Badges, Self-Directed Learning, & Positive Psychology

What do digital badges and self-directed learning have in common? Add the concept of positive psychology, and it might be hard to imagine how these three intersect in a meaningful way. Yet, the intersection of the three is becoming a growing interest of mine, one that I suspect has promise to help us better prepare people for learning in a connected world. Badges, at least for some, are about meeting pre-established criteria for earning a micro-credential that the recipients control and display as they see fit. Self-directed learning is about people becoming increasingly independent in establishing goals, determining pathways to meeting those goals, self-motivating, tracking one’s own progress, and determining how to show or prove one’s learning to others when necessary. Positive psychology, among other things, is a field that produces research on well-being and success. Where is the cross-over and connection between these seemingly distinct concepts?

It is important to recognize that badges are a technology (applied systematic knowledge), self-directed learning is a concept or construct, and positive psychology is a branch or sub-field in psychology. Yet, they are all values-laden. Badges, by design, amplify the value of making evidence of learning visible and giving greater control of this credential to the recipient (although some badge platforms are seeking to adjust this). Self-directed learning amplifies the value of human agency. Positive psychology amplifies values like well-being and success. Put these values together and we begin to see possible synergies.

Some advocates of self-directed learning are cautious about the use of badges, but not all are cautious for the same reason. Some see badges as elements of the larger concept of gamification. As such, they look at them as extrinsic incentives, something that potentially detracts from a vision of self-directed learning that includes learners who take responsibility for motivation and volition of one’s own learning. Others are concerned because badges focus upon displaying evidence of learning, where many self-directed learning advocates seek to amplify process over demonstrable product. The moment you start to focus upon assessment, testing, and credentialing; you risk having the tail wag the educational dog. The end is no longer learning but evidence of learning. That is like confusing a piece of priceless art with a certificate of authenticity or other forms of validating a piece of art.

Proponents of mixing badges with self-directed learning might embrace that last analogy. A certificate of authenticity does nothing to take away from the art. Rather, it seeks to protect and validate its value to a broader audience. It bridges the world of artist with the realities of the art world and beyond. A certificate of authenticity has value because someone appreciates art that is authentic over that which is forged.

What about the role of positive psychology? In a recent post, I argued that more of us in education might want to attend to initiatives like the KIPP school’s focus on character strengths, recognizing that there is more to a student’s formation than academic achievements, especially given the growing research around the importance of traits like grit, self-control, optimism and curiosity when it comes to preparing people for success in work, family, and society.

Right now, many in education recognize the importance of character strengths, but most learning organizations have yet to re-imagine education in a way that intentionally nurtures student development in these areas. Similarly, it is rarely argued that self-directed learning is undesirable. It is just that there is little room for nurturing self-directed learning in many existing school models; on the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Character strengths are often commended, but they are less often nurtured. Educators are trained in teaching content more than mentoring students in character development and the capacity for self-directed learning. Even amid the recognition that these are important conversations, the national (and international) conversation in education remains largely focused upon academic standards.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a growing number of learning organizations grappling with new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. What are the essentials of getting the most from the affordances of life in a connected world? Without attention to character strengths and self-directed learning, we risk perpetuating a new form of digital divide, one that is not determined by access but by the core skills and mindsets necessary to capitalize upon life and learning in a connected world. Yet, we also want to find ways to recognize student development and progress. It is amid this conversation that I’m beginning to see connections between the open badge movement, the longstanding but expanding conversation around self-directed learning, and the growing body of literature coming from positive psychology. Could it be that these three distinct conversations can blend to give us new and promising visions for education in a connected world?