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Reflections on the Class Dojo Kerfuffle

Based on the posts I've been seeing in my Twitterstream lately, I probably shouldn't admit this, but I am a Class Dojo user.

I know the complaints that people have with the app:  Awarding points for good behavior feels Pavlovian; allowing peers to see points awarded and taken away from their classmates can be publicly embarrassing; and patterns established over time might just result in kids being unfairly labeled.

Heck, #edulegend Alfie Kohn took his criticism of Class Dojo straight to Defcon 1 in this week's New York Times article.  "This is just a flashy digital update of programs that have long been used to treat children like pets, bribing or threatening them into compliance," he argued.

Here's the problem:  Our collective beef with Class Dojo rests in the flawed assumption that the tool FORCES teachers into crappy instructional choices. 

Take the examples shared in the Times:  The teachers spotlighted displayed their Class Dojo screen publicly in front of the class, left notifications -- the dings and donks that announce that points have been given or taken away -- turned on for everyone to hear, and gave points for ridiculous things like bringing in supplies for classroom activities.

I can't support any of those instructional choices, y'all.  The records that I keep about the struggles of individual students ought to be private -- displaying them in front of the entire class and announcing them with buzzers and bells is ludicrous.  So is giving awards to students who can bring in supplies -- which inherently devalues students who can't.

But there are lots of other ways to use Class Dojo to support responsible practice.  Here are a few examples from my classroom:

Recording anecdotal evidence of student mastery of required concepts:

One of the best sources of evidence that students are mastering required concepts are the countless one-to-one interactions that happen during the course of a school day.  Every time a student shares thinking in a classroom, makes a contribution during a group conversation, participates in a hands-on activity, or asks a question after a lesson ends, teachers gain insight on their progress.

The challenge for me has always been documenting these interactions.  Sure, I could probably give you a pretty good sense of which students have mastered key concepts and which students are still struggling to master key concepts -- but with 120 kids across four class periods, I'd be lying to you if I told you that I know EXACTLY who knows what.

And I'd also be lying to you if I told you that I'd never been surprised by a student who showed me that they HAD mastered key concepts in the course of an informal conversation.  In fact, it happens all the time in middle school classrooms where kids are inconsistent, demonstrating mastery one day and struggling mightily the next.

Until Class Dojo, I kept no real record of the interactions I was having with students on a daily basis.  Now, when a student shows me that they have mastered content in a nontraditional way, I can pull out my phone and record the interaction.  That gives me a more sophisticated sense of who knows what in my classroom that is built on evidence instead of hunches.

How's that a bad thing?

Spotting students who aren't being challenged -- or who are working beyond their ability level -- in differentiated lessons:

One of the things that I've had to wrestle with during the course of my 22-year teaching career was the suggestion that kids who are off-task are nothing more than bad kids who don't know how to behave.  In reality, off-task behavior -- particularly in differentiated classrooms where students are working on different tasks all at the same time -- is almost always evidence that the task that I've assigned to individual students isn't appropriate.

So I've started using Class Dojo to record student behaviors during differentiated lessons.  My goal isn't to figure out who needs to be punished.  Instead, my goal is to figure out who needs extra challenge -- or who is working beyond their ability level.  Spotting patterns in off-task behavior has nothing to do with rewards and consequences for kids.  Spotting patterns in off-task behavior has everything to do with helping me to improve my own instructional practices.

How's that a bad thing?

Reinforcing Classroom Culture:

One of the things that I am the proudest of this year are my efforts to build a positive classroom culture.  Stealing ideas from Pernille Ripp's Passionate Learners, my kids and I developed a set of classroom promises at the beginning of the year.  The entire process -- which I described here and here -- was SUPER productive.  In fact, this was the first year that I actually felt like my kids were invested in the "rules" that we were creating to govern our learning space.

But classroom promises -- like the norms in professional learning communities -- are useless if you don't spend time celebrating the people who are following them.  Kids in middle school classrooms need constant reminders of the reasons that classroom promises matter.  More importantly, they need to see constant examples of just what classroom promises look like in action.

So I've started to ask my STUDENTS to award Class Dojo points to kids who have honored our promises at the end of many class periods.

When our time together starts, I'll say something like, "Remember that if we are going to have a happy, safe and fun classroom, we are going to need to participate, cooperate and be positive during today's lesson.  Be on the lookout for someone who does those things well today because at the end of class, I'm going to give you the chance to recognize them."

Then, I'll use Class Dojo's randomizer to call on a few students right before dismissal.  "Who do you think deserves to be recognized?" I'll ask.  "And what have they done to make our classroom happy, safe and fun?"

You see the simple twist in the conversation, right?

We have spent so much time arguing about teachers who use Class Dojo to shame kids into behaving that we have forgotten that Class Dojo can be just as valuable as a tool for reinforcing the positive things that happen every day in our classrooms.

How's that a bad thing?

I've spent the past few weeks rereading Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody.

At the end of the text, he makes an interesting argument.  He says one of the barriers to change in any circumstance is the inertia of experience, which can often prevent us from seeing the full potential in any situation.  When we grow comfortable with how things are, we also grow less likely to consider anything that rests outside of what we know.

Here's how that applies to the Class Dojo Kerfuffle: If the only thing that you believe about classroom management is that there are bad kids who need to be controlled, you are bound to use tools for recording student behaviors in coercive ways.  Similarly, if the only thing you believe about teachers is that they are classroom managers who are hell-bent to punish bad kids, you are bound to assume that people using digital tools for recording student behaviors are old-school curmudgeons who should be forced into retirement.

Avoiding these traps depends on people who are willing to unlearn the obvious.  Instead of making your decisions about new tools based on what was once true, start making your decisions about new tools by imagining what can be.

Any of this make sense?

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Related Radical Reads:

If We Are Going to Have a Happy, Safe and Fun Classroom...

We Have a Life Outside of School, Too

The Role of Hunches in a PLC

 

9 Comments

Susan Menkel commented on November 23, 2014 at 6:48pm:

I am also a Class Dojo user.

And I have no intentions of stopping.

I love that I can reward for behaviors I choose like "Paticipating in your education" or "Supporting classmates".  I'd rather hear a positive ping than a negative any day. The students love that they can be recognized for doing the great things they are doing. Good teachers know that giving attention to the positive means they rarely have to address the negative.

I love that it offers me a way to have parents connected to their child's education. I can message with parents about the things their children are learning. (I try very hard to remember to message the positive and not just the negative.) I can send updates for every child in the class or for individuals.

Any App or program can be used in a negative or detremental way. But I wholeheartedly believe most teachers are using Class Dojo in a ways that positively impact their students. Wouldn't it be nice to hear about that in the NY Times?

Carl Draeger commented on November 23, 2014 at 9:14pm:

Well said Bill and Susan

Differentiation is hard work. Why not leverage a tool to create an artifact to assist you in providing appropriate learning activities for all. As Rick Wormeli says, "In all of this, differentiating teachers do not teach in isolation. They are ceaselessly collaborative, welcoming the scrutiny of colleagues and the chance to learn more about the way students learn best. They are not threatened by the observations or the advice of others, and they take frequent risks in the classroom - teaching in ways that students best learn, not the way they teach best. They shift their thinking from their own state of affairs to empathy for their students." [Bolding is mine.]

It is clear that your viewpoint is through the lens of what is best for kids. It is difficult to stand up and say, "The Emperor has no clothes", (especially to my personal hero, Alfie Kohn) but as teacher leaders we have no choice but to speak out. If we don't, we'll always do what we've always done. I’m willing to bet that Mr. Kohn would support your application of Class Dojo. Thanks for sharing your insight.

Your comment, "The records that I keep about the struggles of individual students ought to be private -- displaying them in front of the entire class and announcing them with buzzers and bells is ludicrous.  So is giving awards to students who can bring in supplies -- which inherently devalues students who can't." cuts to the core of equity and social justice.  Also “Stealing ideas from Pernille Ripp's Passionate Learners” is actually called applying research. Just sayin’.

 

Finally, “Avoiding these traps depends on people who are willing to unlearn the obvious.  Instead of making your decisions about new tools based on what was once true, start making your decisions about new tools by imagining what can be.” is an indictment of anyone who has lost their way. If we stay in our isolated silos, we can remain in the old, familiar ways (as per Clay Shirky’s observation).  If we don’t illuminate our thinking in a public manner (amongst our colleagues, at least), how do we expect to grow professionally?

“Any of this make sense?” Absolutely! As I read your post, I realized that this issue goes much deeper than Class Dojo. The argument can be made that being bold and intentionally aspiring to life-long learning is the only antidote to “the inertia of experience”.  At the close of my first year of teaching, we had a co-worker that retired after 30+ years in the classroom.  One could say that this individual only had 1 year of experience repeated 30 times. Another veteran teacher had 15 years of experience in her 15 years of teaching. She was always asking questions, sharing books and resources, and talking about teaching. Guess which teacher I wished to emulate?

Bill, I am sorry for hijacking your original post, but it really got me thinking in other directions. Thanks for being a courageous speaker of truth. Thanks also for being transparent in your practice to share these wonderful nuggets of wisdom.

Bill Ivey commented on November 23, 2014 at 11:47pm:

Of Clothes or the Lack Thereof

The horrific uses of Class Dojo you described, Bill, and the ones I encountered out on the Internet are indeed negative and punishment oriented. Turning the app toward positive ends is absolutely a wonderful goal, and keeping track of who's mastered what, making notes that can later be shared with parents, and so on are all excellent ways of differentiating and otherwise meeting the needs of students, as Carl pointed out. I will be happy to be able to provide these counterexamples to people who appear to lack nuance and to be 100% negative about the app, and I too wish the New York Times had talked to you - any of the three of you, really  (you, Susan, and Carl) - to get more balance and perspective.

But I nonetheless worry about this statement: "But classroom promises -- like the norms in professional learning communities -- are useless if you don't spend time celebrating the people who are following them." I absolutely disagree with this. First, I would argue classroom norms are only useless when they don't work. Second, I would argue that they work best when they bubble along in the background, just a basic given in life. Third, I would argue that any attempt to point out specific behaviors of specific people for specific and public praise undermines any attempt at creating an intrinsic feel for doing what is right. Praise might be more positive than punishment, but it is no less extrinsic. As Alfie Kohn might say!

In my own classroom, I might tell kids, "Thanks for a good discussion today," or "There seemed to be an especially good balance of different voices in today's discussion," but nothing much more than that. If it's a rough day, I'll name it, and we'll all work out together what we need to do to fix it. Of course, if someone is way disrespectful to someone else, I'll take her aside as quickly and unobtrusively as possible and have a conversation with her. And if someone does something particularly brave, moving or kind, I might mention that to her in a quiet moment when I get the chance. Hopefully, all that will keep the instrinsic feel I'm trying so hard to develop.

Please?!?!?!?!?

I will absolutely concede that Alfie Kohn's quote in the NYT article is awfully one-sided, and I do wish he'd brought more (or any!) nuance to it. But knowing what I do about how he thinks about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and agreeing with him more or less down the line on that issue (at least as I understand his thinking), I did feel the need to defend him/me/us.

So - am I actually wearing clothes, or do I need to run pell-mell for a bush?!

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on November 24, 2014 at 4:43pm:

Bill wrote:

Bill wrote:

Third, I would argue that any attempt to point out specific behaviors of specific people for specific and public praise undermines any attempt at creating an intrinsic feel for doing what is right. Praise might be more positive than punishment, but it is no less extrinsic. As Alfie Kohn might say!

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I dunno, Pal.  I'm not sure I can get behind this.

As I see it, having my kids recognize peers who are honoring our promises is really nothing other than encouraging a culture of compliments in my classroom.  Not only do I want them to be on the lookout for models of respectful group behavior in action, I want them to grow comfortable with saying kind things to their peers.  That just doesn't happen enough in today's world.

You can get behind that, right?  In fact, I bet you encourage your kids to compliment one another, too.  

And honestly:  I'm down with kind words being an extrinsic motivator for kids.  If kids see that their peers recognize them as valuable contributors to our classroom -- and if that recognition feels good to them -- I think that's a win. 

Finally -- Do you think that you can lean further to the "intrinsic motivation works" end of the spectrum because of the kids that you teach?  I don't know enough about your school, but are some students ready to be driven by intrinsic motivation sooner than others?  

Whaddya' think?

Bill

 

 

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on November 24, 2014 at 4:55pm:

Bill wrote:

Bill wrote:

Third, I would argue that any attempt to point out specific behaviors of specific people for specific and public praise undermines any attempt at creating an intrinsic feel for doing what is right. Praise might be more positive than punishment, but it is no less extrinsic. As Alfie Kohn might say!

--------------

I dunno, Pal.  I'm not sure I can get behind this.

As I see it, having my kids recognize peers who are honoring our promises is really nothing other than encouraging a culture of compliments in my classroom.  Not only do I want them to be on the lookout for models of respectful group behavior in action, I want them to grow comfortable with saying kind things to their peers.  That just doesn't happen enough in today's world.

You can get behind that, right?  In fact, I bet you encourage your kids to compliment one another, too.  

And honestly:  I'm down with kind words being an extrinsic motivator for kids.  If kids see that their peers recognize them as valuable contributors to our classroom -- and if that recognition feels good to them -- I think that's a win. 

Finally -- Do you think that you can lean further to the "intrinsic motivation works" end of the spectrum because of the kids that you teach?  I don't know enough about your school, but are some students ready to be driven by intrinsic motivation sooner than others?  

Whaddya' think?

Bill

 

Bill Ivey commented on November 25, 2014 at 12:40pm:

The website ate...

.. my longish comment I wrote last night at arount 7:00. But basically, here's the "short" version:

I am totally with you that we need all the kindness we can get in the world.

I actually don't encourage my kids to compliment each other, though of course I'm happy when they do. If I happen to catch someone's eye right after she has done so, I might smile and nod. But that's about it.

I'm not quite sure what it means to be "ready" for instrinsic motivation, though of course I'm well aware that middle school kids are developmentally all over the place. That said, I have actually begun to think our differing school populations may be a legitimate factor. Their underlying missions may be part of that. And in particular, my school being a girls school may be part of that.

In general, I believe, our society puts out a message to girls to be nice, to care for others, to take primary responsibility for maintaining relationships. And I believe many (most?) girls feel continually watched and judged - not just on how they look but also on how they act. Simply put, I refuse to add to that pressure. It's imperative and a fundamental given that we should value people and treat them respectfully. But that's a different dynamic.

Of course, to whatever extent the girls in my classroom instrincially feel on their own and/or have absorbed from extrinsic messages from society that they want to be nice and care for others, they're more likely - on average and with great variation within any given gender - to exhibit those behaviors. That, too, may be a factor in my classroom atmosphere as compared to classrooms in other schools with different gender makeups.

Bottom line, though, I've been in your classroom and seen what a safe, supportive, and stretching place it is. You demonstrate solid values for your kids, you demonstrate faith in their ability to be at their best, and they respond beautifully. So even if I continue to disagree with you on whether or not the potential benefits of positive extrinsic motivation outweigh the potential risks, I can 100% respect you and your intentions, and your results.

Fair enough?

Carl Draeger commented on November 24, 2014 at 11:38am:

..and one more thing

Are you aware of the follow-up article published the next day? They compared 2 teachers, each of whom employs Class Dojo in their classrooms, one publically and one privately, but both for behavioral management reasons. I was struck by a quote that brought great sadness to my heart.

Or as one of Mr. Fletcher’s third graders put it: “I like it because you get rewarded for your good behavior — like a dog does when it gets a treat.”

Bill Ivey commented on November 24, 2014 at 11:41am:

That's the first quote I heard on it...

... shared, in that instance, by Larry Ferlazzo. I had a similar reaction to you - it made me just stare sadly at my screen for a minute or so. Thanks for sharing it.

DONNA NETHERTON commented on February 13, 2015 at 2:56pm:

class dojo

My son's teacher uses dijo but I feel she uses it as a weapon, she will give positive marks and within a min he has a red mark and if I question her about it he gets even more reds I feel its a great tool if its used correctly. My son is in kindergarten and gets marked off for waisting class time and when I asked it was a stupid reason like he asked to go potty when it wasnt time to go potty. So I have mixed feelings about dijo

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