On Thursday, the Fourth Annual Digital Media and Learning Competition was announced with much fanfare at a large event in DC that included Arne Duncan, a high up at NASA, and leaders in the industry, non-profit and foundation worlds. The theme for the competition: Badges for Lifelong Learning. On the competition website, it states “Badges are a new assessment tool that will help identify skills mastered in formal and informal settings, virtually and in physical spaces, and in schools, workplaces and communities.” The competition, then, is to explore the possibilities of innovation in this area to see if it has some legs.
The announcement and theme received what would generously be considered a mixed response, visible within the #dmlbadges hashtag on Twitter during the event and on the blogs of many smart people who raise important questions about the use of badges and tease out nuanced dimensions of the issue. I’m not here though to discuss the initiative itself, or to weigh in with my opinion on badges and their potential to shift the educational landscape in positive ways, or not. What I do want to talk about is how I see the current conversation around badges being a positive thing for that landscape.
Let’s consider two things about the general public policy discourse around education in this country. First, where it thinks learning happens. Second, what it thinks counts as learning. Analyzing the overall rhetoric from educational reform organizations to the education blogosphere to reporting in mainstream news, one finds that the answers to those questions are deeply out of sync with reality. Just paying attention to these spaces, one would assume that school, and primarily the K12 school, is the only place that a young person learns. And one would also assume that the only things that count as learning are decontextualized bits of information that can be poured into kids heads (which is *impossible*, by the way) and then spat back out onto multiple choice tests that ensure us as a society that schools are “working”. It is especially important to know that schools are “working” since they’re the only place that kids learn, right? Naturally.
Now, I’ll be fair and say that there are people within the education discourse in this country that disagree with the above. People who are part of a “counter-reform” movement that see and understand that what kids need for the 21st century is not decontexualized bits of information but rather sets of skills, dispositions and ways of thinking that will allow them to engage meaningfully in civic, cultural and social life, not to mention pursuing work that’s important to them and to society. And those same people often understand that learning doesn’t happen just in school, that school is just one node among many that should aim to be better coordinated with others in order to serve young people. But let’s face it – those people, and I count myself among them, aren’t winning. Any look at educational policy will tell you that. And a big part of the reason is that these out of whack notions of what counts as learning and where it happens are so persistent, and they form the underlying assumptions that drive policy-making.
What I see in the conversation about badges, regardless of how that particular line of work will play out, is a shift in the Overton Window on learning, a shift in the boundaries of the debate, especially in terms of how people in positions of power are now talking in new ways. In ways that acknowledge all those spaces that kids spend time in out of school as a valid learning environments. In ways that validate practices and processes that school rarely is incentivized to foster – practices that are collaborative, creative, critical, and often civic in their nature.
So I’m taking the long view on this one. I don’t know whether badges will be good for learning. I have my own reservations, though also have confidence, from from prior experience with them, in the individuals that are running the competition to be thoughtful and grounded as they do that work. But I can already commend them for taking a positive step to change the frame of the conversation about learning in this country. And that’s no small thing.