Explaining Digital Badges to 3rd Graders

In my work with Aurora Public Schools to implement their Digital Badges initiative, one of the (many) questions that I’m focused on answering is how to explain Digital Badges to students. It is essential that students earning Badges understand what they are and why they should care.

To this end, we’ve done a lot of work to engage students of all ages in order to figure out what works. Of all the meetings I’ve had with kids, I think this conversation that I had with four 3rd graders at Boston K-8 in Aurora led to one of the most simple, elegant ways to quickly get there in a way that makes sense to kids:

Me: Do you ever do Math Partners in Math class? [Kids all nod.] Great! Can you tell me what you have to do in order to be a good Math Partner? [Enthusiastic hands shooting up around the table.]

Student 1: I have to be a good listener.

Student 2: I have be helpful.

Student 3: I have to share. I can’t do all the work or let my partner do all of the work.

Me: Awesome! Those are all really important. So, how do you know you’re a good Math Partner?

Student 3: I’m proficient at Math!

Me: [Thinking to myself, “That’s both amazing and frightening that an 8-year-old just said that.”] Absolutely. Now let me ask you this: Could you ever be a good listener, super helpful or a great sharer but not score proficient in Math?

Student 3: Well, yeah.

Me: Does it show up on your report card if you are really good at those things?

Student 1: No! It only says whether I’m proficient at Math.

Me: Should your school recognize you for those skills?

All 3 Students: YES!!!

Me: [Showing them the Advocacy Badge, Interaction Badge and Collaboration Badge, and explaining what each means.] If you could earn these Badges to recognize you for being helpful, sharing and a good listener when you’re in Math Partners, would that be meaningful to you?

All 3 Students: YES!!!


Since having this conversation, it’s been my primary example when explaining Digital Badges and not just with elementary students. I use it with kids of all ages and their teachers as well. Skill-based credentials are a powerful tool for noticing and naming what our students do well. This is a key piece to any asset-based and growth-based approach to education and it is central to my approach to Badges.

Digital Badges have the potential to create a deeper, richer narrative of who our students are as learners and achievers, going far beyond their standardized test scores, GPA, attendance data and whether they have or have not been suspended from school. Helping students understand this — and why it should matter to them — will be a key success factor to any scaled Digital Badges implementation.