June 21, 2012

The Pursuit of Mastery

An innovative professional development program looks for new ways to reward teachers for honing their skills.

An academy recruit becomes a police officer with the presentation of a simple item—a badge. The badge is a symbol of achievement, earned through examinations and a rigorous training course, and confers status and responsibility on the person who wears it.

Could badges also be used to acknowledge excellence and skill in the teaching profession?

EDC’s Jim Diamond is investigating this question. “I’m particularly interested in seeing whether badges motivate teachers,” he says. “And if they do, can they become a new way to think about teacher professional development?”

Partnering with the design firm Electric Funstuff and the City University of New York’s American Social History Project (ASHP), Diamond and EDC colleague Bill Tally will soon be piloting a badge system among selected high school history teachers in New York City. If this project is a success, it could launch an entirely new way of encouraging teacher professional development.

“Badging,” as this practice is known, differs from the traditional professional development model for teachers. On the one hand, regular professional development usually features a single course of instruction on a topic, with all participants receiving the same certificate or professional development points at the end. Badging, on the other hand, defines specific areas of competence within a discipline, and then allows teachers to pursue increasing levels of mastery within those areas. Want to showcase your knowledge of U.S. history? There’s a badge for that. Want to pioneer ways of promoting civic engagement among your students? There’s a badge for that, too.

The badges will be collected in a virtual “backpack” that becomes part of a teacher’s portfolio, making it easy for teachers to catalog their achievements—and to showcase what they have done to their peers, students, and even prospective employers. The backpack will also contain the lesson plans and materials that teachers used to earn their badges, as well as the assessment rubrics against which they were judged.

Much of the momentum behind badging is coming from the Mozilla Foundation, which created the Open Badging Initiative to promote the acquisition of skills learned outside of formal education circles. Diamond’s work is funded through an award from the Digital Media and Learning Competition, which is supported by the MacArthur Foundation.

Diamond, himself a history and politics buff, believes that the badge approach can encourage critical thinking about history.

“The traditional critique of history is that it is content, content, content,” he says. “But there’s a whole set of skills for approaching the study of history that encourages ways of explaining and thinking about what happened in the past. The badge system supports this.”

Still in the planning phase, badges will eventually be used to support professional development around ASHP’s Who Built America? curriculum. The first focus group of participating teachers was held in May, and the courses themselves—during which teachers will begin earning badges—will begin in December.

Participating teachers will be given performance assessments to show they are building a deepening body of knowledge. And the materials they create will be assessed with an eye to the Common Core literacy standards in history, which New York has recently adopted. The goal for this first year is modest: usher 25 history teachers from Novice to Master Teacher level.

Diamond hopes that this is only the beginning, though, and that badging can be adopted more widely in schools. If the badge idea takes off, he says, then these awards could eventually count toward professional development credits. There’s also a measure of professional pride in showcasing the badges that one has earned.

Diamond also hopes that teachers who have achieved Master Teacher status will continue to hone their skills while acting as peer supports for newer teachers. “We are creating a system that recognizes mastery and progression as time goes on, but that also recognizes the ‘soft skills’—like creating instructional materials and fostering community within diverse classrooms—that teachers are involved in,” he says. “We’re asking teachers to do something quite new.”