So even though I had come back from the edge, and I had turned myself into the teacher who had found his passion for not only art of teaching, but also for the subjects I had to teach. And I had designed some amazing lessons using the secrets from the previous blog posts.
But the truth was… it was not working as well as I had hoped.
Something was off.
So I did what any great teacher does and I went to the source and surveyed my students about my tech class.
I was glad to find out that they loved the tech projects we did, and they even liked my teaching style, but what they didn’t like was my speed of delivery.
It turns out that I had only a few “Goldilocks” students in each class. Goldilocks students are those students that your lesson was built for. Here is what a normal breakdown of my class would be (according to my students). Of 28 students, 12 would be lost because I was going too fast, 12 would be bored because I was going too slow, and the remaining 4 would be with me. The Goldilocks kids are the ones paying attention and answering questions. The other 24 students were messing about because they were either lost or bored, and at any rate they were not with me, and when a student is not on-task and engaged, then they are disengaged and messing about.
So what do you do with 24 of your 28 students who are not with you even though you have an amazing lesson?
I had great lessons, but what I needed now was good pedagogy.
For the past few years there has been rumblings in the edtech world about the "Gamification of Education." When I first heard this term I panicked thinking that people wanted to turn my classroom into a video game, I soon found out that this was not the case. Which was a good thing, because I am not a video game player and the thought of my classroom as a video game made my skin crawl. My research into gamification took me in many different directions, but what really intrigued me was the use of badges to show students' competencies. Badges are the reward system used by many video games to show the progress of players to complete certain tasks.
As part of my research I even started to play a few video games, the first one I tried was Cut the Rope. I was impressed with how the game taught me as I progressed through the levels – just in time learning. The game only taught me what I needed to know for the next task I was to accomplish and over time my skills built one upon another until I became quite good at the game. Passing off levels without thinking twice, I would just use the skills taught in the previous levels as I acquired a new one. I was in a cycle of learn the skill/use the skill and I was becoming a Cut the Rope champ.
It was during my Cut the Rope days that I couldn't help but think back on how we sometimes get this wrong in education; we force Spanish language students to learn years of conjugating verbs and they still can't speak the language. Music lessons are similar – we get students bogged down in music theory instead of just teaching them how to "rock!" So many students give up before they get better. If we reverse that and teach them just what they need to know to get to the next level the conjugated verbs will still happen, but later on as they need each verb.
So I liked the idea of badges, but groups like the Open Badges Project focus on digital badges and here I am teaching young elementary students, they don't even have social media pages, so how were they going to show off these digital badges? The showing off of your badges is important to the success of gamification. So I started to look for physical, real-world, badges for my students. I looked at lanyards and tokens (like at summer camp) and "Live-Strong" type bracelets.
But it wasn't until I stumbled across little one-inch buttons that it hit me.
You see, each elementary student has a backpack, the perfect place to put badges, or buttons as I discovered, so that they can show the world that they have earned something for their tech skills. Another unseen bonus that I discovered from the badges going on backpacks was that the student's backpacks hang at the back of the classroom, which now act as a reminder to their teachers that they have tech skills. If a teacher needed a student to take photos during an upcoming field trip to the museum, she just needs to scan the backpacks and find a student who has earned their Digital Photography badge.
I based my badges on competency and not seat time. If you already had the skill, or you were a fast learner, you could breeze through earning a badge. But if, however, you needed extra time, then you could go as slow as you needed to. You see, the entire badge program was “flipped” meaning I recorded little videos to show students each step that they needed in order to have the skills they needed to earn a badge. The badges are pass/fail, just like a video game. No complicated rubrics, just a single checklist. Cut the Rope didn’t use a rubric with four levels for each step, you either passed the level or you started again. With my badge you either make a good podcast, or you do it again. Simple is better.
I made the whole tech badges system centered on the idea that students can use their technology to improve their world — all projects fall under the essential question of, “How can we use technology to make our world better?” But to be truthful, the theme of the badges could be anything. If I were a science teacher, I could make all of the tech badges centered on science concepts.
This whole process of getting kids to use technology to improve their world progresses towards the culminating event of the Kids Can Make A Difference Festival, and the vehicles to get them there are the social media channels of, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogs, etc. By allowing students to publish the results of their work on the school’s social media as they prepare for the annual festival that is held near the end of each school year, both the web and the festival provide the much needed authentic audience that the students are craving. When you tell a student that if their video is good enough, it will be published on the school's YouTube channel, they get excited.
I designed my badges for students in grades 3 through 5. Each year the students focus on a theme, which is an international charity. For the purpose of this book, I will be using the charity of Kiva.org. I like this charity because over years your account grows as you micro-lend out to people who need a helping hand to make their lives better. I really enjoy the diversity of the projects featured by this charity. One of my students could be focused on farming in Nicaragua while another might be helping a group in the Congo buy flour and charcoal for a family to resell to send their children to school.
Parts of the tech badges system are intended to be repeated each year, and since Kiva.org has so many aspects to what it does, students are not bored with having to repeat certain badges.
This past summer at a technology conference, I attended a session on, of all things, edtech badges. I found it to be very interesting and in-line with the work I had been doing with my own students for the past few years. Then the teacher next to me whispered to her friend in disgust, “This is ridiculous, students should learn for the love of learning and not for some silly badge.” The friend mumbled something back in agreement and then they promptly left the session. I was left sitting at my skinny little conference table in shock.
How can teachers be so naïve? Do we really think this generation of students want to learn for the sheer joy of learning? Who are they trying to kid? Research shows that this new crop of students is mainly motivated by three things; choice, effort and persistence. All three of which are part of a solid badge program, the joy of learning is not so much (although that does come later).
Choice: when I showed my students how they choose their final products for each badge they cheered. They loved the idea of being able to choose how they demonstrate their learning. With just one badge like Filmmaking, I will see a variety of films, instead of just a bunch of cookie-cutter or fill-in-the-blank type projects.
Effort: Students want to know that their effort will be recognized. This is something that badges do really well. Every badge has an element of “sharing” so they get a chance to show the world what they have done as well as having a tangible badge they proudly wear on their backpack.
Persistence: Students truly, deep down inside of themselves, do not want badges to be easy to earn. They want them to require some persistence – this is what gets the respect of their peers. One of the hardest badges to earn at our school is the coveted Filmmaking badge, the reason it is so hard to get is because we only make a few movies each year.
So, to my teachers who sat next to me at that convention, I hope that your little “Badges? We don't need any stinkin' badges!” world that you live in is working for you, but for the rest of us, badges could just be the thing to get our students the tech skills that they so desperately need.
I must admit that I was worried at the beginning of my new badges program about using extrinsic motivation to motivate the students to learn. Would the students just do the program to get the badge and in the end not really be caring about anything more? Also, what about the student who likes to take things slow, would he be teased because he only has two badges while his classmates have 8?
It turns out that my fears were false. The truth was that my students soon forgot about the actual badge and instead focused on the cool things that they were learning to do on their iPad. Sure, they loved getting the badges, but more importantly, they connected to the cause and charity that my badges program supported.
I remember one of the lead singers from the first iPad band talking to me about how happy she was that her voice was going to help get books for students that didn’t have any. She felt like she could do her part to make her world a better place. I know it sounds corny, but she had done so much research on the problem of illiteracy in the world that she told everyone one she could talk to that they should buy a ticket to see her perform and help buy some books for kids in Nicaragua to learn to read. Just before her mom fixed her hair and put on a little makeup she said to me, “Mr. Flick I never thought I would ever be able to sing in front of people and I never thought that I could make a difference, but tonight, both things are going to happen.” After her song, when the crowd was in disbelief of her amazing performance, and she still had the mic in her hand, she told them to go over and fill the donation jar.
The motivation of getting a badge got her to try the digital music badge, but soon she was doing it for so much more.
While it is true that some students earn a badge for something that just wasn’t their cup of tea, many are like the girl I just mentioned. They find talents and passions they never knew they had as they work towards a better world.
Since my system is meant for students in grades 3 to 5, these students will be in school, college and university for the next 6, 10 or even 15 years. And then when they are done schooling, they need to find jobs, start a family, etc., so they probably won’t have any time for super-hero, world-changing projects — so maybe when they retire 50 plus years from now they can start making their world better?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think our world can wait that long.