James Sanders is the co-founder of ClassBadges.com, a free website where teachers can custom badges to their students.
It would be difficult to find a part of our society more in need of change than the education system. Most classrooms today are mirror images of those from the 19th and 20th centuries; students are walking into the same school buildings and taking the same classes as their ancestors did more than 100 years ago. It is time for a different approach. At the top of the list of educational processes in need of a reboot is the way in which students progress through the educational system.
With robust educational standards like the Common Core here in the United States, it no longer makes sense for students to travel through the education system in cohorts reductively defined by age. Standards are now available which outline skills and knowledge that a student can be assessed for irrespective of age. Schools should be able to determine where a student is in relation to these standards and design a personalized educational path for that student that builds on their strengths and challenges their weaknesses.
The assembly line approach to education stunts academic growth and keeps students from getting the personalized education that they deserve. The idea that 25 unique students are forced to sit in a classroom, receive the same lesson and are expected to demonstrate mastery in the exact same way is preposterous.
Fortunately, with the emergence of blended learning content tools that adapt to student performance and the spread of affordable computers, it is becoming possible for teachers to meet the individual needs of the students in their classrooms. By combining the power of great educators and powerful technology tools, schools can rethink what teaching and learning looks like in their schools.
Similar to the university system where students are presented with a menu of classes that fit their individualized needs, schools can take a similar approach by replacing the antiquated A-F system with a badge system that reflects the attainment of specific learning milestones and permits individualized learning paces. Schools can outline the badges a student needs to earn and students are able to earn them at their own pace. Rather than expecting each student to master each lesson on the exact same day, schools can develop a learning community where students are thought of as individual learners and not simply age-based cohorts. Like in the university system, there should be a basic set of badges that each student needs to earn before they complete a given curriculum, but they should also be allowed to take a variety of classes outside of the core curriculum.
Due to budget constraints and other factors, schools only offer a few classes outside of the “core” curriculum. In many schools optional courses are so limited that calling them electives is simply inaccurate–every student in the building is taking the same set. Because state budgets are not likely to change any time in the near future, I’m proposing another approach to providing students with the variety of learning choices they deserve. Summer camps, reading clubs, trips to museums, community science fairs, etc. all fall outside of the formal education system but are hugely valuable educational experiences. Transitioning to a badge-based system will allow institutions that offer educational experiences to play a formal role in the education process. In such a system, students would be able to gather their badges from a variety of sources and teachers would be able to leverage the numerous educational resources in their communities.
State-required badges might be earned at the school itself while “elective” badges could be earned through a variety of online and community experiences. Importantly, such a system would allow students to nurture their passions and truly have a personalized educational experience.
Big change takes time. A transition to a system based on badges rather than grades like I’ve described starts with creating tools that empower teachers to implement badging systems in their classrooms. We created ClassBadges so that teachers can experience the power of badges in their classes firsthand. Our hope is to help move education forward by starting a conversation at the ground level — with a useful tool right in the classroom. We can talk all day on the web and at conferences about innovative solutions, but if these changes don’t make it into the classroom it is all for naught.