Friday, March 18, 2016

Micro-Credentials for Fun and Profit (In which Relay certifies your hand)

Part of the new wave of competency based education for teachers is the vogue of micro-credentials. Micro-credentials, sometimes linked to little badges, are an attempt to break down teaching into verrrrrry small competencies, and not coincidentally, monetize the certification of them. How micro can we get? Oh, you have no idea.

Meet Relay Graduate School of Education's micro-credential for Checking for Understanding Using Gestures. Relay is a charter-created fake school for teaching teachers, and this is some of their more spectacular work, presented by way of the good folks at Digital Promise.

You may look at the name of this micro-credential and think, "Can that be what it looks like? Surely there's some deeper, more clever technique that they're selling." Well, here's the full description.

Gestures are a CFU method in which the teacher asks a question and students signal their answers using some sort of visual sign (for instance, holding up a number of fingers, sign language, colored index cards). Unlike many other CFU methods in which teachers make inferences about student learning from a sample of students, with Gestures, the teacher visually records answers from the entire class. Generally, Gestures are most effective when the question is posed in a selected-response format (e.g., multiple choice, agree or disagree, or yes/no). 

So, yes. The people at Relay really are that ridiculous. But not as scary ridiculous as whatever proto-teacher needs actual instruction on how to ask students a question and have them raise their hands. We should also note that this technique dovetails nicely with the charter philosophy that emphasizes keeping students voices as silent as possible.

Now, granted, there are layers of dumb here. The suggestion that this method is different because teachers don't have to make inferences-- are we to assume that in this method, the teacher does not need to be able to tell this difference between a confident student, an uncertain student and a just-plain-guessing student. And what do you mean, "visually record answers"-- am I going to whip out my phone and take a picture? But thanks for the tip about selected-response format; I was going to go ahead and have my students answer "So what are some of the major contributing factors to the start of the Great European War?" with hand gestures.

But Relay is not done providing dumb instructions about this technique.

You should only use it "to check for understanding of important content." And you should use "visually distinct" gestures. For example-- and I swear that I am not making this up-- you should not use thumbs up and thumbs down because they are hard to tell apart. The teacher should also give "crisp, in-cue signals" about when to make the gesture, for example saying "Show me your answer when I say three-- one, two..." Also, ask follow-up questions, and make appropriate adjustments in instruction depending on what happens when you do your check for understanding.

To earn this micro-credential, you need to submit two videos and a write up, and the handy guide and rubric is here, and one cannot help wonder in what hollow village of the damned is any of this necessary? If you actually have to be taught how to do this, is there the remotest possibility that you will be fit to work in a classroom with live small humans? But this micro-credential carries a December 2014 copyright, so no doubt your school is loaded with people who are officially credentialed to ask student questions like "Who thinks the answer is A?" and then have students raise their hands.

Here are some of the other excellent micro-credentials being made available for teachers:

Calling Students By Name

Research indicates that students are more responsive when the teacher uses their name. This micro-credential will certify that you can learn a student's name and insert it in a spoken sentence. (Note: Making eye contact is a separate micro-credential).


Why talk about "check for understanding," a phrase that anyone can understand, when you can say CFU instead and sound really special. This micro-credential (MC) will train the teacher to create acronyms for any occasion (AFAO) so that you can credential obvious versions of educational reality (COVER) when you align school standards (ASS). Once you have mastered educational habits everyone already does (HEAD) , you can increase your bazillion useless teacher trainings (BUTT) as well as wield a zillion obnoxious obsfucatory trainings (WAZOOT) and have a million minor educational revelations (HAMMER). So as you COVER your ASS and with HEAD, up your BUTT, you can MC HAMMER your way to excellence out the WAZOOT.

Walking and Talking

Teachers are sometimes called upon to both walk and talk at the same time in a classroom. This micro-credential certifies that the teacher is able to both speak words and move feet nearly simultaneously. A companion credential to our popular Walk and Chew Gum micro-credential.

Passing Out Papers

Teachers will focus on how to spot the student name on the paper and then identify the student who has that name in the classroom. Teacher will then grasp the paper with her own hand and extend that hand toward the identified student. This micro-credential can become more powerful when combined with the Calling Students By Name micro-credential.

Eating Lunch

Teacher will be certified in the use of all three major utensils and demonstrate the ability to divide food into smaller pieces that can reasonably be expected to fit in the teacher's mouth, inserting those pieces, chewing, and swallowing. Note: Solids only. Eating Soup for Lunch is a separate micro-credential.


Research suggests that teachers who breathe are generally more effective in increasing student achievement. We considered creating Inhaling and Exhaling as separate micro-credentials, but eventually you reach a point where it foolish to keep breaking down ordinary actions regularly performed by sentient beings into tiny micro-credentials.


There have been requests for credentials centered around interacting with young carbon-based life forms as if both they and the teachers are thinking, feeling human beings who can enter into a teacher-student relationship that allows for communication and understanding that is enhanced by the teacher's professional knowledge, training and experience. We repeat our position that such an approach is far too broad and messy to ever be offered as a micro-credential. We'll just stick with classics like How To Have Your Students Raise Their Hands When You Ask a Question.


  1. I first encountered "competencies" in working with CTE schools in Virginia (full disclosure -- I helped write some open source software to manage this craziness and still make a little money supporting it). It at least sort of makes sense in that context because then you're mostly breaking down specific procedures: rotating and balancing tires, or dyeing hair. In that context, at least some teachers find it helpful insofar as it can be difficult to remember just how many specific steps and skills go into what is second nature to people actually doing the job.

    Nonetheless, it is also a huge pain for them, and even for us to write software that can keep track of the thousands of CTE standards Virginia maintains. We had some funny conversations though. A decade ago my friend down there was telling me that competency-based education was "the future," and I was patiently explaining that we were already doing the same thing with "standards." Apparently he knew something I didn't -- not about the functional difference between standards and competencies -- which is undefined -- but about what the buzz developing around the nation's capital was.

  2. "Gestures are a CFU method in which the teacher asks a question and students signal their answers using some sort of visual sign (for instance, holding up a number of fingers, sign language, colored index cards)."

    CFU - pretend-graduate school speak for Completely F@#$%ed Up.

    These folks believe the TFA hype that real teachers are morons, don't they?

    Christine Langhoff

  3. You owe my office a new computer monitor. I'm afraid I spit Diet Coke all over mine reading your Acronym section.

    Well played, sir.

  4. Yes, the Acronym section is the best!