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