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As more and more fascinating and creative and surprising applications to our DML Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition flood in (we’re at almost 100 and the competition does not close until the end of today), I am wondering if, a hundred years from now, some historian ploughing through the dusty data archives of the Internet, will see this moment as digital learning’s tipping point.    I mean that.

This could be our tipping point for how we measure, the entry point to thinking up an array of new forms of deciding what counts for our era.   This Competition isn’t the end point, but the beginning, but it could tip the balance so that, all over, people are wondering why and how they are measuring quality and contribution the way they are and beginning to think about better ways—better ways that fit their organization’s values and goals.   That’s the key.   So many of us work in schools or in jobs where what counts has been decided for us.   The array of badging systems in these applications is starting to suggest that there are many, many of us who are frustrated with our inherited systems and want to come up with new ways of deciding what we want to count, what we want to value and acknowledge and credit and reward.     A badge system can be the symbol of all that,  visible proof of an organization’s some quality of participation and contribution that, previously, wasn’t even defined.

To understand why this is so important, we have to go back to the origins of the system that we have now, a system designed for the Industrial Age as part of the Taylorized movement of “scientific labor management.”   I speak of the invention of the item-response/multiple choice/bubble test, still the corner stone of our national educational policy, passed in 2002, called No Child Left Behind, and invented in 1914.  It was the tipping point in what I call “scientific learning management,” the application of Taylorized theories of uniform, standardized, timed, regulated productivity to education.

The reason I devoted a chapter of Now You See It to “How We Measure” is because, without a uniform method of assessment, there is no standardization. Standardization is the most important ideal of the Industrial Age–but is quite contrary to the peer-led, interactive, contributory, connected ways of learning and interacting that the World Wide Web affords us.    If we are going to truly transform our Industrial Age institutions for the diigital age, we have to re-evaluate how we evaluate.  We have to come up with interactive, process-oriented new methods where peers can decide all the different things that count for them and why, and figure out a way to count them.   We do not have to know what those outcomes will be.   If we did, we would be buying into “scientific leaning management” again where, like all Taylorization, the outcomes are determined in advance of the process (Taylor called them “quotas”).    Outcomes–for labor productivity or learning productivity–are defined in advance.  They are the bar you have to get over, the scale on which you are measured.

In scientific labor/learning management,  there is a set scale that measures only pre-defined kinds of productivity and pre-defined forms of achievement and you are assessed by a standardized form of testing only on those things, and you are them measured against all other workers/learners and rewarded on that scale.  Badges for Lifelong Learning offer us other ways of measuring and other ways of thinking about what qualities and contributions we might want to measure.   

Don’t you see it?   At present, just about everything else about school and work rests on evaluation.  If the goal is set in advance, it changes the process.   Even if you try to modify the process for another end, you are modifying it against a set standard.   A standardized assessment metric is a mentality as much as it is a measurement.

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How Did We Get Here?

In the “How We Measure” chapter of Now You See It, I go back to the archives to find out who invented the mulitple choice test, the tipping point in fully turning the movement toward compulsory, public education into a more uniform, standardized system for the Industrial Age and conforming to Industrial Age values.  The invention of that item-response form of standardized assessment, invented in 1914 (and virtually unchanged in the present) is based on Taylor’s “scientific labor management” that is the basis for the assembly line model of industrial manufacturing.   Timed, standardized, uniform, in quality and in method of assessment.   Frederick J. Kelly, the inventor of the standardized test, transformed “scientific labor management” into what I call “scientific learning management.”  The test was the single most important apparatus of an educational mentality that has lasted nearly 100 years.

Here’s the background on Kelly.  He was a doctoral student at Kansas State Teachers’ College in 1914.  Men were fighting in Europe in World War I.  Women were in the factory.   Compulsory public education was now the law of the land in every state and the age by which you could leave school had changed to 16, meaning that two years of secondary education were no longer just college prep but for everyone.   At the same time, the rank of immigrants coming into the secondary schools of the U.S. public school system was swelling at an extraordinary rate, from 200,000 in 1890 to 1.5 milliion in Kelly’s day.   There was a crisis.   Kelly looked at Model T’s being turned out in standardized fashion and came up with the itemized test, first, because it gave some kind of objectivity to what was slipshod processing of all these students through the educational system and, second, because it was cheap, fast, and easy—like turning out the Model T’s.

The reason the bubble test (what Kelly called the Kansas Silent Reading Test) caught on is because, in the decentralized state-based educational system in the U.S., a standardized test allowed some form of assessment across schools, school districts, and across states.   From the U.S., the system spread to the world.  America tests earlier and more often than any other country on the planet, but virtually every country has adopted some form of bubble testing.   And it is an industry, worldwide, with billions of dollars of commercial investment and return.   There is a lot at stake.

But does hierarchical, timed, pre-defined, uniform, standardized testing really measure the kinds of intelligence and activity that our kids need for the challenging world they will face as adults?    Do similar forms of standardized evaluation really work in the workplace today?   The “timed test” is a weird way to measure intelligence, when you think about it.   It’s hard to imagine trying to even explain it to Newton or Leonardo or Galileo . . . that a timed bubble test would be the pinnacle of intelligence would convince great thinkers of the past that the 21st century was for lemmings running fast off the cliffs.   I agree!   It is a system for another century.  It may have worked for that one.  We need better ways of evaluating contribution now.

Sadly, Kelly would have agreed with me.   The father of item-response testing himself wanted to abandon this make-shift way of testing “lower-order thinking” (as it was called in 1914) once the First World War was over.  He became a Deweyesque integrated thinker, who believed all subjects were relevant to one another and answers were processes, not products, to be filled in, bubble after bubble.  He went on to be President of the University of Idaho and tried to reform that university to these more integrated, interdisciplinary, process-oriented “higher order thinking” goals.  His faculty was furious at this presidential plan.  The faculty there had wanted to hire the father of scientific learning and measurement.   By then, even the Scholastic Aptitude Test was using a timed bubble test to decide who would or would not get into university.  Kely was fired from his Presidency within two years.

You can find a short version of this story here, in the Washington Post:…

Badges for Lifelong Learning: The Competition Closes Today but the Thinking Has Just Begun

If you want to peek in on how this badge competition is unfolding, you can.  You can read about the array of organizations that are taking the chance to try something new, to think in new terms about what they want to measure, and how and why.  Check out the applications.  They are all public.  Some have logos, some do not (that is not a requirement); if you click on their box, you will be able to see their entire application :

From these applications, you can learn and get ideas that might for your institution or organization.  That’s the point.  If you are a teacher, you can go into class today and ask your students what they think is most important thing they will learn in the class, what they think they are learning, not just in content but in form.   That, for me, is the best part of this Badges for Lifelong learning:  we can all learn from this process, from these organizations willing to step back and think about what system might work best for them, now.   Standardized testing is not the only way to evaluate quality. 

What Makes a Tipping Point?

Before there can be institutional or organizational change, there often has to be a crisis.  For Kelly, it was World War I and the immigrants who needed to get through the newly required secondary educational system.   For us, now, it is a worldwide economic crisis but also a crisis in how we work and in defining what work is that is far more complex and complicated than the systems of education that are supposed to prepare kids for independent adult hood.  I don’t mean “job preparation” in a simplistic way.  I mean, systems designed to inspire and reinforce values and forms of responsibility, self-regulation, self-determination, and maturity that can help us to thrive in a complex world.  

This Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition is by no means  the end point but it may be a beginning.  It may be the starting point, a tipping point, in helping us to think about How We Measure, and helping us to think through better ways.    I am gratified beyond words by all those who have taken the last few months to think deeply about what their organization needs and to work together to propose something that the rest of us can be inspired by.   That process, in and of itself, is an original and bold one that very few organizations ever engage in.   It is a bold step towards learning the future together. 


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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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