Fast psycho-policy & the datafication of social-emotional learning

Ben Williamson

ClassDojo monster 25

[Paper prepared for the Annual Ethnography Symposium, University of Manchester, 30 August-1 September 2017, with the full title ‘The infrastructure of fast psycho-policy: psychological governance & the datafication of social-emotional learning’]

Mojo is a small, green alien student with the appearance of an extra from the animated movie Monsters University. Many researchers of education and technology may not know Mojo, but over 3 million teachers and 35 million students do, because Mojo is the cute brand mascot of the successful educational technology application ClassDojo used in primary schools worldwide to promote students’ ‘character’ development and ‘social-emotional learning’. Mojo is also, though, the friendly, visible face of an emerging infrastructure of interlocking technologies, organizations and policy discourses focused on the application of psychological expertise and techniques to measure and manage students’ behaviours and feelings in the classroom.

Launched with Silicon Valley venture capital support in 2011, ClassDojo started life as a simple behaviour management app available for free download to teachers. Designed for use on smartphones so it can be used in real-time in the classroom, ClassDojo encourages teachers to award ‘positive points’ for specific observable behaviours, gathers these points as data about student behaviour, and then allows teachers and school leaders to identify behavioural trends using its TrendSpotter visualization tool and automated report generator. Visualizations and reports are also available to parents. Its website claims ClassDojo builds ‘happier classrooms.’

However, in the last two years ClassDojo has extended its functionality to become a social media platform for schools, with real-time messaging, photo and video communication between schools and home, user-generated content, online video content hosting, and ‘school-wide’ functionality. Its founders and funders have likened it to Netflix, Spotify, LinkedIn and Facebook, and have claimed it can replace cumbersome school websites, group email threads, newsletters and paper flyers. It also has an online ClassDojo store targeted at teachers where they can purchase ClassDojo posters, resources and clothing.

In this paper I examine how ClassDojo has evolved  into an educational social media platform and  a key sociotechnical actor in the diffusion and enactment of a policy discourse of ‘social-emotional learning’ (SEL) worldwide. ClassDojo is just one app in a fast-growing industry of software tools designed to shape students’ social-emotional learning in the classroom–an industry which enjoys significant support from political centres of authority, international policy influencers, think tanks and philanthropic foundations. The paper draws on material published in two articles (‘Decoding ClassDojo’ and ‘Learning in the platform society’) where you can find full references to sources cited below.

Psycho-policy platforms
The evolution of ClassDojo needs to be understood as exemplifying within the educational field a trend that Jose van Dijck and Thomas Poell have described as the penetration of social media platforms into all kinds of everyday interactions, institutional practices and professional routines. Platforms are, argues Tarleton Gillespie, digital intermediaries that allow users to interact, host and share content, and buy or sell. But, he adds, platforms are also ‘curators of public discourse’—the result of choices about what can appear, how it is organized and monetized, and what its technical architecture permits or forbids. As such, technical, social and economic concerns determine platforms’ structure, function and use, note Jean-Christophe Plantin and coauthors. Moreover, they note, many social media platforms are now undergoing ‘infrastructuralization’ as ‘media environments essential to our daily lives (infrastructures) are dominated by corporate entities (platforms).’

In other words, platform operators are not mere ‘owners of information’ but ‘becoming owners of the infrastructures of society,’ as Nick Srnicek argues. In his view, platforms are characterized by acting as intermediaries to enable interaction between customers, advertisers, service providers, producers, suppliers, and even physical objects; thriving on network effects, whereby they accumulate users from whom they can gather data and generate value; offering free products and services; and deploying a strategy of constant user engagement through attractive presentations of themselves and their offerings. As emerging infrastructures, these platforms are increasingly acting as substrates to society.

As an educational intermediary, a curator of educational discourse, and a provider of free services that deploys strategies of user engagement to gain users through network effects, ClassDojo needs therefore to be studied and understood as the assembled product of a complex web of people and organizations that designed and maintain it; technical components; business plans; expert discourses, and the technical, social and economic concerns that frame them. By disassembling it into its component parts and examining it as contextually framed and produced, it becomes possible to see how it has evolved from a classroom app to a platform for schools to part of an infrastructure for social-emotional education across public education.

My methodological strategy is to approach ClassDojo as assembling and evolving in the context of a shift to ‘fast policy’ processes in education. By ‘fast policy’ I’m drawing on Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore’s argument that while contemporary policymaking may still be primarily government-centred, it also involves ‘sources, channels, & sites of policy advice’ that ‘encompass sprawling networks of human & nonhuman actors’. This means digital technologies, infrastructures, platforms, websites, social media activities, database devices and so on can all be considered as policy actors which may be followed as they are assembled, evolve, mutate and ‘become real’. Methodologically, an attention to fast policy processes demands ‘network ethnography’ approaches which seek to ‘follow policies’ as they are developed and realized. In my research, I am specifically following ClassDojo as a fast policy actor, both seeking to ‘disassemble’ it into the various parts it has been assembled from, and ‘reassembling’ the wider infrastructure of people, technologies and policy discourses that are seeking to ‘make real’ and enact the ‘social-emotional learning’ agenda in schools.

The term social-emotional learning (SEL) encompasses concepts such as character education, growth mindset, grit and perseverance, and other so-called ‘non-cognitive’ or ‘non-academic’ ‘personal qualities’ and competences. In the last couple of years, social-emotional learning has emerged as a key policy priority from the work of international policy influencers such as the OECD and World Economic Forum; psychological entrepreneurs such as Angela Duckworth’s ‘Character Lab’ and Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ work; venture capital-backed philanthropic advocates  (e.g. Edutopia); powerful lobbying coalitions (CASEL) and institutions (Aspen Institute) and government agencies and partners, especially in the US (for example, the US Department of Education ‘grit’ report of 2013) and UK (in 2014 an all-party parliamentary committee produced a ‘Character and Resilience Manifesto’ in partnership with the Centre Forum think tank, with the Department for Education following up with funding for schools to develop character education programs).

In sum, social-emotional learning is the product of a fast policy network of ‘psy’ entrepreneurs, global policy advice, media advocacy, philanthropy, think tanks, tech R&D and venture capital investment. Together, this loose alliance of actors has produced shared vocabularies, aspirations, and practical techniques of measurement of the ‘behavioural indicators’ of classroom conduct that correlate to psychologically-defined categories of character, mindset, grit, and other personal qualities of social-emotional learning. As Agnieszka Bates has argued, psychological advocates of SEL have conceptualized character as malleable and measurable, and defined the character skills that are most valuable to the labour market. As such, she describes SEL as a psycho-economic fusion of economic goals and psychological discourse in a corporatized education system. Specific algorithms and metrics have already been devised by prominent psycho-economic centres of expertise to measure the economic value of social-emotional learning.

Moreover, as Emily Talmage has identified, social-emotional learning is being advocated by some of the same organizations that promote social impact bonds, or ‘pay for success’ schemes whereby investors provide capital to start a new program and receive repayment with interest if it meets agreed metrics of success. In other words, says Talmage, ‘investors are using kids’ psychological profiles to gamble on the results of social programs, while using technology to generate a compliant, productive workforce.’

In these ways, social-emotional learning exemplifies the emergence of what has been termed psycho-policy and psychological governance in relation to public policy more widely—that is, the application of psychological expertise, interventions and explanations to public policy problems, specifically the application of practical techniques and ‘know-how’ for quantifying and then ‘nudging’ individuals to perform the ‘correct’ behaviours and affects. If character is malleable, it can be moulded and made to fit political and economic models.

ClassDojo as a psycho-policy platform
So, ClassDojo can be viewed as a platform diffuser of SEL psycho-policy and practice. The rest of this paper examines how it is being assembled to perform this task.

Shaping shared vocabularies
ClassDojo’s popular, and publicly charismatic founders have become spokespeople for social-emotional learning. They are regularly interviewed in the education technology and business media, and use these as venues for diffusing social-emotional learning discourses. They name-check psychological entrepreneurs such as Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck to relay into classroom practices their psychological theories for classifying and measuring the correct behaviours of students. In a sense, they are governing educational language at a distance, working by making governmental and commercial aspirations around SEL into the shared concerns and aspirations of classroom practitioners and school leaders, and thereby penetrating into institutional practices and professional routines.

Rewarding character
ClassDojo’s most well-known feature is its rewards app for teachers to award ‘feedback points’ to individuals or groups, in real-time during classroom activities. This allows teachers to produce report cards on each student and whole classes, and also school leaders to take a view of behavioural trends across the whole school.

At the core of its rewards system is the psychological assumption that observable behavioural indicators transmitted from the embodied conduct of students in classrooms can be correlated with character skills and other aspects of SEL. By rewarding students who perform the correct behavioural indicators of SEL and character, ClassDojo is also designed to actively promote specific kinds of preferred behaviours. As one of ClassDojo’s founders has noted, it collects ‘millions of behaviour observations every day’ to enable ‘real-time information from the classroom,’ while one of its research partners says, ‘We want teachers to think about the kind of norms they want to set in the classroom, so growth mindset is integrated in it.’

Partner networks
As ClassDojo has sought income, it has successfully won venture capital funding to support new features and platform development. In 2016 it was awarded $21million US dollars to develop as a platform for school communication and distribution of in-house educational video content.

In particular, it has developed a number of ‘Big Ideas’ serials of animated videos as classroom resources for teachers to use to teach children the language of social-emotional learning, including video series on growth mindset, perseverance or ‘grit’ and mindfulness. These have been created through partnerships with major psychological centres of expertise. Carol Dweck’s mindset centre, PERTS at Stanford, was ClassDojo’s first academic partner on its mindset series, followed by Harvard’s Making Caring Common for the empathy series, and most recently Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence co-produced the mindfulness series.

As ClassDojo’s head product designer has claimed, through these videos, the ClassDojo ‘characters model for the kids the behaviour you are trying to instil.’ So what we see is how classroom norms of behaviour are being defined, via ClassDojo, through suturing together venture capital aspirations and psychological entrepreneurship. And it is doing so directly through reaching out to teachers, currently for free, to distribute and instil in students the ‘model’ behaviours defined by psy experts of SEL and character.

Network effects
Significantly, if we think of ClassDojo as a technology of fast psycho-policy, it has enjoyed spectacularly accelerated success in finding its way into pedagogic practice. One of its founders has claimed that ‘watching the graph of the user numbers has been incredible’ as ‘millions of teachers and students’ have begun ‘using this every day.’ Its growth has been fuelled through highly effective word-of-mouth marketing campaign on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which has allowed it to grow via network effects ‘faster than any other ed tech company.’

These network effects also exert material effects. Its product designer has claimed that ‘We look for an idea that can be powerful and high-impact and is working in pockets, and work to bring it to scale more quickly … incorporated into the habits of classrooms.’ We can understand this in two ways—‘working in pockets’ refers to taking a small-scale idea up to scale through network effects. But ‘working in pockets’ also well describes ClassDojo’s strategy—its platform sits on the smart phone of millions of teachers, sitting in their pockets, and never far away from their eyes and hands where it might be incorporated into the habits of classrooms. ClassDojo is in this sense a kind of pocket instructor that enacts psychological expertise through teachers’ own fingertips.

ClassDojo is, in other words, ambitiously attempting to ‘shift what happens inside and around classrooms’ as a way of changing ‘education at huge scale’ as its chief executive has claimed. However, these network effects are also generating value for the ClassDojo company and its investors as it amasses a huge global user base.

Monetizing behaviour
ClassDojo is also seeking to monetize student behaviour data. Although it has received over $30million dollars in venture capital investment, it has to date generated no revenue whatsoever, and is fairly opaque about its monetization plans. One of its investors has said that ‘This company has a greater market share than Coke in the U.S. Let’s get all the stakeholders on the platform … and scale before we think about monetization.’

However, its founders have given some clues. They have spoken of ClassDojo as a ‘huge distribution platform’ to parents, who might be willing to pay for additional content—such as additional Big Ideas videos—to take the ClassDojo platform and its preferred habits of character into the family home. Its ClassDojo store is already active for the sale of merchandise.

But also, its founders have noted ‘There’s a macro-trend happening where schools want to collect more data about behaviour.’ In fact, with the new federal law, Every Student Succeeds, that governs US schooling, states are now required to record at least one measure of ‘non-academic learning.’ So when ClassDojo’s founders have suggested that they will ‘build new, premium features that parents or school districts may be interested in paying for,’ it seems likely they are referring to the production of detailed behavioural reports of the kind that might support schools in their delivery of data recording their progress in supporting students’ non-academic learning targets.

Infrastructuralizing
Not only has ClassDojo extended through network effects to huge numbers of users. It has also developed ‘school-wide’ functionality to enable entire institutions to be signed in to the system in order to orchestrate institutional communication, data-sharing between classes, and establish ‘school values’ consistent with SEL across the school. Through its ongoing function creep, it is becoming an integral and embedded sociotechnical substrate to schooling practices. A teacher in a ClassDojo press release stated, ‘We can now create a school community that includes all of us: teachers, parents, students, principals, vice principals and other school staff. None of us can imagine teaching without it!’

Furthermore, one of its founders has said: ‘Looking back in 5-10 years, I hope to see that this other half of education—going beyond test scores to focus on building students as people—has become really important and that we helped to make that happen by connecting teachers, parents and students.’ This aspiration registers the emergence of a global effort to develop student character and SEL rather than to reduce them to test scores, which ClassDojo is seeking to support through mobilizing itself as an infrastructural underlay to connect teachers, parents and students around shared psychological vocabularies, normative values and aims. In other words, ClassDojo is becoming more infrastructural for schools, but it is also nested in a global infrastructure of educational measurement.

From test-based infrastructure to infrastructuralized psycho-policy platforms
In recent years, schools have been locked-in to data infrastructures of test-based performance measurement. As Dorothea Anagnostopoulos and colleagues have argued, the existing test-based data infrastructure is an assemblage of people, technologies and policies that stretches across and beyond formal education systems. It has produced ‘objective measures’ of students’, teachers’ and schools’ performance based on test results data and thereby defined ‘who counts’ as ‘good’ teachers, students and schools.

However, with the emergence of new kinds of technical platforms, such as ClassDojo, that emphasize SEL and character education, the data infrastructure of test-based performance measurement may be evolving. Jean-Christophe Plantin and coauthors have argued that ‘The rise of ubiquitous, networked computing’ twinned with ‘changing political sentiment have created an environment in which platforms can achieve enormous scales, co-exist with infrastructures, and in some cases compete with or even supplant them. … Rapidly “infrastructuralized platforms” have arisen in the digital age.’

ClassDojo is evidence of how a platform now integrated into and integral to many schools and classrooms worldwide is now co-existing alongside, and potentially even competing with or threatening to supplant the existing data infrastructure of test-based performance metrics. The ClassDojo platform operators are mobilizing networked computing to curate and diffuse the psy vocabulary of SEL and character into public education, reflecting changing political sentiment which has begun to focus on alleviating student anxiety and high stakes testing resulting from test-based performance measurement. In so doing, they are continually assembling and engaging users through attractive presentations and new features, generating network effects of valuable users all the time. The results is that ClassDojo has become an ‘infrastructuralizing platform’ for the measurement of behavioural indicators of social-emotional skills—and for nudging and compelling students to perform the ‘correct’ behavioural indicators that correlate with the affects of ‘good students’ in ‘happier classrooms’

Conclusion
In conclusion, we can see how ClassDojo is participating as an actor in current fast psycho-policy development and enactment. It is curating and diffusing SEL discourses into practice through teachers’ pockets and fingertips. In so doing, ClassDojo treats students as embodied behavioural indicators whose affects are rendered traceable through psychological categories of character, mindset and grit; it treats teachers as data entry clerks responsible for amassing ClassDojo’s global database, attracting their own social networks as new users, and as consumers at the online store; treats school leaders as data demanders, who require staff to enter the feedback points in order to generate school-wide behavioural trend insights; and treats parents as data consumers, who receive the data visualizations and report cards. ClassDojo also treats classrooms as little data markets where psycho-economically defined ‘valuable’ character skills and the performance of ‘correct’ behavioural indicators can be incentivized, nudged and exchanged for rewards. All the while, ClassDojo is thriving on the network effects of these activities to generate value for the company and its investors—driving up its user graph, its reach, and the value of its global datasets on student behaviour.

Finally, ClassDojo is nested in an emerging global infrastructure of measurement and intervention in social-emotional education. In its report on ‘The Power of Social and Emotional Skills,’ the OECD has claimed that ‘While everyone acknowledges the importance of social and emotional skills, there is insufficient awareness of “what works” to enhance these skills and efforts to measure and foster them.’ ClassDojo is currently positioning itself as a fast psycho-policy exemplar of ‘what works’ in social-emotional learning practice. In contrast to the existing infrastructure of test-based performance measurement, ClassDojo is a platform for translating psychological theories into the habits of classrooms, teachers and students, which is also nested in an expanding global infrastructure dedicated to the measurement and management of  the social and emotional lives of young people. This global policy infrastructure stretches across and beyond the borders of state education systems, and includes international policy influencers, think tanks, independent institutions, venture capital investors, software startups, and even impact investment market experts. In these ways, if policy trends shift toward the performance measurement of schools, teachers and students based on data recorded about the behavioural indicators of social-emotional learning, then ClassDojo will itself become integrated into existing metric practices of school evaluation, judgment and ranking.

Image credit: ClassDojo resources
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7 Responses to Fast psycho-policy & the datafication of social-emotional learning

  1. Jim Lerman says:

    Great piece Ben. I really got into this and appreciate so much your analysis and synthesis.

    Now that an “emerging global infrastructure of measurement & intervention in social-emotional education” has been so well documented and analyzed, I wonder what kind of vision can be offered in countervention of it. How do we affirmatively tell stories about a different kind of education for all? Are there examples of alternatives, or models, we can look to now as replacements for the prevailing model? How do their visions and practices differ?

    I wonder, too, if you have noted the recent acquisition of Tessera by ACT (a competitor of Educational Testing Service’s SAT exam). Interestingly, Tessera was developed by a number of psychometricians while working at ETS. At some point, they broke away from ETS, formed their own company, and were then acquired by ACT. Tessera is now being advertised as a good means to meet the ESSA requirement for measurement of “non-academic” learning. I actually investigated this market about 6 months ago and found that Tessera had fewer than 3 competitors who were as far along as they were in development of a marketable product. I wonder what Pearson is doing in this arena?

    • Thanks Jim. There is a lot of activity around social-emotional learning. Ed-tech companies like ClassDojo are a really big part of it, especially as they take the core ideas about the emotional improvement of children straight into the classroom. Something that looked a while back like a minor distraction from other things I was working on now looks a like a major project!

  2. Mary Porter says:

    The “countervision” we need is that marketing plans will not be allowed to punish, reward, monetize, mold, or control our children.
    Nobody has thought to ask the people if all this monetization and character molding are okay with us. They aren’t, and we are going to stop them.
    https://wrenchinthegears.com/

  3. Elizabeth Hanson says:

    Wow! This is a great article! Class Dojo smacks of behaviorism and clearly discounts the role of family… Teachers and community of their roles in building chsracter. As with all things ed reform there is a profit incentive and a rank and profile children component. Thank you for writing a clear explanation.

  4. Charlotte Rovelstad says:

    “In other words, platform operators are not mere ‘owners of information’ but ‘becoming owners of the infrastructures of society,’ as Nick Srnicek argues”. Chilling.

  5. Brent Duckor says:

    Ben, I think you’ll appreciate this angle too. To download, click on title above or link below. Full April 2017 edition of Phi Delta Kappan, including this article is also available at: http://www.kappanonline.org/april-2017-table-contents/

    Duckor, B. (2017). Got grit? Maybe… .Phi Delta Kappan, 98, (6), 61-66. Available online at https://www.pdkmembers.org/members_online/publications/archive/pdf/PDK_98_7/61pdk_98_7.pdf

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