Our bright, spirited, 6 year old son started kindergarten last year, finally grown up and ready to leap into a bigger world.

But something happened we didn’t expect: he became obsessed with ‘Dojos’. I’d say ”How was reading and maths today?” but instead we heard “l love Dojos, I’m going to get a special medal when I get a lot of dojos”.

A few months into the school year, he was daily referring to how many Dojos he and the other kids had. It was the first thing he talked about when he woke up in the morning. It was clearly praying on his mind.

A few months into the school year we were walking out of school and Dojos came up. One of his friends had over 100, but he only had 84. I asked him “Why do you think you don’t get as many Dojos?”

“I’m just not good enough.” My heart broke hearing these words of resignation and failure from my child.

We love our school and our teachers. But what’s with the Dojos?

We investigated.

Class Dojos is a free San Francisco-based online platform launched about 4 years ago. There are supposed to be over 40 million users in 150 countries.

It works like this: there’s an interactive white board in the classroom – a huge touch screen – with cartoon avatars representing each child. The teacher rewards a child by asking them to touch their character – there’s a happy “ding ding” and a point is added to their avatar’s score. Or an unhappy “bung bung” comes up when they lose a point.

dojo_screen.jpeg

The accumulated score board is displayed whenever the screen isn’t being used for anything else – which was about an hour a day in our son’s classroom.

Dojos seem to work well to control classroom behaviour, but what we hear makes us worried about negative impacts on individual kids. Rewarding good behaviour is one thing, and it’s a normal part of school life, but the constantly-present score table could have a different kind of impact. It’s about comparison – with the standard being set by kids who have high maturity, focus and self-control. What does it say to those kids who are less mature, or more spirited and easily distracted? What impact does the score table have on those kid’s self-esteem and self-confidence – their emerging sense of who they are. Could kids who get consistently stuck on low scores rebel in order to protect their self-esteem?

The default behaviours are:

For “positive” (green) behaviours:

“On task”

“Participating”

“Working Hard”.

For “needs work” (red) behaviours:

“Off task”

“Talking out of turn”

“Unprepared”.

Teachers can add any behaviour they want, potentially rewarding or censuring virtually anything a child does or says in the classroom. They can also invite parents to sign up for text messages whenever their kids are rewarded or penalised.

The idea, of course, is that kids get a little burst of pleasure whenever they get rewarded, and a little burst of humiliation and shame whenever they are penalised. Because we humans are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, this should logically drive compliant classroom behaviour. And the public league table is presumably intended to get kids competing against each other to see who can be best and to publically shame those who do poorly.

Now this looks exactly like Business Management 101. The psychology behind it is behaviourism – the idea that the whole of human behaviour can be explained by stimulus-response associations. Behaviourism reached its peak in the 1970s, best exemplified by the “lab rat” experiments that dominated psych studies at the time. Humans are, of course, motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain. But humans are not lab rats. The entire thrust of psychology since the 1970s – the “cognitive revolution” – recognises that pleasure and pain offer a very thin explanation of human behaviour.

What matters far more is:

– identity, the self-stories or internal narratives that make up a child’s emerging sense of “who I am”;

– self-efficacy, “what I believe I am capable of”, their belief in their own ability to control outcomes that matter to them; and

– self-esteem, a child’s emotional evaluation of their own worth, that predicts academic performance and happiness, amongst other things.

What is disturbing about the Class Dojo system is its obliviousness to this entire world of psychology. How does being pleased by immediate external rewards or goaded by shame at unexpected moments during the day affect a child’s sense of who they are? How does having their complex motivations, inventiveness and agency reduced to a single numerical score affect their identity? For kids with low scores, how does being negatively compared to their peers every day affect their self-efficacy? How does being stuck with a lower than average score affect a child’s self-esteem?

Our son is a very competitive child. In his first week at school he came home thrilled by winning Dojos. He wanted to get back to school so he could win more. But then he quickly became locked into the middle ranking and didn’t know what to do about it. He saw his friends with 120 points and said “It’s not fair. I’m helpful too.”

By the middle of term 2, substantial differences emerged in the classroom. Some kids had 120+ points, some had 60 points and some were stuck in the middle. The differences now seemed so significant and entrenched that our son – and perhaps others in his class – doubted his ability to move up the ranks and be as good as his peers. It was a bit like an exam that happened every day, every week, and never ended, perpetually conveying a disappointing story about the kind of person he was.

The reason kids might have trouble changing their positions is probably because many lack the natural ability to do so. There is a tremendous range of natural individual differences in a classroom. Some kids are more mature. Some are more wiggly, articulate, inventive or more easily distracted than others. Some are more spirited. Young kids with ADHD, for example, only learn and think clearly when they’re moving around.

Learning behavioural control takes years. It doesn’t happen at the scale of weeks and months that Class Dojo records changes. It’s not analogous to, for example, learning to spell ‘garden’ or subtract 4 from 9, which can be picked up fairly quickly. It’s really about who they are as people. And because it’s hard to change their ranking it might seem that they have no agency, or self-efficacy, to change the kind of people they are.

Already, by term 2, there was a risk our son’s class was being unintentionally stratified into those with high, medium and low self-efficacy and the self-stories that rationalise those rankings. We’d hear him says things like:

“Dad, I’m with Nicholas and Andrew.”

“What do you mean, are they on your table?”

“No, they hate Dojos too.”

“Why do they hate Dojos?”

“Because they’re the bad kids.”

Anyone who has read Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, about what creates resilience in children, will immediately recognise that unconsciously stratifying kids into groups based on personality traits is damaging. The reason: it affects their growing self-story about who they are and what they are capable of.

Class Dojo seems like a well-meaning attempt by a business economist and a Silicon Valley games engineer to solve a serious social problem – chaotic classrooms – by creating something familiar in their world: a sales league table that looks like a fun computer game. According to teachers who use it, it seems to work. There is less bad behaviour, children are more controlled, and teachers like it. But what is the cost of a behavioural intervention that risks the most important part of our children: their fragile, freshly emerging sense of who they are as people?

We are frankly amazed that this technology is spreading into schools without guidelines, evaluation, or debate. The Class Dojos website offers no guidelines on safe or appropriate use (their support materials chiefly concern selling the idea to other teachers). Nor do state education departments offer guidelines. There’s been no work by independent academics. There appears to have been no critical evaluation at all. The system simply hasn’t been around long enough to get on people’s radar.

What to do about Class Dojos? Because it promises teachers high levels of compliance, is colourful and interactive, it may indeed be better at controlling immediate behaviour than, say, stars on the wall.

If we have to live with Class Dojos at least let’s create some guidelines on safe use.

The system is customisable and it’s possible for teachers to limit some of the likely negatives. The trick will be to retain the judicious and fair use of recognition for individual improvement, while reducing or removing the impact of the league table that causes kids to compare themselves to each other.

After having doing some research, and seeing the many ways Class Dojos are being used in classrooms around the world, here are a few thoughts on ways the system might be modified to keep the useful aspects but minimise the down sides:

* Start each week with a blank slate by zeroing the scores that are visible to the kids – so they have a fresh possibility to succeed. (The accumulated score is still available to the teacher). Regularly zeroing the numbers would also prevent penalising children who are sick or away through no fault of their own.

* Have the board up for only 2 weeks at the start of each term to re-establish classroom norms.

* Display the avatar scores at only predictable times during the day, to prevent any negative comparisons being omnipresent for the kids or experienced at arbitrary times.

* Use the scores only to identify kids who made a big personal change in a given week, irrespective of their comparison to other kids.

* Alternatively, keep the numerical scores private – for the teacher’s use alone – so children don’t compare themselves to others and feel locked into middle and lower ranks.

* De-link the score from end-of-year rewards like presents or parties to prevent children becoming even more obsessed about the impact of their score.

* Use it as a tool for children to set their own classroom norms for good behaviour and decide on consequences/rewards. Here’s a teacher talking about this idea.

Postscript

After discussing our concerns with our teacher, she decided to zero the scores at the start of each term. Yay! We’re very pleased at the school’s responsiveness but we still have serious concerns about the entire idea of a ranking-based reward system.

P.P.S. We have since moved our child to a school that doesn’t use Class Dojos, and generally places less competitive pressure on children. He has become a far happier child. This is, frankly, a great relief.

P.P.P.S. Here is the nearest thing I could find to a survey of parental views on Class Dojos. Most parents here report negative impacts on their children. See the comments at the end of the post on this page: http://gettingsmart.com/2014/08/parents-review-classdojo/

 

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