Giving badges that matter.

The social aspect of being in a classroom is what makes it such a unique learning environment. It isn't just a place where students can practice and develop their skills, because they can do that outside of the classroom using a variety of resources. In the classroom, a student can struggle with a problem and then ask a neighbor. A student can get nudged in the right direction by a peer or an adult that cares about their progress and learning.

If students can learn everything we expect them to learn during class time by staring at a screen, then our expectations probably aren't what they should be. Our classrooms should be places in which ideas are generated, evaluated, compared, and applied. I'm not saying that this environment shouldn't be used to develop skills. I just mean that doing so all the time doesn't make the most of the fact that our students are social most of the time they are not in our classrooms. Denying the power of that tendency is missing an opportunity to engage students where they are.

I am always looking for ways to justify why my class is better than a screen. Based on a lot of discussion out there about the pros and cons of Khan academy, I tried an experiment today with my geometry class to call upon the social nature of my students for the purposes of improving the learning and conversations going on in class. As I have mentioned before, it can be a struggle sometimes to get my geometry students  to interact with each other as a group during class, so I am doing some new things with them and am evaluating what works and what doesn't.

The concept of badges as a meaningless token is often cited as a criticism of the Khan academy system. It may show progress in reaching a certain skill level, it might be meaningless. How might this concept be used in the context of a classroom filled with living, breathing students? Given that I want to place value on interactions between students that are focused on learning content, how might the concept be applied to a class?

I gave the students an assignment for homework at the end of the last class to choose five problems that tested a range of the ideas that we have explored during the unit. Most students (though not all) came to class with this assignment completed. Here was the idea:

  • Share your five problems with another student. Have that student complete your five problems. If that student completes the problems correctly  and to your satisfaction, give them your personal 'badge' on their paper. This badge can be your initials, a symbol, anything that is unique to you.
  • Collect as many people's badges as you can. Try to have a meaningful conversation with each person whose problems you complete that is focused on the math content.
  • If someone gives a really good explanation for something you previously didn't understand, you can give them your badge this way too.

It was really interesting to see how they responded. The most obvious change was the sudden increase in conversations in the room. No, they were not all on topic, but most of them were about the math. There were a lot of audible 'aha' moments. Some of the more shy students reached out to other students more than they normally do. Some students put themselves in the position of teaching others how to solve problems.

In chatting with a couple of the students after class, they seemed in agreement that it was a good way to spend a review day. It certainly was a lot less work for me than they usually are. Some did admit that there were some instances of just having a conversation and doing problems quickly to get a badge, but again, the vast majority were not this way. At least in the context of trying to increase the social interactions between students, it was a success. For the purpose of helping students learn math from each other, it was at least better than having everyone work in parallel and hope that students would help each other when they needed it.

It is clear that if you want to use social interactions to help drive learning in the classroom, the room, the lesson, and the activities must be deliberately designed to encourage this learning. It can happen by accident, and we can force students to do it, but to truly have it happen organically, the activity must have a social component that is not contrived and makes sense being there.

The Khan academy videos may work for helping students that aren't learning content skills in the classroom. They may help dabblers that want to pick up a new skill or learn about a topic for the first time. Our students do have social time outside of class, and if learning from a screen is the way that a particular student can focus on learning content they are expected to learn, maybe that makes sense for learning that particular content. In a class of twenty to thirty other people, being social may be a more compelling choice to a student than learning to solve systems of equations is.

If we want to teach students to learn to work together, evaluate opinions and ideas, clearly communicate their thinking, then this needs to be how we spend our time in the classroom. There must be time given for students to apply and develop these skills. Using Khan Academy may raise test scores, but with social interaction not emphasized or integrated into its operation, it ultimately may result in student growth that is as valuable and fleeting as the test scores themselves. I think in the context of those that may call KA a revolution in education, we need to ask ourselves whether that resulting growth is worth the missed opportunity for real, meaningful learning.

2 thoughts on “Giving badges that matter.

  1. Creative class idea, and very interesting post. Besides getting students to talk, the activity gets students to work on problem posing -- an important skill for being a good learner, and one that is very difficult to test.

    I am not that familiar with the Khan Academy program, but there are so many important skills we teach that can't happen by that model -- how to speak, to listen, to write, to be part of a community, etc..... these are also hard to test, so they don't register.

  2. Hi Evan

    This is an awesome post! What a fantastic idea! I really like the way it includes a social interaction aspect, and I agree it is virtually no work for you, so very much a win, win!

    What I liked most though, is a real benefit of this activity that you did not actually articulate: by asking kids to choose a sampler of questions that "represent" the concepts of the unit, they are having to consider:
    -what are the concepts we learned
    -how can I best include them all within 5 problems
    -what level of difficultly should I make them
    ... and I am sure lots more.

    I would be really tempted to try this as well, but in addition, get them to blog about it: what questions did they choose, and why? This would really force them them to reflect thoughtfully on the unit as a whole.

    Another great benefit that you did not mention: differentiation. By getting students to select questions (or you could allow them to invent them also!) they will choose varying levels of questions depending on their own level. This could lead to nice opportunities for differentiation in the math classroom.

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