Ignoring the Instructions and the Learning Comfort Blanket

If like me, you never read the instructions (until you’ve got into a mess and it’s absolutely necessary), you might enjoy @derekrobertson’s…: If Vygotsky played Minecraft… on the benefits of learners setting the agenda for their learning rather than following someone else’s instructions.Learning comfort blanket

Robertson focuses on children learning but I feel what he says resonates with adult learning too. In jobs that have required me to deliver pre-set (technology-related) training with adults, I have often found I’m in a race to get out of the way of their learning and have sometimes wondered why I’m even there, other than as a kind of learning comfort blanket. On the whole, the participants are happy exploring and my attempts to demonstrate anything often lag behind this exploration. I answer questions but even then, the participants will often answer them for themselves in the process of articulating them. I perhaps sometimes speed up their exploration in a ‘phone a friend’ type way, by maybe explaining the mechanics of a process or a more efficient way of approaching something but on the whole the participants will have their own agendas and objectives for how they will use what they are learning, which dictates their priorities and discovery. So imposing a rigid structure seems counter-intuitive.

I think this is why I am so drawn to the possibilities provided by Open Badges to open up learning and assessment. Competency based credentialling, that can be applied at micro or macro levels, seems to provide an opportunity for this kind of exploratory learning, where learners determine the instructions for their learning and assessment, as they go along.

This does perhaps raise and build on questions around:

  • The purpose of the teacher
  • How we structure learning
  • How we assess learning that has not been pre-defined

As learners develop their own learning pathways, meandering through ideas, activities and networks, wouldn’t it be great, if they could earn recognition for that learning as they go? I hope this is something that could develop as Open Badges developments grow. The Badge Alliance has created a great timeline of Open Badges developments in 2014, which highlights some of the projects and possibilities that are being explored.

Career Discovery – Horizon Scanning and Possible Selves

For a quick overview of some of the drivers of change in the workforce and the implications those drivers have on future skill requirements, check out the following infographic. It has a US focus but I think it has wider relevance. Thanks to @varelidi for sharing!

The infographic is relevant to work I am contributing to at the moment with the @OpenBadges team, on the Discovery project. This project is developing a tool to support underpriviledged youth articulate their strengths and identify possible career pathways. I’ll go into some of the research behind work I have done on the project after the infographic.

Important Work Skills for 2020
Source: Top10OnlineColleges.org

In a previous post, Discovering pathways, I documented some of the thinking behind the work I have done on a quiz for the Discovery project. Here, I would like to capture the reasoning behind some of the quiz development decisions I made.

Considerations informing the Discovery project and therefore the quiz, include: many young people need support to make decisions about their future careers; ‘students don’t know, what they don’t know’;  young people can struggle to define their strengths and skills and their awareness of a range of careers can be restricted due to a mix of social and economic factors.

Through discussions with the team and some research around motivation and factors that influence choices made by underprivileged youth, it seemed that it could be useful to try to help people express kinds of job related activities they enjoy doing. We know that some young people make job choices based on what they see their peers or family doing and that peers can have a particularly influential role to play in early job choices in particular. In Ready, Willing and Able (highly recommended read), Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne Bouffard provide a number of case studies of youth making college-going and job decisions based on things like a friend getting them a job at the same place they work, choosing to work in a particular location because it is near their peers or not choosing a job pathway because they have never seen a family member or peer make that choice. If we are to try to widen the job or career options someone using the Discovery tool might consider, it seems  we might need to consider what would motivate someone to try, and stick, with something new.

The psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan argue that intrinsic motivation (doing something because it is enjoyed) is more likely to result in someone staying the course, than extrinsic motivation (doing something purely to gain an external reward such as money or prestige). Sometimes extrinsic motivation can be internalized (internalised regulation), such as working hard to attain certain grades in order to have a choice of interesting careers. Both intrinsic motivation and internalized regulation, they argue, are more likely to result in the motivation to work hard and overcome obstacles in order to engage in something.

It was this thinking that led me to begin exploring over-arching categories that could define what people might enjoy in a work context. Inspired by sites like O*Net (US Department of Labour/Employment and Training Administration’s Occupational Information Network database) and the MyMajors sites I investigated Holland Codes for this purpose. Holland Codes, created by Dr John Holland, link career choices to personality types and are intended to provide a means of helping people understand what types of areas of work they might enjoy most. The Holland Code breaks types of activity into the following six areas:

•    Doers (Realistic)
•    Thinkers (Investigative)
•    Creators (Artistic)
•    Helpers (Social)
•    Persuaders (Enterprising)
•    Organisers (Conventional)

We are using Holland Codes based questions at the start of the quiz to begin to gauge types of career or job families people might enjoy. These will be followed by questions we hope will reveal attributes and then badges will be presented for selection, based on answers to the previous questions. We hope these will help us to present some relevant pathways for the individual, based on what they enjoy and their character traits. While we feel presenting career pathways based on the types of job activity someone might enjoy, might serve as an intrinsic motivator to start and complete the pathway, Savitz-Romer and Bouffard argue the importance of balancing aspiration with expectation. Focusing on aspirations to go to college, Savitz-Romer and Bouffard comment that research has shown that just because someone wishes to go to college, doesn’t mean they expect they can do so. Expectations (based on aspects of identity formed from a range of factors, including social and economic, eg peer group behaviours and family history), that don’t support the aspirations, can result in the belief that the individual is not able to attain what they aspire to.

Kassie Freeman has investigated predisposition to college-going amongst African American youth and building on Donald Hossler’s research into college decision making, has identified three types of youth in the predisposition stage: Knowers (plan to and believe they will go to college); Seekers (believe they could go to college); Dreamers (aspire to go to college but don’t think they can). In terms of possible future development of the Discovery tool, it could be helpful to understand the predisposition of those engaging with the tool because it could help us to understand the likelihood of them progressing along a pathway. It could provide information that would help identify what support and interventions someone might benefit from to get started, stay the course and also to bridge the gap between aspiration (hoped for self) and negative expectation (feared self).

In terms of building this in to the Discovery tool, this could perhaps be broached after the initial quiz questions have been asked and the individual has been presented with at least three career pathways that align with the skills, attributes and likes revealed by the quiz. These career pathways might present what could be termed hoped-for ‘possible selves’ (possible selves are the idea people have of who they might be in the future, a concept proposed by Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius). Possible selves can also include the idea of a ‘feared self’, however. The feared self (eg ending up in low paid work, doing a job they don’t enjoy etc) could be helpful in providing a further prompt for those looking at embarking on a new career, for which they have no reference in terms of their social background. It could give youth something to compare with and perhaps give extra impetus for starting on, what to them, could feel like unchartered ground. Reflecting on the consequences of not taking the step of trying something new could perhaps help reinforce the benefits of making the effort to aim for the aspiration.

In terms of the Discovery project, some of these developments are purely aspirational at the moment as the project is currently focusing on developing employer defined pathways, the quiz and enabling individuals to choose a pathway and use badges to complete it. However, it is a fascinating subject and I think there are many exiciting possibilities for using digital credentialing / Open Badges to support pathways to employment, career visualisation and opening up new horizons.

Discovering pathways

our path

From flickr by shannonkringen, CC BY 2.0

For the past couple of months I have been working with the Mozilla Open Badges team on the Open Badges Discovery project. The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and we are developing a prototype tool to support badge based pathways to employment. We are working with industry leaders (based in the USA, for the current prototype) to define the pathways, and the project has a particular focus on supporting underprivileged youth, around high school age, consider and work towards a variety of employment opportunities.

The need for increased support to help young people make decisions about their future careers and that ‘students don’t know, what they don’t know’, is highlighted in a report prepared by the Parthenon Group that informs the project. The report shows how young people can struggle to define their strengths and skills but also that their awareness of a range of careers can be restricted due to a mix of social and economic factors. Without awareness of what is possible, or their own ability to embark up certain career pathways, young people and employers can miss opportunities to get the right people into the right jobs.

With this in mind, much of what I have been focusing on, alongside project colleagues @varelidi, @emgollie and @LucasBlair, has been the development of a quiz to help those using the Discovery tool discover more about their skills and attributes as well as what they enjoy doing. The intention is that this will result in the tool presenting at least three relevant career pathways to them for jobs they might enjoy and that they have, or could develop, the skills and attributes to undertake.

The Challenge

I’ve taken various quizzes to try to determine what career I should follow and been presented with some interesting (and sometimes quite random) results. Given the huge range of potential jobs and career pathways, this doesn’t seem surprising. Trying to get a handle on all of the job options available and breaking down what should go into a quiz, has been quite a challenge. The work on the quiz has also been evolving in tandem with other developments in the project, such as defining pathway and badge types, refining definitions of what we mean by attributes, how we might use tagging, etc.

One of the over-riding challenges of the quiz, is to try to support people to express what they don’t know about themselves. How do you help people reveal what they don’t consciously know about their strengths or to choose career pathways they might enjoy if they do not have a wide frame of reference for different careers?

We are also trying to keep a balance of:

Subjective / Objective – our aim is to try to surface strengths and likes a person might not be aware of. To do this we are aiming to help people look at themselves and their aspirations objectively rather than subjectively
Length / Information – while we need to gather as much information as possible about people to help present the most relevant pathways, we do not want the quiz to be so long that people are put off it and drop out before they have even started
Not onerous / Not trivial – we need people to really think about and tell us things they might find challenging to articulate but we don’t want to make the quiz so onerous that they don’t complete it
Age appropriate – we need to use the right language and narrative for the target age group of high schoolers


Trying to see the wood for the trees

I found I wanted to try to gain an overview of what we were trying to achieve. A symbol that came to mind and that has been referenced in other contexts in the project, is that of a tree. In terms of a young person discovering a relevant pathway and embarking upon it, the tree is a helpful visual for the organic development of the individual through different stages on their career path but also as they begin to understand more about themselves and their growth as a person. Each young person will have different starting points, different requirements for support and will branch off in different ways on their career pathway. I started playing around with the tree idea and realised that the concept of what we are aiming to help an individual to uncover and discover could be broken down into:

  • Roots – the personality traits and underpinning skills and attributes of the young person at this point in time, and underpinning skills that might be required for a pathway
    • Personality traits – such as resilience, grit, conscientiousness – could help define how much support might be required to embark upon and continue on a pathway as challenges are encountered along the way
    • Basic skills – The Partnership for 21st Century Skills report Are they Really Ready to Work surfaces the lack of some basic literacies amongst young people that need to be addressed to enable the development of a viable knowledge economy. Basic skills (in a US context) such as English language and communication skills form an important base for many jobs. We aim to make these explicit in each pathway
  • Core (trunk) – the core skills, cross-career competencies and attributes required for an industry / career area. On the pathway, these would translate into and consist of core and elective badges
    • Core badges for specific requirements such as high school graduation
    • Electives badges that could be chosen by the young person that would meet certain criteria defined by the pathway issuer such as showing evidence of certain after-school activities or certain attributes
  • Branches – within each career people can branch off into different specialisms, while still working in the same industry or career area
  • Clusters – we have been exploring the idea of using clusters of badges to show the development of strengths over a period of time. For example, one of the key attributes for interns at Mozilla, is curiosity. It may be difficult to show someone is curious in a single badge but a cluster of badges for different hobbies could help point to this, demonstrating curiosity, life interest and a wide frame of reference. In another context, a number of badges for the same hobby could help to demonstrate other attributes that are challenging to evidence, such as commitment, discipline and a narrow / deep focus. These badges could provide the earner with the opportunity to provide supplementary information and demonstrate unique, additional skills or strengths they believe are relevant to a pathway. They might also be clustered around something we are terming a ‘story-bit’, which would allow for a note to provide context for the cluster


Working through the tree visual, helped me begin the process of considering how we might want to start structuring the data that had been gathered from interviews with industry partners and to pull out key areas we might want to focus on in the quiz. I created tables and using the tree visual as a reference, looked at different areas I had pulled out such as personality / pre-disposition, under-pinning skills, strengths and then tried to refine what we might mean by these, what they would look like and why they might be important to try to reveal in the quiz. I also wanted to think of ways to make sense of job areas and things like motivation to embark upon and complete a pathway.

Solutions we are exploring

Research that has informed the quiz developments (I’ll capture some of this in another post), shows that people are more likely to stay the course with something if they enjoy doing it. For this reason, I began exploring over-arching categories that could define what people might enjoy in a work context. During my research, I found that the O*Net (US Department of Labour/Employment and Training Administration’s Occupational Information Network database) and the MyMajors sites used Holland Codes for this purpose. Holland Codes, created by Dr John Holland, link career choices to personality types and are intended to provide a means of helping people understand what types of areas of work they might enjoy most. The Holland Code breaks types of activity into the following six areas:

  1. Doers (Realistic)
  2. Thinkers (Investigative)
  3. Creators (Artistic)
  4. Helpers (Social)
  5. Persuaders (Enterprising)
  6. Organisers (Conventional)

I liked the language used for these over-arching categories and using a limited number of categories is appealing for a few reasons:

  • They could help us to link quiz questions to six over-arching job activity categories, that in turn are linked to what people might enjoy doing (with more detail for specific career pathways possible from the range of skills, attributes and badges the earner identifies as they move through the quiz)
  • They could make the identification of a range of over-arching areas of interest easier to present to someone who might not have any clear idea of possible careers
  • Possible future tagging of pathways could be made easier and more sustainable by starting with just six choices (which could then be expanded upon by further layers of tagging)

Current content of quiz

Having iterated through a few versions of quiz questions and starting with many options including:

  1. Who do you want to be? (Aspiration) Selections made from the six Holland Codes
  2. Who are you? (Strengths)
  3. What are you interested in? (Likes)
  4. Work focus (eg narrow / deep, wide / shallow)
  5. Work context (eg indoor / outdoor)

We have narrowed this down to focus on:

  1. Who do you want to be? (Aspiration) – selections can be made from the six Holland Codes
  2. Who are you? (pick attributes that describe them, including those that point to a particular job family)
  3. What do your friends think you are good at? Bonus if you can find a friend to complete this section (presented with range of badges, to choose from)

After the initial questions, the individual would be presented with at least three career pathways that align with the skills, attributes and likes revealed by the quiz.

Let’s Play

I think the quiz will go through a number of iterations. As well as continuing to refine the content of the quiz, we are considering how we present the quiz. We want it to be fun and current inspiration includes celebrities, choose your adventure, animals and animated gifs amongst others…

We’d be interested to know what you think:

  • Do you think the Holland Codes could work for helping people start to define what kinds of job activities they might enjoy?
  • Do you have recommendations for the narrative / art inspiration?
  • Are there other resources you think would be relevant to this development?