Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Alfie Kohn Doesn't Like Open Badges and Gamification - Do You?

Are you using Badges in your classes? 

Alfie Kohn definitely isn't using badges in his classes. He doesn't like them. 
The video above is his discussion of caution about using badges and gamification. 

As you may know, Alfi is an advocate for change in schools.  He has written a number of books about making learning more relevant to students.   In this video, however, he is talking about how using badges and gamification in classrooms are merely manifestations of the behavioralist strategy towards learning. 

Kohn begins the video talking about how badges limit education to mere skill acquisition. He points out that the Kahn Academy  uses badges and that is a limiting factor because it doesn't deal with application of the skills. He says that this is the basis for another modern educational model, the Flipped Classroom. He also questions who is going to validate the criteria that will be used to identify success in knowing and mastering specific skills. 

Later on, Kohn criticizes using gamification in the classroom because we are taking gaming aspects from video games and applying it to the real world.  He also discusses the need to build intrinsic motivation in learners rather than extrinsic motivation where every success is rewarded by points or other external awards. He points out that psychological research actually states that extrinsic rewards will damage the acquisition of internal motivation. (His emphasis on this is understandable based upon his Punished by Rewards book that he wrote in 1993.)

While Mr. Kohn brings to front many good points about things that need to be considered when using badges and gamification in learning, I think that he is missing the boat.  He is presenting this in an either/or format.
  • He presents badging as an uncontrolled system for relegating the learning experience to mastery of skills with no application.
  • He limits his scope on gamification to the use of rewards for learning.
The important thing to remember in either of these situations is that they are NOT the only strategies that need to be used in today's learning environments. Today's students need to have authentic learning situations where what they learn extends beyond master of skills. They need to be organized in a way that will provide a relevant testbed for using the skills that need to be mastered. This can be organized in a fashion where students can earn badges as they master their skills but concurrently, they are applying their skills to create things that are relevant to themselves.

This morning I came across a CNN interview with Salman Kahn where he talks about how his video instruction can be used to provide content for flipped classrooms.  This provides more context for understanding the limits of Kohn's perception of education's opportunities.

Kohn's understanding of gamification is limited by a 20th century perception of learning. Learning is an ongoing process of trying to accomplish something and then receiving feedback on your success. This feedback might be a grade on a test, points in a game, feedback from a colleague or teacher or just having the real world tell you if it worked or not. 
It IS best to have a learning situation where students have an internal need to do well on a project, but learning is a gradated process that has multiple levels of success.  Success on these successive levels needs to include feedback for the learner to gauge his/her level of accomplishment and adjust future activities accordingly.

What is your opinion about Alfie's opinions?  
Are you using badging and gamification in your classrooms?
Is it the only way your students are learning or are you integrating it into your curriculum?
How do you do this?



  1. Excellent analysis and interpretation/discussion on this topic. I found, based on my own understanding and experience about learning in the 21st century, Kohn's discussion to reflect perceptions of those typically resistance (or hesitant) to change, innovation, and focus on creating student-centered learning environments. I feel he failed to recognize that there are multiple effective ways to deliver instruction as well as multiple ways to learn. Also, I did not hear any suggestions as to what other methods, strategies, applications, etc. might be considered to be effective alternatives to badges and/or gamification. Great post Dr. Z.

  2. Thanks for your comments, John. It's interesting that you say he doesn't have alternatives for badges and gamification. If you don't accept the new ideas, then you are saying that we need to stay with the status quo.


Please share your ideas on this topic.