Meaningful Accreditation

Chainsaw Carpenter Plaque

I have to confess that Badges are one of those edu-topics that is a source of bemusement. I think I am clear on the mechanics of how they are supposed to function, and what they represent. But seeing how excited some very accomplished and smart thinkers get about badges, I keep thinking I must be missing something

I recall David Wiley writing something like, ‘once people start getting jobs based on badges, the jig will be up for higher education as we know it.’ And maybe it will be. But for the time being, I want to suspend my befuddlement to share an example of alternate credentialing that can be less instrumental yet far more meaningful.

I’ve written in the past of a wild job I once had:

…six months working with perhaps the most unlikely and lowest-paid renovation crew ever assembled — mostly consisting of drug addicts and other misfits who were about to be evicted from the century-old Saskatoon building that was being gentrified. I was living in the building next door, not finishing my thesis, and was gradually swept in, working fourteen hour days and pretty much living inside the madness. It was a compelling contrast to graduate school. The project manager was fresh off a ten year stint in prison for drug-running, lived in an old converted schoolbus, and wrote striking songs of prairie freakerdom with titles like “Son of a Sodbuster” and “Lost in the Bathroom (I Took Too Much Acid)”… I never learned so much as I did with that job. I did framing, drywall, restored hardwood floors, plumbing (installing 30 toilets, and 20 vintage tubs, innumerable pipe patches), and all sorts of other things that continue to come in handy. I gave serious thought to giving up school and working a trade. I also got a close-up sense of what life is like for the poorest, most damaged and least privileged members of our society, and I hope I never forget those hard lessons.

Perhaps because of the contrast with my academic studies, I was immensely proud that I managed to succeed in this environment — not only learning the skills, but navigating a very intense and complex social environment. How do I know I succeeded? Because the day I was set to leave town, my Chainsaw Carpenter teacher arrived at my door, presenting me with a custom hand-crafted plaque, reading the following declaration with dramatic fanfare:

Chainsaw Carpenter Certification

“Let it be known from this day forth that BRIAN KENNETH LAMB has successfully completed his Chainsaw Carpenter apprenticeship and has been elevated to Journeyman 4th Class. Dated December 5th 1996.”

An amazing moment, and the sense of satisfaction I had matches up with anything I’ve achieved since. My university degrees are in an envelope in a filing cabinet, but my Chainsaw Carpentry award sits on my desk, a constant reminder of a very meaningful learning experience.

I’m preparing to move on from another job this week, after ten years at UBC this is my second-last day. As expected, packing up the office space is proving to be one of the most arduous parts of moving on.

* Coda: After leaving Saskatoon, I soon lost touch with my Chainsaw Carpenter teacher. After writing the blog post I quoted above, I received a surprising and gratifying email from a pseudonymous but unmistakable source. He’s still doing the music in a big way, and every bit as wild as I remember.

10 thoughts on “Meaningful Accreditation

  1. When the CEO of Bemusement says he has something to say about badges, my ears perk up. It’s so funny you write this because when I visited your office last month, I noted this strange plaque sitting out on your desk, but never closely inspected it (in our rush to play with the old CAREO server).

    The thing that strikes me is that this is not some official certification from some national board of carpentry but a recognition from your peers, from people who mentored and saw you work. This is significant to me, at least.

    A badge thing I’ve been mulling over is this desire for a reliance on an external agency to validate us- I am not totally discounting it, but it leaves out, to me, the more important part of how we ourselves put out to the world the record of the things we do, that is- how do we assert our own selves out so others can see? Not bragging, but by being public with our ideas, accomplishments, failures.

    And what is the badge here? is it the letter? The object? The story that you can tell? The experience that resides in you that becomes part of your very being? Or that you know and have shown that you can go out and build stuff?

    I for one want more than a graphic and some meta data. There’s a place for them, but at the same time, I believe now, more than ever, that we do more to certify ourselves by building our own system of showing what we can do.

    Huzzah for Journeyman 4th class!

  2. I think the way you frame things in that nascent blog post is a key consideration. I draw great satisfaction from forms of recognition that tend not to mean much to any “external agency” — like seeing something I’ve written elaborated or improved on by someone else. It’s a tricky thing to capture in a networked environment, subject to being gamed (in the way that GoogleRank, Klout score or a Technorati rating (remember that?) could be… and yes a thin line between capturing effects and bragging.

    At the end of the day, I agree, that sharing what we can do is the most powerful demonstration of what we have learned.

    Along those lines, I will be spending the next couple weeks applying my certified Chainsaw Carpenter skills to our soon-to-be vacated home.

  3. Oh, excellent. I FINALLY have an appropriate phrase to scream at the top of my lungs the next time I drop my chainsaw on my foot.


  4. I’ve never understood the appeal of badges at a university. I was a very well-decorated scout; the appeal there I understood. I liked hearing your take on it.

    Best of luck at your new gig. And yeah, that’s a bad ass chainsaw award.

  5. I’ve been playing around with Team Fortress 2, and Valve has achievements down to an artform. Badges, essentially, for all kinds of tasks. They’re all small, easily measured, demonstrable achievements (10 headshots while in midair, etc…) and don’t translate into something as high and mighty as a university program. But, there’s something there, there.

    And, this week, I’ve been playing around with Strava – the service for tracking bike rides etc… They’ve taken achievements and raised them up another level, because the participants define the achievements. Track a ride, and indicate a segment of the route that’s interesting (a steep climb, or a fast stretch, etc…) and it automagically creates an achievement for it, with leaderboards, placing you in competition with every other cyclist who rides that stretch. It’s surprising how motivating that is.

    But, yeah. Not the same thing as a university program. But, still, something there, there. Somewhere…

    For instance, my Steam TF2 profile and Strava profile – with achievements/badges/whatnots.

    Not sure how meaningful that stuff it, but dang, is it motivating.

  6. Great story :-).

    Just wanted to add that I didn’t believed in badges, either, but have been spending a few hours at, and I’ve found that the badges and encouragement emails have been an important part of the learning (although the fact that they’ve been able to break the learning experience into small, effective pills that can have badges attached might have been more important than the badges themselves).

  7. This reads like an objection, but I’m not clear what that objection is or what it is really objecting to. You essentially served as an apprentice and received recognition from the person who mentored you, right? I don’t think even the most fervent badgies (badgers?) would argue that’s not a great thing. But there are so many learning experiences possible and so many ways to recognize them (and have them recognized)…why isn’t one more possibility just that…one more in the pool?

    Or perhaps the confusion comes in based on where the hypothetical badges are coming *from*. Badges, it seems to me, are just one more method of creating a caption that describes an achievement. Such recognition comes in all kinds of ways. But I thought a main point of badges is that they come from those who are part of the learning experience (teaching and/or sponsoring and/or housing it), not an external accrediting group at a remove from those who are part of the experience. The latter is the way of all kinds of existing certifications and would no more be a “badge” than the “Microsoft Certified” logo one can put on their resume when they pass that test is a badge.2

    The thing is: it appears that many learners *are* interested in badges. Maybe it’s a part of gameification, maybe it’s an age thing, I don’t know. But I not only see college kids who are interested in achieving them, I also see them as an interesting, customizable middle-ground where a program can make something that works internally while also serving *some* external function as well…

    What I know is this: I value a note from one of my favorite writing teachers in the same way, I think, you value the note you received. That doesn’t rule out satisfaction I might receive at receiving badges for exploring and learning in different kinds of writing (for example), and I have to believe I’d have been even more enthusiastic about such little things when I was a bit younger and less concerned with the state of education and more concerned with just learning.

    I’m seeing badges working out in the real world; I can’t see a good reason to work them in the same way we (educators and learners) have co-opted so many other platforms and ideas, as long as they remain part of a healthy variety and, like any such idea, aren’t turned into the proverbial hammer that makes everything else a nail.

  8. Hi Chris – I guess this could read as a complaint. I still do feel a bit uncomfortable with some of the claims being made for badges, but I don’t look askance at people who are working on it. Perhaps it’s a discomfort with “gamification” in general, but I certainly don’t want to impose that kind of temperamental impression on others’ efforts.

    But honestly, I happened to be cleaning out my office and had a moment of reflection prompted by coming across my plaque. I meant this post to suggest that while I still may be missing something, I definitely know that recognition from a peer or mentor can be meaningful. And yeah, maybe badges can do that too.

    Though to circle back to Alan’s point, I still get the most satisfaction knowing that someone like Chris Lott will take the time to read, consider, and critique something I’ve written. Thanks for that.

  9. Much of my thinking on this is based on two premises:

    1. If something is evidently working (an assessment that might be subject to disagreement in any particular case), then I try to worry less about the theoretical and focus on stealing whatever success I can 🙂

    2. The most recent research into intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that I can find suggests that providing extrinsic motivation doesn’t decrease intrinsic motivation as is commonly and mostly anecdotally thought by many. *If* that is true, and if intrinsic motivation is as intransigent as it seems–particularly in terms of educators trying to increase learners’ intrinsic motivation whether through intellectual coercion or opportunity design or anything in between–then gamification is a lot less troubling to me.

    Of course all of this has the caveat: if it is done right. But then, what doesn’t?

    Just bantering and musing

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.