Open Thinkering


Badges: talking at cross purposes?

Over the weekend I had a discussion with Dave Cormier in the comments section of my DMLcentral post Gaining Some Perspective on Badges for Lifelong Learning. I wanted to capture it here and add a couple of additional comments.

Dead Parrot Sketch

Dave seems to have taken issue with the ‘over-simplification’ of badges. I think he’s arguing that (informal?) education is too complex a problem for badges to be the solution.

The more I think about it, the more I think we were talking at cross-purposes. He was (again, I think) talking about explaining complexity whereas I was talking about solutions towards solving complex problems. I may be wrong.

Additionally, I have read precisely zero articles or books on complexity and chaos theory. Dave probably has read lots.

I’d love to know what you make of it.


Hi Doug,

Thanks for the foil. Everything i see here, however nicely argue and layer out, still leads to the same thing. Someone has to agree on what the targets are.

In the ‘automatic/skill’ sections, they are only automatic in time, at some point, someone had to create an artifice that separates the world into things that ‘can be reached’

In the application/Community section, the rewards are going to be as much about sociality and power than they will be about ‘recognition’. The problem with the badge in this case, is that it divorces the ‘reward’ from the context of power and sociality.

I don’t see how any of your practical applications allow us to apply badges to complexity. Given this… we move things towards simple knowledge. This is not the direction I”m hoping to go in… how about you? Do you see a way that badges can support complexity?


Hi Dave, thanks for the comment.

In response:

1. For something to be credentialised there has to be a ‘thing’ to be credentialised. That can be a target set by anyone – but yes, there needs to be a target. Otherwise there’d be no point in the credential, right?

2. I find the ‘X will be Y’ part of your position problematic. As I’ve argued above, I see badges as an emergent ecosystem. I agree there’s going to be issues around power and control. But then, *every* system has those issues. Don’t they?

3. I believe that the ‘answer’ (if there is one) to complexity is simplicity. It’s something tangential to badges, as far as I see them, but to assume that complex problems require complex answers needs a bit more explanation/evidence to my mind.

I’d love to discuss this synchronously sometime. 🙂


Hey Doug,

1. Credentialing requires a thing to be credentialised. Maybe not… at least not rings in terms of small pieces of knowing. I’m not purposefully trying to split hairs here, but I feel comfortable with someone who knows how to do something saying “that person over there can now do this thing”. That’s how mentorship and apprenticeship tends to work. We went down the DACUM road, for instance, to try and break that into pieces that could be ‘things to be credentials’. Many colleges have moved away from this because it kinda misses the point of knowing things. I see badges as a potential return to the DACUM view of the world.

2. Badges may or may not be part of an ’emerging ecosystem’ whatever that might mean, but no, not every system has the same issue. Some systems try to leave things IN their context so they can be understood as part of a whole. Others are designed to REMOVE them from context. I think that’s pretty different.

3. I don’t know what “simplicity is the answer to complexity” could possibly mean… so i’m assuming we don’t mean the same thing when we say complexity. If answering the question “how do I raise my child to be a good person” (in my mind, a very important, and obviously complex question) has a simple answer I’d love to hear it.

I imagine the ‘parenting badges’ that would be the response to that, and I imagine them forcing ‘parenting types’ and ‘parenting stages’ and ‘child types’ and ‘child stages’ on the world.


Hi Dave,

1. So the person over there who can now do this thing gets the Dave Cormier seal of approval. That may or may not be a badge. I don’t know.

2. I’m unsure of your point here – especially given that there’s an evidence layer to badges? Isn’t that the context right there?

3. I’m guessing you haven’t got a parenting manual. Certainly my two didn’t come with one. So I’m approaching them with love. A simple answer to complex behaviours. Working OK so far…

I’m definitely *not* of the opinion that badges are the answer to everything. Nor do I believe that badges should replace the existing qualifications/credentials/awards we’ve got. What it *does* provide, however, is an alternative that we all get to shape.

And I can’t see how that’s a bad thing. 🙂


Well… a little rhetorical bantering and heart string tugging.

On twitter… you say “i’m falling into the either or camp”

Whether i am or not is not relevant to the discussion here. It’s a nice rhetorical move, but it doesn’t change the discussion. I have concerns about badges and the oversimplification of knowledge and attainment particularly as it decontextualizes power, social-ness and privilege.

1. Yes. a dave cormier seal of approval (assuming a community thought i knew anything) would be just fine. I don’t think that’s ‘badge’ as you have defined it here. Badge, as I understand your interpretation, is an ‘agreed upon standard’ by some standard agreeing upon group.

2. No. an ‘evidence layer’ is not what i mean by context. Context is the space in which the learning/knowledge/thingy was negotiated. Not the ‘things that the standards group decided was evidence’.

3. Love is a very nice sentiment… but all it means is that i have to move to a different example. How about the world energy issues or something else. Do you comune with love to decide whether it makes sense for you child to have a cupcake… or do you think about the balance between their wanting it and enjoying it and the sugar it contains.

I have in no way suggested that they aren’t an interesting option we should try. You have read that on to me. I have said that in your commentary you haven’t addressed complexity. You have responded by saying ‘complexity doesn’t exist, your jus tasking the question wrong’.

If that is your position… cool. But is it really? Do you really think the world is a simple place where simple answers to questions like poverty, overpopulation, education i the third world will actually work?

I got asked recently “how do we go about training 500 million new people in the next 9 years?’ Complex problem. Simple solution?


Hmmm… this is exactly the kind of thing I want to avoid. :-/

“I have concerns about badges and the oversimplification of knowledge and attainment particularly as it decontextualizes power, social-ness and privilege.”

If you say that ‘X means Y’ and I disagree, then we’re falling into opposing camps. Neither of us can point to any evidence. Because there isn’t any. Yet.

“I have said that in your commentary you haven’t addressed complexity. You have responded by saying ‘complexity doesn’t exist, your jus tasking the question wrong’.”

Where/when did I say ‘complexity doesn’t exist’? I’m fairly sure I said that the way to approach complex problems is to try to apply simple solutions. That’s vastly different.

And the answer to your question about training 500 million people in the next 9 years? One person at a time. Not as facetious as it sounds. 😉



Re: x means y. There is always and never evidence. I have described how i think it moves towards the simplification of knowledge. Badges are not exactly ‘new’ in concept just because they’ve been branded differently.

re: complexity – if you are saying that ‘there are simple answers’ then we aren’t using the word ‘complexity’ the same way. If you say ‘apply simple solutions’ you are changing the meaning of complexity. Something that is complex, like a weather pattern, doesn’t have a simple explanation. If you say it does, we’re having two separate conversations.

Saying it has a ‘simple solution’ is saying it is not ‘complexity’.

If it’s not facetious, i don’t know what it is. 1 at a time isn’t not a scaling solution for India’s education problem.


I’m not quite sure how we got from alternative forms of credentialing to weather patterns, but hey.

You’ve subtlely shifted from ‘solving problems’ to ‘explaining them’. They’re two different beasts. I can go to to solve my immediate problem of whether to take an umbrella to work with me or not. I don’t need to explain how weather systems work to do so. It’s a simple solution to a (potentially) complex problem.

I don’t think India’s education problem has much, if anything, to do with badges directly. If you’re saying that it’s an example of a complex problem then, yes, I’d say that you/they/whoever are looking at it in the wrong way.

I’m out. Perhaps we could follow this up with blog posts? 🙂

Have YOU got any comments on our discussion? I’d love to hear them!

Image CC BY-NC-SA Dunechaser

PS The exchange inspired Terry Wassall to write this post.

12 thoughts on “Badges: talking at cross purposes?

  1. To me it seems as though Dave is taking the position that badges must (or, perhaps, the slightly weaker ‘will’) be awarded by some type of top-down body, and that the criteria for awarding them has to be according to some easy to measure metric.  Correct me if I am wrong Dave!

    Complexity is made up from many simple parts, so that method of accreditation would not be wholly without merit, but measuring how well people understand/deal with the more holistic views of complex systems is always fraught with problems – pretty much by definition.  However, that is where human beings come in; we are quite good at being able to tell whether someone ‘gets it’, and can award badges on that basis.

    I am not sure that educating 500 million people in 9 years is actually complex.  It is certainly complicated, but is there any interplay between component parts of the various systems involved which give rise to emergent (and unexpected) systems behaviours?  Maybe there is, I honestly don’t know.

    Badges, surely, are a way of recognising achievement.  They don’t solve any problems, nor explain anything.  What they do do is allow an alternative way of enabling people to feel motivated (and, in some cases patronised, but that is another matter), and an alternative way for onlookers to judge whether they believe the individual has the knowledge/skills required for a role.  

    You could have co-learners on a ‘course’ designing the curriculum, establishing what the assessment criteria are, and awarding badges on merit – this, surely, would support the rich learning environment Dave ‘creates’ with Rhizomatic learning?

    1. Thanks for the comment Pat. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t think badges are appropriate in every situation. But I do think they have potential. 🙂

  2. Talking past one another! Tell me about it. It’s routine daily practice for a lot of sociologists, or at least it was in the 1970’s during the so-called ‘paradigm wars’. What Sennett would no doubt call the ping pong of declarative speaking. I think a clue to the issue is what Pat points too, the assumption that ‘someone’ will specify a badge and that in practice, in some settings at least, it would be entirely possible for this to be done collaboratively. Defining and specifying achievement is itself a part of the knowledge process. If this is a social process generally then so could (should?) the process of designing ways to accredit achievement. On the issue of seeking simple solutions to complex problems, this is exactly what the role of culture is as far as Clifford Geertz is concerned. Nothing is more complex than living in society. Most people manage this without a deep explicit understanding of just how complex it is. For Geertz culture is a repertoire of solutions, recipes for understanding and doing, long developed by successive generations who have successfully modified it and used it in the face of reality and complexity. It brings to mind the first simple sailing vessels and their rudimentary sails. It works, up to a point, it solves a problem, but it embodies somehow the aspects of the complexity of weather systems that are necessary to get the boat moving through the water driven by the wind. No doubt some individual ‘discovered’ how to use a bit of cloth or a large leaf perhaps to harness the wind. But the idea would have been developed and improved by generations of boat people and fishermen who gradually made them more efficient. Then the internal combustion engine was invented and sailing became a leisure activity and an Olympic sport! 

  3. You guys keep finding places to hide to have these conversation… you and your internets. I will reiterate – i did not, ever, say that i ‘didn’t like badges’. I said that i worry the idea of badges tends to support a simplistic view of knowledge. Most of the implementations that i’ve seen are intended, as Doug suggests here, to ‘motivate’ people. 

    A couple of comments.

    A. I would love to do some kind of badge thing as a scaffolding exercise for people thinking about taking a MOOC. 

    B. I think I agreed with Pat already in the other discussion when i said i’m more than comfortable with someone perceived as competent in one context offering ‘he gets it’ badges to others.

    C. Complexity doesn’t have ‘a solution’. There is no ‘right answer’ or ‘series of correct answers’ to complexity. If you think that things are genuinely complex, you don’t look for an answer, you see if you can positively impact (from your perspective) the complex thingy. So, to use our ‘sail’ example, you could say “use a square sail” is the answer to how do i get my boat to propel itself over the water. You might try making your sail more rectangular, or round or triangular, and you would see some improvements to speed, but not stability etc…

    D. My concern with badges, like my concern with number or letter grades, is that the are MUCH easier to do when you make everything someone is to ‘learn’ really simplistic. So, like on the Kahn Academy, all the problems have to be pre-canned in order to allow your point totals to add up. It’s not that you can’t do it another way… it’s that it’s harder. Can you make multiple choice tests that will test your grasp of subtleties? I’ve seen some pretty good ones. But you almost have to break what a multiple choice test is… and then it becomes a game, which is something else entirely.

    E. Most of my work has been about allowing the learner to negotiate their own knowledge, for their own context as part of their own knowing. This is antithetical to a model where the goals and guidelines are pre described. Some things are handy to have predescribed, like basic points of language, like basic concepts of connectivity… I can imagine those as good badge topics. Others are much more complex 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing your thinking D&D. Good to get a feel for some of the richer conversations happening around the place. Two things:
    1. Veik’s law of commensurate complexity suggests that no model (‘solution’ in this case) can be both simple, general and accurate. He argues that you can have two of these, but not the whole party. What would badges strive towards? Of course, Veik’s law is self-defeating but nevertheless…
    2. I would be much happier if badges were worn whilst you were pursuing something, rather than when you’ve attained it. As in: ‘I am working towards this and am giving it my all’. Dave – would a ‘history of effort’ be more socially responsive?

  5. Learned about it in old days of design engineering at uni so links to hand. Done a bit of tracking though and it seems it’s actually Thorngate’s (1976) postulate of commensurate complexity, cited in Weick (1979). might be an interesting starting point…

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