The globally popular classroom behaviour management app ClassDojo is being extended into a tool to support children’s ‘character development’ and ‘growth mindsets.’ ClassDojo illustrates how new educational technologies are simultaneously the product of venture capital investment and new psychological and neuroscientific conceptualizations of learning.
Here I want to open up some possible lines for further critical inquiry into ClassDojo, focusing in particular on gamification, behavioural surveillance, its links to new psychological and neuroscientific concepts of ‘character development,’ ‘growth mindsets’ and ‘neuroplasticity,’ and its support from venture capital sources in Silicon Valley. ClassDojo represents a nexus of technical innovation, scientific categorization, and entrepreneurial culture.
ClassDojo is a free mobile app that allows teachers to award ‘positive behaviour’ points for individual children’s behaviour and participation in the classroom. Launched in 2011, by 2015 its founders reported over 3 million subscribing teachers, serving 30 million students across 180 countries worldwide. The website claims that it is used in 1 out of 2 schools in the US, and that it has been one of the fastest growing educational technologies in history.
The ClassDojo app can be operated on a variety of desktop and mobile platforms. The promotional video on the website shows it being used on a smartphone and on a tablet, with the teacher awarding points on-the-move and in real-time. Each child in the system is represented by a cute avatar, a dojo monster, which can be customized and personalized by the user.
In practice, the app allows teachers to award ‘dojo’ points under default categories of ‘hard work,’ ‘participating,’ ‘helping others,’ ‘teamwork,’ ‘leadership,’ and ‘perseverance and grit’ (though the categories can also be customized). Behavioural targets can be set for both individuals and groups to achieve positive goals. They can also deduct points (classified by a ‘needs work’ icon).
The awarding and deduction of points becomes a kind of data timeline. Teachers can produce visualizations for each child to show their progress over time, and can also instantly contact parents with photos and text messages. One of the slogans for ClassDojo is ‘happier students, happier classrooms!’
The interface and design of ClassDojo reflects the recent trend of ‘gamification’ described by Jennifer Whitson, whereby many sorts of everyday activities have been reconfigured as a form of play and fun. Its cute avatars, visual leader boards and points system make it seem much like a videogame than a behaviour manage tool.
It also invites children to ‘game’ the system, insofar as it treats positive classroom behaviour as something that can be exchanged for points and rewards. In this respect, ClassDojo turns classroom behaviour into a source of value, a quantifiable measure for young children to use as a public visual display of their compliance with classroom norms and expectations.
Behaviourist surveillance machines
As a behaviour management tool, ClassDojo represents clear continuities with behaviourist techniques that have sought to modify the actions of children. The development of machines to reward children for positive learning behaviour goes back at least as far as the 1920s. At this time, as Audrey Watters has documented, educational innovators such as Sidney Pressey were constructing ‘teaching machines’ that would dispense candy to children if they correctly responded to multiple choice questions.
Pressey’s teaching machines were deeply informed by the psychological science of behaviourism that was popular at the time. Behaviourist theorists assumed that if children were rewarded for successful completion of tasks that this would reinforce–or ‘condition’ in the language of time–their positive learning behaviours. Similar behaviourist techniques remain common in schools today, in the shape of stickers, merit points and the production of behavioural ‘league tables’ in the classroom.
A critical commentary on ClassDojo in the New York Times in 2014 raised concerns about it being used to award ‘virtual badges for obedience,’ as well as about data privacy and security. ClassDojo’s founders even issued a public response detailing what they thought the paper ‘got wrong.’ They emphasized its use for positive behaviour reinforcement. Yet positive reinforcement has always been the aim of behavourist conditioning techniques, and assumes particular norms of behaviour that are inevitably contested.
By sending updates to parents ClassDojo is also used as a surveillance tool. Parents are able to receive messages and pictures from the classroom posted by teachers. They can login to the website to see their child’s points, which are represented as a ‘doughnut’ of green positive points and red ‘needs work’ deductions.
ClassDojo’s emphasis on positive behaviour management reinforces the behaviourist trend. By allowing teachers to display children’s progress alongside each other, it also implicitly encourages a form of behavioural competition and group surveillance. At the same time, it invites parents to inspect and police their child’s progress. It is, ultimately, a behaviourist surveillance machine for the classroom that encourages and rewards compliance with behavioural norms that have been derived from psychological categories.
Character & mindset manipulation
New ideas about ‘character development’ and ‘growth mindsets’ have been popularized recently in education. ClassDojo is perhaps the most popular current educational application based on these ideas. Its founding directors explicitly describe the purpose of ClassDojo as reducing behaviour problems and promoting ‘character development’ in schools.
It is underpinned by particular psychological concepts from character research. Its website cites the book by journalist Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character. It is also explicitly informed by character research conducted with the US network of KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program).
KIPP’s approach focuses on ‘the development of character’ and is itself grounded in the positive psychology of Martin Seligman, author of texts on ‘authentic happiness’ and ‘flourishing’. KIPP’s own ‘character work focuses on seven highly predictive character strengths that are correlated to leading engaged, happy and successful lives: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity’. ClassDojo’s own categories of positive behaviour reflect and reinforce this emphasis on classifying character development, happiness, perseverance and grit.
In January 2016 ClassDojo announced a partnership with the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS), an applied research center at Stanford University. PERTS is the intellectual home of the theory of ‘growth mindsets.’ It is led by Carol Dweck whose research in this area goes back to the late 1970s. It has gained popular support in schools on both sides of the Atlantic at the present time.
The PERTS website describes its focus in terms of ‘adaptive learning mindsets’:
Students with adaptive learning mindsets think about school and about their own abilities in fundamentally different ways from disengaged students…. [T]hey understand that they can grow their abilities by working hard and by trying new strategies when they get stuck. Students who don’t understand these things don’t try as hard and give up quickly.
In the UK, the think tank Demos recently published a report detailing the conceptual focus of growth mindsets and its practical applications:
If we believe that our intelligence and abilities are not fixed at birth, but can be developed through effort – if we have a ‘growth mindset’ – then we are more likely to look for challenges, to see failures and setbacks as learning opportunities, and ultimately to achieve more personally and professionally. By contrast, if we have a fixed mindset, we believe that our abilities are unchanging, see setbacks as negative judgements against us, and react badly to failure.
It puts this in the context of a ‘concern for wellbeing and character development,’ detailing not only how ‘non-academic factors such as resilience, grit and empathy can have a profound impact on young people, but also how they can be actively developed through interventions inside and outside the classroom.’
The growth mindsets movement has been criticized by some educational commentators. The critic of behaviour management and school rewards system Alfie Kohn, for example, claims that:
books, articles, TED talks, and teacher-training sessions devoted to the wonders of adopting a growth mindset rarely bother to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic…. Small wonder that this idea goes down so easily. All we have to do is get kids to adopt the right attitude, to think optimistically about their ability to handle whatever they’ve been given to do. … If students are preoccupied with how well they’re doing in school, then their interest in what they’re doing may suffer.
He accuses the growth mindset movement of continuing the behaviourist emphasis on praise and rewards. This is at the expense of meaningful dialogue about what is being studied.
The partnership between ClassDojo and PERTS takes the form of a series of short animations that help explain the growth mindsets idea for teachers and learners themselves. Over the course of five animations on the ‘Big Ideas‘ section of the ClassDojo site, the cute Dojo monster character learns to develop an adaptive growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. In the process, he learns about the new sciences of the brain.
Underlying the videos is the assumption that neuroscience has unlocked the secrets of learning. They present the brain as a malleable ‘muscle’ that can constantly grow and adapt as it is put to the task of addressing challenging problems. The presentation of the brain as a muscle in ClassDojo is part of a recent popularization of recent neuroscience concepts of ‘neuroplasticity,’ where the brain is seen as constantly adapting to the environment. Rather than being seen as a structurally static organ, the brain has been reconceived as dynamic and adaptive. Through environmental stimuli, new neural pathways are understood to be constantly forming.
These ideas have become increasingly accepted in the field of ‘neuroeducation,’ where, as Jessica Pykett argues, the brain is treated in computational terms. As long as it is constantly put to challenging tasks, according to neuroeducationists, the brain can be conceived as being ‘rewired’ as new neural structures form.
Sociologists of brain science Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached have recently described the popularization of the concept of neuroplasticity as an ‘imaginary of plasticity,’ whereby the brain is being reimagined as an organ that can be moulded, shaped, rewired and ‘optimized’:
A range of new practices is emerging around the governing of human ‘embrained’ existence – new experts advising us how to live with, manage and improve our brains; … new modes of responsibilization urging individuals to care for their brain; and a new consumerization of the brain, offering us all manner of products, devices, exercises and the like to keep our brains healthy and maximize our brain power.
ClassDojo exemplifies how an imaginary of plasticity is being extended via the growth mindsets movement into popular educational thinking.
Through its partnership with PERTS, ClassDojo has significantly extended its ambitions beyond behaviour management and surveillance. It has been positioned as a tool that might support children’s growth mindsets, their character development, and the adaptation of their malleable brains to challenging environmental input.
Its partnership with PERTS also positions ClassDojo as a site for growth mindsets research. In a published interview, the PERTS executive director has claimed that because ClassDojo can track engagement with their videos and tools, the PERTS researchers can gather new insights into how the growth mindset message changes student engagement levels. ClassDojo itself, with its behavioural categories aligned to the growth mindsets message, is a key vehicle for the continuing propagation of the mindsets movement into schools.
This suggests that ClassDojo data could be used by researchers to investigate learners’ growth mindsets. If this is the case, it would make ClassDojo’s 30 million child users into research subjects in a massive experiment in mindset manipulation. Because their brains are conceived through the idea of neuroplasticity, their mindsets conceptualized as adaptive, and their character as in development, the children using ClassDojo are treated as manipulable and optimizable.
In this sense, ClassDojo reconceptualizes the child user in terms of popular psychological and neuroscientific classifications. It can then measure the child according to those categories, and award a value to the child in terms of points and rewards. It encourages children to see and understand themselves in terms of their brain muscles, the ‘grittiness’ of their characters, and their adaptive mindsets. These scientific classifications of the child are encoded into the ClassDojo classroom tool.
In so doing, it displaces a focus on critical educational questions of pedagogy and curriculum. It also emphasizes the pursuit of individual improvement and the acquisition of personal value while completely ignoring sociological questions about the societal structures that impact on children’s education.
Venture capital investment
By focusing on personal improvement over structural problems, ClassDojo reinforces the emphasis on ‘technical fixes’ that preoccupies technology companies. Notably, ClassDojo is itself a product of Silicon Valley. It embeds the Silicon Valley assumption that all problems can be solved with digital technologies in the routines of the classroom.
Established in 2011, ClassDojo was developed as a working product through the Imagine K12 ‘incubator’ program in Silicon Valley. Incubators help new startups to test and validate ideas, then turn products into scalable businesses, often through direct equity investment, and provide legal, technical and financial services along with mentorship, working space and access to educators, entrepreneurs, business partners and potential investors.
ClassDojo has subsequently been awarded substantial equity investment from venture capital sources from Silicon Valley, including SV Angel, Paul Graham, ImagineK12, SoftTech VC, General Catalyst, Shasta Ventures and others. The company has made extensive use of Twitter and Facebook in marketing the app, with over 50,000 Twitter followers at the time of writing, and nearly 25,000 tweets from the @ClassDojo account. In 2015 it won the Crunchie award for best education startup from the TechCrunch awards.
The growth of the ‘educational startup’ sector of which ClassDojo is a key part is illustrated by rising levels of venture capital investment. An estimated $1.6billion US dollars of venture capital was invested in the sector in the first half of 2015 alone, following a massive escalation in funding over the previous five years.
Perhaps more significantly, however, ClassDojo illustrates the increasingly close-knit relationship between certain forms of education and psychological research with Silicon Valley itself. Its partnership with PERTS at Stanford University is particularly indicative.
There has long been a revolving door between Stanford University and Silicon Valley. As Rithika Trikha explains:
It’s not only witnessed, but also notoriously housed, some of the most celebrated innovations in Silicon Valley. … In return, its entrepreneurial alumni offer among the most generous endowments to the university, breaking the record as the first university to add more than $1 billion in a single year. Stanford shares a relationship with Silicon Valley unlike any other university on the planet, chartering a self-perpetuating cycle of innovation.
The close relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley is being continued in the ed-tech sector. The rise of a new field of ‘educational data science,’ for example, is being led by the Stanford Lytics Lab, where the kind of data analytics techniques developed by major social media and web companies are being repurposed as learning analytics applications for use in education.
The partnership between ClassDojo and the PERTS growth mindsets laboratory needs to be seen in this inter-organizational context. For one thing, there is a discursive relationship between the PERTS emphasis on ‘educational research that scales’ and the Silicon Valley focus on ‘scalable’ technical products and startup businesses that can ‘scale up.’ ClassDojo is a a key example of an ed-tech startup that has scaled up globally.
Beyond that, the growth mindsets message is perfectly aligned with the entrepreneurial startup culture of Silicon Valley. One of the PERTS researchers, Jo Boaler, for example, writes academic research and teacher guidance on growth mindsets whilst also serving as an advisor to several Silicon Valley companies and as a White House advisor on STEM skills. Carol Dweck herself has given a talk at Google on hiring candidates who see their skills and talents as malleable. The idea of the growth mindset is therefore being promoted by PERTS in the context of the skills and talents of entrepreneurship, willingness to take on challenges and risks, and the capacity to learn from mistakes.
Exactly the same message about growth mindsets is presented in the videos produced through the partnership between ClassDojo and PERTS. This makes ClassDojo the perfect educational technology for fostering the entrepreneurial, adaptive learning mindsets promoted by the high-tech culture of Silicon Valley innovation. It also reconfirms the symbiotic nature of the Stanford-Silicon Valley relationship—only in this case, not just in the realm of technical innovation but in the area of psychological innovation.
As part of the education startup sector, ClassDojo emblematizes the current intersections of Silicon Valley venture investment with the new sciences of learning emerging from Stanford. Far more than just a behaviour management app, ClassDojo is becoming a vehicle for the growth mindsets movement coming out of Stanford’s PERTS lab. It is making contested psychological and neuroscientific ideas about malleable mindsets and brains into taken-for-granted categories by which children are being surveilled, measured and understood on a vast global scale.
Killer apps for education
ClassDojo is in many ways the current ‘killer app’ for education. It combines techniques of gamification, competition, and behaviour management with new classifications of character and mindsets derived from recent psychological and neuroscientific research. It makes ideas such as character, brain muscles, and growth mindsets into measurable quantities that can be awarded value.
Like many emerging ed-tech products, it is also the product of a feverish rush by venture capital firms and philanthropic individuals to invest in education. It represents a growing symmetry between psychological innovation and technical innovation in Silicon Valley. By encouraging children to see themselves as malleable, adaptable and improvable, it treats children in exactly the same way that high-tech companies from the valley treat their employees.
As ClassDojo continues to enjoy a rapid and remarkable scaling up of its operations and reach globally, it is also scaling up a new vocabulary of learning mindsets and brain muscles into the dominant global language of education. Its simple interface encodes a complex intersection of technical innovations, scientific classifications of the mind and the startup culture of Silicon Valley into a tool for the measurement and management of children.