The Introduction of Badges in a K-5 Jewish Day School

Report by Global Kids to the Covenant Foundation (November, 2010)

(Followed-by year-end addendum, July, 2011)

In January, 2010, the Covenant Foundation introduced Global Kids to Bob Berk, a principal of a K-5 Jewish Day School in the South. Supported by a new grant from the Foundation, together they explored how this K-5 school could use up to 70 hours of Global Kids’ time to enhance and expand its use of digital media for learning. After some initial meetings, the school decided to move forward with an emerging model of alternative assessment, commonly found in today’s widely used video games: badges.

Badges are not uncommon within informal learning environments. For a hundred years, the Boys Scouts have motivated its member to earn merit badges in a wide range of acts, such as  archery and cinematography. In recent years, everything from web-based to console games have incorporated badges, achievements, and other reward-systems to guide and motivate players’ behaviors. Even new location-specific mobile games, like Foursquare and Gowalla, allow adults to earn badges and “mayorships” of the locations they frequent throughout their daily lives.

Badges, specifically designed to mirror the effective processes found in digital games, has been in use within Global Kids for the past two years, first within our own afterschool programs and most recently for use within other learning institutions. During the first year, collaborating with Henry Jenkins’ Project New Media Literacies, Global Kids ran an afterschool program at the High School For Global Citizenship called Media Masters. The program was designed to support youth to use social media for social good and, while doing so, understand how to talk about, recognize and perform the digital literacies at the core of the program. Those three aspects - talk about, recognize, and do it - became the corners of triangular digital literacy badges, earned over the course of the program and located on a physical “Digital Literacy Transcript.”


In the past year, the same program was expanded within the New York City Public Library, redesigned as Digital Expressions, using the badges, and the associated digital portfolios, in a similar way. At the same time, Global Kids supported the Urban Biodiversity Program (UBN) (a new program launched by the American Museum of Natural History and the  Bronx Zoo, with funding from the New Youth City Learning Network) to use a game-like badge system to motivate student learning. Within UBN, young people at both sites used smart-phones to interact with the natural environments around both institutions, collecting data that was later processed online through a proprietary social network. Finally, a program in Senegal translated Global Kids’ Digital Transcript into French to teach a digital literacy program related to safe-sex education; however, in this case, the literacies were plucked from a clothing line where they were hung to determine the focus for each student during each class. A very different approach is being taken with MOUSE Squad’s Serious Game Design Specialist Certification, an online adaption by Global Kids of its Playing For Keeps Capacity Building Program. In this instance, there is only one “badge,” which is earned only by completing the entire program.

In the beginning, the school did not yet know what model of badges they wanted to incorporate within the school, nor which badges (and the associated literacies) they might offer. Working with Global Kids over seven months, the school identified a badge model appropriate for the school and launched it. The school recognized that learning in our new digital age looks different for today’s students. Youth are empowered by tools like digital media to follow their own passions, supporting them to engage in interest-driven learning, on and off-line. The core questions on the table currently being explored directly address this new reality: how can a badge system be incorporated into a day school to similarly empower youth to take more ownership over their learning, become more engaged with educational activities they might otherwise have avoided, and develop a deeper understanding of the skills and dispositions they are learning, as they are learned?


The Discovery Phase

From January to March 2010, the discovery phase entailed early discussions amongst Bob Berk and the staff at Global Kids, exploring a variety of options the school might adopt. Global Kids trained Berk to lead a social media training for his staff, to help get them prepared for the work ahead. This phase began with Berk meeting with Global Kids in New York City and concluded with a day-long training by Global Kids in the school. This strategic planning session amongst Berk and a handful of staff examined how the school had used digital media in the past, brainstormed the potential for digital media and learning, and concluded with a decision to move forward with a badge system. Learning objectives were explored for such a system, and questions were identified for future exploration pertaining to the use of digital media for learning.

The Development Phase

Beginning in April, working independently but in close communication, curricular and technical development began on the school’s Digital Transcript.  They arrived at a consensus on learning objectives, brought additional educators into the discussion, and developed a second list of teacher learning objectives.  The schools staff drafted curriculum maps and continued their ideation process through June.  Global Kids developed an online tool to manage the transcripts and translated the learning objectives into visual icons and a format appropriate for the Digital Transcripts. A summer timeline was developed towards a full implementation plan, which included school wide initiatives, grade specific initiatives, class specific projects, and the required staff training.

The badges based on the learning objectives (eventually called simply “achievements”) were, for students:

Reflective Learning – the ability to become aware of, reflect on, and communicate with others about one's skills, knowledge, areas for growth and learning processes that happen both in and outside of school, formal and interest driven settings.

Collaboration – the ability to collaborate within a group to develop creative solutions to complex challenges by employing the sources at hand and assuming varied roles while considering divergent points of view and negotiating for mutual benefit.

Critical Thinking – the ability to identify, evaluate and critique information from a variety of perspectives to guide decision making by developing important questions, gathering relevant and accurate information, and coming to evidence-based conclusions.

Research and Informational Literacy - The ability to identify the need for information, use effective strategies to seek out information, parse significant information from less significant information, critically evaluate the credibility of information, and synthesize information from multiple sources.

Cross Cultural Competency - The ability to discern and respect multiple perspectives within the global and Jewish communities while effectively operating within its diverse cultural norms.

Frame Jewish Ethical Choices in Modern Day Scenarios

The ability to use Jewish texts, values and history to better understand modern day life, scenarios and challenges.

For youth to reach for these achievements, two additional learning objectives were required by the educators, namely:

Understanding Technological Affordances - the ability to develop and implement innovative curriculum that takes into account the beneficial and challenging affects of digital media on learning, as suggested by the book "Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology."

Recognizing Literacies - The ability to articulate, recognize and support literacies afforded by digital media, both traditional and new, and understand how they are afforded, as defined by Henry Jenkins' Project New Media Literacy.

Capacity Build and Support Phase

In July, Global Kids went to the school for the first of two summer professional development trainings for staff at the school.  The first training allowed educators to understand the badge system by going through exercises that required them to identify educational affordances and learning objectives.  The training also focused on how teachers would track students’ progress by using digital transcripts and digital portfolios.  In addition, there was considerable discussion about how what role these alternative forms of assessment would play in the classroom, school, and with parents.  

Much of the training explored the rubrics developed by Global Kids and how they might be used to evaluate student’s work towards badges. Each badge has three components -- utilization, recognition, and articulation -- and each component has four levels of achievement. For example, for the badge of Reflective Learning (“The ability to become aware of, reflect on, and communicate with others about one's skills, knowledge, areas for growth and learning processes that happen both in and outside of school, formal and interest driven settings.”) a teacher has four options from which to choose, with only a level of 2 or above earning the badge.

3 - Exemplary Performance

Consistently does all or almost all of the following:  

Accurately assesses and articulates own learning with little prompting, makes reference to specific skills, areas of knowledge or disciplines when discussing own learning, references where specific learning occurs or skills are acquired, and identifies desired learning goals and areas for growth.    

2 - Proficient Performance

Does most or many of the following:    

Fairly accurately assesses and articulates own learning with some prompting required, makes reference to subject areas when talking about own learning, occasionally references skills when discussing own learning, broadly references places where own learning occurs, articulates clear understanding of where improvement and growth can happen.    

1 - Partially Proficient Performance

Does most or many of the following:    

Somewhat accurately assesses and articulates own learning with significant prompting required, makes reference to subjects as likes and dislikes but lacks nuance when talking about their relationship to them, articulates few learning goals, displays little sense of where growth can happen.    

0 - Poor Performance

Consistently does all or almost all of the following:

Shows little awareness with regards to own learning, fails to articulate or inaccurately articulates own learning, does not understand where growth can happen, states few or no desired learning objectives.

Finally, they identified significant questions regarding how the transcripts would be incorporated into both the school curriculum and the school community, questions which could only be answered by the staff at the school, and over time.

These questions included:

In August, Global Kids returned to the school for the second training, to reinforce many of the techniques from the July training, introduce the staff to the online guides, tools and tutorials, finalize the roll out, and introduce the plans to parents during that same day.  

Implementation Phase

The implementation phase began in August, with the start of the school year. As early as the second week of school, students were introduced to the learning objectives and invited to spend time in groups re-framing them using youth-facing language that was more accessible. For example, from their first draft:

1. Research and Informational Literacy

Research means to look up facts.  One way to research is to go on the computer and looks up websites.  It’s important to make sure everything’s accurate.  Another strategy to use is reading.  You could read the encyclopedia.  You don’t always have to look up research for a project; you could research just for fun.  Talk about research with a partner if you have one.  Take notes if needed.  A strategy that you could use is to go to your local library and look for some books.  It’s quiet so you could work there.  If needed you could ask a guardian a question.

2. Reflective Learning

Reflective learning is important in school.  Looking over your work is one way to be reflective.  Talking and discussing is important when working together.  Part of reflective learning is to become something better.  Reflective learning also is something that helps you move forward.  In reflective learning you are learning from your mistakes.  Reflective learning can happen anywhere.  Make sure you try to improve things that you aren’t too good at.

3. Collaboration

The most important things for collaboration as a group are: working together, giving ideas, respectfully disagreeing, and listening to one another, when you work as a group everyone needs different jobs.  Sometimes you work together, sometimes you work as a group.  To work together is great.

4. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is to know what’s going on in your mind.  It is also having good ideas.  It is important to look at things in different ways so that you can learn new things.  Thinking over your decision before you make it is another part of critical thinking.  Consider other people’s opinions.  Make sure you have the right information.  Think about your answer before you make it.

By creating their own language for the learning objectives, students were very active in shaping and understanding what their learning looks like.  They were all able to redefine the items using youth-facing language.  However, the school staff realizes that the student definitions do not always encompass the full intent of the learning objectives.  Therefore, they plan on returning to the learning objectives and redoing the exercise as the year goes on and students have a better idea of what each objective means.


As a whole, while students are excited to work towards earning badges, that they do not yet have the skills to work towards them independently.  Therefore, students were guided through the first process using Research and Informational Literacy as an example.  They completed a social studies project on European Explorers.  Some of the students demonstrated a level of competence, according to the rubric, earning them a badge in this area.  Most, however, will need to keep practicing the skill.  

In addition to the focus on Research and Informational Literacy, students have also been working on Reflective Learning.  In part, this has been done through the use of blogs, which also encourage students to express themselves freely.  Six consecutive entries from one student’s blog follows, each with its own title:


In math I want to remember pemdas which will help me do the right order in order of operations. Pemdas stands for parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, and subtract. You do it in that order.



Today I was voted Student Council Vice President.


New York City

If I could go anywhere in the world, I would go to New York City because I want to see the Statue of Liberty, the Big Apple, the Knicks, the Giants, and the Yankees.



Mental math can be easier to use than paper sometimes, like for example, if you are estimating it can be easier to do it in your head than to do it on paper.



With area if the answer is with meters you need to write meters2 (squared.) With  perimeter you don't need to write squared.


Best Part of the Week

The best part of the first week of school was finding my house on Microsoft Surface Globe.

As you can see, some of the entries above are just for fun and had no bearing on school projects. Some demonstrate that research was involved in their development. Some focus on being reflective about learning; in particular, the math entries portray a student who is beginning to reflect on math items he needs to remember and focus on.

Another student wrote the following in her reflection on the social studies project:


Before I started this project I didn’t know anything about Amerigo Vespucci.  Now I know that he became an explorer by delivering food to the Spanish ships.  I know that his ships names are the Repertaga, the Sananatiago, the Germand, and the Wegiz.  I also know that he was born on March 9, 1451 in Florence Italy.  The biggest surprise about my explorer is that he took three hundred Indians back to Spain with him to be slaves.  What also surprised me is that he was the first explorer to discover American without even knowing it.  Another thing that surprised me is that America is named after Amerigo Vespucci.  My explorer reminds me of an astronaut because they found things no one else found.  Also because they both used navigational tools.  They also made important discoveries.  After listening to the presentations I think that Hernando De Soto had the greatest achievements because he was brave enough to leave his family at age fourteen.  Also because he found lots of treasures.  He also had the best achievements because he wanted to make the king happy by bringing back lots of treasures.

In this entry, the student’s reflections center mostly on facts that she learned about explorers as opposed to the learning process.  Eventually, teachers would like for students to be more reflective about their learning process and to include questions they might still have.  These blog entries, which are a crucial component to the badge system and its support for learning through digital media, create tangible portraits of youth’s learning which teachers can track over time and even choose to use in person with the students.


On November 1st, the school held their first badge recognition ceremony.  The entire school came to the ceremony, along with parents and grandparents of those who were going to earn their first badge, for Research and Information Literacy.  The school wanted to call attention to the program and to the great work that many students have accomplished over the last quarter.  In addition, they wanted to energize students to think about the learning objectives and to make an effort to pursue badges independently of the entire class.  Of the fourteen students eligible, four students had demonstrated enough of an understanding to earn the “Do it” badge.

The school took three main lessons from their first ceremony.


First, parents are interested.  Of the four students who earned a badge, three of them had parents and/or grandparents at the recognition ceremony.  All of the family members were quite proud of their children and each of the four students were proud – if somewhat embarrassed – to have the public recognition.


Second, some students appear more motivated than before to earn their badges.  Immediately after the ceremony some of the students asked to see the digital transcript, with many commenting that they would like to earn this or that badge.  Some of the students had an idea of what they needed to do to go about earning the badge independently, while others were still unsure as to how to proceed without guidance.  This suggests to school that some students might proceed earlier than anticipated to seek badges through their own independent work.


Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the students who earned the badges were not necessarily those who are at the top of the class academically.


In summary, during the first two months of the implementation phase, students have created youth-facing language for the learning objectives, have started working on projects towards earning badges and achievements integrated into the core curriculum, and are in the process of both further defining the learning objectives and becoming more independent as they gain the skills needed to earn the badges.  The younger classes are also currently in the process of incorporating the badge’s learning objectives into their curriculum, but doing so without actually using the badge system.

The school just began the implementation phase and the outcomes are still ongoing.  As they continue this process, Global Kids will be monitoring their progress with consistent check-in meetings to informally evaluate the program and support their efforts to improve the process through iteration.  The two partners will be guided by a few key questions: How much does the badge system motivate students’ learning and support youth-driven learning?  What and how much impact is the badge system having in the creation of curriculum?  How is the badge system helping students understand new concepts and ideas?

As data is gathered, knowledge will be increased regarding how a badge system can effectively model an alternative form of assessment that supports and enhances the use of digital media for learning within formal educational institutions.  


Addendum A: Year-End Reflections

During the second half of the school year, the principal could report a number of continued challenges and successes. In brief:

In reflection, looking back at the entire year, the principal reported the following challenges and successes:

The badging system was a success. It worked to support the staff to identify and focus on the overall learning objectives, throughout the year. It kept them front and center. It also allowed the youth to have a language to talk about the objectives, and definitions for them, which was demonstrated time and again in the classroom. Students, for example, were not just engaged in group work but asking how they could be working together, and explore more effective ways.

Some of the students, but not all, were able to advocate for themselves to earn a badge, and articulate why their work demonstrated that they deserved one.  Of the 14 students in the joint 4th/5th grade class, half in the second half of the year were able to do so (as opposed to only 3 students in the Fall). However, the badges were not something they were thinking about every day. It did not a play a significant role motivating their learning, although many were motivated to earn the badges and approached the teacher when they felt they deserved one. In retrospect, the students needed ways to be reminded of the badging system.

The students, by the end of the year, were able to integrate technology into their learning process in a more natural way, and were excited to do so. They were more able to go out and learn something on their own and then come back and show what they had learned. For example, to earn the Informational Literacy badge, a student might do research and learn to assess the quality of what they found. They are not yet masters, but much further along than students in the past, and can perform this analysis without reminders. And when it came to the Collaboration badge, students now understand the concept. When working together on a shared Google Doc, or researching online, they could say, “We are suppose to be collaborating but we are not,” but then go further asking, What is collaboration? How do you listen? How do you listen but not act on all ideas?

The biggest disappointment was that the potential for personal reflections on what they learned was not realized. The students’ blogs read more like descriptions of what they did, not why they did it or what they thought they learned along the way.

During the next school year, the school anticipates building upon the badging and transcript process. Now they can see ways to add personal reflections on students’ learning into a weekly or daily part of the school. Now they can see how to set up a system so all youth have a portfolio by the end of the year. And they feel they have developed enough capacity to run it on their own.


The Covenant Foundation

The Covenant Foundation recognizes the diversity of strengths within the field of Jewish education in North America, across all denominations and settings. By honoring outstanding Jewish educators and supporting creative approaches to programming, the Foundation works to strengthen educational endeavors that perpetuate the identity, continuity and heritage of the Jewish people.  The Foundation believes those with the creativity and passion to be catalysts for change and innovation in Jewish education are worthy of recognition and support. 

Global Kids, Inc.

Launched in 1989 and an independent non-profit organization since 1993, Global Kids’ mission is to educate and inspire youth to become successful students, global citizens and community leaders by engaging them in academically rigorous, socially dynamic, content-rich learning experiences.  Global Kids is nationally recognized leader in using digital media to promote global awareness and youth civic engagement. Global Kids’ Online Leadership Program (OLP) integrates a youth development approach and international and public policy issues into youth media programs that build digital literacy, foster substantive online dialogues, develop resources for educators, and promote civic participation.