An Experiment: Badging & The Pursuit of Mastery

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 1.09.25 PMMy article “Five Musts for Mastery” was published by ASCD and explores how educators can leverage technology to support students on their individual roads toward mastery. I was quick to point out that “the term mastery creates this illusion that we can master a concept or skill—when, in reality, mastery isn’t an end point but rather an elusive goal that remains forever out of reach. This may dishearten some, but I prefer this definition. There is no dead end in learning.

In my journey towards embracing a mastery model in my own classroom, I decided to use Class Badges to identify key skills I wanted my students to “master” before leaving my class. The Common Core Standards for 9-10th grade English clearly state where my students should be on their road to mastery by the time they leave my class to ensure they are prepared for the next year. I decided to use the Standards as a guide when I created my badges at the start of the second semester.

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I designed 10 badges total with artwork, catchy names and descriptions grounded in the Common Core Standards for my grade level and subject area. I explained to my classes that I would be awarding badges for the remainder of the year to students who demonstrated mastery for their grade level in a particular skill. Once a student had demonstrated mastery, I told them they would be not be assessed on that skill anymore this year.

For example, I designed a Savvy with Citations badge to give students who were able to properly cite a range of sources correctly using MLA citation.

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I had taught them how to cite properly, linked them to the Owl Purdue website for reference, and allowed them half a dozen opportunities to practice this skill collaboratively with their peers before they were individually assessed. I was dismayed when only three of my students demonstrated mastery, passed out of this skill, and earned a badge. Given the time we had dedicated to practicing citations, I was shocked that a larger percentage of my students did not successfully complete the assessment.

In the past, students would practice a skill and complete some form of assessment after working on that skill. Regardless of their individual grades, we would eventually move on to the next skill. I realize now that in that traditional model the majority of students might never learn the nuances of a skill being practiced.

In my desire to get of my students to mastery, I allowed them to discuss the results of their citation assessment and identify what they had done incorrectly. Then we practiced some more, and I assessed them again. Only the three students who demonstrated mastery were excused from the second assessment.

The second time around almost a third of my students demonstrated mastery, passed out of the citation skill, and earned a badge. We continued in this cycle as more and more students earned their badges. What amazed me was how excited and proud my students were to have earned a badge. The accomplishment clearly meant more to them because they had taken several assessments and work extremely hard to demonstrate their ability to properly cite sources.

I began to think of the moments in my own life when I have been most proud of myself. They are times when I have worked hard to accomplish something that I initially was not sure I could do. I believe this is the reason so many students were so elated to earn a badge. It was a recognition of their hard work and ability to master a challenging skill.

There is a dramatic shift that happens in a classroom when students know they will be asked to continually work on a task or skill until they have mastered it. They become invested in their work. They begin to take pride in their successes. They are more eager to learn and engage in the classroom.




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6 Responses to An Experiment: Badging & The Pursuit of Mastery

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  3. I am glad to see the discussion of mastery here. I think that badges might be good first steps along the way, but I worry that badges ultimately trivialize the yearning for mastery. One of my favorite authors on the subject, George Leonard , argues that mastery is about practice, to be sure, but in the end mastery is about practice for its own sake. I am glad to see you trying to inculcate that, but the prize is not citation mastery, the prize is communication mastery. And that is the business of a lifetime that must be conveyed over and over to learners. How do you do that in K-12? Badges are a potential piece of that so long as the students don’t think the badge is the end game. Do they? How do you keep them from missing the grand forest for the attention grabbing trees?

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. I am so glad you call this “an experiment.”

    • Thank you for the comment, Terry.

      You raise some interesting points and ask questions worth considering. I agree that badging may be limiting or send the message that mastery has an end point. Truth be told, we never truly master anything but constantly evolve to higher levels of mastery. My experiment using badges was focused on trying to assess whether students “mastered” skills for their grade level as outlined in the Common Core. That level of mastery is not an end point, but rather a goal for our work together in 9/10 English. Those skills will need to continue to evolve in 11/12 grade and beyond.

      I’m always trying to shift the focus from grades and points to actual learning, which badging was helpful in accomplishing. The students seemed less focused on the grade and more focused on the quality and accuracy of their work.

      Take care.

  4. Our abstractions mean something completely different once the plan meets the classroom, don’t they. What really matters is caring, having some kind of plan, reflecting and moving on. And grade level ‘mastery’ might better be thought of as milestones. Maybe I can think of badges as milestones instead. Maybe that will make them more sensible to me. I am grateful for your work with learners and learning. I suppose that the business of a lifetime of learning has to start somewhere. And that somewhere is a caring teacher like yourself working and reflecting on that work.

    • So true! That is why I love being in the classroom. It’s a testing ground for new approaches and strategies. It also keeps me grounded because things rarely go as I anticipate.

      Thank you for your comments.


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