by Sarah Blattner
In the 1983 film WarGames, Matthew Broderick stars as David, a precocious teen, who has computer skills beyond most of his contemporaries and adults in his life. David hacks into a military computer system named Joshua, where he is challenged to play a nuclear war game. America and Russia go head-to-head as the real military system begins to launch a countdown to start World War 3.
It was fun rewatching this film with my own children recently, where they were confused that a computer system took up the space of an entire room. As an educator contemplating learning in the digital age, I noticed the subplot. The audience gets acquainted with David’s student profile, a kid who blows off school and finds himself pretty bored in general. At first, he pings the computer system, exploring which doors are open (which is humorous to my kids, as he uses an old-fashioned telephone to connect). After researching the designer of the system, he makes contact by uncovering a password, which eventually engages the entire computer.
So what does WarGames have to do with digital badge learning and project-based learning? Let’s first frame the story through the lens of David’s actions. He begins his learning journey from a “need to know.” His quest is passion-based and interest driven. His curiosity takes him down multiple paths. He is engaged in game play and finds it invigorating. He seeks out an adult mentor, Dr. Falken, who can assist him in stopping inevitable war. He researches Falken, his contributions to computer science, and he discovers clues about the computer system, Joshua, as well as how to make face-to-face contact with his mentor. He continues to seek out more information to solve his problem. He is fully engaged, intrinsically motivated, curious and steeped in a real word experience.
Project-based learning is defined by the Buck Institute as an experience where “students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem or challenge. Rigorous projects help students learn key academic content and practice 21st Century skills, such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking.” And why is PBL so awesome? The Buck Institute explains, “students gain a deeper understanding of the concepts and standards at the heart of a project. Projects also build vital workplace skills and lifelong habits of learning. Projects can allow students to address community issues, explore careers, interact with adult mentors, use technology, and present their work to audiences beyond the classroom. PBL can motivate students who might otherwise find school boring or meaningless.”
David’s adventures in WarGames looks a lot like PBL, doesn’t it? The deep content he explored focused on the computer system and how to teach Joshua that some games have no winner. He had choice; he had a voice; he revised solutions as he experimented along the way; he had a public audience; the experience was inquiry-driven; and his mentor helped guide his thinking. The only piece that doesn’t support ideal PBL learning scenarios is the high stakes situation of impending war. Ideally, we want our students to have low-stakes learning opportunities where they can explore, take risks, prototype and revise their understandings and models along the way.
If David were to earn a digital badge for teaching Joshua about games with no winners, what would it look like? He might have a badge learning advisor (teacher or mentor) who helps him map out his learning journey. The mentor may identify required elements in his learning journey, like learning a computer programming language, reading and responding to a collection of articles and writing a reflective blog as a transparent sharing space.
Together, David and his mentor may craft a “need to know” question or guiding essential question that focuses his work and future project. Along the way, David would receive frequent feedback from his mentor, experts in the field and maybe even feedback from his peers. Ultimately, David would produce some sort of product that demonstrates his learning and understandings. The artifact would be published out to the world, rather than sit on a shelf in a classroom or in a pile on a teacher’s desk.
David would earn a digital badge that is hard coded with metadata, revealing his learning pathways, rubrics for achievement, skills learned and maybe even a link to his work. He could share out this badge to the world through social media interfaces like blogs, wikis and more. And along the way, he may even earn smaller digital badges that serve as milestones in his learning journey. He may also get promoted to “peer reviewer” status within his online learning community, reviewing work of other students on computer science learning quests.
Digital badge learning is naturally framed within the tenets of project-based learning, providing opportunities for students to hone their 21st Century learning skills sets through a “need to know” quest. Teachers serve as mentors and coaches along the way, guiding students in pursuing new understandings and in building prototypes. Students are engaged, motivated and empowered. Learning is relevant, authentic and real world.
John Dewey said, “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” Digital badge learning is one innovative approach that teaches for tomorrow. TAMRITZ (“incentive” in Hebrew) seeks to empower Jewish Day Schools to teach for the future through a digital badge learning network. TAMRITZ is a Jewish Day School initiative incubated by the Joshua Venture Group Dual Investment Program and supported by the AVI CHAI Foundation.
Unique to the Tamritz Badge Learning Network is a badge-based professional development e-course, “Digital Age Teaching,” where teachers are immersed in the experience and hone their 21st Century teaching and learning skill sets. Through face-to-face training, teachers also have the opportunity to develop their own badge learning curriculum, based on their school culture and program. A “Digital Media Literacy” badge-based e-course prepares students for future badge learning experiences and sharpens their connected learning toolkits. All within a digital learning environment, teachers participate in an ongoing community of practice and students participate in a badge learning network. This means that Jewish Day School students in California can collaborate with students in Boston, review peer work and benefit from collective wisdom.
Jewish Day School teachers can share badge learning curricula and rubrics within the network.
TAMRITZ just launched a request for proposals for Jewish Day School middle schools. The deadline for applications is Friday, April 12th.
Sarah Blattner is the founder and executive director of Tamritz.