a good practice. If the “only way” to get a student to do something is through extrinsic rewards, something is fundamentally wrong with the picture.

I have some students who have used Khan Academy. I haven’t asked them to. I haven’t given them credit for doing it. They found it on their own and they decided to use it in whatever way they saw fit to supplement their experiences in class. I’m fine with that. I don’t think that’s going to harm them in some way. The reason I believe this is that the motivation question has been addressed.

They are doing the Khan videos and practice because they want to. Not because they were “supposed to” or because they would be rewarded for doing them. At least not any more rewarded than how Sam and I are being rewarded for meeting our goals. And most importantly, these students aren’t going to be punished for not doing well on the KA assessments. There are no stakes looming over these kids’ heads. No pressure, except for whatever pressure they put on themselves. No authority figure telling them they need to do better, to try harder, to learn faster.

I’m okay with badges to mark achievements towards someone’s personal, self-selected goals. I’m not okay with badges that render judgment on a student based on a goal that was put onto that student by an outside authority figure.

Low stakes. Personalized goals. Silly pictures. That’s what make badges fun. Other attempts to use badges to recreate some pale shadow of motivation in children are misguided and will only create a distorted version of “enthusiasm” for the task at hand.

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2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the B-word*

  1. Well said! This really articulates teachers’ heartburn with KA – not that it’s a bad thing or that badges are evil but that it’s far from the revolution that’s going to save our kids’ minds.

    Since classes ended over a week ago (and my kids’ exams aren’t until Tuesday or Thursday -eek), a few of them have stopped by to study and mentioned they used KA to help review, “It’s really good for practicing those basic trig problems,” etc, and I’m like RIGHT ON, KID! WAY TO TAKE SOME INITIATIVE! PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE! USE IT OR LOSE IT! It’s useful for what it is and badges are useful for what they are. In the past I’ve used cheap calendars and stickers to track daily goals and badges are no different.

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