The Celestial Emporium of #OpenBadges Taxonomies


In a previous post (Over 2 millions of badge types…) I explored the typology of Open Badges and the idea of a taxonomy to conclude to the inanity of any attempt at enumerating the different types of Open Badges.

Recently, while discussing with a colleague the ideas developed in this previous post, she reminded me of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, a fictitious taxonomy of animals described by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1942 essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” Borges used this taxonomy to illustrate the arbitrariness and cultural specificity of any attempt at categorising the world.

Taken from an ancient (fictitious) Chinese encyclopaedia, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge divides all animals into 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids (or Sirens)
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

Reading this taxonomy I wondered how it could be translated into the realm of Open Badges. The result is Open Badge Taxonomy #1.

Open Badge Taxonomy #1 (directly inspired by The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge):

  1. Those issued by someone with more than 5,000 Linkedin connections
  2. The revoked ones
  3. Those related to formal training
  4. Those that have never been issued
  5. Marine-related ones
  6. Those earned by only 10 people in the whole world
  7. Those that were erased from the backpack at Christmas time
  8. Those included in this classification
  9. Those with an animated PNG
  10. Those that cannot be counted
  11. Those which picture has been hand drawn
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that cannot be uploaded in the Backpack
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble nothing special

After this first attempt, I wondered whether I could create more of them, let’s say “the behaviourist Open Badge taxonomy,”  and “the constructivist Open Badge taxonomy.” The combination of both gave Taxonomy #2.

Open Badge Taxonomy #2 (the behaviourist-constructivist Open Badge Taxonomy):

  • Those issued by those who believe in the need for controlling others
    • Those issued by those who believe that studying pigeons provides an insight into the human mind
      • Those issued by those who believe in behaviourist theories
        • Those issued by those who believe in the need for doggy biscuits and praise for motivating learners
      • Those issued by those who believe in gamification
      • Those issued by those who think that Open Badges are more ‘chic’ than gold stars
    • Those issued by those who believe that Open Badges should be ‘quality assured’
  • Those issued by those who believe in the need to empower others
    • Those issued by those who believe that only idiots can believe that studying pigeons can provide any insight into the human mind
      • Those issued by those who like to ridicule behaviourist beliefs

Although rather self-indulgent, this taxonomy is perfectly operational to organise the knowledge on Open Badges. Looking at power relationships is a-priori not less valid than any other classification. In the opinion of the author of this post, differentiating between the different ‘types’ of Open Badges, trust vs. distrust, is probably the only valuable taxonomy, if one is needed.

I did not go any further as I rapidly realised that, before building any taxonomy, even a self-indulgent one, I first had to find the answers to  a number of questions:

  • What is the genesis of taxonomies? When do they appear? To fulfill what need? How do they grow and evolve?
  • Are taxonomies an accurate representation of the reality? Are they innocuous?
  • Do we need an Open Badge taxonomy?

It is what this post aims at exploring.

What are taxonomies?

When I looked at Wikipedia for ‘taxonomy’ I was amused to read this warning: “Taxonomy, Not to be confused with taxidermy.” It made me wonder whether taxonomy and taxidermy might not share more than just a lexical proximity, something like the illusion of life associated to rigor mortis?

Taxonomy (from Ancient Greek: τάξις taxis, “arrangement,” and -νομία -nomia, “method[1]) is the science of defining groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics and giving names to those groups. Organisms are grouped together intotaxa (singular: taxon) and given a taxonomic rank; groups of a given rank can be aggregated to form a super group of higher rank and thus create a taxonomic hierarchy. […] The exact definition of taxonomy [in biology] varies from source to source, but the core of the discipline remains: the conception, naming, and classification of groups of organisms. (source)

Corporate taxonomy is the hierarchical classification of entities of interest of an enterprise, organization or administration, used to classify documents, digital assets and other information. Taxonomies can cover virtually any type of physical or conceptual entities (products, processes, knowledge fields, human groups, etc.) at any level of granularity(source)

Bloom’s taxonomy refers to a classification of the different objectives that educators set for students (learning objectives). It divides educational objectives into three “domains”: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor.

So, taxonomy is just a big word for a list of things, that is not necessarily hierarchical.

Are taxonomies an accurate representation of the reality? Are they innocuous?

To address this issue, let’s take the famous Bloom taxonomy (link) and listen to what Donal Clark has to say about it:

Since then we’ve had dozens of taxonomies which sliced and diced in all sorts of ways. We’ve had Biggs, Wills, Bateson, Belbin and dozens more. The problem with taxonomies is their attempt to pin down the complexity of cognition in a list of simple categories. In practice, learning doesn’t fall into these neat divisions. It’s a much more complex and messier set of cognitive processes.

Another danger is that crazy instructionalists, like Gagne, take these taxonomies and attempt to design learning that matches these categories, destroying much of the more useful approaches which an understanding of brain science brings; such as cognitive overload, working memory limitations, top-down processing and so on.

David Didau, the Learning Spy, author of What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?:

One criticism is that it can lead to teachers not really thinking through the different categories of thinking skills each time they’re used which lead students to think superficially. Any classification of skills along the lines of Bloom’s can aid critical thinking but only if it is used critically. I guess my concern is that use of Bloom’s Taxonomy has become wholly uncritical in many cases.

Interestingly, Prof. John Hattie says in Visible Learning,

It is intriguing to note that the major revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson, Krathwohl & Bloom, 2001) introduced four similar levels [to SOLO]: factual knowledge,  (how to be acquainted with a discipline or solve problems in it); conceptual understanding (interrelationships among elements within a large structure that enables them to function together); procedural knowledge (how to do something, methods of enquiry); and meta-cognitive knowledge (knowledge of cognition in general as well as awareness and knowledge of one’s own cognition). This is a major advance on the better-known Bloom’s Taxonomy, which confuses levels of knowing with forms of knowledge. 

An example of the dangers of mishandling Bloom’s taxonomy

Bloom's Trajectory

During the 2014 conference of  the Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA) Cambridge Professional Development made a presentation on “Bloom’s Trajectory”(link). The idea of the “trajectory” is that people’s knowledge, skills and attitudes start at level 0, Awareness, elegantly named ‘Conscious incompetence’, moving on from one level to the next, one step at a time, until reaching the ultimate 6th level, Creating.

While it can be fine to use Bloom’s taxonomy at some point during an analysis e.g. to perform a lexical analysis to elicit at which level of a framework a specific competency should be attached (classification), the “Bloom’s trajectory” looks like something entirely different. The very notion of “trajectory” in relation to knowledge and attitudes is a complete non-sense. Nobody starts at K0 (knowledge level 0, ‘conscious incompetence‘), then K1 up to K6!

We know from Piaget’s work that children learn by formulating an understanding of the world (“What causes the wind? The leaves moving in the trees!”). Understanding (K2) starts with the creation of an hypothesis (K6) which can then evaluated (K5), etc. There is no path, just a big (self-regulated) mess, as indicated above by Donald Clark.

While children continuously formulate hypothesis, what makes people learn is their desire to learn. This desire to learn is often formulated through goals. Setting personal goals is about setting a context in which meaning is constructed, for oneself and others. Without context, it is difficult to create any meaning. The same fact (or achievement) will be interpreted differently, the colour it reflects might change when the context changes.

About attitudes and values

When someone gives a bit of change to a vagabond, it might be that they expect to go to heaven through good deeds or because they think that the current state of our society stinks and we should do something about it, now, even knowing that it won’t change the system. It’s the same fact (change moving from one pocket to another) but the ‘achievement’ is entirely different. It is the long term goal that indicates that one is an act of egoism, based on extrinsic motivation (going to heaven) and the other an act of generosity based on intrinsic motivation (creating a more inclusive society). The first gives change with the hope of getting something in exchange, the other with the knowledge that it won’t contribute to achieving his main goal, but will, at least, provide some relief. It is the context that tells whether the act is a manifestation of egoism or pure generosity.

Will the first one actually go to paradise? Will the other succeed in changing the world? Somewhat difficult to tell for the first one, and I won’t hold my breath for the second — although it might help to find out about the first one!

From this, I would claim that there is no more a “path” for values than there is a path to heaven (in my belief system). Compliance is not the start of the journey, nor is defiance its end — although it is interesting to note that in the “Bloom’s Trajectory” there is no room for a reflective rebel.

Do we need an Open Badge taxonomy?

While there are probably people who believe in the need for a taxonomy to understand the world of Open Badges, I am one of those who believe that a taxonomy, that would need to be finite to have any practical value, is very likely to provide an over-simplified representation of the world, an illusion of understanding. Moreover, naming something has never provided any intelligence about the thing itself, especially if the vocabulary and the concepts used to describe the new comes from the understanding of the old.

I’ll add that, given the fallacy of the “Bloom’s Path,” we should be wary of any attempt at creating normative “Badge Paths.”

More taxonomies

Open Badge Taxonomy #3 (looking more serious, yet just as inane):

  1. Those issued by individual learners out of their own volition
  2. Those issued by individual learners at the demand of another learner
  3. Those issued spontaneously by a group of learners
  4. Those issued by a group of learners after a long deliberation
  5. Those issued by teachers out of their own volition
  6. Those issued by teachers on behalf of an institution
  7. Those issued by an automaton as the outcome of a single event
  8. Those issued by an automaton as the outcome of an algorithm
  9. Those issued as the result of a faulty automaton
  10. Those issued by a spammer
  11. Those issued as the result of a faulty assessment by a human being
  12. Those issued by someone just to have fun
  13. Those issued by someone who does not know what a badge is
  14. Those that were issued and never reached a Backpack

What I’ll argue here is that it is possibly an entirely different type of badge if it is issued by a learner for herself or for a peer, and if it is out of her own volition or at the demand of the other learner.

Open Badge Taxonomy #4:

  1. Those describing a verified past individual performance
  2. Those describing an unverified past individual performance
  3. Those describing a certain future individual performance
  4. Those describing an uncertain future individual performance
  5. Those describing a verified past collective performance
  6. Those describing an uncertain future collective performance
  7. Those related to the preparation of an event
  8. Those related to the participation in an event
  9. Those related to the contribution to the success of an event
  10. Those related to the impact after the participation in an event
  11. Those based on standards defined by an independent authority
  12. Those based on standards defined by the earner
  13. Those based on standards defined by the issuer
  14. Those based on standards defined by the designer
  15. Those based on standards negotiated between the earner and the issuer
  16. Those based on standards defined by the issuer and endorsed by an indepented authority
  17. Those based on standards that are not endorsed by an independent authority

Open Badge Taxonomy #5:

  1. Those that were never earned
  2. Those earned by one person, and one person only and self-issued
  3. Those earned by one person, and one person only and issued by another person
  4. Those earned by two people, and two people only
  5. Those earned by less than 10 people
  6. Those earned by more than 10 and less than 100 people
  7. Those earned by more than 100 and less than 1,000 people
  8. Those earned by more than 1,000 and less than 10,000 people
  9. Those earned by more than 10,000 and less than 100,000 people
  10. Those earned by more than 100,000 and less than 1,000,000 people
  11. Those earned by more than 1,000,000 people
  12. Those that are not part of that taxonomy

You are invited to create your own Open Badge taxonomy. Don’t be afraid to be wild!

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