Rewarding Learning with Badges

Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers 2015 from Sprout on Vimeo.

There’s a great writeup today on the Remake Learning blog about Digital Badges and their potential to unlock opportunities for youth. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m especially drawn to digital badges’ potential to recognize and reward learning with something more nuanced than a letter grade. There’s a wealth of research around connected learning that captures the power of “anytime, anywhere” learning and its positive impact on educational outcomes. There’s great potential for kids who learn differently, and there’s particular promise for at-risk kids who are otherwise marginalized by the traditional educational system.

The key missing piece with digital badging is employers. Some people argue that, in order for these alternative credentials to be really worthwhile, they need to be accepted by employers — that is, this idea of validating out-of-school learning with a badge only matters if there’s a meaningful reward or unlocked opportunity on the other side.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written in the last nineteen months that I’ve lived here, it should be no surprise that Pittsburgh is leading the way in this conversation about education innovation. Last summer, I was a facilitator at the event featured in the video above. Cathy Lewis Long, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Sprout Fund (my new employer), is featured at length in the video, and she eloquently sums up the stakes of this work and its promise for the future. Digital badging is new and it’s unfamiliar to most big employers, but it also might be just what they’re looking for as they try to seek out the best and brightest employees. The world is changing and the workforce is changing, and digital badges might just be the outward sign of learning and achievement that twenty-first century employers are looking for.

Watch the video above. Then read the blog post. Then get yourself to Pittsburgh as fast as you can: This is a crazy-exciting place to work in education.


Against the Anonymous Internet

I do not like this Yak.
I do not like this guy.

When I joined Facebook in fall 2004 (“back in my day, when it was just at some colleges…”), one of the things that seemed most revolutionary about the site was that people were using their real names. To that point, the main online identity I’d had was the AOL Instant Messenger screen name I chose in the seventh grade. That was back when they taught us that using your real name online was dangerous (which, actually, hasn’t changed for kids), so I created a screen name that combined my favorite John Lennon song with the name of the first part I’d had in a play. Being “Tricia Monticello” online for the first time felt different, and it felt exciting to have the digits tick upward as more and more of my real-life friends became my Facebook Friends too. My numbers would never be as high as the people I knew in Student Government, whose profiles were always flirting with the site’s hard cap on 5000 friends. That seemed okay at the time, though. Why on earth would you want to connect with more than 5000 people on Facebook?

In the last ten years, almost everything about using the internet has changed, and Facebook has definitely changed with it. Groups changed (I was proud of the “I Am Spartacus” group I was in in college; all the members were officers, all our titles were “Spartacus”), everyone could join, and brands got their own pages. As Facebook’s algorithm changed, more powerful people and more popular brands got more screen real estate on the site, and social media suddenly felt a whole lot less democratic and a whole lot more like a pay-to-play ad space.

That’s my impression of the environment that Yik Yak‘s creators set out to “disrupt,” to use another overused tech term. By letting users post anonymously, Yik Yak takes away the connection between your name and the things you say. “Share your thoughts and keep your privacy” is one way Yik Yak promotes its product, and their take is that it’s a good thing. The most popular or prominent people don’t get a bigger voice or a larger platform. Everyone has a say, and everyone has an equal voice.

As compelling as that idea may sound to some people, it strikes me as pretty short-sighted. After all, one of the worst places on the internet is one of the main places you can post anonymously: YouTube comments. The hateful things people say in YouTube comments have never failed to astonish, disgust, and upset me. There’s a level of hatred, anger, and vitriol in the comments that I can’t imagine most people saying out loud to another human, but somehow lots and lots of people are comfortable typing such horrible things into a computer when there’s no chance of being confronted or caught. Sure, there are moments of moving self-disclosure and connection out there in the comments too (see this excellent TL;DR episode from the guys behind Reply All for a great example), but mostly it’s the worst place in the entire digital world, as far as I’m concerned.

Yik Yak has turned out to be one of the worst places in the digital world too, but for a slightly different reason. On college campuses, it’s become a tool of choice for cyberbullying. Most alarmingly, sites like Yik Yak and (and other sites out there) have become increasingly prevalent and damaging on high school and middle school campuses, and in spite of schools’ best efforts, it’s still been tough to fight back.

So I was thrilled yesterday when The New York Times published a long feature article on the subject over the weekend. Read it to get more detailed info, and to see a photo of the improbably named (and improbably youthful) founders of Yik Yak. The other photo I’d seen of these guys was this one, and I’m convinced that they’re aging backwards.

My take on the whole thing is that these companies and the people behind them are not bad people, and they don’t have bad ideas; it’s not a bad idea to take social media back from brands and celebrities. But there’s got to be a better way to do it. Yik Yak and didn’t invent the bad behavior; they’re just one more forum where hateful, hurtful, prejudiced, and threatening words can find a voice without consequence.

What has to change is the culture where it’s ever okay to say things like this. It’s a hard thing to address in American culture writ large — the ongoing civil rights struggles in our country speak to that — but it’s something we can endeavor to address in schools. I’m giving a talk in April about social emotional learning, and I want to talk about this issue then, and I know I want to talk about these sites. I don’t have the last word on this subject by any means, and I don’t know exactly what I’ll advise parents on yet, but I’ll definitely advise parents to talk to their child’s teacher and their school’s administrators about sites like these. If administrators don’t know about the sites, parents can refer them to articles like the one in the Times. If they say “we’re taking care of it, everything’s fine,” parents should probably still refer them to some articles online, because it’s helpful to see the range of schools who are working to combat these problems. If the administrator sighs, shakes her head, and says something along the lines of, “We’re working on it, and here’s how,” that’s the most encouraging response of all. That means your child’s school gets it: it means they know the severity and threat of sites like these, and  they know that no one approach will be an easy fix to make it go away. To me, the best weapon against negative anonymous posts is a school culture that abhors that behavior and makes it clear that it has no place on campus. It’s not enough to block a website on campus; instead, schools have to shift the culture and make it clear that hatred has no place in their community, online or otherwise.

Two great reads on the teaching profession

Still one of my very favorite stock photos when you Google “teaching.” It just screams, “Why, yes, Johnny, that IS South America!”

I’ve launched headlong into my 2015 Goodreads Challenge of reading 52 books in 2015. So far, I’m on a roll: I’m four days in and I’ve already finished two books! Of course, my highly developed sense of guilt won’t let me feel too proud about that: I grabbed these books from the library on my way home from the last day of school on December 19th, so it feels like I’ve procrastinated as my winter break ticks to a close.

The books I just finished are terrific and I highly recommend them. The first is Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. It’s a history of the teaching profession in the United States, and it’s as much a history of teaching as it is a cultural history of social justice in this country. Goldstein traces the history of American education from Catharine Beecher to W.E.B. du Bois to Wendy Kopp, and her book is a thoughtful look at the social, cultural, and economic pressures that have made teaching, as she calls it, “America’s most embattled profession.” I finished this book inspired and enlightened, and I’d highly recommend it as a reference for the office. The epilogue offers a list of eleven “lessons” that this history can teach us and which can propel teachers, education reformers, and policy makers to thoughtfully shape American education in the years ahead.

While The Teacher Wars was a great thoughtful read, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher was one of those rare fire-in-the-belly books that had me texting my ed reform-minded friends late into the night. Luckily, they’re like me, so they welcomed my elated messages late on a Saturday night gushing about how good this book is.

I read a lot of books about education reform, education policy, educational innovation, and edtech. I read those books to get inspired and to get informed, and they’ve helped me feel engaged in my work as an educator and they’ve helped me fill critical gaps in my knowledge and skills. Few books, though, deal so much with the nitty-gritty of what happens in a classroom as Green’s book does. I’ve read a lot of books about character education, about how we can organize schools to better challenge, nurture, and inspire children, and about how different teachers, policies, and tools have transformed classrooms for the better. Very few books, though, talk in as much detail and with as much clarity about the what of teaching. This is a book that talks very specifically about what’s hard about teaching–namely, exactly what you do with a roomful of kids for 45, 60, or 80 minutes of classtime. This book talks about different teachers’ approaches to doing just that, and the evolution of different methods of teaching (including TKOT, or “This Kind of Teaching”) and their impact on the classroom. The exploration of TKOT dives deep, and its focus not on classroom management but on the academic stuff of teaching was especially compelling to me. It made me reflect on my own teaching practice both in larger classroom settings, in my college essay seminar, and in one-on-one work with my current students. Green speaks so specifically about the strategies and skills teachers can develop to unpack complex concepts and explore them in detail with students. It also resonated with my own biased perspective that teachers need to be both skilled in content delivery and also subject matter experts in disciplines (like math or foreign language) in order to be effective teachers. It’s not enough just to know about classroom management or to know a lot about history. And it’s not just about being enthusiastic or nice, either. To be a teacher is to be endlessly curious, perceptive, and self-reflective. You have to know your stuff, know your kids, and know how to connect the two. 

I occupy an interesting space in the education universe. I attended a prestigious graduate school of education but I didn’t take a traditional path to teaching. I do not have teacher licensure in my current state of residence, partly because I just moved here, but also because I didn’t take the traditional ed school path to becoming a teacher. My undergraduate degree is in a discipline (liberal arts and English, minors in French and Classics), and my graduate degree is more disciplined (cognitive science and education) than broadly focused on teacher education. None of my formal education included classes in classroom management or assessment. However, I did learn those things, both as a tutor and a classroom teacher.

I’m a capable teacher, though certainly not a spectacular one, and I don’t think I got that way by being a “natural” or by being especially friendly or enthusiastic. (Though I like to think I’m both.) I got that way because I read, studied, watched, listened, and worked. I read other people’s lesson plans, textbooks, project outlines, and tests. I wrote and rewrote my lectures and the project rubrics for the History of Art, Music, and Science class I developed at Saint Thomas Episcopal. I filled two notebooks and a very detailed spreadsheet with my plans for my French class last year at Convent. I didn’t always succeed. Sometimes, my lessons failed spectacularly. But I got good reviews from students and feel like I did reasonably well by them because I had a lot of tools to draw upon. I could refer back to things I learned in school–both the things I was graded on and the things I learned from emulating some truly spectacular teachers.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a teacher, but I’m keenly aware that I could always do better. I think that’s what has made me a good teacher: I have good background knowledge in pedagogy and content, but I’m also deeply worried that I’m not doing enough and that there’s always more to know. This hunger or paranoia or curiosity–whatever you want to call it–means that I’m constantly reading and searching and asking to know more about how I can do better by my students.

Elizabeth Green’s book spoke to my hunger as few other recent reads have. This is a meditation on what’s worked in education, what it looks like in real time, and how we might structure teacher training to impart these same skills to more teachers. I love any book that challenges the idea that people are “born” to do certain things (I’m a disciple of the growth mindset, after all), and Building a Better Teacher talks about teachers who have honed and shared strategies that can turn enthusiastic neophytes into effective educators.

Read this book; then convince all your friends to read it too so we can talk about it together.

2014: What I learned

Still on the to-do list: ask if East Liberty Presbyterian is SUPPOSED to look like one of Stalin's Seven Sisters.
Still on the to-do list: ask if East Liberty Presbyterian is SUPPOSED to look like one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters.

One of my favorite things is a question I learned to ask little kids long ago. Rather than ask, “What are you doing?”, I ask, “What are you learning?” My husband and I do this often, and it’s a nice reminder to keep social media and other internet rabbit holes at bay, since “What are you learning?” deserves a better answer than “how to gift-wrap a cat for Christmas.”

So as we look back at 2014, here’s a list of what I learned this year. Some are serious; some aren’t. Thanks for reading and best wishes for a healthy, happy 2015!

  • Teaching is hard. I knew this before, but I learned it again, just as I learn it every year. My French class was draining and rewarding in equal measure. It wasn’t perfect, but I’m proud that I helped eleven kids who thought they couldn’t succeed in a foreign language class find their voices and play to their own strengths.
  • Transformative education takes many forms in the hands of many teachers. One of the joys of my work is that I get to spend a lot of time observing teachers at work, and I’ve been inspired by the sensitivity, joy, innovation, and energy I’ve seen on the two campuses I occupied in 2014.
  • Subtext and Lightsail are amazing, other apps are great too. Graphite has proven to be an extraordinary tool for teachers across the country, and I’ve been proud to write more than 80 reviews this year on apps, games, and websites that teachers can use in their classrooms. The team behind Graphite are smart and dedicated, and I know it will become even better in the years ahead.
  • Managing your social media diet matters. After reading The Distraction Addiction, I got a lot more mindful about my own “email apnea” and got better about obsessively checking Facebook and Twitter all the time. I’ve trimmed my friends and following lists to give myself a more positive (on Facebook) and more professional (on Twitter) newsfeed, and it’s made a difference in my outlook and in the way I use both social networks. I also loved this video, which was a great reminder about how important it is to connect in person, face to face.
  • You can apparently book a cross-country move with a national moving company less than ten days in advance. I don’t recommend this, but I’m grateful that it turned out to be possible.
  • Serial was great. Podcasts are great. This American Life is slowly taking over the world and it makes me very, very happy.
  • Moving far away is always a new beginning. I’ve learned this in my several moves over the course of my young life, but I’m always grateful for the warmth of the new people I meet and the constant support of the friends I’ve left behind. I’m lucky to have found wonderful friends in my new home and to have so many wonderful friends around th world. Thanks for being you.

Event Debrief: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit

The view from my table: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.
The view from my table: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.

Last Friday, I attended Remake Learning‘s Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. You can learn more about the event here. Writ large, it was an opportunity for all kinds of educational partners–from schools, nonprofits, and industry–to come together and talk about how to better engineer and support the learning experiences of kids in Pittsburgh. There was a lot of discussion around how all of us who work with kids can better work together and avoid constantly reinventing the wheel. There are great resources in schools and in nonprofits around the city and region; it would be great if we could all work together to offer a rich, rewarding learning environment for every student.

One of the biggest topics of the day was digital badging. You can learn more about digital badges through the MacArthur Foundation’s site here, or through Mozilla’s nonprofit Open Badges site here. In general, to quote the MacArthur site,

Digital badges are an assessment and credentialing mechanism that is housed and managed online. Badges are designed to make visible and validate learning in both formal and informal settings, and hold the potential to help transform where and how learning is valued.

Any organization can issue a badge, and most badges require hours-long, multi-step processes to earn them, a lot like a merit badge for Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. Most badges fall into one of three categories–badges for knowledge, skills, and dispositions–and they can be displayed or shared however their earners choose.

“Badges help make learning pathways visible,” said the Sprout Fund‘s Matt Hannigan in his remarks. I like this idea. A learning pathway is by definition not a traditional journey through school, so a traditional document of school-based learning–like a diploma–isn’t a sufficient way to document that journey. Instead, badges serve as a set of artifacts that detail knowledge, experiences, and skills that are inherently valuable but perhaps not traditionally rewarded in a school-centered world. This idea came out pointedly with my group’s facilitator, the executive director of a local group that promotes robotics education in local schools. His affection for badges stemmed from the clear connection that badges could have with employers. “If I’m a company that needs a welder, I can look at a kid who has the welding badge, and I can hire him,” he said.

Between my fancy liberal arts degree and my recent San Francisco mailing address, I was a little skeptical about the rampant need for kids with welding chops. Then again, though, I might be wrong, and there’s an important point here about elevating “maker” skills to something laudable, desirable, and relevant. I think it’s a shame that vocational education in schools has such a bad reputation. In my own high school, kids like me–who took AP classes–were vocally discouraged from taking “those kinds of classes” by the guidance counselors. My only interaction with “those kinds of classes” came when “those kinds of kids” made their way into our palatial high school’s theatre and scene shop. As a sophomore, I was lighting head for our competitive one-act play (that’s a much longer story for another day), and I was in charge of bossing around a crew of junior and senior boys who had mostly taken the vocational route through our school and ended up hanging lights for me in advanced technical theatre. Though all of them were older and bigger than my sixteen-year-old self, I was blown away by their expertise, their creativity, and their work ethic. To this day, I know how to set up AV equipment and understand the circuitry of a lighting system because of their patience, expertise, and humor. As it turned out, these boys weren’t the troglodytes I was led to believe they were. These were fellow smart, hard-working kids in my high school who happened to be traveling a parallel path, and I’d vastly underestimated them.

It’s entirely possible that the world needs more people who can weld, and I know that my high school and college diplomas leave no room for privileging or recognizing that skill. I like the idea of a credentialing system that allows for a broader definition of what’s valuable and what achievement looks like.

My main challenge with the day was that I had a hard time reconciling what badges might look like in schools. I searched in vain for the working group table that dealt with the humanities; there wasn’t one. Instead, the working groups all focused on subjects that aren’t usually covered or privileged in schools, like media making and design. I had a great conversation about this with my colleague at The Ellis School, Lisa Abel-Palmieri, who had been part of the STEAM working group’s discussions and who directs the new Learning Innovation Institute. A lot of the event focused much more on how badges and learning pathways could function outside the school day, but there was limited connection to how badges might function, say, in an English class or in a science curriculum. I think that’s the tougher but still interesting case to explore. How might badges function on a college application?, I wondered. How might they help formal and informal learning spaces partner better to support kids? 

As usual, if I had the answer to this million-dollar question, all education problems would be solved and we could all call it a day and go out for ice cream. Clearly I don’t, so clearly we’re not. But I loved this conversation because it was such a provocative, critical discussion to have. Pittsburgh is a perfectly sized city for forging sustainable partnerships among a small but passionate group of people. As I told a friend later that night: the passion and innovation that fueled this event inspired me, thrilled me, and made me hungry to learn and do more. This, I told her, was the day I fell in love with Pittsburgh.

On Studying Smarter

Studying is hard. I know that statement isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s remarkable to me how tough it can be for people to figure out what it means to study effectively. Recently, I’ve read two books that address this problem in great detail and with great energy. I started to assemble a bunch of quotes, but I realized that the best thing would be to exhort you to run to your nearest bookstore or library and pick them up yourself. They’re terrific. They are: How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, and A Mind for Numbers, by Barbara Oakley, PhD.

Both books have excellent thoughtful, specific tips on how learning works and how different study methods can play to the brain’s strengths. I realized that there were about thirty block quotes I wanted to include, but I realized that the best (and most provocative) might be the one that follows. Instead of characterizing a series of solutions, it captures the problem.

The following passage is from A Mind for Numbers. It’s from the preface by Dr. Jeffrey D. Karpicke, James V. Bradley Associate Professor of Psychological Studies at Purdue University. Dr. Karpicke writes:

What’s surprising is that a lot of learners use ineffective and inefficient strategies. In my laboratory, for example, we have surveyed college students about their learning. They most commonly use the strategy of repeated reading — simply reading through books of notes over and over. We and other researchers have found that this passive and shallow strategy often produces minimal or no learning. We call this “labor in vain”–students are putting in labor but not getting anywhere.

This is exactly the challenge I’m seeing in so many of my students–students who are spending hours reading, re-reading, copying, and re-copying their notes and trying earnestly to internalize insights from their teachers’ lectures and their textbooks. The bad news is, this method will fail them. The good news is, there are tons of other things students can do that will help them learn–and most take a lot less time than transcribing their textbooks.

For an overview of some DOs and DON’Ts, check out these lists of rules for good studying and rules for bad studying from Dr. Oakley’s website.  Then really: go read these books. They’re thoughtful and warm and terrific. You won’t regret it.

Design Thinking Debrief: More Who, Less How

The Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.
The Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.

I had a fabulous time at the Ellis School’s design thinking unconference over the weekend. As I said when I introduced myself there, I can’t get enough of design thinking. I think I fell hardest in love with it last year, when I read a book called Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelly, the brothers who helm IDEO. This idea of “human-centered design” seems so obvious, but it isn’t; sometimes people get so caught up in the what of their design that they lose track of who they’re designing it for.

This idea hits so close to home for me because it’s been at the heart of my work in education all along. In graduate school, I took a class on museum education at Project Zero and I investigated two nonprofits’ efforts to bring a rare object into the K-12 classroom. The two projects both centered on a rare book–a first folio edition of Hamlet from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Harry Ransom Center’s Gutenberg Bible–and a university’s work to digitize elements of that book and bring it to life for K-12 students. In both cases, the people I spoke with at MIT and the University of Texas said the same thing: if they did it again, they’d spend more time focusing on how kids would use these resources than on the resources themselves. I characterized this (perhaps in a cumbersome way) as an imbalance among content, medium, and audience. The content in both cases was solid, to be sure, but the developers may have spent more time concerned with the  practical challenges of bringing the texts online than the kids who might eventually use them. All digital media, I argued, should focus at least as much on the “who” as the “how.”

Design thinking is all about the “who.” I’ve been in some terrific design thinking workshops, from a couple of days spent working on a redesign of spaces at my last school to a days-long design thinking workshop I led in my French 3/4 class last year when we redesigned what school could be for all students. We also had a schoolwide design thinking symposium last spring, where we talked as a community about what it means to think, innovate, and design from a “human-centered” perspective.

Saturday’s workshop at Ellis let us consider big questions about the future of education. In each case, our big-picture ideas had to be all about people: who were the stakeholders? What would their needs be? How would we meet those needs? Our big ideas wouldn’t matter; regardless of how well-thought our solutions might have seemed, none of them would matter if we didn’t consider the real-world impact on the people we abstractly wanted to help.

For more on design thinking, check out this TED talk. I’ve seen it in other design thinking workshops, and I think it helpfully sums up the heart of this important approach to innovation.