[UPDATE: The comments sections of this post is full of astroturfing — fake comments by fake users. The all come from the IP address 188.8.131.52 pretending to be real teachers (Jarrett B, Jennifer Molak, Susan G, Caroline F., Tatiana H)]
I believe most organizations and people are positive to society even when they have a negative side to it (everything does). ClassDojo is negative, and I fear that if it becomes a reference model – due to its misunderstood success – it will have a dramatic negative ripple effect in early education. If you were concerned about Facebook’s Newsfeed manipulation study last year, you should be orders of magnitude more concerned about ClassDojo. It’s about manipulating kids!
Let me start by saying I’m not an education expert – neither are the founders of ClassDojo, by the way. However, due to the nature of my work around health, fitness and incentives, I’ve been immersed in the latest research on motivations, incentives, social behavior, behavior economics, compliance, etc. Human nature is one, so it doesn’t matter the application, the fundamentals are the same.
I also have no financial interest in the success or failure of ClassDojo, or any of it’s competitors. My only interest is to stand for what I believe, particularly when kids mental health is at stake, and I can’t be silent about it.
Learning about ClassDojo
I was driving to work listening to a podcast about teaching kids how to code. I got to the office and typed some keywords into Google and bumped into ClassDojo.com – I was looking for CoderDojo, actually. My first reaction to ClassDojo was what a great idea it is. As soon as I read what the product was about and watched a quick video on their website, my brain could not stop churning about the awful thing that ClassDojo is doing.
I found this New York Times article from a couple of months ago. It focuses on privacy, consent and ethics of collecting kids’ information, but as you can see, there are a gamut of issues with it.
What is ClassDojo?
Straight up, ClassDojo is a gamified reinforcement engine for elementary students, in which the teacher creates the rules, awards points and has full control over the “game”. In simple terms, students create an avatar to represent themselves and are awarded points for doing things the teacher thinks is “right”, or taken points away for what’s “wrong.” At the teacher’s discretion, that’s done in front of all other kids in the classroom so that all students can learn from the success and failures of others.
Parents can sign up to learn about their kids earned and lost points and reinforce the behavior or message even more at home.
What is the problem with ClassDojo?
Some of the problems with ClassDojo are very obvious, and some are more nuanced. I will go through a list of 7 of the most egregious problems.
With any technology, tool, process or methodology, its value is just as good as the people using it. Some teachers and parents will have a better understanding of it, and will work around the negative aspects of ClassDojo, but some won’t even realize these problems exist.
Here is why ClassDojo is unethical and dangerous:
#1 – It’s a compliance tool
Ignore every marketing gobbledygook from ClassDojo, what it boils down to is that ClassDojo is a compliance tool. Compliance tools are designed to get people to comply with a regimen. The dictionary defines compliance as: “The act or process of doing what you have been asked or ordered to do.” The opposite of compliance is disobedience, defiance, and deviance. We don’t want that in the classroom, do we? So what’s the problem with being a compliance tool?
First, it’s an easy way out. It’s much harder for a teacher to tell a student why she should or shouldn’t do something than to say “you get 1 extra point if you do it this way.” Second, compliance also focuses on uniformity. You can’t have different rules for different students depending on their needs. Either you have a rule that applies to all students or you have no rule at all, which means the last few decades of investing in different learning styles is going out of the drain. Third, and a little more subtle, is the fact that compliance punishes diversion (and failure) – more on that later.
#2 – It’s *NOT* about positive reinforcement
Here is their homepage claiming to be about positive behavior.
A researcher named B.F. Skinner is the father of reinforcement behavior (positive and negative reinforcement). If you are up to it, go read about him on Wikipedia. His work, Operant Conditioning, has evolved tremendously since his time, and it defines this matrix:
Here are a few of the tools at the disposal of teachers with ClassDojo:
- Student does something good and earns points: Positive Reinforcement
- Student doesn’t step up and doesn’t earn points: Negative Punishment
- Student does something bad and loses points: Negative Reinforcement
There is more to it. Since teachers are doing this in front of other students, there are reinforcement and punishment being felt by all students. If you want to learn one strong case against it, read Alfie Khon’s book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason or some other of his books.
#3 – It Changes the focus from learning to earning
Having worked in the behavior/motivation “industry” for the last four years, I find it incredibly hard the act of creating motivation, but not so much the act of changing someone’s focus. Kids are naturally motivated by doing and achieving. By creating a classroom game, they will focus on, and optimize for, earning points, badges, and trophies while the focus should be on learning. The ultimate goal should be learning things, not to pass on tests or get points.
Don’t mistake this to the debate about grades and tests at schools. One thing is being rated by what a child has learned, another is being rated/rewarded for how a child behaves. You can pre-order Josh Stumpenhorst book The New Teacher Revolution that talks about the problem with current grade system.
#4 – It Kills Creativity & Independent Thinking
You know a great way to learn? Failing! You know a great way to create empathy for fellow kids in your classroom, saying something mean and having the other kid cry and feeling, deeply, awful about it. Listen to this video of Louis C.K at Conan O’Brien.
With a ClassDojo rule book of behavior, kids are less likely to deviate and try anything new. If it doesn’t seem I’ll get a point for it, I’ll do something that will give me a point. If I know a behavior will make me lose a point, I won’t even try it.
#5 – Zynga-effect, Dopamine & Endorphin Dependency
ClassDojo could create a drug-like dependency on kids, the same way that people who played Farmville felt. You need more and more of it until you can’t satisfy yourself anymore, and you can become obsessed. Seriously, do we need an unnatural dopamine and endorphin inducing experiences in the classroom? Has anyone even questioned this?!
It’s unethical! Don’t mess with kids brains. Read Nir Eyal’s post titled The Morality of Manipulation. Manipulating adults is one thing, and it could be quite unethical, manipulating kids without fully understanding the consequences is at a whole new sphere of irresponsibility.
You’ll get awesome short and near term results until the whole thing unravels. Here lies the danger, a short-term perception of success at the expense of dramatic long-term impact on these kids. Will they be more likely to be unhappy in life? Probably. More likely to have depression, drug dependencies, lack of satisfaction? Well, if science is your guide, yes, they will be more likely to all those things (research endorphin and dopamine addiction if you care).
#6 – It empowers the powerful
There are bad teachers out there. Some teachers are already abusive and overpowering. Some teachers pick on some students because they don’t like how they speak, or because of their religion, race or their parents. Some classrooms have this imbalance of power in which the teacher thinks he’s a God and the students are his minions. Yes, this is the minority of teachers, and this tool doesn’t create these problems but exacerbates them. And it also could exonerate those teachers’ decisions… “I was just using the tool.”
#7 – Lifelong Impact
If the above problems didn’t convince you that ClassDojo could have a long-term negative impact on your child’s future, how about this: This is not how college works (or high schools) and it’s not how the workplace works. There won’t be anyone telling young adults what’s appropriate and what’s not. They won’t learn how to read others people reaction and know how to adjust to it because they are waiting to get the +1 / -1 they were used to. They might be lacking or having underdeveloped emotional and social skills necessary to succeed in life
I know nothing, we know nothing!
I’ve been an avid consumer of behavior, education & parenting books and information on the web. I’ve been to seminars, conferences and talks by John Gottman, Jim Fay, Carol Dweck, Gordon Neufeld, Ashley Merryman, Nir Eyal, BJ Fogg, and many more. We – as a society – still know very little about child development, education, behavior science, and parenting. We have come long ways over the last two decades, but there are decades of research to be done for us to have a good grasp on it.
It’s not just because ClassDojo seems to be doing well as a business that it means it’s a good thing. Cigarettes and McDonald’s are good businesses. Product-Market Fit (a startup term to indicate a business that’s working) is not proof that this is meaningful, important, valuable or that it even should continue to exist.
So, you are saying that reinforcement & gamification is bad?
No, I’m not. Contrary to some educators and psychologists who take a hard stance against rewards, I’m not one of those, but I think ClassDojo for all the things I mentioned above did it completely wrong. Khan Academy, on the other hand, put the learning at the center and made the reinforcement the after the fact subtle praise. And there are other education-related services that are doing fantastic work with kids, like AltSchool, an amazing startup doing some amazing work in early education. Check them out.
What should I/we do?
My concerns is about a company and its philosophy. I’ll assume that ClassDojo founders and employees are well-intentioned, but they are either being ignorant about the very core of what they are doing or they are turning a blind-eye to these problems.
If you are a teacher, I take my hat off to you. Your work is incredibly hard, and I couldn’t do your work. However, I urge you to read the books, articles and authors that I mentioned on this post and make up your mind about it. Even if you want to use ClassDojo and address all the issues and concerns I mentioned above, you’ll be going against the grain of this tool. Just drop it and use something else. Heck, just tell me what something else you want and I’ll figure out how to build it for you.
If you are a parent, pressure your school and teacher to stop using ClassDojo.