There is much talk about badges as a new kind of learning. I’m sure that everyone can remember earning merit badges in service organizations like the Boy Scouts. Badges ARE a big deal, and we need a lot more of them. This is because they are a way of marking achievement for skills, and skill learning is a huge part of 21st century learning. Higher order thinking skills, technology skills, whatever … these are all areas that need to be accessed, but it has always been very difficult to do so.
It is because skill-building is based on practice. When we practice a skill long enough, we achieve what Benjamin Bloom called “automacity.” This means we can perform the skill with very little thought — like riding a bike. We all understand that you can either ride a bike or you can’t. There is no A grade, B grade, or C grade for riding a bike. You either can do it or you can’t. Thus, this is the problem with skill learning that makes it very different than knowledge learning. With knowledge learning, some students may have a better understanding of a concept than some others — they get the A grade.
So, if there is no way to differentiate skill learning besides receiving an identical badge that someone else has received, how can one set himself or herself apart. For adult learners, I believe the answer resides in a quantity over quality approach. We need lots of opportunities for people to earn a large variety of badges, perhaps with short courses that assess a criterion level of achievement.
Since skill learning is based on practice, people need to keep earning these badges. What was obtained last year can be replaced with a similar yet slightly different badge this year — say for software skills. You are demonstrating that you remember the skill from last year, but you also learn a small number of new enhancements to the software, and hence achieve another badge. After all, the best Boy Scout had the sash with the largest number of badges pinned to it. Technicians and other skill-based professionals must continually attend training to receive more “certifications”. It is a way for them to keep their skills up to date. Badges need to be a larger part of learning in the future and especially for “21st century skills.”